Catch of the day

The British fishing industry may be struggling in its continuing battle with European legislators over fishing quotas and the like, but sea angling continues to be a very popular sport.

Dave Vincent

THE British fishing industry may be struggling in its continuing battle with European legislators over fishing quotas and the like, but sea angling continues to be a very popular sport.

Fishing is said to be the biggest participatory sport in the country.

Along the Suffolk coast there are boat owners who fish for sport, small commercial fishermen and charter boats where anglers can take the skills they have honed on the beach and river out to sea to fish for cod, skate, bass, turbot and brill.

I met charter boat skipper Mark Felton at Walberswick and joined him for a day of inshore fishing off Southwold, Dunwich and Sizewell.

Somewhere in my distant family is an inshore fisherman gene, I think, probably the result of my Southwold connection. I remember as a boy eating sprats for Sunday brunch that had been landed there.

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We set out from Southwold Harbour on his boat Panther and anchored about four miles out, still in sight of the shore at Dunwich.

My angling experience is limited to a rod and line on the Orwell and Gipping, quite a few years ago.

Mark helped me bait my hooks with worm and squid and cast them so that the weight took them to the seabed to seek out fish feeding on the bottom.

Also on board was Alan Garnham, a keen angler and former Suffolk policeman, who is now the fishery officer, covering the commercial and leisure fishing industry along the local coast, rivers and estuaries.

There are all sorts of boats working out of the harbours from Lowestoft down through Felixstowe to Essex as well as leisure fishermen.

People fish from the beaches and from Southwold pier.

Mark, who lives at Framsden where he runs a bed and breakfast with wife Tanya, launched his charter business after losing his job in banking, with a failed Icelandic bank in the City of London.

With no redundancy money he had to look for something new.

He said: “I have fished all my life, and my dad introduced me to coarse fishing.

“I have been sea fishing for 12 years from here. It is my fourth boat and they are getting bigger and bigger.”

Panther is an Offshore 2000, four years old, with a top speed of 30 knots. “This is a bigger engine which is strong in lower revs. She is absolutely fantastic.”

He is gradually filling his diary with summer bookings by experienced and novice anglers.

He said: “We had a party from Ipswich Sea Anglers Club out the other weekend. They had a good day's sport with about 25 cod, two bass and eight dogfish.”

He has a measuring board that is marked with the various sizes of fish which are allowed to be caught, or which can only be recorded and must be returned to the water.

In fishing matches size is everything, though there is often �1 for the first fish and �1 handed over for the largest fish of the day. (A fiver for each win, in a match of six anglers).

Alan too is very experienced in the sport, and relishes his new role, which gets him out on the water several days a week.

“When I saw the fishery officer job advertised in the paper, I thought it had been written for me!” he said.

Like most anglers he was happy to pass on tips and suggestions to make my day more successful.

Sure enough, we had hardly settled on the calm sea with a cup of tea, and one of my two rods had the first strike.

There it was again, a twitch at the top of the rod, a real bite!

Gradually I fought the fish, reeling it in, and Mark reached over with a hook and pulled in a cod of three to four pounds. It was my very first fish.

Other people might call it a codling but clearly it had the brute strength of a shark and I had won the battle against the sea beast!

After a quick photo it went into the fish box and the line was baited and thrown again.

Barely 15 minutes later I was reeling in again, and bringing in another cod. This was even larger and turned out to be the biggest fish of the day, and for a complete novice. What a proud moment.

Later in the day I had a bigger bite, which took much longer to fight, but that fish had gone when I reeled it in. I wondered what it might have been.

Both Mark and Alan caught fish and we moved three times in search of better positions. The Suffolk shoreline was glorious, even the Sizewell dome.

It was an absolutely stunning day; dead calm with a sea mist burning away as the day progressed and very warm.

So I didn't need the extra warm clothes but unfortunately I forgot a cap and sunscreen and as the sun reflected off the sea I got rather sunburnt.

By the end of the tide the box of eight fish was enough for each of us to have one cod each to eat fresh and some for the freezer. Alan also kept one of the dogfish (rock eel in a fish and chip shop) though we threw back the others we had caught, and a small whiting.

So I returned home with very large cod and verbal instructions on how to fillet it.

My chunky fillets were seasoned and went on the barbecue with grilled vegetables and were served with salad and new potatoes.

It was delicious.

Fishing has been a major industry in Suffolk for 900 years, with fleets from Orford, Southwold, Aldeburgh and other ports.

There are more than 200 fish species in the North Sea with the pattern changing, possibly due to global warming, with more southern varieties.

Today sea fishing is still a popular pastime, for plaice, sole, cod, shrimp, lobster and crab.

In 1042 the Manor of Southwold was required to provide the monks at Bury St Edmunds with a tribute of 20,000 herrings a year.

In the 16th Century Dunwich was the major fishing port, with 166 mariners and boats then went as far as Iceland for cod and ling.

In 1839 there were 192 boats fishing out of Southwold, for herring and sprats, smelt and shrimps and for sole and cod for the London trade.

For more information on the charter boat go to www.panthercharters.co.uk