Helen Hutchinson investigates the intense and competitive world of extreme fishing on the Yorkshire coast.
A growing number of brave hearts are now catching cod off the Yorkshire coast in kayaks. Indeed, it is becoming so popular that Runswick Bay is holding a kayak fishing festival at the end of next month.
The impulse that drives them out into this hostile environment in fragile craft is not money, it’s competition. This is the world, or part of it, of the extreme fisherman.
If you want to take to the sea in this manner, what does it require apart from good balance, co-ordination and the ability to paddle and fish at the same time? “Kayak fishing isn’t as difficult as some people think – I would say it’s more about your confidence and having the guts to give it a go,” says Glenn Kilpatrick.
“I have a friend at Scarborough who is into his 60s and he kayaks regularly. Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness would be able to take it up and a couple of sessions a week really improves your fitness. Last season, I kayaked several times a week and dropped nearly a stone in weight by the end of the summer.”
So it’s good for the waistline but what about the risk for inexperienced people who might fancy taking their new kayaks to the seaside? “The main problem I see with kayak fishing is people from inland with little knowledge of the sea buy them and think they can just head out to sea whenever they like. Several people have come unstuck already and needed rescuing by coastguard and lifeboat. “I can’t emphasise enough just how much respect you have to give the sea but I also wouldn’t want to put anyone off.
“The weather has to be near perfect to even contemplate going out. Those still summer nights are the best when the water is like glass. It is the most awesome experience you can get. Besides the fishing, you get a view of the local seascape that no one else ever sees.
“The sunsets in mid summer are beyond words and because you are almost in the water you are at one with the marine environment. Seals, porpoise, even dolphins will swim with you.”
Glenn Kilpatrick loves fishing and the adrenalin rush of competition. He admits, “Mad things happen to you when you start competing” which is partly why he has set up a website called Whitby Sea Anglers to capture the atmosphere and joy of fishing in this cold part of the North East coast.
He also sees it as a way to open up debates and share knowledge about a world which by nature is highly secretive.
It’s Glenn’s passion and something he thinks deeply about. He quotes with approval Winston Churchill’s definition of success: the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. He reckons that also defines your typical sea angler.
From Flamborough to the Tees, men go out and fish, alone and in the dark and in winter. Night fishing needs a certain kind of mad fisherman if they are to be good at it. Maybe it’s the challenge or a nocturnal disposition, or are they just not like the rest of us?
The satisfaction seems to lie in the fact you have to be highly skilled. Also obsessed. “There’s a difference between fishing socially and fishing competitively – if you’re relaxed you enjoy it more,” says Glenn.
But for him and his friends, social fishing doesn’t have enough edge to it which is why he’ll be out in the dark with the sea pounding and a storm blowing and knowing that somewhere out there are some 30-40 others who are also determined to fish from six to ten at night and come back the winner. To be a success at catching cod you must be tuned in to the sea. “‘A northerly sea swell is like having a bouquet of cod brought nearer to you,” says Glenn. “When that happens you go every night as it won’t last and whilst it’s there you have to fish it. .”
External conditions however may not be the most difficult thing to combat, according to Glenn. “The problem starts if you think too much. You have no idea what or how the competition is doing. You start to question whether you are in the right place and how well the others are doing. I used to up and leave after an hour of catching nothing.”
Glenn tried using sports pyschology techniques and he also talked to other fishermen about how they felt when they were battling it out in the elements, when nothing seems to bite apart from the gnawing feeling you’re in the wrong spot.
“Its a common characteristic and something everyone feels. You are never entirely comfortable or convinced you are in the right place. Especially when you’re not catching anything.”
Choosing your mark, or favourite spot is a tricky decision. This part of the coast has an abundance of beautiful places, each with a different challenges.
It’s not uncommon for people to abseil or climb down cliffs then walk off when the tide goes out. This is where the journey becomes part of the experience, making a physical sport even more rugged with plenty of scope for alpha male behaviour.
“I recently went down Goldsborough cliffs and nearly killed myself. But the Scarborough anglers are more extreme. North of Flamborough there’s seven aluminium ladders wired together that scale a 400-foot drop. I wouldn’t do that one.”
Glenn’s favourite mark is Saltwick Nab. “It’s not necessarily the best place to fish but I feel comfortable there.” So comfortable in fact that he’d like his ashes to be scattered there.
There’s a strong tradition of fishing on both sides of his family. “One of my most vivid memories was of my cousin Paul. It was March or April and we had just had one of those late winter blizzards. I went down the west pier of Whitby. He was stood at the end and he’d managed to catch 45 cod.”
When bait comes up for discussion, this is where Glenn turns into Gordon Ramsay, fashioning peeler crabs into bait that no cod could refuse, or flounder, or bass. Alternatively mussel, lug, ragworms and frozen blacks are recommended for winter fishing.
“You do get people who are serious bait collectors. It’s not uncommon for them to drive to Scotland to dig for white rag worms at a beach off Edinburgh at two or three in the morning between February and March. Then they drive home again.”
It would appear then that the best sea anglers have obsessive personality traits and there’s something predatory in all of them that starts as young boys.
“It’s often the case that we all went fishing and hunting feeling like we were masters of our own universe.”
Restless as the sea, these boys grow into men who push the boundaries further.
You’ll see what I mean if you have a look at Glenn’s website, it’s thrilling, extreme and rather inspiring.
Runswick Bay Summer Kayak Fishing Festival. over the weekend of June 31/July 1.
Boat Angling Festival £5,000 first prize, June 16 – July 8.
Feast of festivals for angling enthusiasts
Every year at Whitby, the local charter skippers hold four angling festivals spread right across the fishing season. In the spring festival anglers descend on Whitby from far and wide to target cod and pollack while competing for the first prize of £1,000 cash.
In June and July, the skippers hold their second and largest festival of the year now sponsored by Whitby’s Co-op.
Most species are on offer at Whitby at this time of year but cod and ling often make up the mainstay of the large fish species. Anglers compete for a first place cash prize of £,5000 awarded to the captor of the single heaviest fish over the festival.
The late summer festival takes place in September. Big lings and large cod are on offer at this time of year with fish over 30lb often winning the first place prize money of £1,000 cash.
More recently winter uptiding (fishing at anchor) has become popular with the region’s boat anglers. Two years ago the skippers decided to run a winter uptiding festival at Whitby and it became an instant success with anglers coming from every end of the country to take part in the event.
The uptiding festival has now become a regular fixture for the charter skippers and will be held again this coming winter in December.