Damien Enright: On a 'certain strand' gotcha, hook, line, sinker

Damien Enright: On a 'certain strand' gotcha, hook, line, sinker

Shore angler Jeremy Smith with a 2.5kg (5.5lbs) Gilthead Bream caught on Courtmacsherry Bay last month. Spider crabs, 20 cm (8In) diameter, often snipped anglers’ lines, taking hook, bait and sinker.

In June, anglers at a ‘certain strand’ near Courtmacsherry Bay (they’ll say no more) were joyously hauling in fine, fat gilthead bream, a new fish in these waters, when overnight, they found themselves reeling in their lines minus not only the hoped-for bream but hook, bait, and sinker. Thinking themselves fortunate upon feeling a bite, they’d strike with a sharp lift of the rod, only to feel the line go limp as they reeled it in and drew it onto the sand stripped of the gear it was cast out with.

What creatures could have done this? The lines had not just been stripped of the bait; they had been disarmed. When a friend told me about it, my first thought was that fugu fish, aka pufferfish, had, as a new global warming phenomenon, arrived on our south coast like they had arrived off La Gomera in the Canaries in the last few years, and wreaked havoc on the hand lines of local fishermen who fished not for sport but for a living. I wrote about them on June 22.

The west Cork anglers were mystified, However, hunters are cunning, and an idea duly occurred to Jeremy Smith, one of the avid anglers. Instead of striking when he felt a bite, he decided to gently reel in the line and, in a “slowly-slowly-catchee-culprit” manner, woo the thief to stay aboard, enjoy its meal and be seduced into a sense of security until it found itself landed, identified and dealt with, in whatever appropriate manner it deserved.

Others watched with bated breath as, breaking the white surf, they saw a dark shape, eight inches across, with many spikes and long, hairy legs tipped by needle-sharp toes and two-inch-long claws perfect for nipping through fishing lines, appeared. It was a giant spider crab, still so busy gorging itself on the bait that it failed to realise where it was until, too late, the angler stepped forth and pinned it to the sand with his rubber boot and trapped it.

It made a fine meal that evening or, rather, did the claws, for the bodies of spider crabs are not as worthwhile as those of the pink crabs caught in pots by local boats and quite delicious if mined beneath the shells, yielding white and brown meat worth every minute of the time spent harvesting it.

In the days following, such giant crabs, along with bream (a 5.5lbs gilthead, caught by the same J Smith, was the heaviest), dogfish, bull huss, spurdogs (aka smoothhounds normally found only on the east coast but now appearing in the southwest) were regularly hooked, a plethora of fish attracted by the soft-shell female spider crabs that had come into the shallow water of the bay to breed.

There, they lay underneath mounds of hard-shelled, spiny males, forming above them in protective domes as dense with spikes as armour-plated hedgehogs. Often, there may be as many as 100 crabs in each mound. When fertilised, the female will carry 150,000 eggs. If no misadventure befalls her, she will retain these under her belly, protected by a new, hard-shelled carapace, for nine months until they hatch into larvae and floating amongst the ocean plankton and drifting with the currents. The survivors will, after several weeks, settle on the seafloor as tiny crabs. Sometimes, they may be found in rock pools where they camouflage themselves with seaweed and debris hooked onto the shells.

It is thought that warming sea temperatures is responsible for the arrival of the giltheads, so-called for the prominent gold stripe between their eyes. As recently as 2003, they were considered rare but an article by marine biologist Declan Quigley in a Sherkin Comment quarterly of 2015 notes that by 2006 they were plentiful enough to be accepted by the Irish Specimen Fish Committee as a rod caught species, if above the weight of 1.4kg.

Then, as now, 80% of specimens were caught off the Cork coast, in Cork Harbour, in Clonakilty and Rosscarberry Bay. The best table fish of the bream family, they are a favourite at Mediterranean and Canary Island restaurants,

Ocean warming may also be the reason for numerous bathers without wetsuits in west Cork on sunny days last week, my wife and I amongst them. Accustomed as we’ve been to Canary Islands water for the last seven months, we, neither of us, felt the sea to be unbearably cold but, yes, it was fresher than in La Gomera, even in wintertime. I used my usual acclimatisation formula, i.e. dive straight toward the bottom and, if you come up, you’ll be over the shock in one go. After being six feet and a minute under, the surface seemed almost bath warm to me.

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