Winter 2008–2009

Hook, Line, and Sinker: An Interview with Russ Symons

A quiet sort of fishing

Jeffrey Kastner and Russ Symons

Dinner. Photo Russ Symons.

Cabinet: Tell me a little about yourself. You’ve been a fisherman all your life?

Russ Symons: Yes, indeed. I was brought up on the Barbican, a very old part of Plymouth. My great-grandfather was a sailor from way back; he used to do the old tea runs from Shanghai back to Liverpool and places like that. And my father and all my family have been sailors, so I’m probably the first one in generations not to actually go to sea, but it’s there somewhere, because I spend a couple of days each week at sea, fishing for this, that, and the other, you know. And if it’s too rough to go to sea, I go fly-fishing.

And you always did both ocean and inland fishing.

Oh, yes. One kind of grew out of the other really, because we fished on the Great Reefs off Plymouth. They’re fourteen miles off, and if it was too rough to go fourteen miles out, then I used to go home and just change my clothes and my tackle and go trout fishing.

Are there particular places where you have to go to fish for plaice?

That’s right, and that is half the battle. What you have to understand about plaice is that during the winter months, we get some deep-water wreck fishing, which we go to if the weather allows us to. But usually round about January, February, the weather turns, and very often we can’t go to sea. So that’s the time we take the boats out of the water and refurbish them. And then, toward the end of March, we get the boats back in the water and the first fish we go looking for—it’s sort of a harbinger of spring, if you like—is plaice. We go nearly up to Dartmouth, to a place called the Skerries Bank.

And what is it about that time of year?

It has to do with the migration of the plaice. From the end of February, you find that the plaice come inshore from the deeper water where they’ve been during the winter months. They come in to the shallow water to look for something to eat and get up to their breeding. And they usually start feeding on small crabs and invertebrates, razor fish, and so forth. And around the end of March, the sand eels arrive and the plaice start feeding on them. So when the plaice first come in, we use crab and worm bait, but from April into June we can use sand eel or worms. Most fishing for plaice happens during those three or four early season trips because the deep water fish are not plentiful, and to travel twenty or thirty miles out to the deep-water wrecks is not worthwhile. So it’s mostly very early season fishing, although late in the season, at the end of September and October, when the fish are migrating back to the deep water, you also get a good flurry of decent fish tight at the back end. But that will only last a few weeks because the migration goes quickly. Sometimes we get them in February, but then they are usually very, very thin fish, really out of condition, and they need to be on the banks for three or four weeks feeding up before they’re worth catching.

How deep do you fish for plaice in the shallow water?

Fifty feet, as opposed to 200 to 250 feet for deep-water fishing.

And what kind of structure do the plaice like?

They like fast water over sandbanks, like Start Point just east of Plymouth. There is a very big sand bank, the Skerries Bank, that’s been built up over the years by the current sweeping around Start Point and depositing the sand like an arc around its back. Then up around Weymouth, there’s another bank called the Shambles, which is another famous plaice mark. Those are really the two most famous plaice marks in UK waters.

Do you always fish with live bait? Will plaice take artificial lures?

No, they’re not like the American flounder, which is quite a voracious fish. In terms of technique, it’s a question of keeping the bait near the bottom, because you fish from a drifting boat most of the time. It’s that sort of fishing—a quiet, contemplative sort of fishing. Sometimes the fish come in a flurry and then it’s quiet for a few hours and then they come again. It’s the type of fishing where you can sit down and talk. When the water’s nice and quiet, at the neap end of the tide, you can sometimes put the anchor down and brew a pot of tea. The fish are affected by the tide. When the tide just starts to flood, you find most of the fish will be down at the west end; I think they go down there because the water starts to pick up and comes around in a rush and when it does, it will bring with it the sort of thing the plaice are looking to eat.

Because they’re basically stationary, right? They settle down in one place and wait for the food to come to them.

That’s right. They go on the bottom and they shuffle down, so they’re basically covered with sand apart from those two little eyes and they just wait in ambush. And the little crab will walk past or the bait will trickle past and then out they come and they’ll pounce on it. It’s a fish that has great curiosity. It’s very important to use a fairly heavy weight to make sure your bait stays on the bottom, because in this fast water it’s very easy for the lift of the line to pull your sinker up, and the fish won’t take it once it’s even a foot or two off the bottom. We use weights with little spikes on them in order to grip better, and when you’re on the drift, this drags along and makes a little cloud of sand.

Much like a crab might.

Much like a crab might. And we put colored beads right next to the bait or maybe a flashing spoon to excite the fish’s curiosity. And the bait moves with the drifting of the boat.

Do they hit aggressively?

You get two sorts of bites. They seem to either hammer into the bait and really give you a good tug, or they’ll be so subtle in their take, well, we just call them “whoopsies” because you start to reel in and go “Whoops, I got one!” I would say seventy-five percent of the time you feel the fish take the bait; the rest of the time, you never even notice, and when you come to pick the rod up to reel in, you realize you got one.

What is a good-sized plaice?

Well, anything over four pounds is a specimen fish. A five-pound fish is a really excellent fish and a six-pound fish is a fish of a lifetime. A two to three pound fish is a good eating fish.

So they are good to eat?

Oh, yes, I think so. Actually, some people absolutely love them and others are a little iffy with them. But if it’s a good fish and you get a good fillet, it’s a tasty fish. I just do them in a frying pan, with a little butter and some spices.

Russ Symons has fished out of Plymouth, England, all his life and has held two International Game Fish Association world records for pollack, as well as several European and British line class records for a variety of other species. For the last twenty years, he has worked as a photographer and writer using the sea and his fishing as his subjects.

Jeffrey Kastner is a Brooklyn-based writer and senior editor of Cabinet.

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