Fishing Lines: Highland hunters of the heavy halibut

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The Independent Online
I WONDER what Bob Ramsey's wife would have said if her husband had dragged his latest catch home, instead of dumping it back into the sea.

Picture the scene. As his key turns in the door, Mrs R shouts, without looking up: 'I suppose you haven't caught anything again. Don't worry, I've opened a tin of sardines.' Ramsey, meanwhile, is trying to manoeuvre a huge, flat fish bigger than himself through the front door.

His capture of a 200lb halibut from Lochinver in the Highlands is significant in far greater terms than six months' fish suppers (and I'll explain later why the giant, worth about pounds 700, was returned to the sea).

The first UK halibut on rod and line for 13 years, unless you count a 42lb 'baby', it was undeniable proof that the Big Game Club of Scotland really does have something to fish for.

Halibut are the largest British flat fish. Trawlers have boated them to more than 600lb, though the rod-caught record, off Scrabster in 1979, is just 234lb. Ramsey's fish may even have topped that, but it was merely tagged and unhooked. 'We release all fish apart from world records,' Stan Massey, the club secretary, said.

One problem with halibut is that they live in fast, deep water (up to 500ft down) and are so powerful that shark tackle is needed to subdue them. Ramsey's 200-pounder took 90 minutes to bring in.

Halibut are seen by fish farmers as the saviour of an industry too dependent on salmon. It is expensive (about pounds 6 a pound in the supermarkets) and will grow to about 10lb in just two years. More farms are likely to switch to halibut now that breeding problems have been largely overcome. Another early difficulty was that the fish actually became seasick in moving cages.

This may all be good news for Scottish anglers who fear that, with demand exceeding supply, trawlers will plunder any halibut grounds they discover.

'We know of at least six potential halibut areas but we haven't been able to fish them properly because charter boats work a strict 9am to 5pm. We hope to get our own boat next year and then we'll show the potential of Scotland,' Massey said.

His club has already landed a record porbeagle shark of more than 500lb and has taken masses of giant skate up to 194lb. 'We are sick to death of catching them,' Massey said. 'Recently I caught 10 in three days.' He is convinced that as soon as the club gets its own transport, some real surprises are in store such as giant blue fin tuna and even swordfish. Massey expects more halibut to be caught, though one hazard is hungry seals which inhabit the same areas. 'It is quite interesting when an 800lb bull seal takes your bait,' he said.

Although Peterhead auction valued Ramsey's fish at about pounds 700, Massey believes it wouldn't have tasted too good. 'Big halibut have a very high urea and mercury content,' he said. 'I wouldn't have wanted to eat it.' And Mrs Ramsey probably wouldn't have wanted to fillet it either.

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