Your choice of coast may determine which species of ray you hunt down, but knowing the right sea marks, owning the right tackle and using the right bait will mark you out as a specialist.
Two species of ray indigenous to the waters around the British Isles play a major role in angling. The thorn-back is the more common, but fishing for the painted or small-eyed ray, Raja microocellata, is rapidly growing in popularity. In the western half of the country, more of the latter species are taken, principally after dark. Although they have distinctly different characteristics, they are often misidentified, and on occasion are also confused with the blonde ray. This situation has led to many sea angling clubs laying down a rule that every ray being entered for award purposes has to be positively identified by a qualified member on the staff of a Marine Biological Laboratory, or similar institution.
All the species mentioned inhabit the same type of ground, and can on occasion look very alike. Similarly, all rays share the same feeding habits and therefore the techniques of fishing for thornback applies equally well to the other species mentioned, to which can be added the spotted, cuckoo, and undulate varieties. None demands specialized tackle: the rays are in the main slow moving fish, but they tend to cling tenaciously to the seabed and have to be prised up. Then in midwater they act like kites, using their wings with the current to generate power out of proportion to their size.
Wide choice of rods
Boat tackle in the 20-30lb class and shorecasters that throw 4-6oz sinkers up to 120 yards are suitable for most beach and inshore boat fishing for thornbacks. Provided it has the necessary backbone, a rod of almost any design will perform adequately. The choice of reels is also straightforward: multipliers for boat work, and either a fixed-spool or casting multiplier for fishing offshore for thornback.
One exception is when boatfishing over shallow ground at long range—a form of angling developed on the Essex coast—in which case it has been found more successful to cast the baits well uptide and perhaps 75 yards out. Short beachcasting rods are used in preference to conventional boat rods, and because of the casting involved, many anglers prefer the trouble-free fixed-spool reel. In this particular situation it is ideal, but for most boat fishing, especially over deep water, the reel is a very bad choice because it lacks sufficient winching power.
Although medium weight gear is quite sufficient for boat fishing where one is, so to speak, ‘on top of the fish’, it is a very different situation when shore fishing over ex-tremely rough ground. This is par-ticularly the case on Cornwall’s rugged north coast where extremely fine thornback and small-eyed ray fishing is enjoyed by those with the will and ability to fish remote patches of sea bottom from precipitous rock ledges. This demands tough tackle: usually a 12ft beach caster, m- matched to a good sized multiplier loaded with 30lb monofilament line and married to a 40lb shock leader. It is often impossible to reach a hooked fish and a direct lift in excess of 30ft is often needed to successfully land a quarry. The fact that the best sport is always during rough weather when incredible seas smash into the rocks naturally adds to the not inconsiderable problems.
Keep your bait near the bottom
Generally, terminal tackle ar-rangements must take into account the ray’s feeding habits and the nature of its skin and teeth. The fish’s construction implies that it is a seabed hunter, and baits, therefore, should be presented close to the bottom.
At times, some species of rays feed in midwater—I have landed them on floatfished baits when the sea was alive with sandeels and brit—but, as a rule, the tackle should be down on the sand and mud where the thornback prefers to feed.
The trace may be either a simple paternoster or a running ledger. Contrary to popular belief, a paternoster does not hold the bait up from the seabed, because water and tide pressure push the last few yards of line flat against the bottom, even if it is lowered straight down.
In slow or Stillwater, the running ledger has the advantage of allowing a fish to move off with the bait without feeling any line resistance. In fast water, there is no practical difference between the ledger and paternoster, as water pressing against the reel line will prevent the ledger from running.
Trace length is probably a more significant factor. Two or three feet between hook and sinker seems to induce more bites than does a very short link, and this is because the longer trace allows better bait movement and reduces line resistance when the ray investigates the tackle.
The trace must also be strong enough to withstand the ray’s skin and teeth. Many thornbacks are lost because the line catches around the tail and is cut through by the rough skin or one of the many thorns. Strong nylon of at least 35lb b.s. Between the hook and the main line acts as a buffer. Wire may be used to the same effect, but it has the disadvantage of kinking and difficult knotting if not used correctly.
The weakest link in ray tackle is the hook. This must be very strong or the ray will grind it to powder. Thick wire, stainless steel hooks of the kind considered too rank for general fishing, are ideal, as long as they are sharpened. Large hooks are seldom required because rays have relatively small jaws, and therefore swallow moderate baits more quickly.
SHORE CASTING TACKLE
The smaller the hook, the sharper it is, and the easier to drive home. Hook sizes recommended for all the British rays are 10-40.
Bait needs careful attention, for it is the key to success. Rays feed on herrings and mackerel, crabs, sand-eels, worms and small fishes like blennies and tiny dabs. The common denominator is absolute freshness. It cannot be overemphasized that the bait must be freshly killed or deep-frozen. All rays are extremely sensitive to smell and taste, and ignore any bait that is less than perfect. It pays to collect your own baits or to obtain supplies directly from commercial fishermen.
Good bait and reasonable tackle are the foundation of ray fishing, the only other practical requirement being patience, for rays feed very slowly and you must guard against striking too soon. Wait until they run off with your bait.
Unfortunately, really good bait is only half the battle. First of all you must know where to find the rays. The British coastline is tremendously long and varied, making it impossible to stereotype fishing grounds. Rays are widespread, and the thornback is likely to turn up almost anywhere. Noted thornback marks include the Essex Black-water, Morecambe Bay, Heme Bay and the Norfolk coast—but those are just a few examples of the vast areas where the species is hooked.
Marks for ray fishing
It is perhaps significant that many good ray marks are over rough ground with moderate depth. More than that cannot be said, because even within a general area known to hold stocks of rays, only a few shore and boat marks produce the majority of catches. The solution is to seek local advice by talking to other anglers, to read the angling press or, best of all, to go to sea with an experienced charterboat skipper who can pinpoint the most likely spots. If there is a rule of thumb for ray location, it is to look for rough ground and, if shore fishing, for reasonably deep water close inshore. Ray seasons are neatly summed up in the East Anglian adage which says that the thornbacks arrive when the hawthorn blossoms. Most years, the fish move in from May on-wards, first being caught by the boats, then, as the inshore water warms up, by the beach angler. Sport continues until autumn, after which it dies away as the rays move out to deeper water.