Current commercial netting methods have reduced (but not destroyed) your chances of a specimen skate. But if you’re after fish for the freezer, a small skate is all you need Skates are massive fishes, far larger than any of the British rays and almost as heavy as any fish that swims in our seas. The angler is concerned with three species—the common skate, Raja (Dipturus) batis, the white skate, Raja (Rostroaja) alba, and the long-nosed skate, Raja (Diptura) oxyrinchus.
Coloration is often a poor guide to identification, the pigmentation and pattern depending on the ground from which the skate was taken, its age, and variations between members of the same species. The upper surface is anything from grey to a dark muddy greenish-brown. There might be a speckling of pale dots and stipples; the common skate sometimes has golden spots. Undersurfaces provide further clues. The underside of the common skate is a dirty greyish-white with scattered black-rimmed pores. The white skate’s underside is cleaner looking and lacks the black pigmentation around the pores.
These factors, however, are unreliable if taken in isolation. It is important to draw a composite pic-ture in order to establish identity. It helps to know where the fish was caught, its weight, and if it contained any egg-cases whose shape and size might help with identification.
The white skate is the biggest of the three with a maximum weight in excess of 500lb. It grows 8ft in length, and has a wingspan of 5ft. The common skate is altogether smaller, weighing up to 400lb with excellent rod-caught specimens less than 200lb. The long-nosed skate has similar dimensions.
The problem with all skates and rays is positive indentification. There is much confusion and con-troversy as to the characteristics of the three British skates. The common skate, which is not at all common in some places, is often confused with the white skate. It is suggested by some fish biologists that most of the larger common skate hooked in Ireland were in fact whites. This raises the whole question of record fish: how many were really the common, white or long-nosed skate that their captors claim ed? Any fish thought to better cur-rent records should be identified by experts, not left to fishermen whose judgement might be clouded by the prospect of a record fish. Many specimens need close scientific examination before a correct decision can be made.
Characteristics of different species
There are, however, generally agreed differences between the species. All skates are big, with a characteristic kite-shaped outline. The common skate has a squared-off diamond shape while both the white and the long-nosed appear more elongated. The long-nosed, as its name suggests, has the most pronounced snout, the distance from snout tip to eyes being about six times the distance between the eyes. Also, the leading edges of the wings seem rather concave. The white’s snout is shorter but beakier, and the leading edges of its wings are convex. Skates are found in the shallows or down in hundreds of fathoms but usually, though not invariably, the deeper water holds the bigger fish, and this might account for the fact that the biggest rod-caught skate are barely half the maximum size recorded by commercial fishermen.
All three skates are widely distributed and it is a rare stretch of coast that has never produced at least one of them. Some places are better than others. The established angling grounds are around Scotland—Ullapool, Scapa Flow and the Western Isles—and over the Irish Sea in Kinsale, Westport and Valencia. It is no coincidence that the biggest fish are more often found in the food-rich waters of the North Atlantic Drift. All the Atlantic fishing marks share the limelight, but many other areas produce very large fish. Big skate turn up in the most unlikely spots.
When skate are found
Skate feed all year round, but are more active in the warmer months, although this is difficult to confirm as most of the fishing is restricted to spring and summer. Most good skate grounds are in very dangerous water and cannot be fished unless the weather is settled—which is more likely in summer than in winter and autumn.
Skate, like so many of the rays, seem to enjoy broken ground although they are perfectly happy on open sand at times. Perhaps the roughness of the seabed with its attendant forest of weeds and rocks attracts the smaller fishes and marine creatures upon which they prey. Skates do not appear to migrate far, if at all. They are localized even within an area known to hold them, sometimes confined to small patches of seabed, and if you remove the fish, another one moves in. There is also firm evidence of pairing. Catch the female and the male is likely to be your next victim.
The larger a predator becomes and the greater its appetite, the fewer in-dividuals an area can support. Skate, being very large, need space to hunt and consequently numbers are low. This inevitably puts them at risk, because if numbers fall too low, breeding ceases and the population dies out. Many areas which years ago produced a steady flow of big skate have dried up. Where once you could be almost guaranteed a skate, chances of success are now slim. Moreover, the situation cannot be blamed entirely on commerce—rod and line fishing has denuded many of the classic skate marks. Too many fishermen leave the skate they catch to die on their boats.
The feeding habits parallel those of the rays, and of predators in general. Crustaceans, molluscs, fishes, and even small skate are grist to the mill. The toughest of shells are reduced to dust by the awesome teeth. But like all predators, skate are not fussy about what they eat. Anything meaty, alive or dead, is a meal not be missed. The scavenging habit possibly explains why many huge skate are hooked close to harbours—they see the angler’s bait as one more example of fish offal thrown overboard from trawlers.
How close they venture inshore is amazing. Many boat marks are within easy casting range of the shore; indeed, skate are hooked from the beach though seldom landed because ordinary shorefishing tackle is much too puny to lift them. If you can get reasonably close to inshore skate and high above them so that the tackle lifts them rather than drags them along the seabed, the chances of landing one from the shore are increased from nil to very unlikely. But it does happen: very big skate have been landed from piers, notably Fenit Pier, near Tralee, where a 147V£lb specimen was taken. Other fish of over 100lb have actually been landed from the shore in the Shannon estuary.