It’s a day I am likely never to forget, actually a weekend I will never forget. To tell this story properly, I have to go all the way back to May 2016 and the annual Tralee Bay ‘Tag-A-Ray’ competition. The day had been quiet but we were all still stretched out along the shore, desperate to land a ray. The tide had just turned when my rod lurched over and line began to peel off the reel. My first thought was, ‘Tope – I’m sure to be bitten off.’ But it didn’t happen. Around 25 minutes of huffing and puffing ensued and the other anglers downed tools to see what all the commotion was. About 50 metres out, we finally saw the great dark back of a stingray and the powerful tail thrashing in the air. Half the crowd dispersed, inspired by the fish and knowing that the tide would soon be pushing us off the mark. The other half stayed but, oddly, only until the monster was in the last foot of water. Maybe it was the excitement or maybe they realised that the real job is yet to come. Anthony Foley flew off to grab the measure mat and tagging kit and I was left with Shane McMahon from Tralee. Although I didn’t know Shane very well (or I should say that I had known others for an awful lot longer), Shane stayed until the fish was landed.
Anyone who has had a big stinger will know the last few feet are the hardest, when the fish is in a half foot of water but its weight is on the sand and they are ultra defensive. With the fish 3 or 4ft onto the beach the 60lb snood finally snapped from the pressure and the stingray’s clamping jaws and I know I’d have lost that fish alone or at least been in real danger trying to land it solo. The stingray went 50lbs 8oz.
Later in the pub, Shane leant over and said, ‘You owe me.’ Naturally, I’d bought him a pint after winning the competition, with my stinger being fish of the weekend, even beating the boats but that’s not what Shane’s getting at. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘you owe me a big fish.’ Fast forward to May 2020 and we’ve been on many adventures around the county (and, indeed, the country) but that ‘fish debt’ still hangs over me. We’ve tried a good few times for that monster to wipe the slate clean but it just hasn’t happened. Match fishing always gets in the way of things for me but now, with match fishing suspended, I am refocused.
After recently losing a good stinger of around 25lbs only 10 metres out, I was motivated to go and try for them again. Unfortunately, however, the wind was howling from the South West and I couldn’t get any volunteers to come with me and had to take on the mission alone. I set up two rods and on the third cast, end up with a huge tope. At home that night, I messaged Shane to let him know I’d found some good fish but, initially, he didn’t seem keen. He messaged back talking about another venue where there’s been a nice run of thornback rays. I reply with just a pic of the tail and his response is simple, ‘I have big hooks in the shed. What time?’
We arrived at the mark about two hours before low water and set up quicker than anyone you have ever seen. There is electricity in the air. Shane, his son Paddy, my brother David and myself all spread out at comfortable distances, all ready for action. Thirteen-year-old Paddy is straight into a nicely-marked painted ray – a great start. David then lands a double shot of doggies and is beaming. He’s been landlocked for 75 days and hasn’t had a cast in the whole time. It could have been a blenny or a 20lb fish, he’s happy to just be back at the beach and not worrying about work, family or the weight of the world.
Then it happens, that unmistakable sound of a reel screaming for help. Shane is on to a nice fish – or a nice fish is on to Shane. For a while, it’s not clear who’s winning as the fish runs for a second and third time then leaps clean out of the water. Then slack and a momentary sick feeling at the thought that the acrobatic jump has dislodged the hook, but no! It’s still on. The fish makes another run and suddenly it’s in the air again, the thrashing shape of a fine tope. Shane has the upper hand now and after surfacing in the shallows and beating the water to froth with its tail, the big tope is tiring.
As Shane guides it further into the shallows, I miss with the first attempt to grasp its tail as the big tope suddenly accelerates towards the shore. On the next attempt, however, I make no mistake and get hold of the tail with both hands. The fish goes berserk but there is no way I’m letting it go. The fish is safely beached, the debt is repaid and, better yet, the GoPro has been recording it all. It’s taken four years but it was worth the wait! A few quick photos and the tope, estimated from its measurements at 33lb, is released back into the bay. Naturally, we were all buzzing at this stage and more motivated than ever.
Twenty minutes after being bitten off, Paddy has changed to a wire bite trace and a lucky thing too as his next bait attracts the attention of another toothy predator. His Akios Fireloop reel and Hellrazor rod are undergunned and after the first big run, he looks to his dad for guidance. Shane’s counsel is sound, ‘Keep the rod up and the pressure on, use your drag!’ The tope bolts off again and, again, the reel is under more strain than it’s ever felt before. Paddy has to walk up the beach to regain line or risk being spooled by the powerful runs. Playing a big fish on the continental gear is no joke and the young lad’s arms are sore. Most kids would have called in the cavalry here but not Paddy Mc. He shows the same determination that he’s known for on the football field with the county team and grits his teeth, slowly gaining line.
The tope doesn’t seem to be tiring at all but then Paddy catches a bit of luck as it decides to go on a steaming run straight at us, giving him the chance to regain some precious line. I don’t know how Paddy is faring but my heart is in my mouth and that’s the PG version of how I’m feeling! Three times the fish turns in the shallows before powering out again, but each time Paddy uses the rod to absorb the surge. It’s as if the power of the fish is gradually passing to Paddy as he grows in confidence as the fish comes further and further within reach. There’s no mistakes from me this time and I have the tail at the first attempt. As the lads deal with the hook, I run for the scales and weigh sling – 27lb of angry tope. It’s taken around 15 minutes to land but what a fish and what a memory!
We fish on, with David hammering a record amount of doggies and Shane and I both being bitten off, leading to talk of adjustments to our rigs for the future. As we begin to talk of home, Shane’s rod screams off the stand again. After the fireworks of the other fish, this one comes ashore in a much more orderly manner and is landed safely in the gathering darkness.
David tails the fish this time as I get the scales ready. Again a few quick photos, a quick weigh and the fish goes 38lb and measures only 5cm short of an Irish specimen fish.
It’s now dark and the dogs have come in en masse. We’ve fished for a good two hours longer than planned but there is no school tomorrow, no work and no cares. As we pack up, David shouts up the beach and as we get to him he has a small tope in his hands… or so he thought. At 13lbs, he’s gone and landed an Irish specimen smoothhound. They are easy to confuse and, because David had a cheap backup headlight, we will leave him off this time.
Funnily enough, smoothies were unheard of in Tralee Bay until a few years ago. We give each other a look, the rods are put away but we are all thinking the same thing – another night.
Even writing this now my hands are sweating. I doubt I’ll ever forget it and I didn’t even land a tope myself! As we said our goodbyes at the carpark, a thought came into my head, ‘Paddy, you owe me.’
A few words from Shane:
When Chris got in touch to plan a session for the tope, I didn’t have to be asked a second time. I tied up a few pulley rigs with 4ft steel traces to 6/0 hooks and was ready to go. Having tried a few times for tope before with no success, I was expecting a quiet evening, hopeful one of us would get a run.
Second cast, my rod bent over and line flew off the reel. I’d never felt anything like this before and could do nothing with it. My heart was racing and with every run and head shake, all I could think was ‘Will my homemade rig hold?’ When we got the fish in and Chris expertly landed it for me, it was a huge relief. It’s the fish of a lifetime for me and one I’ll never forget!
And a few words from Paddy:
At the start of the session, I decided to fish for ray and on my first cast I got a nice painted ray of about 6lbs. I decided to stick with the ray until I got bitten off by a good fish, making me switch to a wire trace. Next cast, the rod bent over and the line started screaming off the reel.
The fish took me 200 yards down the beach and my arm was aching from its power. After a great fight, I got the fish close enough for Chris to land it for me and I was both delighted and relieved! It was my first ever tope and by far my biggest fish so far. I can’t wait to go again!