When you talk about fishing for rays it conjures up such different feelings for all sorts of anglers. The prehistoric image of the ray produces wonder, mystery, and a real desire to catch for many anglers not to mention the first-time anglers fishing aboard “Lorna Doone” and the experienced coarse and carp angler giving sea fishing a go as a ray is so different to anything else they would have likely encountered before.
For the seasoned boat angler, the ray can be something of a frustration, being able to catch fish of and exceeding specimen weight that you know are inhabiting the seabed below is not always an easy task. Here I shall look to crack all the mystery and complexity perceived with ray fishing and show you just how simple it can be.
Firstly, let’s start with the rays we have available to us to target in the Bristol Channel with Heritage Charters and our charter boat “Lorna Doone”. We have four types of ray. Thornback rays, Small-eyed rays, spotted rays and blonde rays. Now I know there will be anglers reading this and shouting at the page to tell us all that there are more types of rays swimming our waters.
Indeed, during this past year or so there have been a couple of Blue Skate caught from the Bristol Channel shore but as yet none recorded on a boat but is that just a matter of time? And also, this will throw up the ‘what’s a ray and what’s a skate’ question… so for simplicities sake the four afore mentioned rays will be the subject of this article.
Thornback rays with their ultra-hardcore prehistoric appearance, covered in thorns and coloured in a huge variety of mottling to their general brown topside colouration are somewhat the mainstay of the Bristol Channel. Found in abundance almost everywhere these greedy fish will snaffle up virtually any bait offered to them. With their typical spiralling of the line once hooked, these rays can be found as mentioned all over but do appear in high numbers very tight inshore on the patches of mud and therefore are quite commonly the boat anglers first experience of a ray on the end of the line. Thornback rays are often caught in our region into double figures and recently some wonderful specimens exceeding 17lbs have come to the net!
Small-eyed rays are a beautiful ray. Sandy coloured in appearance with light bands running virtually parallel to the edges of the wings and as the name suggests, quite small eyes for their comparative size. The small-eyed ray would be the one ray of the four where location (which I will come on to) is particularly key if you are to make multiple catches of this fine fish in a session. A double figure small-eyed ray is a good one, a 13lb fish a cracker and the British record was caught out of Watchet where I run the boat from. A truly magnificent fish exceeding 16lbs.
Blonde rays…The powerhouse of the four! A big blonde will quite literally beat you up. Any slight weakness in your tackle and these fearsome fighters will smash you up for fun. Many a time I hear the call “I’m snagged Tommo” to which I reply “No snags here..that’s a Blonde!”. A big Blonde is a beautiful fish with its sandy coloured appearance and dramatic spotted patterns across the wings. The specimen weight for one of these fine rays is 17lbs in our region. Fish of this weight are regularly caught and in truth Blondes exceeding 20lb’s are the target of many anglers.
Last of the four is the Spotted ray. The smallest of all our rays, with a good one being a fish of 4lb’s or more, the Spotted ray is universally liked by anglers. A surprisingly hard fighter for its small stature and a nice addition to any day’s fishing with its brown colouration and delightful array of spots. It’s worth noting that a small blonde ray can be easily mistaken for a spotted ray. The quick way to tell the two apart is that on a spotted ray, the spots do not extend all the way to the edge of the wings whereas they do on the blonde ray.
Upon leaving the marina and opening the throttles of the mighty outboards on the back of “Lorna Doone” there is a lot to consider as we race towards the first mark of the day to give anglers aboard the best chance of encountering all four species of ray. Firstly, the tide strength. The Bristol Channel with its second largest tidal range in the world is notorious for its run of water, especially on the larger outgoing tides. This is going to influence my first choice of marks as it is simply no good to head offshore and drop baits over the side in a raging torrent and expect to catch fish. Instead, a mark often very tight inshore, will need to be chosen.
Thornbacks will be the easiest of the rays to pick up at this stage with their abundance on a variety of inshore marks, particularly the areas where there is a mixed ground with mud or indeed exclusively mud. As the initial run of tide drops off the number of options as to where to now fish will dramatically increase. Within very close proximity there is a great variety of seabed. Sand, sand and shells, sand and gravel, stone, coral, gravel the list goes on and a good knowledge of the area will pay dividend.
For me, to find good numbers of small-eyed rays you will need to drop anchor on an area of exclusively sand. There are many sandbanks doted around our area but if I had to put a small wager on a place to bag up on small-eyed rays it would be an area known as Selworthy sands. A classic inshore sandy bank/beach just prior to a headland. My choice of seabed to target the hard fighting blondes is a little more open to choice on any given day.
Traditionally you wouldn’t be far wrong to say that blonde’s come from the sand and, yes, of course that is true, but I find there’s more to it than that. Indeed, one of my most prolific spots for Blonde’s is actually a patch of mud and gravel riffles. So how do I know what area to head for? Sand, sand and shells, mud and gravel?? It would seem on the face of it a bit of a lottery. Well, not exactly… throw tide speed into the mix and you will start to get a good feel for the area to head too. Generally speaking, blondes will be caught in a steady bit of tide and even over slack water.
Checking the size of the tide for that day is vital. A big tide will see the need to remain a bit closer to shore over the low water period whereas a smaller tide will allow you to venture further offshore for the low water period. And then that final little bit of the equation that I previously mentioned are the riffles on the seabed. Wherever I have spotted riffles in the seabed on the sounder there’s blonde rays to be caught, regardless of if these are made up of sand, something mixed with sand or indeed mud and gravel.
My belief here is that these riffles must have a good food source and this can also be evidenced by the fact that not only will you catch Blonde rays on this type of ground but you will also catch everything else that swims in that area of the Bristol Channel. Eels, Huss, Hounds, Cod, Bass, you name it have all been caught from marks I have saved on my plotter as blonde ray marks. And finally, the spotted rays. These little rays will appear on almost all marks, perhaps less so on an exclusively muddy seabed but they can still be caught over the mud. However, if I was to set my stall out to catch a spotted ray my best chance would be to head for an area of mixed ground, stone and sand, coral and mud or perhaps sand and shells something like that.
Rigs wise, fishing in the Bristol channel around Watchet where I run Heritage Charters and our boat “Lorna Doone” from could not be simpler. We have coloured water and by that, I mean the visibility is virtually zero due to being at the bottom end of an estuary with fast tides constantly stirring up the sea bed and suspending sediment in the water. For that reason, a running ledger will be all you need connected to a trace made of 80lb mono of around 4ft-6ft (the fish aren’t going to see it and be spooked), with a strong single hook in size 4/0 up to 7/0.
Bait is the one that I get asked most questions about. Quite often I’ll get a call from a group coming out asking what bait to bring with a statement of “I assume bring sandeel for the rays”. Well, actually no. Sandeel which is seen as such a traditional bait for rays doesn’t even make it on to my list of baits to bring. Instead, my absolute go to for the rays is a choice of two ‘cocktail’ baits. Bluey and squid in combination or Prawn tipped with squid.
Bluey not mackerel? … Indeed, mackerel will catch all the ray species but put simply day in day out on the charter boat if I see some anglers with bluey and some with mackerel, bluey will out fish the mackerel baits three times over. I am sure this is down to the extreme bloody oily nature of bluey and for us where the visibility is almost, if not actually zero the scent given off by the bluey is the key to fish homing in on the bait so quickly.
Prawns… readily available to buy in supermarkets as well as tackle shops you do need to turn the packet around and check where they came from. You are going to want Atlantic, cooked, shell on! Not farmed freshwater prawns. The Atlantic, cooked (yes cooked… I have no idea why the catch rate is better over raw, but it is) shell on variety seem to carry such a better ‘prawny scent’ and bottom line is…They work!!
My final tip and this is my number one tip for bait regardless of what you’ve actually chosen to use is don’t go too big with your baits and keep it fresh. Make regular bait changes to avoid a washed-out scentless bait sitting on the seabed for ages not getting a bite… Have you ever wondered what is happening when you have stood on a boat and one person is catching over and over whilst you’re stood barely a couple of meters away not getting a touch?
The angler who has just caught a fish has now rebaited, dropped the fresh bait down, caught again and added another fresh bait. This angler is being forced into the method of keeping it fresh because of catching and the rewards are being evidenced.
Whether it be a beautiful spotted ray or the powerhouse that is the blonde ray, ray fishing is a fun, uncomplicated way of getting a proper bend in your rod. Go out, give it a go and have a great time doing it.