Many of us can remember standing in a cold playground, trading and swapping to try and complete sets, whether it was football stickers, Pogs, football coins, Pokemon cards, the list goes on. Well as adults, and specifically as anglers, there’s one set that a lot of us try and complete every year, the 6 common ray species that live around our coasts. It is a set which I have tried and failed to do for years, missing out by one species the last 4 years in a row. However, this year I was determined to do it even with (and perhaps because of) the extra challenges posed by lockdowns.
Living on the south coast we are extremely lucky that all of the common ray species can realistically be targeted, with a couple of marks where you could conceivably catch them all over the course of a year.
Broadly speaking, the same tactics will catch all of the species, but by using different baits, at different venues at the right time of year you can specifically target each species. For me, targeting a certain species and catching it always adds to the sense of satisfaction. There’s no fluke to it then, it is just reward for the planning that inevitably proceeds the session.
Due to family commitments I wasn’t able to fish until mid February, where I opted for a nice easy session down Southbourne. One rod with sandeel for small eyes, and one with big fish baits for undulates. Particularly during the winter I’ve found that undulate ray will often seek out a big smelly fish bait, over a more traditional ray bait such as a sandeel and squid cocktail, and that’s how it turned out on that bitter evening. The only decent bite came from a stocky undulate which took a liking to a whole whiting. This was my first proper session and I was off the mark with one of the species ticked off.
Early March often sees the start of the small eye season in earnest down here, and an early session at Barton, saw myself and Shane Munford get into the action, with a number of 4lb to 5lb small eyes on our first attempt, with all of the fish falling to single sandeel baits. With a little bit of time lost in the early part of the year, it was nice to get two species ticked off in relatively quick succession, though on my local beaches they were perhaps the two least challenging.
By this time, the pandemic was in the news but yet to really be hitting home as to its potential impact on the fishing season ahead – and the rest of our daily lives, but most importantly the fishing…
Thankfully, in the week before lockdown the conditions were spot on for a crack at the blondes which seem to be growing in numbers along parts of the Dorset coastline. Myself and Rob Johansen decided to hit the beach hard in mid march, targeting these beautifully marked, and strong fighting fish. This featured in a previous article entitled ‘Unlocking the secrets of Chesil Blondes’ so I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say, thankfully we found the fish in a feeding mood, with numerous blondes landed on every session, and I’m sure we would have found some bigger specimens had lockdown not put an end to our successes.
As a bonus I was also fortunate enough to land a new personal best undulate while predominantly targeting the blondes. (In a strange coincidence my only other good session on the blondes this year , landing 6 fish, came the day before this current lockdown!)
It was at this point where I got a little concerned about the reality of catching the full set in 2020. Its not easy on a normal year but I think everyone can agree 2020 is not a normal year. I may have had half the species ticked off already, but I was going to need a stingray, and there was no indication of how long we would be in lockdown. With more or less the entire prime season in Sussex wiped out, we were forced to focus on fishing the solent once we were allowed out, well beyond prime time, and once the bream, crab and hounds would all be about to lay waste to any bait intended for a stingray!
I didn’t allow myself to fish for anything else once we were allowed back on the beach until I got my stinger. With reports of a few fish coming out, but no real numbers my personal stinger blanks were starting to mount. After a 5th and then a 6th session with nothing but hounds to show for it, I was starting to get concerned, and I hate to think how much rag worm I had dug! Though better to have dug this quantity than purchased it!
Finally, on my 7th session and on the 4th different mark I struck gold. Well a 7lb piece of angry bronze but good enough for me. The strength of stingrays always amazes me, and the way they thrash their tails wildly means a great deal of care needs to be taken when handling them. Strangely, stingers appear to be like buses and I had an even smaller one on my next session. Even a 4lb stinger gives an aggressive bite, and if anything is even harder to handle, a bit like smaller bass where there’s just less room to avoid the spikes, except the barb on a stingray is whipping round in a frenzy and set to do far more damage. Alas, this was four species down, with stingray and blondes being arguably the hardest of the lot, especially considering the lockdowns.
Next on the hit list were spotties, and we are fortunate to have a couple of marks around the Isle of Purbeck which have proven themselves pretty reliable for spotted rays. They give such a distinctive bite and you almost always know you have hooked one before you actually see it, although occasionally bass can give a good spotty imitation until you hit into them.
Sure enough in the first session on them, a spotted around 3lb took a liking to a small mackerel bait, and over the summer I was fortunate enough to find a number of what has to be my favourite ray species. As well as being stunning to look at, pound for pound they are surely the best fighting Ray on our waters, if they grew to 20lb I genuinely don’t think I’d fish for any other ray species. One of my many sessions on the spotted ray featured in a recent issue of Hookpoint.
So by mid July I had ticked off 5 of the 6, with just a thorny to go. Now at this point, I took my eye off the ball, knowing that autumn and winter are traditionally the best for thornies on our local area and failing all else the Bristol Channel has to be one of the best thornback fisheries around over the winter. So I enjoyed my fishing, fishing for a variety of species, bass, sole, bream, more undulates, and far too many failed attempted at catching my first shore tope filled my time before my anticipated assault on the thornies in November and December.
What I hadn’t accounted for was a 2nd lockdown, so with Boris giving us all the good news I decided I needed a plan, and fast!
The weather conditions looked lovely, 40-60mph straight westerlies, perfect for next to nowhere! I wracked my limited knowledge of the Bristol channel and had a vague idea. Then by picking the brains of a couple of far more experienced channel anglers the vague plan took some shape and I was on the road. A cool bag loaded with bluey and squid ensured I had the right bait but I had far from ideal conditions.
After dodging a few fallen branches on the way up I was starting to question my sanity, and this feeling was still with me right through the trek to the mark. I set up and initially fished just one rod, with a 3m swell sweeping straight across the mark and occasional rain showers just adding to the fun.
It wasn’t pleasant, and the wind was playing havoc with my casting range but it was fishable. For once, the weather forecast came good, and an hour before high tide, the skies had cleared, and the wind had dropped to a far more manageable 20mph. 3 hours without a bite had me doubting my chances but with bluey and squid wraps on 2 rods finally fishing at a range I was happier with, I still felt in with a chance over the high period.
90 minutes later, however, with high having passed, I was running out of confidence, and decided on a last cast. Whilst packing away my spare rigs and generally getting ready for the drive home, my left rod went over then dropped slack. I actually doubted my own eyes, but then another pull confirmed the reality. I hit into the next bite, and my heart dropped, snagged! Some steady pressure was applied and the snag moved, well the fish came unstuck from the mud anyway, and I soon had a ray in the swell below me.
I actually felt nervous about it coming off, despite it only being a modest fish. Thankfully the hook held and a well timed swell saw a 7lb thorny on the rocks. I doubt anyone has been happier to see a very average thornback but I was made up. I had done it. I figured it was worth another cast, and unbelievably no sooner had I returned the first fish the same rod went again with another thorny, though smaller this time. Wait 10 months for a thorny, and get 2 in 10 minutes!
I know I’m far from the only one who’s done the set this year, and I didn’t have any massive fish, but the sense of achievement feels great. Plus I have something to aim for, I’d love to get all 6 as specimens next! Some guys have even added the common skate to the ray species (check Rob Johansen’s ‘Solo Skating’ piece earlier in this issue) and if we are allowed out I’d love to get to try for a skate this year, but if not they will definitely be on the target list for 2021!
It should be noted that more than 6 are feasibly possible. The common skate, as mentioned above, would make it 7, though in reality this is the name we still give to what is now known as the flapper skate. The other species it was lumped in with for years also made a couple of Chesil appearances at the back end of 2019 and in early 2020, the most recent by Till Hall – a blue skate. With some incredible luck, catching each of these skate could take the tally to 8, but it could go higher still… The next most likely species would be the cuckoo ray, though the very few catches we see of these each year tend to come aboard boats, and from the shore are rarely present enough in any given area to make them a viable target, though, they have been caught and this would take someone (by now more likely to win the lottery) to 9. It doesn’t stop there. A third large species of skate to go with the flapper and blue is the white skate, and whilst a number of anglers have had success with them in the Canaries in recent years, the odd one has also shown back along prior notable ground in Scotland and Ireland amongst the flapper catches. Thereafter, the final viable species would be the marbled electric ray. The odd one of these shows up in a variety of locations, though perhaps if one was to target them they would be looking at the channel islands. Though the chances of one angler ever hitting these 11 from the shores of the UK in a lifetime, let alone a year, is, barring some massive recovery of stocks, inherently unlikely.