There is strong sunlight again this morning and the curtain pole that I neglected to fix is letting in far too much of it. It’s the third solid day of warm weather and the days are lengthening nicely. As I get up after my nightshift and amble down the stairs I hear voices in the garden, my wife, her sister and mother are having coffee in the sun. ‘Beautiful again today isn’t it’? I reply but I really don’t know what I’ve said, all I’m thinking as I pour the coffee is ‘RAY’. 

This time last year I had already managed to bag some stingrays to well over 30lb. This year, however, I had already given three blank sessions to them hard fighting beauties without so much as a hint of a fish. However, I’m nothing if not determined and when the opportunity to join the McMahon family on an early morning ray hunt presented itself I couldn’t say no. 

In Tralee Bay, there are 4 species of ray to target, the thornback, undulate, small eyed (painted) and of course the stingray

Pre-pandemic, the odds of being up at 7 am on a Sunday morning on my weekend off would be a long shot at best, possibly even a non-runner but, it’s a new world and I found myself deep in the freezer as the dawn chorus rang out from the trees. Mackerel, of course. Some Herring, why not?. A precious packet of launce and a dozen crab made me think that’s enough for two days fishing, so I throw in another three Mackerel (just in case).

For once, I was early to the car parking spot, which was a sure sign that something was special was afoot. As I messed with the camera and changed a few snoods Liz, Shane and their son Paddy arrived. Having climbed the counties highest mountain the day before Liz was moving slow but the lads were as eager as myself and the trip to the mark took half the time it should have.

Research has shown the Tralee Bay undulates to be genetically distinct to populations in the UK, and they are not present anywhere else in Ireland. It really is, therefore, a unique fish to catch.

I say this often but I’m certain this was the fastest I’ve ever seen 4 anglers set up and get baits into the water. We were early for the area, the tide was hammering through and tearing the grip leads out of the sandy bottom dragging them to the left. Add to this a build up of fine weed on the line coupled with a rotten east wind and the early enthusiasm was sapping quite quickly. Even though the four of us were fishing hard the heads were dropping… That is until Paddy’s rod, which had been sitting nicely in the tide, pulled down hard and sprung back poker straight as the line dropped to the beach.

Quick as a flash Paddy had the slack taken up and was into a nice fish who was intent on using the tide to its advantage. After a short fight a lovely thornback ray was on the beach and after a few snaps was returned to the deeps. This started a flurry of action as the tide dropped off and the weed eased. Liz had a lovely turbot of just over a pound followed rapidly by her first thornback, which was a particularly well armed one covered in thorns front and back. Indeed, the fact that Liz is taking part in a species hunt meant they were two nice ones to knock off the list.

Liz's first thornback of the session was a well armoured one, with massive thorns front and back!

All the while Shane and myself did our best to thin the numbers of dogs in the bay until my rod gave a few solid knocks. I missed it. Then another. And again. The baits returned 3 times fish-less and nicely ripped. On the next cast I stood at the ready and nailed the culprit. After several tidy runs a tope of approximately 8lb was on the beach. I never tire of seeing these beautiful fish and can’t wait to meet a few of the bigger ones. 

Another raft of dogs and weed followed before another thornback was beached and we were ready for home. Paddy had other ideas though and topped off the day with a lovely bass of 50cm which had a date with the barbecue. 

Between Liz, Paddy and myself we managed three rays, a tope and a fine Bass. Shane left off the quality fish and concentrated on the dogfish for the day but he swore revenge.

Paddy with a bueatifully marked thornback
Tope pups featured in our catches, when not biting off the ray snoods. The bigger ones should arrive here soon.

By chance, the work shifts aligned and late Monday night we decided to have a go again after the school run. The wind had swung out of the east and north straight into our faces bringing fairly heavy rain and a well churned up sea. Again, we were ready in a flash and had baits in the water. As the tide eased a few dogs came on followed by a small but beautiful undulate ray. Then though, the real fireworks would begin. 

Shane was using an Afaw 6+bait which registered a small finicky bite which looked suspiciously doggie like. Shane’s words aren’t printable but, no sooner than they were uttered, the drag began to peel off and the rod lurch violently. Even with the wind in the face and choppy sea we easily spotted the fish trashing out on the surface. This was no doggie but it was taking Shane on a walk along the beach with surging runs and intermittent sticking to the bottom.

Shane playing a solid stingray excellently on an Anyfish Anywhere 6 and bait.

We knew what was in store as the fish thrashed violently in the shallows and a huge dark shadow loomed. A massive black back and slashing tail broke the surface and between us we managed to land a beautiful female stingray. We flew into action getting the tail subdued and the measure out. At a meter, it was too short. As I ran for the tape measure Liz poured water over the ray to keep it alive as we worked to measure and weigh it. 48.6lb. What an incredible fish!

As we worked, my line had gone slack so once the fish was safely released I ran back hoping for a ray of my own. A bloody dogfish! I deserved it for laughing at Shane’s dog herding skills. As I recast and changed the bait on the other rod Shane was knee deep in the water with a serious bend in the rod. Again the rod lurched and lunged and line was stripped off but Shane had the measure of it and again managed to tease it into the shallows where that familiar black tail slashed violently out of the water.

Just the first of some specimen stingray we would see, this one for Shane.

I got my hand on the trace and Shane a towel around the barbs of the equally huge stingray. Once we got it onto the sand I looked up to see a fella smiling ear to ear. Not one but two absolutely stonking stingrays! Again we were working as a team, Shane trapped the tail and I unhooked the ray. We quickly got it into the weigh sling and as Shane lifted Liz called out 47.9lb. I couldn’t be happier to be there helping Shane land them amazing fish after he had done the same for me some years ago during a competition. To say at this point we were buzzing is an understatement.

There was little time for rest though as some more dogs hit the baits over low water but we were not worried. There was at least an hours fishing to go and literally anything seemed possible. Liz was definitely feeling the pain now from the mountain climb on the weekend, but you wouldn’t know it as she sprinted to her rod to save it from being torn from the stand! After a short but spirited fight a lovely female undulate of around 7lb came ashore, next a similar vicious bite resulted in a small pup tope for me.

The stingers all got a quick measure for recording purposes, whilst being kept wet, before a weigh and release.

Shane was in again! This time a dog and undulate double shot. At this point it was all action and as I saw Liz sprint again I ran for the bucket thinking it was another monster stinger. I was half right, when a small but perfectly formed stinger came ashore Liz was beaming and a real tough one was marked off the species hunt list for her. There was little time for talk as both my rods were nodding. The left was clearly a decent ray or small tope and the right had headed down tide.

Fearing a tope would bite me off I opted for the left and was rewarded with an undulate of 86cm and an Irish specimen fish. The undulate are no longer weighed by the specimen fish committee so after a few snaps it was released and swam off strongly. A bait robbing super team of a dog and spider crab came in for Shane and a few dogs for Liz by the time I got around to the right hand rod that had slowly but surely taken small bits of line.

They all count, especially for Liz in. a species hunt.

I thought maybe the opportunity had gone and maybe weed had pulled my grips out. I tightened down and lifted in… Chaos. I was onto a monster! I ran toward the water loosening the drag as I went and calling for assistance. The sheer power meant it could only be one thing, a monster stingray! The line stripped and I was heading down on a merry dance, thoughts racing through my head. Did I change the snood after the tope? How would the 30lb snood stand up? Will it ever just come in? More strong lunging runs followed and I said to myself, with a smile,  ‘Shane made this look easy’. 

By now we were pros, I took the trace, Liz the rod, and we had the bucket at the ready. Shane had the towel around the barbed sting and it was ashore! I had a beaming smile of my own now and as I lifted the scales I was under a nice bit of pressure. 52.8lb! Quickly we had her back in the water and after a rest for the both of us she glided off. As I walked back delighted, but trying to look calm and cool, a quite glaring mistake came to light. I never got a photo with my personal best stingray! Disappointed but so, so elated I got back to the stand and while I looked at an unmistakable doggie bite, a wild and I’m sure very stupid grin broke out.

Just one thing missing in this photo... me! Oops.

The fishing didn’t stop there, Liz landed another two undulate and Shane another plus we had a glut of dogs before a better tope of around 15lb bit me off in the shallows. By now the water began to steam through in anger dragging baits away with bigger clumps of weed. We were slow to leave but the trip back to the van was full of giddy talk and trying to keep this story under wraps for you all to share it has been some of the hardest work to date!

Naturally we were back again two days later. Liz, Shane, myself and joined by my father Connie. Shane was back to his dog herding and I was doing my best to help him. Connie and Liz were into the undulate rays almost immediately again and we were all perked up by the time Connie landed a small painted ray. 

Unfortunately the weather closed in and turned really nasty on us with driving wind and rain. Connie managed a nice thornback to come close to the Tralee bay slam, just missing out on it with no stingray.

Back at the cars, we were chatting while putting away the gear. We had some incredible fishing over the past week. All the rays in the bay, plus tope and four specimen fish. Anglers from three generations making memories and catching incredible fish by working together is the stuff money can’t buy. It’s unlikely we will ever get a days fishing like that again any time soon… Or is it?

A painted ray for Connie had completed the set of Tralee Bay rays between us all