fresh bait is always best

At the top of my to do list for October, was to get out and target some small eyed rays. Here, in Jersey, it seems to be a great time of year to head out and try for them and although the rays are present on our shores all year round, this month is my favourite time to get out and have a few sessions trying my luck for them, as it seems the most productive time to fish the venues I usually wet a line. Added to the ideal time of year, with Jersey boasting some of the largest tidal ranges in the U.K  it would seem silly not to take full advantage of what our beaches have to offer during some of the larger low tides in the years calendar.

Last year, my friend Rob and I had gathered some sand eels whilst digging around the exposed sandbars during one of our huge tidal movements. We managed to get quite a few and decided to try some for small eyed rays that evening. We weren’t disappointed with the results, using our freshly dug eels in a session lasting only a couple of hours due to having to pack up early having run out of bait with the amount of rays we’d landed!

When the fresh eels we’d dug that afternoon had completely ran out we had a few casts with some of the blast frozen eels we had brought along. Changing over to the frozen baits you’d of thought we’d still be hitting fish, after all, surely a sandeel is a sandeel fresh or frozen. So long as it were well presented, in the right place and at the right time, surely any passing small eyed that was on the feed (as they had been for the previous two hours) would take the bait.

Well you would of thought so.The change in the session after switching from fresh to frozen eel was like turning the fish off with the flick of a button. As soon as those fresh eels ran out we went from not being able to sit down and constantly reeling in ray after ray to being sat on the seat box watching the rod tips in longing anticipation wondering where the bloody fish had gone!

a pair of shore caught jersey small eyed rays
Could these aggressively feeding rays really care if an eel had been frozen?

I guess you could argue that coincidentally, at that precise moment the fresh eels ran out and forced a switch to frozen, the fish had just gone off the feed, perhaps they’d moved off with the tide or we might have just caught them all already? It seemed a stretch. Rarely will rays simply switch off like this. It may slow down and ease off the frequency, but the odd one could still be expected to show.

We have long since set out minds to give it another go with the fresh eels this year, so we grabbed our forks and a couple of buckets for any bonus worms we’d come across during our dig and we made our way down the beach.

Finding the sand eels can be a tricky task if you’ve not done it before. Once you’ve found a venue that’s likely to have them, I find the best place to try digging during the low or almost low tide is right at the waters edge. Providing the sand is fairly light and easy to dig and not too dense/muddy for an eel to have buried itself, you should come across them. Finding a group of congregating gulls can be the biggest clue as to where they have buried themselves and makes it easier for finding that best place to dig. This wont be alien to many boat anglers use to following the birds when targeting any number of mid to topwater pelagic species worldwide.

The gulls always seem to be waiting at the waters edge as the receding tide catches out a few eels, which end up beaching themselves. Or, as we noticed this time, on the turn of the tide the eels can come back up out of the sand just a little too early at times, either giving us an easy opportunity to grab them or making an easy snack for the waiting gulls!

trench digging for sandeel in Jersey
Right at the waters edge will yield the most eels

As it was such a big tide some nice big sandbars had been exposed further down the beach from our usual digging location, so we decided to give it a go there instead. Virgin land always seems that bit more tempting than the well trodden parts of the beach.

We’d only been digging a few minutes until we’d hit the jackpot. Lifting my fork out of the sand I saw a couple of eels come flying out and I had to be quick to grab them! As soon as they come up they try their damn hardest to get back down into the sand and more often then not you lose more then you get in the bucket, but that’s just the game, you cannot begrudge it no more than the frustration of gutting a lug when digging for them.

As the tide receded, the digs just got better and better. It was a shame that the majority of the eels coming up were mostly pins and only around 4” long. We kept a few of the smaller ones incase we got tempted to try for a turbot amongst the rays before nightfall, but with a few nice sized ones finally in the bucket we had what we needed and decided to head straight to our chosen venue.

We got down onto the rocks nice and early and conditions looked perfect! The sea was flat calm with not a breath of wind. We still had an hour of daylight left, so I decided to fish one of my rods on a two hook flapper rig baited with some of the pin sand eels hoping for the chance of a turbot on the flooding tide. The other rod was soon out with an up and over rig for the small eyed ray. Rob went for similar tactics for the ray with an up and over rig, but his other rod was baited with some of the bonus worms we acquired whilst digging.

digging for sandeel in Jersey
Rob putting in the effort on the eels

It wasn’t long, perhaps just 10 minutes or so, before Rob’s ratchet made itself known. Whatever was on the other end was only taking a tiny bit of line off the reel, but the bite looked promising none the less and we guessed a turbot had found his sand eel bait. It just looked like one of those typical turbot bites as the rod tip bounced away in the rest, giving a little bit of slack before tightening up again and giving the rod tip a rattle. He struck into one of the better bites but nothing to show for it and the bait was surprisingly still well presented once retrieved, so he chucked it back out.

It wasn’t long before another bite developed for Rob, though this was a better pull down on the rod tip with loads of resulting slack line. He soon hit into our first small eyed of the session, not a huge fish but a quick blank saver of around 6lbs, and any size will do to kick a session off. Things were looking promising, having only had our baits out for 20 minutes or so and already having out first small eyed show a return on our digging efforts.

Whilst photographing and releasing Rob’s ray, my rod with the flapper rig and the smaller pin sand eel baits started bouncing away and again I initially thought turbot. I struck into the next decent pull down and if felt like a small fish was on, but if it was a turbot it was going to be a decent sized one. Rob got ready, moving down the rocks to get into position to retrieve the fish and that’s when I heard him call out it’s another small eyed!

Again, it wasn’t a big fish and perhaps saying it was 5lbs would be a slightly generous estimate, but I was glad to see them taking the smaller sand eel baits that had been on offer as these had been much easier to get during our digging antics, I was just gutted it wasn’t that new PB turbot.

a jersey small eyed ray
Rob got off to a flyer with this small eyed ray

As light had started to fade the rays were coming up even more frequently. Between landing rays and taking photographs we hadn’t even had time to sit down yet. It was like last year all over again. We weren’t long into our session and we’d already had 5 small eyed between us so we switched a rod over to fishing worm baits with the chance of a red mullet, sole or bass on the cards should they decide to come through on the flood.

We had only an hour or so left until the high tide and the ray bites were showing no sign of going quiet until Rob’s twitching sand eel must of caught the attention of what I’d say was a bass. His ratchet started screaming away and luckily I was just in time to grab his rod butt before it flew out the rest! However, by the time Rob had got to his rod the fish had unfortunately dropped the bait before he could strike into it. After the excitement of what seemed like a good bass run, the rays just kept coming. It was pure carnage and even the dogfish weren’t getting a look in!

Another one soon came up for me on the flapper rig and at the same time a big slack line bite hit on the up and over rig I’d put out. Meanwhile, in-between getting a few night shots on the camera, Rob had hooked into another ray. It soon got to high tide and as the run had slackened off the bites also did, with nothing decent coming up on either of our worm baits with the exception of some rattling rod tips more then likely getting hammered by pout.

Rob had managed another ray on the last of the larger sand eel and we’d now resorted to binding on three or four pins to our rigs to make up a bigger bait. Rob’s Ray was a better fish and at 8lb it was nice to see a slightly better fish amongst the consistent smaller 4lbs-6lbs small eyed that had proven to be stamp for the night.

Sam Chapon holding a small jersey shore caught small eyed ray
The number of rays were soon racking up, this the third for Sam

After landing Rob’s better ray, what followed on the baits was a plague of small congers and dogfish which were destroying our baits within minutes of them hitting the water! I was starting to find the dreaded dogfish which had inevitably made their appearance. The rays had gone completely off the feed or perhaps the persistent nuisance fish that were now in the area were getting to the baits first, but as we were now running low on bait we decided to call it a night. Nobody can possibly enjoy a barrage of dogs and straps!

The next evening, with very similar, perhaps identical conditions, I decided to go down the same venue on my own and to use some blast frozen eels and a couple of launce I’d had earlier on in the year whilst out on my kayak. This time, rather then using the flapper rig with smaller sand eel baits I opted for both rods on the up and over rig.

The baits went out and the waiting game had started. If it wasn’t for the previous nights results I’d of happily sat and watched a motionless rod tip and just enjoyed an evening out under the stars with some nice settled weather which was due to change the following week. Thirty minutes had past and I was starting to feel inpatient, waiting for that first bite. It just seemed so strange how it could of fished so well on the first evening and with almost the exact conditions during my solo session be so dire.

I was re-baiting with a frozen eel every thirty minutes until high tide with not even so much as a tap on either of the rod tips. Were the rays just not feeding on the second evening? Was it that the frozen sand eels weren’t as appealing as our fresh offerings previously? I guess that’s why they call it fishing rather then catching, the permutations and variabilities at hand will never ensure the same success from one session to the next as every day remains part of a learning curve. Confidence is certainly much higher in fresh sand eel hereon-in though!

one of many shore caught small eyed ray from Jersey
A chunkier ray for Rob to finish the night off
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