I have lived and fished in Cornwall for the majority of my life, and I’ll be eternally grateful to have grown up in such a beautiful part of the country. The fishing is fun too, with my favourite area being the North Coast- the marks are often found halfway down steep, vegetated cliffs, with cold Atlantic waters swirling angrily at the base of the rocks. Time it right and you’ll witness the bright orange sun setting directly in front of you, a real treat for the eyes and the icing on the cake after a productive session.
The wild atmosphere that encompasses these areas makes them particularly enjoyable to fish, however the actual fish-catching side of things can be a bit hot or cold. I’m not old enough to have noticed any severe changes, but ask any of the ‘old boys’ and they’ll tell you just how badly the fishing has declined in the past twenty years or so.
One of the species which has been decimated to a saddening point are small eyed rays, with people saying that they haven’t been in abundance for many years now.
However, 2020 has proved different. Compared to the last 2 or 3 years, Cornwall has seen a massive resurgence in its local ray population, with the species proving almost easy to catch. That’s something I never thought I’d say! Such a promising return prompted me to spend a few weekends in September targeting these wonderful fish, and the rewards made the long nights 100% worthwhile.
The first couple of sessions were at a North Coast surf beach that I had never fished before. I have almost zero experience with surf fishing, but the hope of finding the target species was more than enough to warrant giving it a try. Neither me nor Callum own any wading gear, but who needs all that fancy stuff anyway? We decided that shorts and wellies (or in Callum’s case, a stylish pair of Crocs) would do the job of getting wet without any major issues.
We arrived at the beach in good time, and set up well back from the water whilst waiting for the surfers to vacate the area. I rigged up with my usual up and over rigs baited with a single large eel, opting for a 6oz gripper to anchor the rig in place.
As I waded out to cast, I had one of those random moments of exhilaration- walking into the rushing surf with the vivid orange sunset glaring in my face and casting a sheen across the water, I couldn’t help but grin and say to myself ‘this is bloody awesome’. I thumped the baits out and walked about 20 miles back to the tripod, where I continued to blabber to Callum about how much I was loving it. That’s what fishing’s about right? Sometimes the experience totally outshines the catching, and that’s just how I like it!
We stood watching the sun dip behind the horizon, and before long the tangerine blaze turned to a red glow, which eventually departed, leaving a starry night sky in its place. Not much was happening on the rods, and upon retrieval I discovered that the up and overs had made a mess of themselves. I had been expecting this due to the power of the surf, so I decided to experiment with a classic surf rig for ray which would have many modern anglers (especially me) cringing at the idea of it. Anyway, I rigged up a running ledger with an 8-10 inch (yes, inch) trace and slid a 6oz pyramid weight onto my shock leader. I whipped a frozen eel onto the absurdly short hook length, waded into the knee-deep surf tables and welted it out into the night.
I was sceptical to say the least, so I stuck with up and overs on my other rod. However, my doubts were quickly disproved, as the rod with the tiny running ledger bent over in the rest and I struck into a decent weight. Retrieving in such unfamiliar conditions was an experience in itself- the surf tables and shallow ground bounced the rod tip all over the place, making me think the fish had freed itself multiple times! So, it was even sweeter seeing a pair of beige wings glide through the inches of water swirling around my feet, and I plucked a pretty average small eyed ray from the water with a big grin spread across my cheeks. At just over 5lbs, it wasn’t going to set the world alight, but for me any encounter with a ray is job well done.
With my faith in the short trace rekindled, I quickly set about whacking another rig out into the surf. Again, it was the simple rig that did the business- the rod bent round and before long I had another ray flapping around in the shallows, a tad smaller at just under 5lbs but one which I was more than happy with.
We returned the next night in hope of a repeat session, however we could only find a few schoolies for our troubles, and troublesome it was too, with the surf surging up the beach every few minutes! Despite our failures, there was some good news; Joe reported that he’d had a 9lb 5oz small eyed from a rock mark up the coast, and plans were quickly hatched for a raid on the rays the next weekend.
The weekend came round quickly, and before long the three of us were casting our baits into the summery drink at the said rock mark. I set up on the right of the mark, with my aim being to roll the plain 6oz leads down tide, well away from Joe and Callum and hopefully into a fish-holding feature. The plan worked perfectly. Within twenty minutes of the first cast, the sound of the ratchet on my Daiwa SL20SH ripped through the air as a ray made off with the bait.
A fun little tussle resulted in the first ray of the session, a fish of exactly 6lbs. I plopped it back into the water and set about re-baiting the successful rod. I loaded an up and over with a large eel and sent it back out into the same spot, leaving a bow of slack line to allow the trace to move with the tide.
As I placed the rod into the tripod, I noticed that my other line had swung round into the bay on my right. The suspicious movement prompted me to strike, and I was pleased to feel the rod bend round in my hands as I set the hook into my second ray of the evening. The fight was short-lived as the small ray came to the surface about 60 yards out, and I skimmed it along the surface until the leader was in Callum’s waiting grasp. The culprit was another small ray of just 4lb 9oz, but it got the usual ‘picture-weigh-release’ treatment despite it’s diminutive size.
The fishing was in full swing now; just another few minutes passed before I hooked into another small eyed, which was a much better fish of 8lb 10oz and it gave a good account of itself, staying deep throughout the fight and beating it’s wings with vigour. In contrast, my fourth ray of the evening was another ‘skimmer’, and I skated it in along the top for most of the retrieve! This was another average fish of 5lb 1oz, however I was well pleased to have found a few decent fish in just a couple of hours.
Strangely, Callum and Joe’s rods didn’t have a sniff of a ray throughout the tide, although they managed a few other species such as schoolie Bass, mackerel and turbot to keep themselves busy. However, at the last knockings Callum found his target, and a shout from him confirmed that he needed some help to land his first ray of the evening.
It was another small eyed in the 5-6lb range, a fish which Callum was happy to end the session on. He packed up and said his goodbyes, leaving Joe and I to keep searching for more fish.
The next few hours were very slow, with only a few dogfish and straps falling to our baits. I tried dozing off on the rocks for a few hours, but ended up spending most of the time admiring the milky way, which was positioned perfectly above the mark.
We were both hopeful that the middle of the flood tide would produce some fish, and thankfully we were right! Just like the evening before, the fish came on the feed about two hours after low water, with Joe landing a few nice small eyed ray in a couple of hours. I managed to take my tally for the session up to six by catching a couple of small rays, and to make it even sweeter I can’t recall seeing another dogfish for the rest of the session!
The rays had switched off the feed by the time the sun broke over the land, so we decided to call it a day at the first mark. The next few hours were spent buying fresh bait, more food and catching up on lost sleep, and before I knew it, we were traipsing out to the second mark to spend another night targeting our winged pals.
I felt excited as I set up on the sloping dark rocks, mainly because this was a new mark which provided a refreshing change from my usual haunts on the North coast. I set myself up on the far right of the mark, whereas Joe and Chris fancied the left-hand side.
To be honest, I haven’t got much to say about this session as I spent most of it curled up in a ball trying to catch up on lost sleep, but I did manage to fish for a few hours before the fatigue won me over. The run up to high water was slow, with the odd mackerel, scad and bass falling to our rods. However, as the sun dipped behind the horizon the rays came on the feed, and I managed three of the target species over the next couple of hours.
The first one had truly stunning markings, which made for a lovely photo with the orange haze of the sunset behind us. Joe also managed to find a ray, albeit a particularly small example of one! The other two fished through the night as I slept, but no more rays showed, although Chris managed a few bass by fishing in close in an area of turbulence.
The overall tally for the two sessions totalled fourteen small eyed rays, which by today’s standards is a quality return for our beloved North Cornish rock marks. Yes, most of the fish were in the four to six pound range, but it’s certainly promising to see the species turning up in good numbers around our coast after so many years of dwindling numbers.
Could it be a sign that the Cornish ray stocks are reviving for good? It’s too early to say really, but time and effort will tell. We’ll keep you updated…