Sons of beaches hookpoint feature cover image

My phone buzzed on the kitchen top as I was doing the dishes after tea with a message from Roy Moore: ‘You buggers still fishing tomorrow and what time are you thinking about going?’ I wiped the Fairy suds off my hands and fired back a quick reply – I was definitely in and I would be heading out straight after dinner. The other bugger that Roy was referring to, Mark Reed, was still in Weymouth on family business so his presence seemed less likely.

The choice of venue was easy. A fortnight before, a gentle breeze had carried through the slums of Newquay bearing whispers that a local beach had been fishing well for ray and the odd bass. Now with similar tides looming and a nice choppy swell rolling in from the Atlantic, history looked set to repeat itself. Historically, this was a beach that I had struggled at although, of late, my fortunes had begun to improve there. I’d like to think that this had less to do with dumb luck and more to do with me developing a more productive attitude to beach fishing in general.

Roy Moore watches his rods closely on a Cornwall surf beach
Roy Moore settling in to the action at last light

There was a time earlier on in my shore fishing when I thought that I understood surf beach fishing pretty well. For a couple of years, it seemed like I’d turn up to my favourite stretch of sand (which was usually deserted after nightfall), cast two rods as far as I could and I’d pull in plenty of ray and bass. The only problems I ever had were when the local pub kicked out and herds of pissed-up Hooray Henrys came hairing down the sand in the darkness, whooping as they threw off their boat shoes and Jack Wills hoodies to dive headfirst into my lines.

But things change. When I moved on to fish other beaches, I found my standard approach wasn’t anywhere near as successful. Despite having read and digested loads of information on reading storm beaches, I hadn’t had much reason to incorporate those fundamentals into my fishing. Call it arrogance if you want, but there’s nothing like a bit of consistent early success to make an angler like myself think they’ve shaved an angle or two off the learning curve. This is only natural: anglers thrive on confidence and there’s nothing wrong with looking for reasons to build up that precious resource. 

a lovely small eyed ray looks back up from the sand
The intended quarry for the night, the hopefully obliging small eye ray

What can take time, however, is learning to separate the right kind of confidence from the perils of starting to like the smell of your own shit. Confidence you can hang your hat on is built from the ground up and comes with a breadth of experience, whereas anybody who has found winning ways at a handful of venues can start believing they’re the second coming of Les Moncrieff. Fortunately, life generally finds a way of teaching us these important distinctions before we totally disappear up our own arseholes. The lesson I learned was simple and it was this: never to be so arrogant as to think that I was above respecting the basics.

The basics of successful surf beach fishing are the bread and butter of a multitude of anglers who are more focused on watercraft than flashy tackle and casting distance. The fish are there to eat and they won’t waste time exploring areas of a high energy environment that they aren’t going to find food in. Over time, I came to understand that the key to a happy life fishing storm beaches is to prioritise fishing the features and using your eyes and imagination to visualise how fish are going to hunt around them. This sounds incredibly obvious (and it is) but if you’re the sort of angler who can get preoccupied with magnets and pendulums, the importance of these fundamentals can sometimes go underappreciated.

an excellent small eyed ray for Roy Moore
An excellent Cornish surf beach small eye ray for Roy Moore

By the following afternoon, electronic carrier pigeons had brought word to Roy and I that Mark Reed was back on his way home and would be at liberty to join us for the evening. The man himself arrived at the beach car park literally a minute after me and we had a quick chat before I headed down to the shoreline, leaving him to get his stuff together. I found Roy at the end of a lengthy string of hopeful anglers and he greeted me with the very welcome news that he’d just caught himself a ray. There were still the last remnants of cold blue daylight left in the sky and I quickly busied myself with taking a few photos of Roy as he stood gazing expectantly at his rod tips in anticipation of the next bite.

My photographic instincts satisfied for the moment, I got around to thinking about my own fishing. Looking around, the sand around me was heavily pockmarked with shallow pits and this filled me with confidence. The tide was coming in and I would soon be soaking my baits over this feature-rich terrain. For me, it’s really important when fishing these kinds of flat, shallow beaches to remember that, although it can be hard to visualise, the sand itself is full of food. Having recently taken my dog for a walk on this same beach and disturbed several buried sandeels while walking along the tideline, I had no problem putting my faith in this place’s fish-pulling power. With the depressions gathering organisms dislodged by the surf and forming natural drive-throughs for the ray and bass, I knew that I’d be putting my baits in the path of some hungry hunters.

Ben Conway holds aloft a small eyed ray
Ben Conway with a typical stamp of small eye ray for Cornwall's surf beaches

Tactically, I was firmly sold on the benefits of fishing at short range. Any remaining doubts about the benefits of fishing tight to shore here had been banished after witnessing my friend Laurence Hanger clean up (while I remained biteless) in a session just a month or so before. Laurence learned his cast on the rivers of southern England and it’s safe to say that, at least in sea angling terms, it doesn’t go very far. A lazy lob from the water’s edge would be more than enough to put my offerings squarely in front of fish. Although I knew that sandeels would be my quarry’s main focus, at this time of year in particular, I’m a big believer in sweetening the pot with some squid. The last time I’d fished this beach, the sandeel/squid cocktail had proven highly attractive and I’d found going heavier on the squid than the sandeel had worked well. I saw no reason to change that mix and the winning ratio this time around. 

By the time I’d set my kit up and cast out a couple of baits, Mark had joined us. He’d taken a lot longer than I expected but then he had left his bait in the kitchen at home and been forced to drive back to get it! As Mark was hurriedly preparing his first offerings, I had a good bite and lifted into my first small eye of the evening, a female fish that thumped nicely in the shallows. Roy waded in to land it for me and we were treated to the sight of a lovely thick example that went nine and a half pounds on the scales. I was really pleased with this capture as on my last visit I’d found the ray easy to come by but their average size pretty unremarkable. Hopefully this better sized fish signalled the presence of some larger specimens.

Mark Reed exits the water rod in one hand and a small eyed ray in the other
Mark Reed returns from the surf, small eye ray in hand

Mark was soon into the fish, landing a steady stream of ray while I picked off another in the 8-9lbs class before concentrating on photographing the other lads. Mark was fishing considerably further out than me and seemed to be tempting smaller fish. When I told him that I’d been fishing at shorter range, Mark put the next one closer and was, coincidentally or not, rewarded with the fish of the evening: a 9lb 13oz small eye in peak condition. 

Roy’s rods had been quiet by comparison but class usually comes through in the end and, after returning to my pitch and beginning to prepare a bait, I looked up to see Roy carrying a nice small eye over to have its photo taken. After immortalising Roy’s ray in pixels, I decided that my next casts were going to be my last as I had a long shift at work the next day. My final baits were met with much more jarring bites and erratic battles as a couple of school bass found the large meaty baits to their liking. It was a relief to see some bass as they seemed to be in short supply of late, at a time when they should be present in good numbers. 

Mark Reed with an excellent small eyed ray from a Cornish surf beach
Mark Reed with a fine chunky small eye ray, a great stamp of fish for a Cornish surf beach

Standing at the water’s edge on a storm beach, looking out at tables of frothing whitewater marching over the shallows, the idea of trying to make sense of such a dynamic environment can seem overwhelming. Faced with this daunting prospect, the natural impulse can be just to get the bait as far away from dry land as possible and hope for the best. This approach could well be the right one in some situations but in others, the chances are that it won’t be.

I would strongly suggest that any time spent looking closely at your environment and trying to find even the slightest feature to fish over is time well spent. Catch a fish on autopilot and it will never be anything more than a pleasant memory, but catch one that you put a little fresh thought into and the experience will help you catch more in similar situations for years to come.

Mark Reed watches his rods beneath the stars on a Cornish surf beach
Mark Reed closely observes his rod tips under the clear Cornish night sky
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