There’s a few different approaches one can take to angling. There are those who are content to grab what time they can and catch whatever they can. There are those for whom match fishing ticks all the boxes. For me, I like to have a specific target species in mind and pursue a specimen of that species. Here, I take you through the latest target I set my eyes on and talk a little to my approach in achieving my target.

In and around the south Somerset and north Devon reaches of the Bristol Channel, there are a number of species one could reasonably target and expect a specimen of in spring. This bucks the trend for most of the country, where anglers are stuck waiting for summer species to turn up and replace the winter visitors that have since left, whilst many areas are also bogged down by May rot. Bass, huss, conger, a spring run cod, early hounds and more would have all been viable targets but, with rays popping out here and there but not in any numbers at present, it seemed a good time to target a specimen small eyed ray. It is often when numbers are lower that the specimen fish are more likely to be the ones caught. 

It may seem obvious, but the first thing to consider in targeting a species is where you are going to fish for them. When it is specifically a specimen you are targeting, usual marks producing numbers of said species may be quickly ruled out, as they may fail to hold the stamp of fish desired. It’s no good fishing for a set target if you’re in the wrong area and there are none of your target fish there, which in this case includes size as well as species. 

Small eyed rays mainly inhabit sandy and muddy sea floors when feeding but, when they come in for breeding, in particular the larger females, they will often come into rocky and weedy areas to lay the egg sacks hosting their young, as the terrain here will offer some sanctuary to the developing fish before it hatches. 

With this in mind, and wanting to catch a larger fish of breeding size, my target area was a venue with stone/boulders spanning down from the high tide line, to a pure sand which exposes at low water. It is ideal and along with presenting both viable egg laying and feeding ground for the species, also has a reasonable depth of water with a good tidal flow present no matter what the size of the tide is. Though, experience on any mark soon indicates that some tides are better than others.

Martin with the target species

The mark also holds a number of refined fish holding features, including a nice channel through a sanded area. This creates a natural route for fish to follow, as such depressions will collect and release food. A massive benefit of the tidal range in the Bristol Channel is being able to see the ground you will be fishing over when it is exposed at low water on spring tides! 

So now that we have a target ground, we move on to considering what sort of bait should we use and how should it be presented? This comes second to identifying the target location, because it will be influenced by where you choose to fish. 

Rays are a branch of the shark family and in my family (especially my little man) they are known as flat sharks.

With their evolution morphology resulting in a species destined to live and feed hard on the ocean floor, featuring under-slung mouths, they are a predatory fish that half bury themselves in the sand and ambush small fish and crustaceans that are passing by.

They are also the sea floors equivalent of a vacuum cleaner in that they clean up not only fresh and live baits but also the dead and dying baits as they are as happy to scavenge as well as hunt.

I’m a big advocate of fresh bait as a key factor of catching good fish, but there are some species where I think if you let a packet of squid go pink and then re-freeze, it can become far more effective.

Big fish need to feed more as they use more energy moving themselves around and hunting, especially if they are delivering young as well. They will want to be conserving energy where possible, so actively pursuing live baits will be less enticing to them, instead they will be immediately drawn to any easy big food sources, so a big stinking dead bait is just the draw at this time of year. 

Whilst other fish may leave a slightly rancid squid bait alone, the ray will happily take it onboard and with the bait being twice as stinky as any fresh bait, it will send a good pungent scent further, which also increases your chances of catches.

So for catching large specimen rays, these pink squids are a go to bait of mine.

Alternatively, a nice fresh joey mackerel fillet, with the  sides crushed to be long and thin before being whipped together, gives a great smell out there and it will also attract a decent ray. Of course,  you can use a combination bait of the two whipped together, not that I have ever really felt the need for it.

A small eyed ray just short of double figures

A very common bait throughout the season for small eyed ray will be a sandeel with a slither of squid whipped down its side. Whilst this is an exceptionally good and proven bait, I find the larger pink squid baits and the mackerel option pick out the better fish when fishing close to the rougher ground where the rays may have been laying their young. It of course, makes sense to match the hatch and stick to sandeel when fishing other marks at other times of the year. As I said, the location can inform the bait. 

The next consideration is rigs. How do we want the bait to be presented and what hook length should we choose?

These two factors are key in improving our chances, by either giving a much better presentation or making things easier for the fish to take.

So first up the main rig design itself, which along with presentation also has some other considerations. For instance, quite often here in west Somerset, distance can be a key thing! So when launching baits a long distance I like to keep baits going into the water all neat and tidy, ensuring good presentation when it reaches the sea bed. 

The obvious choice for most would be a pulley rig and with a 3ft plus trace a large ray can certainly get on it easily enough. However, I don’t think that particular presentation is best for a ray, so I use a pulley dropper which gives a running ledger presentation and clips up nice and neat for distance casting just like the pulley rig.There is a lot of debate around how a pulley dropper really fishes, with the tide pressure acting on it, though whether it is doing what it is designed to do or something else, many locals will testify to it resulting in many more fish.

The pulley dropper, if doing as it is designed to, should keep the bait harder on the sea bed and allow the hook trace to flow in any direction, three hundred and sixty degrees, which also aids a much better presentation as it sits perfectly in any tidal pull. Whilst gaining some additional benefits with this rig, you are still keeping the pulley’s advantage of getting the weight up in front of the fish, preventing any snagging of your gear. Moving on to how long should your hook length be? Although you can have any length and stand a chance of catching rays, again this is a massive area that we can improve our chances of catching that prized fish we want.

If you have a long flowing trace, for instance a 3-4ft plus trace in a very strong tidal pull like I’m going to fish, then the trace, whether on the bottom or not, will see the bait flap around on the end and result in lift, which can spook a fish as the fixed position of the bait flapping on the spot isn’t a natural look at all!

If you use this long trace in too little pull of tide then you’re likely to end up with a coiled up length on the sea bed with the bait on top, or covered in line, which will result in either a fish being spooked, so it may not sit right when taking the bait, meaning there is a good chance that you won’t even see the bite, or should you see it you will strike and not hook up due to he amount of slack line on the hook trace coiled up on the floor.

The rough inner shoreline provides shelter for the egg cases

My go to length is a 2ft trace in most tides, though sometimes I extend it to 2.5 feet. However, on the venue in question where there is a heavy tidal pull, then that will get shortened to only 25-30cm and then I leave the line after I have cast. The mainline is what I’d consider slack but not droopy. I don’t put any tension on the rod or rig, which lets it lay flat on the sea bed for the larger rays to still comfortably sit on. Your bait will now stay hard on the sea floor with no flapping around. I also use a flat weight, so that should the ray decide to sit on the weight as well, no grip wires can spook the fish before it’s even taken the bait.

So putting things all together, to improve our chances of catching the specimen ray we want, we need to look at bites as well, because getting it all right and then falling at the last hurdle would be a shame!

Quite often, when rays find the bait they tend to move over it and sit on your trace line and then they start to chomp on the bait. At the rod tip, this normally translates to bending over slowly and steady, but be sure not to strike the rod straight away, as that’s the ray landing on your trace. Wait for the second dip of the rod tip, or a rattle which makes sure the ray has the bait in the mouth and gives a good hook up.

I find striking before this second dip results in missing a lot of bites or foul hooking the fish, which isn’t good for the fish and can be a bit of a pig to land on your own if it’s awkward, especially if it decides it’s going to use the tide when tail hooked!

Whichever rig I am using for rays, I personally tend to use a single hook. The reason for this is it’s easier for unhooking rays should it be taken deeper. It is therefore a lot friendlier for the fish and there is also less chance of your hooks snagging up whilst out there, or a spare hook snagging up on a retrieve. Hook size is purely down to personal preference and I personally tend to use a 3/0 through to a 5/0 hook, which is normally a Mustad Uptide Viking as it’s a strong hook, it has a wide gape allowing loads of room for a great hook up and should you be snagged you can normally, if careful, pull the hook steadily to bend it out and retrieve all of your gear that you would otherwise lose with so many other hooks.

I ended up going out and setting up my gear about 40 minutes before high water, and had action off the go, but from dogs. The tide was steaming through so it was the shorter hook lengths I used. After 20 minutes, the first ray of the night came and was the target species, a small eyed ray and a right belter at that! The beauty was weighing in at 10.1lb and was a very respectable fish. Mission accomplished pretty quickly on this occasion!

Not long after this, I had a second small eyed ray at 9.5lb, a few more dogs in between and then a lovely third small eyed at 9.2lbs. It was an hour after the high water and I thought I would give it half an hour more as dark was approaching, when I again hooked up to another small eyed ray!

I got it all the way to the shore and this lovely female was an even better stamp of fish, my angling neighbour had come over to see and was going to help land it due to the sharp incline now showing on the mark. The ray was in the shore line, right on the edge of the water and  stones and we both agreed it was easily 12lb or more, so when it suddenly managed to shirk the hook and head off before he even had a chance to grab it, it left me gutted and a few people watching with hands on heads.

All fish were caught using the exact same tactics as above with fresh baits provided by Mikey from Speedbait in Minehead. The largest was caught on pink squid as was the next one down. The smallest one was caught on a fresh mackerel fillet as was the 12lb+ ray that got away for another day.

There is nothing more satisfying than planning out your quarry, going there and doing it properly and coming away with a great result! A lot of luck is needed in fishing, but with some careful planning you can go a long way to creating that luck yourself. 

I’m now looking for my next species as I’m undecided what to do so far. Until next time, may the fishing gods be in your favour. Good luck and have tight lines!

The double figure fish landed, target achieved!