What to do throughout the months of April and May is a dilemma for most north-east sea anglers. The cod bounty of the winter season has long since ended and the summer fishing season, though tantalisingly close, isn’t yet upon us. Therefore, for any anglers hoping for a decent fishing session, the best option is to travel. The thornback ray fishing on the north-west coast is the main destination for many of these traveling anglers and with small tides forecast for the first weekend of May, good friend Martyn Newbury and I decided to do just this.

Thornback rays are present in good numbers in the Solway Firth throughout spring and with few other prospects of locating substantially sized species to target, anglers from around the north flood in to target them. They are present all along the Cumbrian and Dumfries and Galloway coastlines. Good bags can be caught from marks that allow anglers to present baits onto the soft sediments of this massive estuary. As with all forms of fishing, the marks with the easiest access, Whitehaven pier, Silloth promenade and Balcary in this instance, become the most packed out with anglers jostling for spots.  

This is even more apparent when tide and weather conditions are favourable. Whilst I see why some anglers like these marks, which offer ease of access, with some of our elderly or disabled compatriots having little choice, for myself, I much prefer a quieter and more secluded spot with the views to match. Thankfully, this stretch of coastline has a whole host of marks for the angler who’s willing to put in a bit of leg work.

We timed our arrival at our chosen destination for 1 hour before low water, previous trips to the mark have shown that the best fishing comes on the flooding tide. Not only this but viewing the mark over low water enabled us to assess the ground we intended to fish. As we unpacked the van, conditions were perfect, clear blue skies and a slight offshore breeze; barely enough to cause ripples in the meadow fields and ruffle the swathes of bluebells that coated the rugged coastline like an iced cake. Once we’d descended onto the mark and chosen our spots it was time for business. Sure enough, there was a friendly bet…who’d catch the most?

Walking through the bluebell filled meadow

First rod out, with straight squid mounted on a pulley pennel rig and armed with 2/0 Sakuma mantas. Bait selection wise, we each had a similar, classic selection comprising of squid, blueys, mackerel and razors; the only difference being Martyn produced a tub of peeler crab. Upon baiting the second rod, where I’d opted for a bluey and squid wrap, I noticed a distinctive pull-down bite on the first rod before it dropped slack. Greedily, I cast the second rod out prior to attending to my first customer of the day. Tightening up the slack resulted in the classic dead weight followed by kiting runs which resulted in my first ray of the day. 

A fish around the 3lb mark, very typical for this mark. No sooner had I unclipped the rig, placed the fish into a pool and cast out a fresh bait, the second rod was showing signs of a fish! This resulted in a second ray of a similar size. Repeating the process, I found myself landing a third ray in just as quick succession. With the 3 fish unhooked, photographed, and released, now was surely the time to go and gloat to my competitor. Walking over I noticed Martyn was in fact landing a thorny of his own, to which he exclaimed it was his fifth. Bloody five! Now my tally of three seemed somewhat measly.

A thornback is returned to the water

Back to the rods and business resumed for the flooding tide. The plan was to fish the incoming tide for the next 5 hours before the long trek home. Thankfully, the fish continued to oblige and fed heavily throughout the flood. Bites ranged from subtle nods through to savage, drag stripping runs as the fish ran with the strengthening tide; it was rather amusing to see thornbacks take with such ferocity. Squid and fish baits continued to do the business with little indication of either resulting in more or less takes.

The rays appeared to be moving through in loose packs or choosing to feed intermittently; the latter theory I find less likely. We would each get a few fish in very quick succession, followed by a short period of inactivity. This was until around 4 hours into the flood when the bites appeared to cease for the pair of us. A stalemate, Martyn with 11 rays and 10 for myself along with a few dabs. Smaller baits, bigger baits, longer snoods, changing to up and over rigs, nothing really appeared to improve the situation. The fish had simply gone off the feed or moved onto new feeding grounds.

The rays came thick and fast

The next hour proved to be slow. Martyn managing a further 3 rays, myself 2, the decision was made for a timely pack up and to begin the ascent back to the vehicle. Walking back through the fields, chatting about the day’s tactics, it appeared we both found similar things; namely the fish were having anything we threw at them. Of the 26 rays landed, the majority fell to squid and fish baits, however between the pair of us, fish also fell to peeler crab, razor and frozen blacks. Smaller baits tended to produce clearer, more positive bites and pulley pennel rigs were the favoured rig.

We’d each tried up and over rigs yet found no improvement. On harder days when the fish aren’t feeding as freely, these rigs may possibly result in a few bonus fish, however, when there’s so many fish, likely in competition for food, the longer snoods appeared to be leading to deeper hooked fish. All in all an excellent day, the gamble to remortgage the house to fill the van with diesel paid off with two happy anglers.

Perfectly evolved eyes
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