Having only ever fluked a handful of blonde rays along the Dorset coastline and noticing at least one report a month of a 20lb+ blonde last year, I felt it was time to start putting myself in with a chance of landing one of my own. I know of one local in particular who has his five of these catches to his name, showing just how realistic the prospect is with the right approach. The first step in my attempt would be to concentrate all my efforts on Chesil Beach as this is where the majority of these monster blondes have come from.
Rigs would be up and overs and pulley droppers. These kinds of rigs are common choices for ray fishing as they feature long flowing snoods which put a little distance between the grip lead and the bait. This lets the offering sit more naturally and ensures the ray can take the bait without feeling anything unnatural that might spook it. Baits for the main rods would be sandeel and squid and I planned to knock a lug/peeler baited rod out to the side if conditions permitted to tempt anything else that could be around. Tactics in general would be small baits for maximum range.
Having the full day off and a pass authorised well in advance, I got myself down to the beach nice and early to settle in for a long session. Baits were in the water by 8:30. A slight easterly swell wrapped around The Isle of Portland, dumping a small wave onto the shingle bank. I set up well above the high tide line in case of any rogue waves, plus I didn’t want to have to move with the tide throughout the day. The bites came right from the off, a dogfish first cast and a missed bite on the other rod, then a second bite on the first rod and another dogfish. Not the species I was after but it was good to know the fish were feeding.
Armed with four packs of sandeel, a pack of squid, 15 peelers and some lugworm, I was in for the long haul. Now, after getting three rods in the water and my camp fully set up, I was ready for things to properly heat up. Unfortunately, my promising start didn’t last and the bites dried up. Wanting to keep the pace going and a good scent in the area, 20 minute bait ups were in order, even though the baits were coming back untouched. That didn’t deter me though – after all, I would be staying until nightfall and it was to be expected that the fish wouldn’t be feeding all day. All baits were coming back pristine and those 20 minute bait ups gradually turned to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, then 1 hour 15 minutes. A total of 10 hours passed with every bait I put out coming back untouched. These times can really dampen the spirits but it only takes that one specimen to turn things around, so I stayed positive and kept dreaming that the next cast would yield that fish of a lifetime.
One of the rod tips finally twitched and I was on it like lightning – going from laying down to holding the rod ready to strike in the blink of an eye. A little more movement made me lift into what turned out to be the third dogfish of the day. Well, at least I knew my washed out baits were still potent enough to attract a fish. Then for the next four hours the fishing went crazy with a fish a cast: a small-eyed, three blonde rays up to seven and a half pounds (a new PB), a nice jumbo pout at 1lb 10oz and more dogfish. What a turnaround! I ended up staying longer than I would have liked but after spending the majority of the day without a sniff, I couldn’t just leave. The scratching rod didn’t produce a thing and I actually lost two sets of gear on it. Typical that the light line rod found the snags while the other two fishing 60lb braid didn’t come across anything but clean ground.
Fifteen hours on the shingle turned around by the last four hours of fishing. If only I had arrived for the last four hours. Now that got me thinking, would the following night have the same window for the fish feeding during that four hour window? There was only one way to find out and I quickly persuaded myself that a repeat session would be a good idea.
After letting a couple of mates know about my successful session and how I thought it could happen again at the same stage of tide, Rob Stammas didn’t need much persuading to come down and try his luck. Arriving one hour after the fish started feeding the previous night, my first cast quickly found a dogfish – a good sign the fish were feeding. Second cast, another dogfish and I began to wonder if it was going to be a case of trying to fish through them to find something better. With fingers still crossed for a repeat of the previous evening, I then landed my first ray of the session, a small-eye. Due to its small stature, I quickly returned it and cast a fresh bait back out.
For this evening I had only gone equipped with two packs of sand eel and a pack of squid and I would be religiously sticking to 20 minute casts. My plan was to just fish that productive four hour window, packing just enough bait to see out the session. Rod movement was a little sporadic compared to the previous night and not every cast got a bite but after chalking up another small-eyed and two blondes, I wasn’t disappointed. The four hours passed in a blink and I still had some bait left, which I gave to Rob before heading back over the shingle.
With such a short session and great results, I wondered if maybe I had finally figured out the puzzle. There were three possible variables that sprang to mind but without knowing if the beach fished during that day it could just be that the fish were feeding at night? Either way I knew if I came down an hour later the following night there would be a good chance of bagging up and what would be the harm in buying another ticket for the Chesil beach lottery?
For my third assault, I stuck to the same tactics as the previous night, centering my session around that four hour window. This time, I decided to cut my gear and bait right back to the bare essentials. Only taking one packet of sand eel and a tiny bit of squid was really unlike me – generally I go heavy on everything just in case. The shelter was even left behind but, seeing as I would only be there for four hours, what was the worst that could happen?
I hit the beach right at the beginning of that productive tide window and the baits were soon out. I’d brought my DSLR camera with me and the sky had temporarily cleared, so I began with a few night shots. While sitting in the pitch black behind the rods right in the middle of a 30 second exposure, one of the reels started to scream. This shot would have to be ruined by me flicking the head torch on and grabbing the rod. The line had slacked so I tightened down and could feel the fish bumping the lead towards me.
After winding in more slack, I felt the fish change direction and I struck into what seemed like a great weight and an angry fish. It was lively and pulling hard so I took my time just in case there was a light hook hold. This fish was really going for it and at one point I either became snagged or it attached itself to the sea bed. With 60lb braid, 80lb leader, 80lb rig body and snoods, and 3/0 Varivas BMX hooks, I knew the gear was up to it but was the hook hold? Keeping smooth pressure on and leaning further into the weight, there was movement. Slowly moving now, I kept pumping until I brought my prize ashore. When I saw the size of my ray I was instantly disappointed – it was small! I felt sure it was easily a double – I’ve had 20lb eels feel lighter. Small blonde in hand I took it over to the rod rest for a quick picture and release. A fish on the first cast isn’t usually a let down but when it felt like a specimen and turns out to be a tiddler then it’s hard not to be disappointed.
Fish photographed, not weighed and returned promptly, I sent the photo to Rob Stammas (who was unable to join me for this session) and he replied with something I hadn’t expected to hear, ‘nice spotty mate’. Oh no, it wasn’t a blonde! Having limited experience with blondes and spotties, probably only ever having about 10 or so of each in my fishing life, I had got them mixed up. The fish had felt heavy but looked small – do these things get thicker and not wider? I had no idea. My PB spotty is 4.8lb and this didn’t look bigger but it fought a lot harder. One thing is for sure, I will never know if I’d just returned a PB without weighing it.
A dog and a strap were the next fish to come out. This was the first strap I’d seen here in three nights and was an unwelcome sight indeed. Then the blondes started cooperating and I caught four in total up to 6lbs, with the biggest coming on the last cast to a larger squid bait at shorter range. From one packet of sand eel, a tiny bit of squid and only four hours spent on the shingle, this must have been my most productive session at Chesil. I didn’t see or get anywhere close to the 20lb+ blonde but I certainly felt I’d put myself square in the mix for one. It could take years or even decades to get close to that size but at least I know now that I stand a chance.
And now Rob Stammas takes up the story…
Rob Johansen and myself had been watching the weather forecast all week and talking about our options, the only problem was that we weren’t free to fish the same day. Rob would be getting a full session in the day before I could go and I really hoped that he would give me some encouraging news. In fact, had he blanked, I already had a plan B venue in mind as often the rays are either there or they aren’t for a series of tides. Some people may view that as report chasing but to my mind, it’s simply using all the information available to maximise your chances. This is particularly important to me now that my opportunities to fish are a little more restricted by my commitments.
When I spoke to Rob around dinner time it seemed that plan B would soon be becoming plan A but as he has already revealed, a late flurry of fish suggested that the original venue was probably still the best option. With blondes a distinct possibility, a species which simply doesn’t show in any numbers from other marks around here, I was set.
With a dozen up and over rigs tied, two packs of sandeels, a pack of squid and a couple of bluey in the bag, I felt confident on my way to the beach the following evening. Conditions were spot on and as I walked over the shingle to see my chosen spot free, everything was looking good. As I was using single sandeel baits (either with or without a small strip of squid whipped up the back) I used 40lb snoods and kept the hooks smaller than I would often opt for on Chesil, with a 4/0 aberdeen as the main hook and a 2/0 catfish as the pennel. The out turned eye on these hooks makes them sit nicely inline and they are very strong for their size. I now use this hook pattern on all of my pennel set ups.
My plan was to fish three rods all targeting rays, with two rods on small baits at maximum range and the third fishing a larger bait slightly shorter to try and bag one of the undulates that frequent the area. With a helpful breeze off my shoulder, and the sun descending rapidly towards the horizon, the first baits soared out a very satisfying distance and, confident that they were stationed in the right area, the waiting game began. At this particular venue range can really help and on the (not so rare) occasion that I don’t get a cast quite right, I’d rather wind it straight back in and have another go than leave it fishing ineffectively.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait particularly long for a bite. In fact, I was busy baiting up my spare traces as the sun dipped below the horizon when the left hand rod bent round and kept going. The fish hung deep and I was actually pretty surprised that it wasn’t bigger as a blonde just over 6lbs slid out onto the beach from under a breaking wave.
While I’m not a superstitious man, I’ve long been a believer in the old first cast curse. It has simply happened to me so many times now that catching a fish first cast almost guarantees the rest of the session to be a dud. Three slow hours later, with Rob having joined me on the beach and already having landed a couple of rays, it was seeming likely that the curse had struck again but thankfully this wasn’t to be the case. As the tide pull increased so did the action, with three more blondes in quick succession: one fish of around 5lbs and another of 9lb 2oz falling to the range rods, and a strong but thin 10lb 14oz blonde taking the larger bait (whole squid and two sandeels) intended for the undies. This last one wasn’t a huge fish by any means but it was a significant capture for me as it was only my second double figure blonde and my biggest from Chesil, so I was pretty chuffed.
As the tide eased, the action slowed with just a couple of dogs coming to the baits, so I decided to call it a night. I was very satisfied with the way the session had gone and was already working out when I could get back. Rob fished the next night but, yet again, I was unable to join him as I had family plans, although I was free the night after that. With the wind forecast to swing and likely impact my chances I was in two minds about going, but knowing that the fish were in the area and feeding well, I figured that it had to be worth a shot.
As I got to the beach, I was surprised to find myself almost completely on my own. There appeared to be a group of anglers 500 yards to my left and another group at least as far away to my right but my immediate area was empty. Just as I like it! An empty beach always fills me with confidence. Yet again, my first cast found me a blonde, this time before I had even got the third rod out of the bag. Although a small fish, it at least proved that the wind, although awkward, wasn’t bad enough to completely scupper my chances. Dogs, small straps and huss followed on the small baits, before another small blonde of maybe 4 or 5lbs came just as the tide eased.
With no work the following day I decided to sit out the slack and see if the fish came on when it picked up again. As it turned out, the fishing was slow even once the tide began to pull hard but to say I’m glad I stuck it out is an understatement. I’d slipped into autopilot but an indication of interest on the big bait rod brought me right back into the present. The rod tip showed only small pulls and nudges at first but these didn’t look like the signals of the typical pest species. After a few minutes, the tip dropped back and I quickly took up the slack, hitting into a solid weight.
I would like to claim that I had an almighty tussle but sadly the reality was much more like reeling in a builder’s bucket. Indeed, it wasn’t until I felt a heavy turn and roll in the backwash that the fish even gave any sign of being alive. As the distinctive shape of an undulate washed onto the shingle, it looked like a solid fish and this was confirmed by the pleasing weight in my hand as I carried it back up to my spot. I slipped my prize into my weigh sling (an IKEA bag) and the scales confirmed it as a new PB by two ounces at 16lb 12oz. She was then swiftly returned, via a quick turn in front of the camera.
As with many larger rays in the spring, this fish was a big female and heavily pursed up. When this is the case, it’s even more important to handle them carefully and return them to the sea quickly in order to cause as little stress as possible. Again, this fish had fallen to a large squid and sandeel bait, so it definitely paid to have the third rod trying a slightly different tactic to the other two.
It had been far from hectic sport for me but with rays outnumbering the nuisance fish and a new PB thrown in for good measure, these will be a couple of sessions I’ll remember fondly as we patiently wait to be allowed out fishing again.