An Irish Anglers World

Ray, a Shore Thing

A beach on Ireland’s east coast, it is one thirty on a muggy sticky midsummer morning. Although still dark a bright thin line on the horizon signals the onset of the new day to come. Wavelets lap on the shore as a big four metre tide turns and starts to push north, injecting life into the sea after the short slack period between flood and ebb. Meanwhile two single hook running paternosters baited with fresh peeler crab/mackerel strip cocktails are pinned to the sea bed at 100 and 60 metres respectively.

An 11 pound shore caught thornback ray from Bantry bay, Ireland.

An eye concentrating on the rig at distance, a movement of the near rod tip instantly engages my attention, initially leaning the rod top starts to lightly bounce rhythmically before slowly hauling over into a curve. Now in hand a pulsing sensation transmits through mainline and rod tip as an obviously heavy fish swims down tide. Striking just to be certain, the rod pulls over hard and I find myself walking along the shingle bank in an effort to keep up with the unseen quarry, in unison adjusting the drag as required while also keeping a tight line.

Now close to shore the fish commences to resist by what feels like momentarily sticking itself to the sea bed before flapping about, definitely a ray and quite a big one at that. Winding a few turns of shock leader round the reel spool I grab the mainline and pull the fish clear of the water. Raising itself up by its wings, tail stiffening and pointing upwards in a gesture of defiance, a fine thornback ray graces the shingle illuminated by my head lamp, pulling the scales down to 14 lb, a cracking beach caught thorny and no mistake.

Spotted ray from a west of Ireland shore mark.

Shore anglers love catching ray, relatively speaking the species grow to a good size, put up a solid resistance and are impressive to look at fresh from the sea. In terms of the different types, where ray are encountered thornbacks are a common catch, while others such as undulate, homelyn and sting ray can be very localised. Not having targeted undulates and stingers this piece will deal solely with thornbacks and homelyn or spotted ray.

Once upon a time midsummer on Ireland’ east coast was a great time to target ray on venues such as Newcastle, Killoughter, Clone and Morriscastle, double figure thornbacks were a regular catch along with the odd specimen spotted ray. So good was the ray fishing off Morriscastle strand back in the 1980’s that an annual over night competition, “The Peter Horne” was held in late May or early June for a number of years in succession.Successful ray fishers back then needed certain skills which still apply today, the ability to distance cast if required and the wherewithal to put specific time and effort into targeting the species. Catching ray is not hard, one just has to know where the fish frequent, how the species behaves relative to the venue and then employ the correct bait fished hard on the bottom.

A nice Irish shore caught thornie enters the landing net.

The opening sequence describes yours truly’s first encounter with a shore caught ray back in the mid 1980’s. Having been humbled at a recent Peter Horne match while those either side of me plucked ray out of the sea due to their ability to read the venue and apply specific techniques, my beach fishing gear was subsequently upgraded in tandem with learning and applying distance casting methods, while every book and magazine article on ray fishing available was read and digested. Suitably armed a tide was picked in conjunction with optimum weather conditions and hey presto, no mystery, could fishing really be that easy?

Without question it can be, the right time at the right place using the right method and the right bait is a time honoured routine which we anglers often tend to forget to our cost. In this day and age with decent sized fish far less common then they were even twenty years ago, applying the above approach will pay dividends and eureka, the ray are still around to oblige us, albeit more localised than ever before.

A nice shore caught thornback ray from an Irish rock mark.

East coast shore ray fishing based on recent soundings could be making a comeback, watch this space, however to be sure of connecting with our winged brethren a trip west is the order of the day. Very specific local marks in counties Cork, Kerry, Galway and Mayo are delivering double figure thornbacks, specimen spotted and in season undulates and stingers to those putting the time and effort in. Furthermore, unlike the east coast beaches of Wicklow and Wexford where night fishing is a prerequisite, west coast ray can be caught off some deep water marks during heat wave conditions in broad daylight, illustrated in this piece by an afternoon session which took place back in June 2013.

Arriving at the venue, a rock platform, a group of Dutch anglers were already in situe. Finding a space David and I commenced fishing for mackerel which duly obliged enabling us to collect enough fresh bait within ten minutes. Setting up 13 foot beach casters with fast retrieve reels, ABU 7000 and Daiwa Slosh 30’s respectively, we employed two hook, b/s long snood paternosters utilising 4/0 forged hooks and plain leads. Filleting the mackerel then cutting width ways into two inch wide chunks, we worked the hook through the bait twice leaving the point exposed on the skin side. Taking some shearing elastic and winding it tightly around the offerings to form an aerodynamic sausage skin side out, we clipped down the hooks and cast the rigs out 100 metres plus into the bay.

On hitting the water more line was hand stripped from the reels to enable our rigs to drop vertically down rather than angle back towards our position, a vital consideration given the steep underwater rock shelf one had to haul any fish encountered over on the retrieve. Failure to get this important aspect right on this venue would mean frustration due to lost tackle and fish, a key reason also for employing heavy beach rods and fast retrieve reels, the mark requiring no messing and certainly no pleasantries, you hook a fish and you get it up plain and simple.

Spotted ray from an Irish rock mark.

Placing the rods into rests and settling down hoots and hollers to David’s and my left indicated that our Dutch friends were into a decent fish or two. Within the space of five minutes the group had landed both a thornback and a spotted ray before David and I did likewise. Four ray in jig time which is not uncommon as the species travel in small shoals, usually one or two females with a posse of males in tow. The rule of thumb when ray are about being, after catching one get your bait in the water immediately as another one invariably will be close by.

All falling to fresh mackerel just as the tide started to ebb, that ten minute spell was it as far as ray were concerned, not another bite ensuing which again is not uncommon. The bites were signalled by a shaking of the rod tip followed by a purposeful lean as the fish moved off, lifting, pumping and reeling like blazes the necessary response. Once the ray were lifted up and over the rock shelf they kited other than the odd dive up towards the surface, where looking impressive in the clear blue water they were drawn towards the landing net, unhooked, photographed and released.

The mark described above fishes well throughout the summer months, but can go off during periods of rainy weather when it is hypothesised that local freshwater run off reduces inshore salinity so forcing sea fish to move off shore. It and other similar west coast marks involve a round trip from the east coast of close to 400 miles, however if planned correctly and incorporated into a shared trip, the cost and effort can be worth it. Quality sea fishing these days is a limited exercise due to commercial over fishing, that said the fish are there and ray, once a given on certain east coast marks, are still available to a good average size, just remember to go west and apply the principals of right bait, right gear, right method and right time.

Ashley Hayden © August 2014