The bulk of fish are well offshore thinking only of recreating their species and, apart for some wreck fishing sport for pollack, ling, cod and coalfish, if you travel down to the West Country, then it can be pretty inconsistent in most areas. But there literally is a ray of sunshine. Thornback rays!
The thornbacks are the first real vanguard of spring and summer species. In truth, the thorny never goes very far offshore and a few continue to be caught throughout the winter months. There is though, a definite inward migration starting during late January that gives the first signal of better things to come and gives you your first chance to catch some early season sun.
Thornbacks are the commonest ray in British waters. They get their name from the large numbers of thorns or spines evident on the back and tail. The colouration is greyish to sandy brown with lighter patches evident around the wing edges. They grow to about 40lbs but average between 4 and 7lbs.
Thornbacks tend to travel in small groups of one or two females and several attendant males. The females tend to be the bigger fish and will often take the bait first. Take one ray and you'll likely land several more from the same spot.
They are quite adaptable to different types of terrain. Mostly, they'll be found on cleaner sand, mud or gravel, but the bigger fish also take up station around rocks and reef structure seeking out small patches of sand in-between. They especially favour areas of rising sandbanks. They like to sit on the lower slopes of the bank on the downtide side where the power of the tide is deflected and life is more comfortable for them. You can often see this in catches when a previously bite-less spell suddenly comes to life. What's actually happened is that the rays have been "holed up" until the tide turns, then they "up stumps" and move to the opposite side of the bank or some other deeper gutter and happen across your bait as they are travelling.
They like to feed best during the bigger tides, especially with a bit of tide run evident. You'll still take rays on the smaller tides, but these are not so consistent. Cloud cover seems to give the better catches if the water you are fishing is less than 10-metres deep.
They are true scavengers willing to take "high" baits, but their main method of dining is by covering themselves with sand and gravel by disturbing sediment with their wings and, once hidden, wait to pounce on small food fish like whiting, dabs and gurnards that come within range. They are also capable of quite a dazzling burst of speed, but only over short distances.
PLACES TO FISH
Although thornbacks are found throughout UK waters, as always there are certain key areas that give you a better than average chance. The Thames Estuary ports, particularly Bradwell, are famous for past ray catches. The rays start to appear here around mid February in mild winters, but later into March if it's been cold with snow. The fishing is maybe not as consistent as it once was, but you can still enjoy good fishing.
The English Channel marks also start to produce around the same time. Favoured areas are the Goodwins, Pan Sands and Varne Bank off the Kent coast. Marks off the Isle of Wight are worked by local boats, also those crossing the Solent from Lymington and adjacent ports. Thornbacks show off Dartmouth in Devon around the end of February and even penetrate inside the estuary here a good way.
Both sides of the Bristol Channel produce good numbers of thornbacks with numbers showing an increase come early March. Porlock and Swansea are good ports to fish from. The rays aren't given as much attention as they deserve here as the cod season is just ending then and anglers are still fishing worm baits for the last of the cod. A switch to squid, mackerel or herring will produce rays more consistently when the worm baits only take the odd fish.
The thornbacks never really leave Cardigan Bay in mid Wales, but again they move back closer to shore with Aberystwyth, Aberdovey, Barmouth and Pwllheli boats reporting increasing catches by late January. These early fish make the most of the inshore whiting as a food supply. The same pattern occurs off the west Anglesey coast with late January fish tight in to shore and feeding in reasonable numbers.
Morecambe Bay tends to see their rays a little later. It will be mid to late March before there is definite population increase. Late March to early April is the beginning in the western Scottish sea lochs and some of these lochs hold concentrations of rays as yet protected from the ravages of commercial fishing.
Though thornbacks are taken right around the north and east coast of Scotland, off Northeast England and south of the Wash, the fishing is less consistent and the inshore migration can be as late as May due to colder sea temperatures than found to the west.
These early rays have strange feeding preferences. Fresh herring is a good bait to carry as some areas will have shoal herring working offshore and the rays will be slightly educated towards them.
Frozen mackerel picks up fish as will squid, yet these baits fished individually won't do as well as a combination of the two. A third of a fillet of mackerel tipped off with a small squid would be my killer bait for early thornbacks.
Whole small cuttlefish is okay, large sandeel baits will take some fish, as will a 100mm section of frozen lamprey favoured by pike anglers.
All that said, I prefer to work to the predatory instincts of the ray. I choose to generally ignore these baits and use a whole small fresh whiting hooked once through the lips with the flanks slashed with a knife to let the fresh juices flush out. If there are rays within range they'll find this natural bait first.
Just to get them on the feed and advertise your presence, it's also worth chopping up a few small cubes of mackerel or other fish bait now and then and letting these free fall to the seabed. This explosion of scent will bring rays laying further away in closer to investigate.
This is where you can break the mould and become inventive. If you're fishing in the English Channel or anywhere else where the tide run is fast, then you've no choice but to fish a powerful uptide rod or even 20lb to 30lb class gear to combat that tide. Remember that the ray will use their width broadside against the tide during the fight and you need the power to drag them back against the tide flow.
Outside these areas, even in the Thames Estuary and parts of the Bristol Channel, also off the mid Wales coast, Morecambe Bay and some of the Scottish Lochs, the tide run is less fierce or minimal. This allows much lighter fun tackle to be used.
You can drop down to carp rods, even spinning rods and lines of 15lb. Rays on this sort of gear are a much better proposition and fight in the proper sense of the word making short runs and taking line. I prefer to use a 6500 sized multiplier taking around 250-metres of line for this fishing, though a similar sized fixed-spool reel is just as good.
Even if you need to adapt to uptide casting, this lighter tackle is well capable of doing it. You won't need to cast more than 30-metres away from the boat in any normal circumstance, which is just a gentle lob with this type of tackle. I would though, recommend that you use a short casting leader of 40lb to 50lb line to safely cast the lead and it also gives you a stronger line to play the fish with at the side of the boat.
Ray rigs need to be simple. I like to use a carp anglers big bore link-ledger bead, with a Mustad oval split ring passed through the link eye to attach the lead, instead of a running swivel and link. The ledger bead is smoother running on the line. Next comes a bead and size 6 rolling swivel. The actual hook trace is usually 3-ft (1-metre) of 35lb or 40lb mono, plenty strong enough to combat the rays rough grinding gums. The same rig is ideal for the faster tide areas and heavier tackle too.
The preferred hook is a Mustad Barbless Tope & Ray hook number 79514 size 6/0. Baits tend to be big and the big hook both takes the size of bait required and also helps avoid the ray swallowing the hook quite so deep, should the bite be visually missed at the rod tip. If you choose a different hook pattern then still bend down the barb with pliers. You don't lose any rays, or any other fish for that matter, by using barbless hooks, but it makes the unhooking easier and safer for the fish.
The lead weight for light tackle fishing needs to be a release grip type about 3 to 4ozs for casting, but go for a plain lead if you're just downtiding off the stern of the boat. For casting, pass one of the leads grip wires through the bait. It will release as you cast or when the bait hits the sea.
Rays shuffle around over the top of a deadbait working it towards their mouths by moving their wings. You'll see this on the rod tip as it bounces around. Wait until the rod tip either springs straight or pulls over. Hit them early like this and most will be mouth hooked. Delay and you'll start to get the hook deeper, which is to be avoided. There is no need to strike rays, just lift the rod, take out the slack line and start to retrieve letting the rod pull over to the weight of the fish.
There are still skippers and anglers that use gaffs on rays. No need for average sized fish! You can see with the ray at the surface if the hook has a good hold. If so, just swing the ray in on the hook trace. This does far less damage than gaffs. So what if the odd fish does drop off. A really big fish you may want to keep, then fair enough, but that's in the extreme.
To pick a ray up for a photo, use a bit of cloth around the base of the tail to avoid the worst of the thorns. Personally, I just pick them up supporting them under the belly and at the base of the tail with bare hands. They can't jump all over the place like a round fish and are pretty docile. That said, don't put your fingers in the mouth when removing the hook. Rays have powerful gums for crushing and will give your fingers a bit of a mulching.
You can slide a ray back in to the water nose first. Don't panic if they hang in the water not moving for a second or two. It takes a moment for them to orientate themselves before gently winging their way back to the seabed. They are tough and don't damage easily.
SUMMER AND AUTUMN
The information given for the early spring fish is still applicable if you decide to chase rays through the summer and autumn as well.
You'll find the rays thin out in numbers a little through the June to August period, but then make a secondary inward migration around the end of August, which is triggered by the incoming whiting which is their autumnal food supply.
Target the bigger fish on cleaner ground or mixed ground around the reef and rock structures. Expect better numbers of smaller fish to dominate on the purely clean sand.