Well, let me assure you that it is just not true; yes, spring may indeed herald the start of thornie fishing in some areas, but down here, if you really went for it, you could quite feasibly catch thornbacks all year round. In the areas that I fish I would go as far as to say that spring is nowhere near the best time!
Most of you who fish religiously for the popular small-eyed and spotted ray will have noticed a sharp decline in their numbers throughout the last few years (commercial pressure is to blame, plain and simple), but this does in some extent depend on where you fish. I used to spend countless hours on the rugged North Cornish coast chasing these magnificent, almost prehistoric fish, and gave not a thought to fishing for thornies. But my old marks have declined that much that I have had no choice but to rapidly learn about thornies and their habits, for these fish seem to be holding on strong in many areas and do provide a realistic angling target.
I love my ray fishing, but although the small-eyeds and spotted ray seem to be making a comeback in some areas (notably North Devon and parts of North Somerset), I feel far more confident in connecting with a thornie. They are an extremely widely distributed fish and are catchable from a far wider variety of marks than the small-eyeds; thinking about it, this may have something to do with there being more thornies around. I can catch them from the clear and fast flowing waters of perhaps the River Tamar, and it is over 100’ deep where I like to fish, to the chocolate coloured and extremely shallow low water reef marks that litter the middle part of the Bristol Channel. Contrary to popular belief, ray do scrap, although they are hardly about to sear off in a mullet-type run; hook a decent 10lb plus specimen though, and you will certainly know all about it!
Where to look
You will no doubt hear about some of your local marks that chuck up thornies, but what do you actually look for when trying to find a good thornback mark? Well, there is no defining set of rules that can magically produce fish, but do note that these ray love estuaries. I do not mean little river endings, rather big open stretches of water like around Falmouth (River Fal and Helford), South Devon (River Tamar, Kingsbridge Estuary and the River Dart) and big stretches of the very tidal Bristol Channel. Whereas you might go and look for open coast, "rock onto sand", type of marks for the small-eyed, spotted and sometimes blonde ray, thornies do love to stick around big estuary systems. Yes, some of you will have some open coast kind of marks where you catch thornbacks, but I am only trying to proffer some help that should set you on the right track. A few of the marks I fish could be classed as open coast, but actually they are still contained within the massive Bristol Channel waters.
Deep water is not some sort of necessary prerequisite for successful fishing, but again, these ray are not that fussy and you can catch them from very shallow and very deep marks, as I talked about a little earlier. They are also quite catchable in the day time, and in fact most of the biggest fish I have heard of from my neck of the woods have been caught during daylight hours. Okay, so the Bristol Channel’s water is so coloured that the fish live in permanent darkness, but how do you then explain thornies to nearly 18lb coming on hot afternoons from the crystal clear waters of the Kingsbridge estuary? Proof I think that they can be happily fished for in the middle of the day or night. What is critical obviously is not whether it is day or night, but rather the conditions and the size and state of the tide. That will be an extremely localised thing and you can only start to pick this sort of information up by going out and putting some hours in.
Times to target them
I personally believe that thornbacks are present in some areas of the Bristol Channel throughout the year, but I tend to fish for them in this neck of the woods between about early November and late April. Although I have had my best fish in April, most big thornies I hear about tend to come just before and after Christmas; the great thing about fishing up on this coast is that you can usually catch cod and codling as well. The same baits of peeler crab, squid, lug and ragworm are just as effective for thornies as they are for cod; a few welcome codling may turn a potentially blank trip into a mildly successful one! I do prefer relatively calm conditions for the shallow reef marks that I fish and a building tide, around about that period between neaps and springs.
As for the Tamar and various other Devon and Cornish estuaries, again, people do catch them all year, but most of us concentrate our efforts between about May and October (although the Fal seems to throw up a good number of late winter/early spring fish, but never to the size we get in Devon. I have no idea why). There will be periods when nothing shows up and then mad weeks when everybody catches enough ray to stoke the old memory bank and provide those essential fishing tales!
I have already talked about the traditional crab, worm and squid baits I favour in the Bristol Channel; my freezer and fridge are always stocked up with various frozen bits and bobs, as well as some crabs rustling in their little bucket next to the milk!!
A lot of Cornish anglers like sandeel, both frozen and live, but there is one bait that we use here in Devon that can be absolutely deadly. Have you ever used live prawn? Nor had I until some friends put me onto its catching power for our Tamar, Kingsbridge and Dart thornbacks, but there will be times when our local ray will touch nothing else. An angler next to you may be blasting out worm and crab baits into the deep waters of the Tamar and will then catch nothing but the infernal pouting and dogfish; but come down with a bucket of prawn at the right time and it can be incredible. I have absolutely no idea why these thornies go so loopy for such an innocuous looking bait as prawn, but they do. The main hassle is going and collecting enough prawns and then storing them at home in a livebait tank, but once you know what you are doing it is all fairly easy and self-explanatory. There are only a few months of the year when we can realistically go and get prawns; luckily though this is prime time for the ray! I am convinced that many more areas of the country could see a real increase in their catches if they tried some prawn; surely it does not just work down here in Devon?
As with all my sea fishing, I prefer the simple and uncluttered approach; spend more time learning about how places fish rather than tying up endless concoctions of complicated rigs and bits of end tackle. That’s my philosophy anyway!
I prefer stiffer than normal beachcasters such as Conoflex Highlanders, Scorpion Sports and the new Demon range; I just find them easier to cast with and they cope with the rough and tumble of heavy rock fishing. As for reels, you will not go far wrong with Daiwa SLSOH 20s and 30s, or the excellent PENN 525 Mags; just make sure that they are set to run nice and safe.
For all my ray fishing I use the simple pulley rig with pennel rigged hooks in sizes 3/0 or 4/0, usually the tried and trusted Mustad 79515 Vikings. In some areas you will get away with a simple 5oz or 6oz plain lead, but most of the marks I fish are subject to some strong tides, so I need to use grip leads most of the time.
Above all, give a thornback bite a bit of time to develop and do not be overly keen to strike prematurely, for they often like to shuffle round a bait before really taking it. There is nothing worse in fishing than putting all those hours in and then missing that classic "unmissable" bite. By all means take the odd ray for the table, but returning fish is, I find, one of the best things about our sport.