It was Friday night and a mid-July weekend was almost upon us, what a scorcher it was looking to be! Most unusually for me, I had managed to find myself with the prospect of a Saturday afternoon to spare, even more unusually, my long suffering brother-in-law Chris also had the afternoon free; An opportunity too good to be missed!
We had a quick look at the tide book and the weather app, quickly deciding on taking Chris’ 17 foot fast fisher out to the famous Skerries banks in search of a Ray or two. The tides weren’t ideal but there was still a good chance of a bit of sport, and with little to no wind and minimal swell forecast the conditions couldn’t have been more conducive to spending an afternoon lounging in the sun.
Saturday morning had arrived and I was particularly excited to get away as soon as we were both ready. Whilst I am very fortunate to have this excellent fishing right on my doorstep, I am sorry to report that it had been quite some time since I had last managed to get afloat, several years in fact! The first order of the day would be to catch some fresh Mackerel for bait, unfortunately however, the Mackerel had proven to be very elusive in our area this year and we were both worried about being able to catch a fresh supply; we needn’t have worried!
It was about 10am and I was enjoying some family time with my two young Daughters when my phone began to ring… Chris can’t be ready already I thought? Alas not the call I was expecting but a call from a friend, another Chris!!! Do you want any mackerel he enquired? What a stroke of luck, not only had the mackerel decided to show up but Chris had been for a few hours and caught my bait for me, 25 lovely fresh ones. Result - at least an hour saved.
After having collected the aforementioned mackerel, we cast off from the mooring at around 1pm and made the 30 minute journey from Dartmouth out to the banks. As we neared our destination Chris eased the boat off and we just sat for a few moments establishing what the tidal situation was and which way we would drift in order to set the anchor correctly. The tides were not quite as expected in the respect that there was none! We were being pushed steadily down the ground by the wind but the speed was hardly registering on the GPS so we would be lucky if it even pinned us against the Anchor, not a good start.
Chris has spent a good deal of time fishing this ground over the years and his plotter is littered with waypoints containing detailed information on what state of the tide to fish certain parts of the banks, target species, best conditions etc. Although Chris already had a fairly good idea of what the first mark of the day would be, we had a quick look and discussion anyway if for no other reason than as a memory refresher for me!
We cruised over the mark and up the ground into the wind a little before putting the anchor over and rigging up for the first drop of the day.
Let the Dog-Fest Begin!
Well as I am sure you have guessed, mark number one did not get us off to a good start – With little to no tide at all, it was just doggie, after doggie, after doggie! Where there were not dogfish there were no fish, and the tide just showed no signs of making at all. We are used to prolonged periods of little to no tide when the neaps are very small, just as they were on this trip, however this was particularly bad.
Things then went from bad to worse when in a matter of just a few moments a bank of sea fog swept in, by the time the Maritime Safety Information Broadcast came in on the VHF we were already in the thick of it! At this point we swiftly went into the forward locker and got our lifejackets on. - A quick word on safety, I would normally say that it is well worth keeping a lifejacket on at all times when fishing in the boat however I know that some people do and some don’t. Generally when fishing in pairs and in very calm and clear conditions I find I am happy not to wear one as long as I know it is correctly fitted to me, and that it is easily at hand. This thick fog had now changed the situation massively. Neither the sea condition nor the wind had altered at all however the area we were fishing was a fairly busy one for both commercial and pleasure craft moving through, and with it having been such a lovely day up until that point there was a lot of traffic around. The visibility was terrible and although you would like to think it would be pretty unfortunate to be struck at anchor, I personally have had the misfortune on not one but two occasions in the past where yachts did not have a forward look out. Better to be safe than sorry – lifejackets on!
Fortunately the fog moved on fairly quickly and with its gradual departure, coincidentally, along came the tidal flow. That bought the first fish of any note for the day, my rod tip aggressively started banging away and as I lifted into the fish it was evident that this was no dog fish and was almost certainly a Huss. I could tell it was a fairly good one but as it came to the surface it was better looking than expected so I quickly asked Chris to get the net. A fine Bull Huss was soon aboard of 12lb 8oz. Not a record breaker but a nice change from the monotony of motionless rod tips interspersed with packs of Doggies! Safe to say spirits were lifted!
Above: First Specimen of the day 12lb 8oz
We gave the mark a fair chance however with the change in the tide and no noticeable increase in our fortunes we decided to steam up the anchor and try another spot of Chris’ further inland. We had a quick steam over a few likely locations looking at the lay of the sea bed before Chris weighed anchor and laid us back expertly onto a lovely feature full area of the bank; time for round two.
To Uptide or Not?
Settling down to begin fishing on the second mark it is probably worth taking a few moments to explain the different tactics that Chris and I were using, more as a discussion or thinking point than anything else. I elected, (as I have always done) to fish down tide of the boat; so essentially for those that don’t know, I was dropping down directly off the back of the vessel with an 11oz weight, paying out a small amount of line to compensate for the bobbing up and down. In doing this I was using a fairly short length of 80lb trace line to my baited hook, this would ensure that my bait would be kept anchored firmly to the bottom. Chris on the other hand was uptiding, casting up and away from the boat with and 8oz spider lead and paying out a large bow of line into the tide to ensure that the lead held in. It is worth saying now that we have both caught plenty of fish on both methods, however over the last few year Chris has been enjoying more and more success uptiding instead of the traditional “sling it over the side technique” He even joked that if he started to out fish me I’d soon be switching, which of course I flatly denied!
We had a few drops / casts with just a spider crab for our efforts and were both really beginning to question if it was just not going to be our day – Chris had said before we left that they weren’t his preferred tides for targeting Ray but we had made our decision and there are worse ways to spend a day! It was time to re-bait again and I remarked that I had had enough of this rubbish! Followed by -
“One of us is going to catch a Ray this drop, I don’t care who it is but it will be at least 18lb!!!” We both laughed and over the side they went.
10 minutes passed and I saw Chris lean forward in his seat purposefully to address one of his rods – I knew instantly something was doing. Looking at his rod tip gently nodding we knew this was no doggie! Chris took up his rod and in doing so it buckled right over. RAY ON!
A spirited fight ensued once the fish was prized from the bottom and after short while, a stunning female Blonde Ray was inside the boat of 20lb exactly. Cracking stuff. We took a few quick photos and then the fish was carefully released to fight another day. Chris quickly re-baited and cast out only to barely sit down for a second before his other rod was going – he wound into the bow of line but unfortunately did not connect with the fish.
Chris shows off his fine 20lb Blonde Ray.
This then continued for quite some time with Chris getting bite after bite, Doggies & small Huss mostly but meanwhile my rod tips sat motionless! You can imagine I was not finding it funny! But at least it was only small Huss and the dreaded Dogs. – Or so I thought.
More gentle but purposeful tugs were registering on Chris’ rod and as before he just managed to get his rod in hand before it buckled over and he was into another nice Ray – this fight was much harder; the tide was really running hard at this point, even though it was only a small neap. The fish managed to get down tide of the boat kiting up and using the full force of the tide to push it back, and then diving hard to try and get back to the bottom again. Chris payed it well and a fine specimen male fish was soon on the deck. 17lb 12oz registered on the scales and whilst slightly smaller than the first fish he had made a good account of himself. A few photos and released to fight another day.
Now I am not too proud to admit that by this point I was getting pretty annoyed with my own lack of success – I have caught countless amounts of Ray over these exact marks down-tiding, over many years, but the fact remained that I was not getting so much as a nibble and Chris was struggling to keep two rods fishing on occasion with one specie or another.
Chris with his Male Blonde Ray of 17lb 12oz
It could have been purely co-incidental but the truth was we were fishing identically except for the fact that Chris was uptiding! So I raided his tackle box, wound up both of my rods and made the switch!
I had barely sat down after casting my second rod before the first rod I’d cast a few minutes earlier started to nod away. After a swift fight a small Blonde Ray of 4-5lbs was on the boat. Not a nice big specimen as I had hoped but a welcome sight non-the-less! Of course I had to take the obligatory banter from Chris about him teaching me how to fish but I think in truth we were both just relieved I had actually caught the target species; my moaning would have been insufferable had I not!
Me with my first Ray of the day, 4/5lb’s
A few more Doggies and Small Huss followed before I was finally rewarded with a half decent fish.
My rod gave the tell tail nod-nod-nod before going over with a much better fish. We are very fortunate to have a good run of Blonde Ray over these banks, with fish over 20lb being reasonably common if you work at it. We also see a fair few per year pushing and exceeding 30lbs which is a very fine specimen indeed. So with this in mind you can imagine the thoughts going through my mind when I just could not make any line at all – the fight was on and the fish was winning! My PB from the Boat is just over 29lb and this one was really going so I was already dreaming of the weight this fish might be if I could get it aboard! Could it be that 30 pounder?
Chris could see I was struggling to tame the fish that was now kiting well down the tide and swiftly to the surface! It’s probably a tail wrapped 10 we both joked but as the fish broke surface 50 yards down tide of the boat the joke became a reality!!! – GUTTED
So… not the 30 I was dreaming of but indeed a much smaller fish coming in with the trace wrapped / caught in its tail. If you have fished this area or similar conditions before you will know exactly what I mean when I say that pulling in a tail wrapped fish against the tide is a nightmare! So I was quite relieved when this one took a roll and unwrapped itself darting up the tide for the bottom again.
He was beaten and a short while later I had a lovely Blonde of 15lb 2oz in hand. The 6/0 Octopus hook was beautifully in the top lip and came out easily before the fish was safely returned.
I’m a happy man finally getting into a better fish!
With the excitement over and the prospect of having to steam home in the dark if we left it much longer, we made the decision to call it a day there. We tidied up, steamed up the anchor and headed for home delighted to have ended the trip on a high!!
If you fancy having a go at the fantastic Ray fishing there is on offer down here then I can highly recommend using any one of Dartmouth’s excellent charter vessels. – in terms of gear it is fairly simple, a good quality boat or uptide rod in a 20/30lb class or 10oz rating, and a sturdy reel loaded with 30lb+ braid.
In terms of end tackle, gear up well and check your knots! These fish and the hard running tides put great pressures on the gear and the last thing you want is to lose that fish of a lifetime.
I keep it simple with a running ledger rig using the Pro-rig Slider on the mainline followed by a bead to protect the knot. You can’t go wrong with the Stainless Steel Crane Swivel in a 1/0 size, with a breaking strain of 510lbs you are well covered! A short 80lb Varivas trace if down-tiding and a longer one to keep the bait clear of the lead wires if uptiding then connects you to the business end – in this case a 6/0 Octopus is just perfect being ultra-strong and razor sharp. I used the Octopus as it’s what I had on the day but I can also recommend the Chinu pattern which is equally suited for this type of fishing.
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Richard Albones – SAA Pro Team, Cox and Rawle