Catching a Break

This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Total Sea Fishing magazine.

The closing months of the year are a magical time to be a shore angler. A time when almost anything and everything is looking to gorge itself silly, from species fresh inshore for the winter to those preparing to move out to reproduce. Here in Cornwall, the main problem with getting baits in front of these fish is the fact that much of our county’s shoreline is laid bare to the wrath of the Atlantic Ocean, whose mood as the days shorten becomes increasingly unpredictable. Many of the places where the most desirable prizes can be reached with a cast are, frustratingly, the most easily overwhelmed by rough seas. Much of the challenge in these times is about watching and waiting, ready to respond to breaks in the weather and the chance to make one-off big scores. In my neck of the woods, the sea conditions in the last month or two have been particularly unsettled with very few chances to safely tackle some of the prime venues. However, in early October just such a fleeting chance came up and I was fortunate enough to recognise it and be there in time to cash in on some seriously hungry fish.

I’d noticed the first signs of the break coming about five days before, as the weather forecast and swell predictions began to fall into perfect alignment. Everything seemed to scream out for a certain venue that had treated me well in the past. This place is all about ray – blonde and small eyed to be exact – although it also does a good sideline in flatfish along with other assorted species. The downside of the mark is that it is littered with potential hazards: ankle-snapping boulders, gaps to jump across and, of course, the ocean itself to wash the unwary clean off the rocks. Fortunately, however, the place fishes well in daylight, and there is no need to risk a session after dark. The break in the weather and swell coincided almost perfectly with the three hours either side of low water – a peak spell for fishing this venue. With low tide falling at 14:25, I wouldn’t have to worry about low light levels making it difficult to spot any approaching swell.

The day dawned and a careful study of the sea in my area confirmed that the forecast appeared to be spot on. After a lengthy drive I arrived at my destination, parked up and unloaded my kit ready for the trek down to the mark. I picked my way carefully out to the large main rock outpost, hurdling a gully on the way. This would be base camp for the first cast or two before the smaller outermost rock became safe enough to fish from. I set up a pair of rods with strong reels loaded with 0.35mm mainline and 0.80mm shockleaders. To these, I clipped on pulley dropper rigs constructed with strong mono and rig components, all finished off with sturdy Varivas 3/0 hooks. For my initial casts I baited with single frozen sandeels, although I had made sure to bring along a pack of squid in the cool box in case the ray wanted a bit of extra flavour. I had also brought a third rod and reel that would be brought into play once the outer rock became fishable.

My first casts were made after carefully crossing over to the outer rock, quickly pinging the baits out and retreating to the safety of higher ground. With two rods in the water I could now start preparing for the move across. Before long the tip of my right hand rod juddered then pulled over deliberately, line peeling gently against the ratchet as something moved away with my bait. This sequence of events had ‘ray’ written all over it and after feeling for the presence of the fish, a lift of the rod brought it into a satisfying curve as positive contact was made. From the first instant it was obvious that this was no monster, and after surfacing way out and being skittered across the top for most of the way in, a small eyed ray of about 6lbs was picked from the water, unhooked and returned. After recasting that rod with a fresh bait, I reeled in the other whose bait had found the attention of another smaller ray of the same species.

By this point the outer rock had begun to look more inviting so I gathered up my kit and made the move over. After casting out both of my main rods I was interrupted in the middle of baiting up the third by a small blonde ray, not much bigger than a dinner plate. I took this as a positive sign – if there were small ones in the area there were likely to be some of their larger relatives out there cruising over the sandy seabed. Soon all three rods were in the water and fishing. It was not long before the middle rod slowly pulled over in the rest, the clutch paying out line in a series of short bursts. I carried the rod down to the water’s edge and took hold of the line to feel what the fish was doing. A tiny bit of slack was followed by a powerful draw and I reeled down tight and lifted into a good weight. This fish hugged the bottom, staying deep and reassuring me that it was a fair size with the occasional hefty thud. As the shockleader knot appeared I caught my first glimpse of the white underbelly of a decent ray, and as the fish spiralled gracefully up to the surface I made out the patterning of a nice small eye. I carefully drew the fish on to a sloping rock and retrieved it easily, carrying it back to where I had stationed my gear. The scales revealed a weight of 11lbs 2oz and after a quick photo I returned the ray, delighted to have caught a good one so early in the session.

With fresh baits on all three rods and a spare rig baited and ready to go, I awaited the next piece of action. It was noticeable from the tension in the line that the tide had slowed slightly and it was not a great surprise to me that my next bite came from a plaice of 1lbs 12oz. Sandeel baits do sometimes seem to attract quality plaice on Cornish marks, particularly in the autumn. By this time I had started to introduce the squid into the mix and after some interest on my left hand rod, I was disappointed to reel into nothing and wondered if I had pricked and spooked a ray or if there were more plaice out there struggling to wolf down the 3/0 wide gapes.

My next cast with a juicy sandeel and squid wrap wasn’t sat on the bottom for too long before similar indications began to show on the rod tip and little waves of slack periodically fell into the line before being taken up by the trickle of current. I gave this fish plenty of time before even thinking about reeling into it. When I did, I felt a little more resistance than before and wondered if I had tempted another tiny blonde. As the fish came in close it made a determined plunge for the rocks beneath my feet and as its brown back came into view I realised that I had caught another good plaice, this one looking a bit bigger than the previous fish. I weighed this spotty at 2lbs 1oz and I was well pleased to have caught such a nice one. Plaice over 2lbs from the shore are now very rare in Cornwall, particularly from open coast marks.

After the flurry of plaice the tide began to pick up slightly as it neared low water. What was to follow was a truly mind-blowing spell of fishing, with all three rods sitting still for mere minutes at a time before lunging over as ravenous rays found the baits and set about devouring them. First to fall were a pair of small eyes in the 8lbs class, then as I was baiting up a spare rig I noticed one of the lines rapidly fall limp. I picked up the rod and reeled into slack that kept on coming – evidently the ray had picked up the bait and was now motoring off downtide with it. The line stopped falling for a second and drew taut and I took this as my cue to reel down and lean in, the rod bending solidly into a good fish. This ray was not at all impressed at being hooked and sucked down hard to the seabed. I wondered for a second if it was a really big one but the fish quickly relinquished its hold and began to plane up in the water column, making me think that this was most likely a good size but no monster. As the ray broke surface about 50 yards out I could make out that it was an impressive size but not what species it was. The fish stayed near the surface the rest of the way in, going on a kiting dive off to my right before flipping over and showing me that it was a tidy male blonde. I led the ray round to the rock I had been using for landing fish, managing to wash it in on a wave and grab it before hurrying back to my rods. I quickly weighed my prize at 12lbs 3oz before popping it into a rockpool as an inquiry was developing on one of my other rods. This turned out to be another blonde, a female this time of 7-8lbs. In the commotion the bait on the final rod had also been snaffled and the culprit turned out to be another female blonde of 10lbs 9oz, a fish that gave a very strong account of itself, making good use of the same suck down trick that the male had.

After the mayhem with the three in a row blondes, the small eyes resumed their dominance again and I caught three more in steady succession interspersed with a small blonde. One of the small eyes was another double, a fish of 10lbs 13oz. A slight swell had begun to build with the push of the tide and this fish seemed to know exactly when to spread itself broadside to the undertow and exert extra pressure on my gear. The final fish from the outer rock before I was forced to retreat to the higher platform was a welcome turbot, a fish of 1lbs 5oz which I kept and stowed in the bag with my plaice. The final set of casts from my loftier perch produced two more small blondes and a couple of mackerel which picked up the baits as they were being retrieved.

The rising tide called time on my session and after six hours of great fishing I packed up and made my way back to the car, more than pleased with the way the day had gone. I had landed 15 ray in total: seven blondes and 8 small eyes with the two plaice, the turbot and a decent mackerel to take home for tea the next day. Stopping halfway up the hill to catch my breath I looked back over at the mark, the sea already looking a good deal more threatening than it had when I had arrived. I thought about how easily I could have missed out on this session. It had been only the briefest of opportunities and if it hadn’t been so perfectly centred round the low tide period, I might have decided against chancing it. I was relieved that I had made the right choice and enjoyed a red letter day as a reward.