Prickles and Prawns

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

Cornwall is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about regions of the UK with a strong culture for thornback ray fishing. Nonetheless, the county does have significant populations of these prickly predators in two of its major estuary systems (three if you count the Cornish side of the Tamar) and there is an established scene built around fishing for them. The top bait for Cornish thornies is undoubtedly live sandeel with most of the county’s most experienced ray anglers opting for this shimmering morsel as their weapon of choice. In recent years, however, getting hold of consistent supplies of live eel on the fly has become increasingly problematic, with the best option being to buy or collect large quantities and store them in a tank at home. This practice is hard to justify for the more occasional thornbacker and many opt for the convenience of frozen eels instead. Unfortunately this year has proved particularly lean for sandeels and supplies of sizable frozen eels have virtually dried up, leaving anglers with the difficult choice between using up their stocks on the good fishing currently on offer or carefully rationing them to last out the drought.

With the ongoing shortage of sandeels in any form, I’ve started considering alternative baits to keep the ray fishing options open for me. At this time of year peeler crab can account for the odd thornback but it is not a solid bet and only a bait I feel happy to use if there are other species around to pick up. One bait that has a fearsome reputation as a thornback tempter over the border in Devon is live prawn. I first became aware of this dynamite bait through an old Henry Gilbey article I discovered online and I’ve often wondered how effective it might be in our Cornish estuaries and why there is little evidence of Cornish anglers making use of it. After all, with prawns being substantially easier to collect than sandeels and reportedly straightforward to keep alive, they do seem an intriguing option.

Keen to try something different, I decided to give live prawn a go and find out if they were to the liking of Cornish thornbacks. A couple of nights before the day I had picked for the session, my mate Mark and I drove to a likely spot with a few traps, some bait and a large plastic water barrel. While Mark fished I was quickly able to collect a good number of decent sized prawns and after transporting them home in the barrel, I set up their temporary lodgings in my outhouse with a small aerator pump to keep them happy. I checked on the prawns periodically through the following day and they appeared to be content enough in their rather boring new home. It was the day after that I planned to fish, one that showed good promise for stirring the thornies to feed. With a neap tide, a gentle wind out of the south and light cloud cover, conditions were prime for visiting a spot on the south shore of the Helford estuary.

The Helford is a much smaller and shallower estuary than its neighbour, the mighty Fal. Whilst both systems produce thornies (with the Fal typically showing the bigger fish), the Helford concentrates its share into a more manageable area making the fishing feel more intimate. Both estuaries are vast repositories of a variety of marine life, forming a succulent buffet for the marauding thornback. The mark that I chose tends to be reasonably productive for ray throughout the year, but it is primarily towards the end of autumn and into the winter that I like to fish it. Sometimes when there is a run of codling these fish will enter the river to feast on the easy pickings, combining with the thornies to produce fantastic sport. This year, however, the codling are conspicuous by their absence and it looked very much like it would be ray or bust on this trip.

After a short trek across the fields and through a patch of wooded area, I emerged at the top of the grass bank and began to pick my way down to the reef and the clear water in front of me. It was about three hours before low tide and I had arrived in plenty of time to give myself chance to set up and settle in before I anticipated the action beginning. After stringing up a rod and clipping on a pulley dropper rig, I picked out a couple of prawns from the bucket and began to make my first bait, sliding the hook into the mouth of the first prawn and through the body before passing it up the hooklength. The second prawn I threaded on to the main hook, binding the two crustaceans together with elastic before planting the pennel hook in the top of the bait. By this time both prawns were stone dead and the presentation looked a little odd, but I had read enough to know that this wasn’t supposed to bother the thornbacks in the slightest and I cast out with as much confidence as I could muster. I repeated the process for the second rod and began to set up a third, aiming to arm this one with more conventional baits of peeler crab and frozen sandeel to compare with the results of the prawn experiment.

As I sat watching my rods bent comfortably into the tide, I tried to put any thoughts of what havoc the crabs might be wreaking on my delicate baits out of my mind and concentrated on leaving them out for a good length of time. After half an hour or so, I reeled in the first rod and was amazed to see that my prawns were untouched and still in good shape. I rebaited and cast out, pleased that the crabs hadn’t massacred the bait and that I had been effectively fishing all the time. I rebaited the second rod and it was as I was settling the line after the cast that I noticed my first rod had started to show signs of interest. The indication looked suspiciously like that of a dogfish but I continued to watch for a minute or two to make sure that the fish had found the hooks before picking up the rod and winding down. As contact was made I realised that I had attracted the attention of a thornback, the characteristic resistance and wing beating thumps giving the game away. This fish stayed near the bottom the whole way in and I had to apply serious heat on it as it neared the reef – more than one fish has been lost at this mark by anglers sparing the rod towards the end of the battle. As the shape of a ray appeared through the depths, the fish flipped over onto its back and made a dive for the cover of a kelp bed. Fortunately, my opponent didn’t have the steam to make it into the tangled limbs and as it popped up onto the surface I stooped to pluck it from the water. Popping the ray into a rockpool whilst I found my pliers, I could see that both hooks were well inside the mouth with no trace of the prawn bait to be seen. Luckily, the fish hadn’t swallowed the hooks and I was able to extract them both without significant damage. I stepped back to admire a female thornback in the 6-7lbs category, the first one I’d ever caught on prawn. In a pattern typical of a group of ray moving across an area, this first fish was quickly joined by another smaller one – another female with a totally different set of markings.

As the tide bottomed out over low, the water settled lazily with the current running at just enough pace to keep the lines semi taut. So far, both fish had fallen for the prawn with not a scrap of interest shown to the crab and sandeel baits being offered on the third rod. As the push of the incoming tide began to gather pace, I felt a buzz of expectation as everything started to look good for another flurry of fish. I recast both rods with fresh prawn baits and I had not long settled them both on the tripod when the left hander pulled over slowly and a yard or two of line was pulled from the ratchet before everything fell slack. The line gradually drew taut again with the current and I watched for a couple of minutes seeing no further indications, although I was convinced that a ray had settled on the bait and was busy scoffing its discovery. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the line on the right hand rod fall away and settle limply on the surface. I picked up this rod, tightening down to feel what had moved the end gear. A subtle draw, quicker than the tide, provoked an instinctive lift and battle was joined. This fish didn’t feel very big and I was able to horse it in quite easily, the culprit turning out to be the smallest ray of the day.

With my fish recovering in a rockpool and a fresh bait cast out, I returned my attention to the left hand rod which was still sitting motionless. As I reeled down I felt the tension build into the line and I knew that I was about to disturb a thornback wondering why it couldn’t seem to swallow its meal properly. The rod tip nodded solidly as angler and fish felt each other’s full weight and I muttered to myself that this ray felt a good bit better than the last one. Like the first thornback I’d caught that day, this fish seemed to know exactly where the reef was and attempted to charge headlong into it. Fortunately, my powerful beach rod was more than man enough to thwart the ray’s escape plan and aoon a respectable thornie surfaced and wallow in the margins. I had to be careful landing this fish as it had quite a few inconveniently placed thorns, making it difficult to grab without getting impaled. Again, the prawns had worked their magic, with one of the crustaceans virtually intact outside the jaws and the other crushed into pulp around the hook in the corner of the mouth. The ray took the scales down to 7lbs exactly and proved to be the best one of the session.

With both rays returned I was optimistic of adding a fifth as the flooding tide was now in full swing. I noticed a few subtle knocks on one of the rods and after leaving it for a good while I reeled in, feeling a small amount of dead weight all the way to the side. I had fully suspected a crab to emerge so I was gobsmacked to see that I had caught a sizable octopus! I had never caught one of these before and I was keen to see how it moved and behaved, so having quickly removed the hook from the skin of the creature I slipped it into a large rockpool and settled down to watch. The octopus proved to be a real character, zooming around and rapidly changing colour. After an entertaining five minutes I carefully gathered it up in a bucket and returned it to the estuary, watching it shoot down into the kelp and instantly camouflaging itself amongst the fronds. After this encounter I had one more good bite which I missed due to a tangled rig and as darkness took hold, another smaller octopus (!) followed by the inevitable dogfish, signalling that it was time to head for home. I left the mark having had a thoroughly enjoyable day and now totally convinced of the powers of live prawn as a thornback bait. Results don’t lie and four ray to the prawn and none to the crab and sandeel was about as conclusive a final score as this mark was likely to provide.