With Apologies to Thor

This story first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Black Tide magazine.

Opinion is divided on the exact origin of the ray family. Christians believe that God came up with them during his hectic first week in charge, Darwinists would argue that the lineage derived from the primitive sharks, while Buddhists say that it doesn’t matter how or when they began as beginnings are meaningless. Personally, I prefer the Norse account. Hewn into an ancient runestone hidden high in the Trollheimen mountain range of Norway, there is inscribed the legend of how the first skates and rays came into being. Now this is certainly not one of Norse mythology’s more popular tales by any means – in fact, the story is only well known among edgier scholars whose interest lies in the murkiest depths of the subject. Many of these learned types maintain that the legend has been actively suppressed over the centuries and it’s not difficult to see why, as it casts a less than flattering light on one of the greatest Nordic heroes.

The story is all about Thor, the Norse god of thunder (among other things). Nowadays, everybody knows Thor as a mighty hammer wielding beast of a deity but this image, whilst certainly accurate, only applied once Thor really started hitting his stride. The truth is that (like so many successful individuals) Thor started out considerably less powerful and took some time to grow into his role. As a rookie god, Thor was known for being a bit of a try-hard: keen to prove himself but with not much clue how to go about it. The beginning of the story details some of Thor’s early blundering, particularly his lack of skill in wielding his hammer Mjölnir.

Seeing that Thor was struggling a bit, Odin took him to one side and suggested that maybe Thor could do with practising his hammer on the quiet before trying to use it to level mountains or battle serpents. Thor was smart enough to listen to this advice and began looking for suitable subjects to hone his hammer skills on. At that time, there were a lot of primitive dogfish swimming in the lake under the great world tree of Yggdrasil. These were sorry looking creatures – even more wretched than the sad things we are accustomed to catching today. Thor, reasoning that any change could only be an improvement, decided that he would round up as many dogfish as he could find in the Nine Worlds and take them to a secret grove where he could practice his hammering undisturbed. Thor hammered and hammered on the dogfish, hammering day and night for a hundred days. Many of the dogfish were instantly splattered and Thor himself was soaked in their blood from head to foot. Others were gravely injured and lay strewn in various states of dying all around the grove. A few dogfish, however, had survived being hammered to states of near perfect flatness and all traces of their former pestilent nature had disappeared, replaced by a much more pleasing, graceful quality. Thor was impressed with his handiwork and having now mastered the art of making these beautiful new creatures went about producing many of them, muttering to himself as he worked, trying to decide what he would call them. 

Thor had finished his labours and washed the months of sweat and dogfish blood from his body. No longer did he resemble a weedy youth. Now he had thick knotted muscles and a great red beard, flecked with iron grey. Thor sat on a great stone, his forehead resting on his hands which were clasped over the hilt of his upright hammer. He had still not thought of a name for the beings he had created. On the third day, Thor looked up from his thoughts and saw Odin in the distance walking towards him. Thor waited until Odin was in earshot and called him over. Thor held out one of his beautiful new creations and said to Odin, ‘I have made these, but have no name for them! You are wiser than I, can you think of a good name?’

Odin grinned and shook his head, tutting to himself, ‘It is clear that all the power in you has gone to your arms, Thor, and not your imagination!’ He took one of the creatures in his hands, nodding in approval, ‘These are fine beasts you have made Thor,’ he paused for a minute, thinking. ‘You will call this one a skaåte.’ He picked up another of Thor’s creatures, this one bearing a fine poisonous barb protruding from its whip-like tail, ‘This one will be called a ræy.’ Thor gave a single nod of agreement and the two gods parted without further words.

Thor went on to great things but he never forgot about the fruits of his early hammer practice and kept half an eye on the development of his creations. Sometime after the events of the Trollheimen Runestone, Thor felt he was in need of a break from crushing enemies and went back to the secret grove. For a while he had been troubled by the fact that his creations were bland in appearance, without embellishment. Thor gathered some paints and brushes and resolved to decorate his creatures with distinctive designs. The first few he painted up were disastrous (art had never been his strong point) but Thor persevered and gradually repeated patterns began to emerge.

Camouflage print was popular even back in those days. One of the skaåte was styled in this way and armed with an array of prickles and spikes to represent Thor’s warlike nature. Another two he painted shades of gold and covered with black spots, while yet another was patterned ornately with swirling dark brushstrokes and cream blotches (Thor had really got his eye in by this point). The very last skaåte Thor decorated he decided to keep simple. He was getting a bit tired of painting by this point and felt like he had neglected his hammer long enough. He dunked one of his creatures in a pot of light brown paint then simply took a brush, dipped it in the beige and made a few lines and blotches. As an afterthought, he added some subtle darker brown spots, just for fun, and called it a day. Thor had picked up his mighty hammer and was all set to leave but a tiny niggling doubt stopped him in his tracks. He took another look at his latest piece of work and realised what was bothering him. It just needed a little something extra to further set it apart from the rest. Grasping both of his creation’s eyes between finger and thumb, he gave them just the merest hint of a squeeze – not enough to squish them altogether but enough to compress them a little so that they were smaller in proportion than the eyes of the others. 

And so it was that the very first small eyed ray came into existence.

The small eyed ray may be one of Thor’s less inspired designs (although Thor’s creative low point is found in the true rays as some of the stingrays he obviously couldn’t be bothered with at all) but, to me, a lot of the beauty of this species lies in its simplicity. It has enough subtle patterning not to be dull and when in peak condition, possesses an impressively muscular thickness and physical presence in the larger sizes. It is also an easy species to please baitwise (for the most part) – sandeels and squid are the mainstay of my small eye armoury as I’m sure they are for most other anglers. I do feel, however, that in my area, the squid really comes into its own in the autumn months and it is then that piggybacking a good helping of squid on to a quality frozen sandeel makes a big difference in terms of attraction. 

This year in Cornwall the normally productive spring/early summer period fished poorly for small eyes, but the advent of autumn brings fresh promise to the ray hunter. As the season announces itself with its customary bluster, it heralds the arrival of a new influx of fish. In previous years, I’ve been more preoccupied with pursuing other species in this time of plenty than spending much time on these back end small eyes, but every year there are true behemoths caught in the autumn/winter period. After the lacklustre early season, I had more reason than usual to go after the later run and the prospect stayed fresh in my thoughts throughout the summer. By the end of August, I was feeling a strong urge to dust off my sandeels and go in pursuit of the painted one.

Having something new to try can really make a big difference to my enthusiasm for fishing a familiar place for a familiar species. After a trip to Sark, where the doors of my mind were blown wide open to the idea of fixed spools and braid for tackling rough ground, I was keen to see if the combination would work well for me in a slightly different setting. I dug out a 10000 size Shimano loaded with braid and decided to marry it up to a Century C Curve, choosing to stick with my regular J Curve and Penn Fathom outfit for the second rod. After arriving at my chosen mark and assessing the mood of the ocean, I made my first few casts from the top of the cliff as the tide was near high and the swell was boiling over the rocks at the bottom. Unencumbered by thick, air resistant mono and magnetic brakes, the rig on the fixed spool rod flew a good bit further than the multiplier’s effort and settled on the squeaky clean sandy bottom, the braid drawing taut as the last trickle of the flooding tide ran across the bay.

The early action all came to the rod fishing braid, with the C Curve’s responsive tip going into convulsions as the sandeel baits were attacked by a couple of mackerel, then a scad. The big fixed spool made it ridiculously easy to get the fish high in the water quickly and skitter them over the rocky obstacles immediately below me. After returning the scad, I clipped on a fresh rig baited with a sandeel wrapped in a little jacket of squid and climbed up to the top of the cliff once more to cast out. The cast caught a crosswind gust and the rig wobbled its way out to sea but still went a decent distance. I settled the rod into the rest, preparing a spare rig and bait and thinking about how long it would be until I could climb down and fish from the comfortable bottom rock. After ten minutes or so, I noticed a few gentle indications on the tip of the C Curve – small nudges that were followed by the line dropping slack before gradually tightening again with the tide. I let the fish eat in peace until the tip finally pulled over and braid peeled off the spool. Compared to how it usually goes with my multiplier setup, the tussle with a decent ray on the fixed spool was much quicker and much easier from a physical perspective. The combination of the C Curve, big mangle and braid made short work of hauling the fish in and around the rock obstacles. Soon a nice small eye lay on the surface way below me, waiting to be plucked from the whitewash. I had to put the rod down and loosen the drag right off before scrambling down the steep rock face to collect my prize, scooping up a fish that looked and felt to be in the ten pound class. Her body bore the distinct strokes of Thor’s brush, passed down through her ancestors, along with a dusting of faint brown spots. I weighed and photographed the ray on a tiny little rock ledge as the last dregs of the day dwindled into twilight, pleased to see that she made double figures with four ounces to spare.

Night fell as I returned my ray and finally moved my kit down the cliff and out onto the rock of choice. The extra room to tee the cast up meant that, with a favourable wind, my efforts with the C Curve felt like they were flying a very considerable distance out. With the gathering darkness, the dogs became rampant and it was literally a case of casting one rod out, rebaiting a spare rig and then winding in the other rod with a dog impaled on the 3/0s before repeating the process. In with the dogs, however, I did manage to pick out a couple more ray, a male of around 6lbs and another female that was about the size of a large dinner plate – both falling to the C Curve and fixed spool. The fishing was frantic and, because I’d not done much of it for a good while, my tolerance for ploughing through the dogs was pretty high and I strongly suspect that if I’d lost focus in this spell I wouldn’t have caught the extra two small eyes. With the tide receding rapidly, the chance of another ray was now slim and I began to relax and take in my surroundings a bit more. The moon had crept from behind the cliff and was now shining down brilliantly on the rocks and sea in front of me; full, fat and hyper luminous. Each gentle swell glittered like crumpled tinfoil under the intense lunar rays.

The session had drawn to a natural close and I donated my last few sandeels to the ebbing tide before making my way back up the cliff. The hours had passed like a warm and pleasant dream. I’d become totally lost in the little rituals of fishing, not thinking about anything to do with the outside world. Angling offers so many things – big fish, great times with friends; but these spells of complete disengagement from the frantic pulse of the rest of humanity are surely some of the most valuable gifts of all.