Mike Ladle


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Tackle and Tactics.

THINK LIKE A FISH Part 23 Plan your fishing.

Sea anglers, or for that matter any anglers, should consider certain basic facts before they set out on a fishing trip. In general, the salt water rod and liner is less discriminating in his approach and will fish for " whatever comes along", or for a group of related species such as pollack and coalfish," flatties" or even "rays" without giving any thought to the difference between the various species. So, this week I am going to consider the small-eyed ray as an example of how it may be possible to plan a campaign to get the best chance of success.

When I first fished in Dorset, in the late 1960s, most anglers had never heard of the small-eyed ray (or painted ray as it was called in those days). In fact fishing from a small rowing dinghy over the sandy bed of Swanage Bay we landed several fish of just about record size. Of course things have moved on a bit since those times and small-eyed rays are now frequently caught from boats and from a number of shore marks as well. At first we had to identify our catches by looking at pictures in fishing publications but now the fish are widely recognised by most anglers. Although 'small-eyeds' are one of the more common rays (all species seem to be in decline) they are still a good example of how to target a particular species.

The first question to answer is, of course, where shall I fish? To answer this one there are three main sources of information. Firstly, books, fishing magazines and fishery journals generally provide clues to distribution patterns. The small-eyed ray was regarded as - " a shallow water species of localised distribution around the coasts of south west Eire and Cornwall ".

It was also said that small-eyed rays made up " less than one percent of the commercial catch in the western English Channel ". It was also said to - " have a very restricted distribution within its range, which extends from Donegal south-and-east to Dorset, which includes the Severn estuary. Wheeler said that it - " is common locally, but is never widely distributed, it inhabits shallow to moderate depths".

The angling press helped to fill in this general picture. Small-eyeds were often reported in catches made from sandy seabeds off the coasts of Dorset, North and South Devon, North and South Cornwall and south Wales. The fish were taken from both inshore boats and deepish shore marks where anglers were able to cast onto sandy beaches from shingle beaches or steep rocks. A quick shuffle through some old magazines reported captures from Swansea bay, Aberthaw, Minehead, Lynmouth, llfracombe, Perranporth, Plymouth and Swanage. It seems there was and is plenty of scope.

The southern distribution of the species suggests that they are most likely to be active in warm water. Consequently, most catches will be made in the warmer months of the year. There will, of course, be exceptions and some very good fish are caught from Cornish rock marks during the winter.

There's no need to restrict activities to the well-known and publicised marks. By considering the preferences for water depth and type of seabed shown by the species it may still be possible to explore virtually virgin fishing. The best guide to where a species feeds, is what it eats, and here we strike a richer vain of information. Biologists often record the gut content of the fish that they examine and the small-eyed ray is no exception.

Ajayi, working on fish caught from Carmarthen Bay, showed that the smaller fish fed mainly on shrimps and other crustaceans while the large rays ate mostly other fish. Gurnards, dragonets and pouting were the chief species eaten, while flatfish were also common in their stomachs. Sandeels were eaten in small numbers, and only by the smaller fish, yet some small-eyed ray specialists regard them as the prime bait for this species.

Most of the preferred foods are abundant over sandy ground the one obvious exception being the rock-haunting pouting. Of course pouting tend to disperse over softer seabeds after dark so they may fall prey to rays at night. However, without being critical of the results given above, it seems quite possible, indeed likely, that fish eaten by rays were, in fact, poor-cod - small relatives of the pouting, which are abundant over sandy areas. This is vital confirmation of where we should fish. Anywhere with a decent population of gurnards, flatties, dragonets, poor-cod and shrimps is going to be a happy hunting ground for the predatory rays.

We already have the answer as to which bait is best. Almost any species of small fish is likely to tempt the bigger rays so drop down a worm on light tackle and, with a bit of luck, up comes a piece of prime ray food. There is not much point in me describing the rods, reels and lines to use because they will differ according to where you intend to fish, shore or boat, strong or slack tides and so on.

Rays are surprisingly active and battle hard on sensible gear (the sort of tackle you might use for bass). In the shallow waters off Poole, light-legering from dinghies during early summer (May-June) can result in some very good sport with big females that come in to lay their eggs on the sand. A fifteen centimetre goby, or poor-cod, fished hard on the seabed will be taken with a purposeful pull followed by a steady run. Allow it to go and the ray will take several yards of line, unless its progress is halted by a large fixed lump of lead.

Once hooked, a ray will run and sheer about in a lively and powerful manner until brought to the side of the boat or lifted ashore.

The small-eyed ray grows to a decent size, and fish of five kilos are not out of the ordinary during the early part of the fishing season (overfishing has probably reduced the average size of fish caught). Big fish are always females. They can be aged by alternate rings of clear and opaque material deposited each year in the cartilages of the back "bone". A fish of about eighty centimetres long could be as much as ten years old so if you don't need them to eat, let them go. Large fish seem to be most abundant in the vicinity of rock, where they may be less accessible to commercial trawling. Both sexes mature at about fifty or sixty centimetres in length. Peak spawning is between June and September and a female may lay as many as sixty eggs (in pairs).

As many anglers have now realised, the small-eyed ray is a fine, attractive sporting fish which, because many specimens survive to a good age, gives every chance of catching fish of near record proportions. It would be a pity if commercial fishing was to deplete the stocks of these excellent rays any more than is presently the case.

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.' get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


Think like a fish.

Plan your fishing.

The dinghy.

This 'one man power' craft helped us catch many large small-eyed rays.  On one evening we landed five good fish from amongst the moored boats.

A big, female small-eyed ray.

This fish was caught on a poor cod and, at the time, was above the record weight for the species.