March signals the start of the thornback ray season in some areas. These are traditionally the marks inside the Tamar Estuary, some of the Cornish beaches and rock marks, also the South Wales coast, especially the rock ledges around
Ogmore. The shallow mid Wales beaches can also produce thornback ray, but it tends to be the long range casters who can put a big bait out a long way that take the lion’s share of the fish from these beaches.
Any thornback ray from the shore is a good catch, but over the past two years or so, some better sized fish have been showing with double figure fish more prolific than has been the case for some time. The indication is that this should continue, so now is a good time to target a 10lb plus thornie. A fish of 10lbs off the shore is classed as a specimen fish!
Thornbacks inside estuaries will feed on smaller neap tides due to the increased tidal flow normally associated with estuary channels, but when fishing from beaches you’re far more likely to score if the tides are rising towards high spring tides. The very biggest tides of the cycle will also produce. Once the tides peak and start to drop, then expect the ray numbers to diminish quickly in the majority of cases.
Most rays are taken on the flooding tide, especially just after low water, or through the middle of the tide when the tide flow is at its strongest. They can be caught towards high water too, but quickly move back out to deeper water as the tide begins to ebb for fear of being left stranded.
Even from the deeper water marks, its invariably night fishing that produces the best opportunities. On beaches, fishing at night is pretty much essential, as by day the thornbacks will not work in clear, shallow water. But at night they’ll come virtually in to the surf tables at times in just two or three feet of water.
Thornbacks prefer fairly calm seas with little wind. They don’t mind if the sea is a little coloured after a recent blow, but rarely will they come in to very coloured water immediately after a good storm when the sea is still rough.
Casting distance is so often the real key to reaching the ground the thornbacks feed on. If you can put a bait out a genuine 100-yards, then you’re in with a real chance.
Good rods are the Penn Powerstix Surf 13’ or the ABU Atlantic 464 matched to an ABU 6500 series reel loaded with 15lb line and a 60lb shock leader. Another highly popular reel is the Penn 525Mag2, again loaded with 15 to 18lb line.
If you struggle to cast the required distance with a multiplier reel, then consider one of the longer European rod options, such as the Penn Powerstix Surf 15’9”, or the Atlantic 484, married to an 080 sized fixed spool such as the Penn Affinity LC-8000 or the Penn Pursuit 8000. These large capacity reels, in conjunction with one of the longer Euro rods and 15lb line, will gain you extra distance easily with basic casting techniques putting your baits out much further than would normally be the case due to the long leverage of the rod.
These longer European rods and the big high capacity fixed spool reels also allow you to cast out as far as you can, then as the tide pushes you back you can keep releasing line leaving your bait out up to 400-yards or more. This simple trick, called “lining back”, often finds thornbacks when even the long range casters fail.
The most popular rigs are simple 1-hook clipped down rigs, or a Pulley rig, both carrying size 3/0 to 4/0 Viking pattern hooks, either single or with two hooks mounted Pennel style one above the other.
The best baits for thornback are mackerel strips cut 2-inches long by one-inch wide with a wide strip of squid added on one side, then bind the whole lot up with bait elastic to keep it tight and compact for long range casting. Baits do not need to be bigger for thornbacks, plus larger baits will cut down your casting distance!
It’s best to leave the first few signs of activity on the rod tip alone. Only pick the rod up when the rod tip pulls right over as the fish swims away, wind in any slack line, then strike as you feel the weight of the fish. This swimming away action usually sets the hook for you too!
Thornbacks will hug and sometimes suction down on the bottom in the initial fight. Just keep steady pressure on them until they move, which they always will. Once they move they will kite in the tide, try to turn round and swim away from you dragging the rod tip down, then maybe go to ground again. They will tend to run parallel with the surf tables when in close, but these runs are short though fairly powerful. As the fish tires, just let a big surf table slide the ray ashore for you.
They are great looking fish and well worth a photo, but don’t keep the ray out of the water more than a minute or so. When releasing them, wade out in to deeper water at least knee deep, hold the ray nose towards the sea in the water, let it regain its strength and simply allow it to swim away when ready.
A good tip is that if you catch one ray, you’ll likely get another pretty quickly. Thornbacks often swim in small groups of three, four or five fish. This is why it’s always a good idea to fish two rods side by side to double your chances.
Enjoy your ray fishing!