I recently returned to college to undertake an Honours Degree course in Applied Freshwater and Marine Biology. This has meant that I have had to move from the east coast of Ireland to the other side of the country, settling in Galway City, right on the west coast and some excellent fishing waters. The experience has been rather like a double-edged sword though – I am surrounded by great fishing waters but I am limited in the amount of time I can get out fishing due to a combination of a relatively intensive study schedule coupled with the horrendous winds that an Irish winter can bring. Once the wind drops and the opportunities present themselves, I am usually on hand to take full advantage of them, whether it is raining or not. One thing I have become accustomed to in Ireland is the rain. After thirty plus years here I figure that if I am not used to it by now then I never will be! As a kayak angler in Ireland, the wind is my only enemy.
With a gap in the winds presenting itself on a very overcast day, I loaded up the van and headed for north-west Galway and the stunning coastline that is a jewel in the crown of this particular part of Ireland. With the water temperatures dropping to less than 10°C/50f I knew that most of the ‘clean’ species would have probably headed off to deeper water by now and I would have to wait until late spring or early summer for their return. One species I was fairly confident in catching was the Thornback Ray.
Thornback Ray or ‘Thornies’ as they are commonly known are members or the class Elasmobranchii, the group of marine organisms that include sharks, rays and skate. They can be found in coastal waters all around Europe and also along the Atlantic coast of Africa. Like any ray, they have a flattened body with broad pectoral fins which almost look like wings, giving it a kite-shaped appearance with a tail extending from the posterior end. The mouth is found on the underside of the body which is usually a pale white/cream colour and the eyes are found on the upper side of the body. The colouration of the fish varies but most specimens are of a greyish colour with numerous dark spots and lighter, sometimes almost yellow patches interspersed between them. Their backs and tails are equipped with many, many sharp spines which very closely resemble the thorns on a rose bush, giving rise to the name ‘Thornback Ray’.
Thornies can grow to an impressive size, the Irish record for the species stands at an incredible 37lb/16.75kg but most anglers consider themselves lucky to encounter fish of 10lb/4.5kg or more. The average size seems to be around 4lb/1.8kg to 7lb/3.1kg. I usually use a 12lb/5.5kg class outfit when targeting them. Thornies seem to be most comfortable when over a clean, sedimentary bottom consisting of sand, mud or gravel where they will feed on marine worms, shellfish, sandeels and smaller fish. Being scavengers they will also look for dead fish on the bottom.
Travelling in small groups, it is a good idea to get your bait back to the bottom as fast as possible after boating a fish. If you are quick enough three or four can usually be landed in a short space of time. The biggest fish are females and when a fish is hooked it can appear to be a lot bigger than it actually is. Turning on its side the Thornie can catch the running tide and give the impression of being a far larger specimen until it comes into view.
Bearing all this in mind, I launched into the surf carrying a couple of rods and a couple of baits – sandeel and whole mackerel. My plan was to use the echo-sounder to locate a relatively flat area of sea bed, anchor up and fish two lines – one with a smaller sandeel bait and the other with a whole mackerel, just in the hope that a leviathan may be lurking beneath the kayak. After a relatively short paddle I located a likely looking area sitting in about 26ft/8m of water. I set about dropping my baits to the bottom, setting up the mackerel bait first and then I started to play the waiting game.
Within minutes of the smaller sandeel bait hitting the sea bed, a double tap on the rod tip signalled to me that a fish had found the bait. Striking into the fish it was easy to tell that I had hooked up with the first Thornie of the day. Not a big fish, it weighed about 3lb/1.35kg but a welcome start for a new, previously unexplored water. Knowing that fish like this are not loners, I dropped down to the bottom again in the hopes that a few of his mates were around. They were and very soon I was bringing another fish to the boat. The second was roughly the same size as the previous one, a good start and another bait was sent back down in search of more.
The first hour or so saw some very consistent sport from the Thornies. It wasn’t hectic; there were times when I had to wait for up to ten minutes for a bite but every time a bait went down it eventually ended up finding and hooking a fish. Great fishing, highly entertaining but all fish that were hooked were on the small side. I had taken out the bigger bait in the hope that it might tempt a bigger fish but for the first hour nothing had touched it. I decided that it needed ‘freshening up’ so I reeled in and replaced the bait with a newer offering. Within minutes of this bait being lowered into the depths, the tip of the rod started to nod erratically. I decided to let the action develop but with no positive take coming within ten minutes, I thought that checking the bait would be a good idea. It had been torn to shreds. On went another one and I tried the same thing but time after time I was treated to a repeat performance. I can only conclude that smaller ray were tearing lumps off the big bait and avoiding the rather large hook that was sticking out of it.
As it turned out, the smaller sandeel bait was the one that was to see a couple of bigger Thornies in quick succession. After baiting up my size 3/0 hook with a sandeel I flipped the reel into free spool. When I felt the 6oz/170g lead hit the bottom I tightened everything up and waited for the next bite. Not having to wait long for a double tap on the rod that signalled another ray, I struck into the fish and instantly knew that it was a better specimen. The rod arched over and the ray, kiting in the current and occasionally pulling line, was a bit of a struggle to land compared to its predecessors. Finally the battle was complete and I was sitting on the kayak with the largest Thornie of the day – if it wasn’t 10lb/4.5lb then it could not have been far from it.
Another couple of Thornies graced the kayak cockpit in the 7-8lb/3.1-3.6kg range to make for a very successful day on a previously unfished water. After this flurry of larger fish the pattern reverted to a steady stream of their smaller brothers. When I eventually decided to head for home it wasn’t the rain that convinced me, I had literally run out of bait such was the quality and consistency of the sport. Today the bigger bait never produced the goliath but it may well do the next day, I live in hope.
One final, interesting point for the kayak anglers out there – when I landed back on the beach there were a couple of anglers fishing from the shore. I told them about the day I had spent on the water and enthused that the bay must be stuffed with fish. Their response was to inform me that they had caught nothing all day! One up for the kayak anglers and food for thought for the shore anglers!