What’s on offer at holiday destination.
The seaside town of Minehead, nestled in rural west Somerset, is a popular destination for families holidaying in summer. With its idyllic harbour dating back to the 1300s, a fully operational steam railway and its close proximity to the Exmoor National Park, it is little wonder people flock here every year.
But for those in the family seeking to wet a line during their time away, there really is no finer place to fish. With a bustling charter fleet, not to mention a tackle shop run by an accomplished shore fishing guide, there really is no excuse to leave the rods at home. Those wishing to get afloat can enjoy a mixed bag of fish in summer, but here my focus is on shore sport, and, in particular, ray fishing.
I’m sure that the word is out regarding the phenomenal thornback ray fishing in the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, but those chancing their luck in the clearer waters found at Minehead and beyond may appreciate a few pointers on how to get the best from these stunning venues.
WHEN TO TRY
One such angler is Ian Slater, who recently contacted me with a view to targeting a small-eyed ray. If his request had been for a thornback, then venues are ten a penny, but to focus on the other species of rays found here in the channel, you do need to be a little more selective with your venue choice.
Historically, small-eyed, spotted and blonde rays appear from April, which is the same time that dogfish arrive. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to present a sandeel bait for a ray only for a dogfish to grab it within seconds. For this reason, I will usually leave Minehead alone for a couple of months.
Ray numbers remain steady throughout the summer with the small-eyed and spotted varieties the most likely to find your bait. Towards the back end of the year, the fish will still be in residence, but many anglers have other fish on their minds. As a result, Minehead’s true ray potential is not realised towards the back end of the year.
TACKLE AND RIG
Ian’s tackle was perfect for the job in hand – a pair of 13ft beachcasters matched to high-speed reels that will hold enough 20lb mainline.
The ground consists of boulders and patches of undulating sand. Early on in the tide, it is essential to winch the end tackle up off the seabed in quick time to avoid it snagging when it meets with the boulders.
Ian’s reel is the popular Daiwa Saltist BG20, which is ideal for fishing over heavy ground, but towards the end our session he did borrow a Daiwa Saltiga model, as good as it gets when wetting a line in this area.
Last year I would've been all over the pulley rig, but having experimented a little over the last few months, I now favour the drop-down pulley. It’s nothing new, but the entire concept of the free-running hook trace sliding down the body of the rig seems entirely improbable. Water pressure on impact, not to mention the tide pushing a ridiculous bow in to the mainline, would all point towards the trace remaining at the top of the rig. I can’t for the life of me see how the trace is supposedly presented hard on the seabed and perhaps it is not, but it certainly catches fish!
A Pennell rig consisting of a size 4/0 Varivas Big Mouth Xtra as the main hook and a 3/0 Chinu to sit above the bait seems to be the perfect combination. I wouldn’t drop below an 80lb hook snood. The likelihood of a large conger straying across the sand in search of small fish becomes increasingly favourable as the year moves on and to stand half a chance of landing such a fish, a heavy snood should be used to combat those jaws.
Minehead is subject to a powerful lateral tide, especially during the flood, so a wired lead of at least 6oz is recommended. Casting on to sand with a wired lead when the tide is hurtling through can all too often see the lead weight bounce out of the bottom. If the bait is not held firmly in place on the seabed, you have next to no chance of catching a ray.
Shop-bought sinkers are fine for the most part, but it is wise to replace wires with longer and thicker 16-gauge wire that will really take hold and dig in when it hits the sandy bottom. Many anglers are now adopting styles of weight that contain a bait clip too. Not only do these cut down on the time it takes to construct a rig, but also ensure there are minimal components to potentially find a snag too.
There is really only one bait when it comes to catching rays on the Bristol Channel and that is a sandeel. A couple of packs of large blastfrozen eels will last a session. They should be stored in a cool bag during the summer to ensure they are in tip-top condition.
Cut off the head and tail, nick the leading hook of the trace at the head end and, holding the eel alongside the shank of the hook, whip it in place with fine bait elastic.
A further strip of squid or mackerel can be added to the sandeel.
“If the bait is not held firmly on the seabed you have next to no chance of a ray”
THEORY IN TO PRACTICE
Some time passed before this happened again, but this time the line fell slack and the tip straightened.
With a curve in his rod, Ian set about pumping what seemed to be a good fish back to shore and shortly afterwards I presented a beautiful small-eyed ray to him. Mission accomplished. Having briefed Ian in some detail regarding the venue, the tackle requirements and our general approach, it was time to put the theory into practice.
After a 20-minute slog across the boulders, we arrived at our mark some two hours before low water, theoretically a perfect time, and tackled up on a freshly-exposed patch of sand.
After wetting the new line on his reel to ensure it had bedded in sufficiently, Ian clipped on a baited trace and cast it seaward. Fish are caught at both short and long range, so with Ian’s bait somewhere in between, I was confident that he was in the zone.
Twenty minutes later, Ian retrieved the tackle and I was fairly sure that a dogfish might have been pulled through the shallows but surprisingly, his bait was perfectly intact.
This was a good sign. A lack of dogfish means a bait can be left for a longer period of time, giving a ray a far better chance of finding it.
Sure enough, some 30 minutes later and only on his second cast, Ian’s rod signalled the presence of a fish as the rod tip gave a very pronounced pull.
Minehead is a good venue for catching rays
Ian waits for a bite on his 13ft beachcasters
Several packs of sandeels will be enough
The popular Daiwa Saltist BG 20
The Daiwa Saltiga is ideal
Sandeel and squid on a Pennell rig
Rays are caught at both short and long range
Expect to catch small-eyed rays in summer