Fishing for Thornback rays, also known as Roker or skate in your local fish & chip shop is great fun and they can be found all around the coast of Britain. Rays like sharks are both members of the same group of cartilaginous fish, known as “elasmobranchs”. Despite their differences in appearance, they share several important characteristics including a cartilaginous skeleton and electroreceptor organs that allow them to detect the electric fields produced by other animals, helping them locate prey and navigate.
These bottom-dwelling cousins of sharks can reach quite a size. The current UK boat caught record is a monster 31lb 7oz and 22lb 11oz 8dr from the shore. Most boat-caught rays caught off the south coast are around the 5-7lb mark. If you want to keep one to cook, then the minimum size is 41cm across the wings.
Deeper water and larger tides call for a strong setup for the boat angler. Even though the fish on the end of your line may be 6lb, a fast tide will feel like you are pulling in a wet blanket. That is the one setback with catching rays of most types; the fight is unfortunately abysmal.
Let’s talk tackle.
boat Fishing Rod and reel setup
25lb Class boat rod is ideal, but if you only have one that is bigger or a little smaller it will work. The reel choice is either a size 6000 fixed spool or a small boat multiplier, but once again if you have anything around these sizes that should be fine.
I like to use braided fishing line as it offers several advantages, such as exceptional strength-to-diameter ratio, minimal stretch, and increased sensitivity. If you only have mono line that will do just fine just make sure you have around 25-30lb breaking strain. 60lb braided mainline with a 50lb fluorocarbon leader never lets me down when fishing for skate. The leader is there for the zip slider to run up and down and protect your braid from the abrasive skin and thrones of the rays.
When fishing for thornback rays on a boat, a simple running rig with a Zip Slider does the trick just fine. Slide your Zip Slider on the line followed by a 6mm bead and attach it to a size 2/0 barrel swivel.
I always use a memory-free monofilament line called AMNESIA by a company called Sunset from the USA for all my sea fishing hook traces. When working with my braid mainline, I can see every indication of a bite. There are some great memory-free fluorocarbon lines out there but choose something that you are confident with.
For baits like sandeels, worm baits, and pieces of fish, I use between 5 and 7ft of Amnesia leader with a 3/0 Aberdeen hook and a quick link. It’s a simple but very effective setup for rays. If you are going to use whole squid then add a size 1/0 Aberdeen to make a pennel rig. This will give you a better bait presentation.
My choice of hooks are Aberdeen’s as I believe they optimize the presentation of your bait, especially squid and sandeels. The hook that complements your bait choice can result in a more natural presentation, which will attract more fish. The long shank also makes it easier to remove the hook from a fish’s mouth without causing injury.
Make sure you are using two hook links. One is fishing in the water and the other is baited up ready to quickly attach via a rig clip. The rig clip (below) can be removed from the swivel in seconds.
This method could add an extra two hours to your fishing time a day by getting a bait straight back in the water. You don’t want to be fiddling around for three minutes every cast baiting up. After all 3 minutes x 6 casts an hour x 7 hours fishing = 2 hours you’re not fishing a day. I know, it’s shocking when you do the math so make sure you use two hook links.
When it comes to bait you have quite a choice. Like most rays, they predominantly feed on crustaceans, sandeels, and small fish. For our excursions off the Essex coast we usually catch well on a cross-section of Herring just hooked through the backbone. Whole squid on a pennel rig or a sandeel threaded onto the hook are also reliable baits and well worth a try.
Fishing is pretty straightforward and not complicated. If you can cast up tide as far as is comfortable and wait for the bites to develop. Make sure you change your bait every ten minutes or so. This will give you plenty of attraction and will definitely result in more bites.
Thornback bites are usually the daintiest bites you will get. Representing a small fish nibbling at your bait can be the best way to explain it. The rod tip will do a little dance on and off as the skate lays on top of the bait enveloping its prey. From here it engulfs the bait and sits there munching away. Once it moves off, that’s when you get a better bite. There’s no need to go striking like a madman. Just firmly lift the rod while winding down on the fish.
how to hold a skate
When fishing for thornback rays be careful when you catch one. Thornback rays have skin and tails that represents a weapon from Lord of the Rings. Not only is the tail full of hundreds of thorns but both the upper and underside of the fish possess large single thorns on its wings.
The primary purpose of the thorns is defence. The safest way to hold them is by using your thumb index and middle fingers to lightly hold them as you can see in the photo. Your fingers naturally find their way into a hollow between the head and wing. Keep it away from your body and watch out for the whipping of its tail.
Skate wings are one of my favourite fish to eat and are so versatile to cook with. You can deep fry in batter, steam, pan fry, or even cook them on a cedar plank. Whatever way you choose you’ll get plenty of meat with no annoying little pin bones. A wing of a smaller 3-4lb fish is what you’ll get in the chip shop. But if you are lucky to have an 8lb fish, the wings can be divided in two or even three pieces. I tend to send the kids down to the fish shop for the chips while I pan fry a few fresh wings.
So there you have it, a basic guide to fishing for Thornback Rays. I hope you’ve learned something and it helps you on your next fishing trip.
If you found this article useful then why not take a look at my article on Smoothound Fishing
For more about minimum sizes of UK fish check out Angling Trust where you will find all the fish size limits for the UK