As a driver of a desk from Monday to Friday a day at sea can often stretch muscles I rarely use. As I sit and write this my back and shoulders are stiffening to an extent that tells me yesterday was a truly remarkable day’s sport! So here’s how a terrific day afloat from Weymouth unfolded as we found the blonde ray.
When Dave Pitman, skipper of Atlanta out of Weymouth, set the dates for my trips this year I hadn’t realised that the 20th of September was actually the first day of the Weymouth Angling Society Boat Festival competition. Dave had asked whether I wanted to enter the comp or just fish as a bystander. Not wanting to be the bloke who got in the way of the serious anglers I decided I would give it a shot and so Dave submitted my entry form for me and I was set to compete. I have never fished a competition before, except an inter-boat one some years ago where I failed miserably, so it would be a new experience for me.
Planning for Success
There are all sorts of awards up for grabs but essentially the competition requires all competing boats to assemble at the mouth of Weymouth harbour at 8am which then provides an hour for them to get to their chosen marks with no fishing allowed before 9am. Fish have to be back at the club quay for weigh in by 5pm if you are in the running for a specimen prize. Other than this the main competition works on a points system. Each species of fish is worth a specific number of points and you can catch up to nine of each variety to add to your score. You can’t fish beyond the international waters boundary and have to be fishing off the Dorset coast. Devising a plan that enables you to cover as much ground as possible to bag different species while maximising your time with a line in the water is the Skipper’s challenge. Actually catching the fish is up to the anglers.
The forecast was fantastic and we had a smooth sea state all day in overcast but warm and muggy conditions. Dave had advised the plan the night before so I came armed with a robust spinning outfit to catch wrasse close in to the rocks, a heavy outfit to chase rays in a strong tide and a 6lb class rod in case we were after smaller species at anchor where I may need more lead than the spinning outfit could manage.
In the competition you can only have one rod rigged at any time so I started with my spinning outfit. I attached a hand tied Wessex rig with size 4 Sakuma Mini Manta hooks – capable of holding a big ballan wrasse but small enough for a corkwing. The strategy with the wrasse was to get a full bag of ballans and some points on the board before the tide picked up and we could chase bigger species with higher points values.
Dave came to a stop on the west side of Portland Bill and as we counted down to 9am he positioned us for the first drift. I baited with small rag worms and waited for the clock to chime. Dave called out that we could start and I lowered away. On hitting the bottom I took a couple of turns to stay very tight to my gear and try and avoid the snags in this very rocky / kelpy bottom. I didn’t wait long and I had my first fish – a corkwing worth 5 points.
Shortly after I had a small ballan wrasse which made for a good start but Dave and Dee were outpacing me and Jim, John and Mick were all having similar success.
Next drop I had a small bite and then a big hit which took me to the rocks. I slackened off and tried to let the fish swim free but he was wedged and my tackle gave out. Gone was the rig and weight but worse than that so was my leader. I put the spinning gear in the rod holder and broke out the 6lb rod. I hastily attached another rig and re-baited. Back to the bottom and I was in again – another corkwing. I followed this up with another ballan before again experiencing disaster. This time I was retrieving my line to reset so I didn’t drift in to a snag when I had a fish hit on the second or third wind. I got it up a few turns but it was very strong and took me back into the rocks where I was solid again and for the second time I lost all my gear and my leader.
I holstered the 6lb rod and got the spinning gear back out. I tied a new leader and, quickly tied on a simple running leger with a short 15″ trace. I tightened the clutch on my Penn Slammer reel a touch and baited again. I didn’t have to wait long and another bite and the first of seven rapid ballans came to the boat. They had steadily improved in quality also and I had a few that were on their way to 3 pounds so I was very pleased with myself. Dave and Dee had both caught their quota and had a pollack each. Dee also managed a good haul of corkwings as well as a goldsinny wrasse.
Next mark would be the Kidney Bank to try for blonde ray, a move that would turn out to be the main event. These are worth 20 points each instead of the 5 points you get for a wrasse. There is also an award for the biggest blonde in the festival, a prize Dave had his eye on.
I dismantled my spinning rod and broke out the heavy gear consisting of a 30lb class Tubertini Blue Trolling Rod, a Penn GT2 330 loaded with 40lb braid and a boom. Below the boom I rigged a four foot 60lbs mono trace with a 5/0 Pennel rig. This I baited with a whole squid and a strip of mackerel suspended from the bottom hook. I attached a 12oz weight and lowered away. I had nowhere near enough weight to hold the bottom and as the weight rolled away from the back of the boat I found I had a nasty braid knot on my reel. I decided to pull line from the spool and let the bait drift back so I could then wind back in and have a better lie on my reel. As I did this Jim had a bite and had to retrieve to re-bait.
Fun With Blondes
I hadn’t considered the implications my actions and all that slack line quickly fouled Jim’s line. He was very generous and conducted surgery on his rig to free our lines and get us back in the water quickly. I wound quickly to recover my copious amounts of line and attach a heavier weight when all of a sudden the rod went solid. Then it twitched with a rhythmic thumping of a slow but very strong fish. My mishap had turned to good fortune and I was attached to my first blonde ray. It was a good tussle to get him to put his head up but once off the bottom the fish was well behaved and I had a 12 pounder on the boat for only my second my second ever blonde.
I re-baited and lowered away, this time with a pound and a half of lead. I was holding well now and put the rod in the holder on the back rail and sat down to wait as ray fishing is normally a waiting game. However only a minute or two passed before the rod tip was nodding again and I picked up the rod, gave the fish a bit of line, and wound down in to another heavy fish. This time it ran, not quickly, but for what seemed like forever. Dave suggested I would have to tighten the drag and turn the fish round or he would just spool me. I tightened bit by bit and eventually managed to stop the fish. I had been attached to it for at least ten minutes by now and was sure it was a monster.
Slowly I managed to make some ground on the fish punctuated by periods when the fish would get line back as I took a breather. I had caught an 80lb Sailfish earlier in the year and I swear this was tougher – must be a record I thought. After what was probably 15 minutes or more the fish finally appeared at the back of the boat some 60 yards astern. Not a huge and majestic ray surfing on the surface but a relatively small example of the species that was caught in mouth and tail and was rigged like a spinnaker in a 3 knot tide. At about 10lbs it was smaller than my first and some leg pulling followed. To make matters worse other rays were coming to the boat and Dave now had a fish knocking 17lbs aboard.
With my small ray returned and the excitement of Dave’s fish over I got back to re-baiting my rod. It was not long and Dee was in over my shoulder. She had a fish of about 12lbs or so and had another 20 points for her total. Jim was also fighting a fish when suddenly he gave us all a fright as he doubled over in pain. Fortunately he had just over extended his shoulder in the fight and was soon on his feet again, the proud captor of a tope, 25 points and worth the pain.
While this scene unfolding I was back in action again, this was supposed to be a waiting game and I was in to my third blonde ray in about 45 minutes. A more conventional fight this time with the fish hanging tough until his head came up. He went back for the bottom a few times and I was sure this would be better than my first two. It was big enough to give Dave a fright and we had a weigh off. Mine was a whisker off 16lbs so he still had the biggest on the boat.
Next it was Dave to call the big fish and the rods were cleared from the stern to give him space and he engaged low gear on his sophisticated Daiwa reel to make life easier.
Eventually Dave’s fish surfaced and I couldn’t believe it. This one was even smaller than my spinnaker hooked one and it was wrapped up in the same way – ahhhh, revenge is sweet! Still, it was worth 20 points and Dave and I had three rays each. I boated another ray as John hooked something very heavy. As he leaned back to exert just a little more pressure to try and turn the fish his 80lb line broke and sent him sprawling to the deck, starting to look a little dangerous this blonde ray fishing.
Then it was Dave’s turn to bring a fish to the back of the boat again. This time it was no wrapped up runt, it was the real deal dropping the scales to 21lb and a putting his coveted award within reach.
I landed another fish in the 12lb bracket and with the engines being warmed for another move Dave, Dee and I had all boated five rays a piece. Another five had come to the other anglers and all of this in less than 90 minutes. My shoulders were burning as another bit developed. This time the fish stayed deep under the boat and swam quickly and strongly against the tight drag I had set for shifting rays off the bottom. I bullied what was clearly a heavy fish some half way up and was just considering backing off my drag when something gave way at the terminal end of my tackle. The trace had been bitten cleanly between top and bottom hook of the Pennel. Best guess was a good tope, and 25 points lost, maybe a crack at the tope prize as well.
Next stop was a nearby wreck where conger were on the menu but so were pollack and bream. I made the wrong tactical decision, dismantling my heavy gear and rigging the spinning outfit to try for a bream or two. Everyone else went for congers and I managed a poor cod worth only two points while several 15 point conger fell to other rods with Dee landing one around the 30lb mark.
Final move was for a short drift off the end of Portland Bill for plaice and bream where I managed two 10 point bream and Jim added three to his tally. Then fishing time elapsed and it was all about the count.
Dave and Dee had both managed 200 points each. I was just short of this with 182 but I had enjoyed a magnificent days sport with more rays and double figure fish than I can remember. Couple this with a session on the ballans and bream it was just about my perfect day that I can still feel all over my body as I write this account.