Handle with care
The blue ray, or skate as it is sometimes called, goes by the scientific name Dasyatis pastinaca. Although it is a great fish for the youngsters to cut their teeth on, adult supervision is advised when landing, handling and releasing these fish, as they have an extremely poisonous spine, with an attitude to match. By Dean Pretorius
The blue ray is becoming more and more popular with competitive shore anglers in our country. Stocks seem to be stable and, in some cases, these fish have become more abundant. At times, these rays can be wild, with every throw producing a fine fighting species that adds good points to the scoreboard.
It is relatively easily identified with its bright-blue, almost purple blotches that are quite striking, especially in smaller male fish. The rest of the body is a sandy-brown. The blue ray is disk-shaped, with a slightly rounded snout, unlike the brown ray, which is sharp and pointed. The tail is about 1.5 times longer than the body, and has a well-developed spine at the base. This spine is extremely poisonous and can cause severe pain, and even death. I’ll discuss handling them later...
The blue grows to 40kg, but most specimens are smaller. The current SA shore angling record stands at 36.5kg.
It is distributed throughout southern Africa, extending up the west coast all the way into Europe. Although the latter exhibit many similarities to those along our coast, there are also marked differences, leading scientists to believe they may be two separate species.
In SA this ray is found mainly along beaches, but it is also caught off deep-water points, in particular in KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei, where peak times of abundance are late summer into autumn. In the Eastern and Western Cape, the warmer waters of spring and summer tend to be the best times to find blue rays.
I really enjoy targeting this species, for although they can be wild one day, the next they can be explicitly off the bite for no apparent reason – they seem to be extremely sensitive to temperature, pressure and colour changes, and this gives them a slightly mystical quality, especially to competitive anglers, who target these rays specifically for the points they provide.
When angling off the beaches for blue ray, light to medium tackle is recommended – on this tackle it really puts up a good tussle and this will maximise your enjoyment. A light rod in the vein of the new Poseidon Platinum light or medium, paired with a Saltist 40 BG, will be perfect. No more than 0.45 line is necessary and I always use a light leader of around 0.70 when angling off the beach; often this lighter leader will give you the edge when the fish are shy. New-age grinders such as the Daiwa Windcast or Saltist 6500 TH loaded with 50lb Gator braid, matched with a Saltiga 5500 spinning rod, is a great variation, as these fish are great on the braid.
Because it is generally targeted by the competitive set, theories on the best trace for getting the best results abound – each province will have its own way of targeting this ray. For most of South Africa, barring the West Coast, I’d go with the anglers from the Eastern Cape; the blues are wilder here than anywhere else in SA, and they get to experience true blue ray smashes on a regular basis in the summer months.
The short trace is widely used with good success; it doesn’t twist up in the current, and remains straight and presentable throughout . 50-60lb fluoro snoot 30-50cm long, attached to a chemically sharpened 6-8/0 hook[try the new Mustad O’ Shaughnessy.] I use a single No 3 power swivel with a fixed sinker line; many anglers, however, use a running trace when specifically targeting these rays, and claim better results.
More important than the choice between running and fixed traces is the type of sinker used. Using wire grab sinkers will often spook the ray as it lands on the bait and sinker – the sharp points of the wire legs simply prick the fish. A sound theory and one worth remembering. The weed-eater nylon sinker and, even better, the standard cone sinker would be my choices here. The blue ray will sometimes pull you flat and, more often than not, lift the bait and bring it towards you. The cone is simply lifted out of the sand with little or no resistance, increasing hookups. The use of the Korda anti-tangle sleeve really stops trace twist-ups.
In the wild, the blue ray’s natural diet consists mainly of crustaceans such as sea lice and crabs. However, these fish like nothing more than a big, smelly, soft bait. They are also often caught on chokka in KwaZulu-Natal; in Transkei the red eye is deadly, and further down the coast, the sardine really comes into its own. My No 1 bait for this species combines the smell and attractive oils of the sardine or red eye with the pecker resistance and flavour of good-quality chokka.
Here are some of my favourite spots for blue ray:
1. Van Der Riets, Port Elizabeth: possibly the premier spot to catch these fish.
2. Blue Water Bay, Port Elizabeth: not far from Van Der Riets.
3. Vark + Vlei, West Coast: interesting angling for a totally new perspective.
4. Nyameni Beach and Reef, northern Transkei
5. Lighthouse Point, Port Edward
6. TO Point, Leisure Bay
7. Stebel Rocks, Pumula
8. Station Rock, Park Rynie
Handling and releasing
As most of these fish are pregnant, utmost care should be taken when handling and releasing them. Catching them will be no problem if a few simple rules are followed:
1. Gaffing these fish is unnecessary and should be outlawed.
2. Never drag the fish up onto dry, hot sand; leave it in the shallows or on wet sand.
3. Never turn a ray onto its back; the weight of the organs will crush it.
4. Never insert fingers or any object into the spiracles; rather grab it by the upper jaw and guide it back into the water. The blue does have small, pin-like teeth, but a glove will help.
Enough cannot be said about the danger of handling this ray. The spike is sharp and contains a protein-based poison that is excruciatingly painful. Extremely hot water will denature the poison, but I would suggest seeking immediate medical attention if spiked. In general, the female blue rays are relative docile; it is the small male that you need to watch. They are agile and can flip themselves over and up, impaling the careless angler or bystander.
In the past, it was custom for some anglers to cut off the tail and spike of these rays, thus rendering it harmless. This is a barbaric practice which cannot be condoned.
If we handle these fish with care, they will remain a continued source of pure angling pleasure for years to come.