Fishing for Skates and Rays
There is no scientific distinction to be made between skates and rays. They are all members of the family Raiidae, the smaller species tending to be labelled as ray by fishermen, while the larger are usually called skate. Since we are not ichthyologists but anglers, the unscientific distinction might as well be retained here.
Rays and skates are flattened, but are not flatfish. There is still confusion amongst fishermen on this point, so it seems as well to state now that while skates are flattened from above, so that they swim belly down, and their eyes are symmetrically placed on top of their heads, ‘true’ flatfish like plaice and flounders are flattened sideways, so that they swim on their sides, and have both eyes on one side of their bodies. Further- more, skates and rays are of that great family of fish, including monkfish,, and shark, which have no true backbone – the cartilaginous fish.
They are odd fish in appearance. The development of the pectoral fins into ‘wings’ is characteristic, and these wings together with the central body form the ‘disc’, to which is appended a long tail. The mouth is situated underneath the head and in clearly well adapted to feeding right on the seabed. It is a curious fact that, since the mouth is usually pressed against the bottom of the sea, breathing is by means of valves set behind the eyes, ‘breathing’ in this case of course meaning the intake of sea water.
The skin is rough and scaleless, as in other members of this family, and many species have sharp spines set in the disc and in the tail. Most species also have rounded, crushing teeth, though occasionally, as in the case of the male thornback, they may be pointed.
Distinguishing between the various species of ray that inhabit British waters is something of a nightmare. No indication of species is given by fin-ray count, for there are no true bones in the fish. Nor are there any differences in the arrangement of the fins. Differences in the shape of the disc are the result of differences in age and sex; so are those of colouration. The sharp spines which are carried by many of the rays do not guarantee identification either. Some degree of differentiation is possible however between long-nosed and short-nosed species (the former are the bigger species referred to as skate, the latter the rays).
Dr Michael Kennedy makes this distinction :
‘If the distance of the eyes from the tip of the snout is at least fifty per cent of the width of the disc at the level of the eyes, the fish may be regarded as long-snouted. If, on the other hand, it is not more than forty per cent of this measurement, the fish may be regarded as short-snouted.’
The following points may be useful to the angler as an indication of identification. If you are firmly convinced that you have broken, let us say, the blond ray record, make certain that you keep the body for expert investigation.
Thornback Ray (Raia clavata)
This is the commonest ray to be met with in British Waters. As its name suggests, it wears an armoury of sharp spines, but the one that distinguishes it from other spine-bearing species are the large spines situated right in the middle of its wings. In the male fish (distinguished by the `claspers’, the two roughened flaps at either side of the tail) the teeth are pointed. The disc is more angular than in other small rays. Like most other rays, the thornback is patterned with light spots on a dark ground.
Blond Ray (Raia brachyura)
The disc is more inclined to be heart-shaped and carries fewer spines than the thomback’s. The colour is rather light. An identifying characteristic is that the spots extend right to the edges of the wings. On the underside there is an edging of small spines along the wings.
Spotted Ray (Raia montagui)
Very similar to the blond ray. The spots are fewer and larger and do not reach the edges of the wings as in the above species. There is no border of spines on the edges of the under-surface of the wings.
Cuckoo Ray (Raia naevus)
This has large spines. The disc is heart-shaped. The chief characteristic is a notably large dark spot on each wing, like an eye, ‘superimposed upon which are yellow, hieroglyphic-like markings’ (Kennedy).
Sandy Ray (Raia circularis)
Very similar to the cuckoo ray, but the nose is rather more pointed and the tail is shorter. It is light brown above with a symmetrical pattern of yellow spots on each wing.
It will be clearly seen that there are many problems for the angler who wishes to identify his catch. In some cases only physical comparison of similar species will be of any help.
The Sting Ray (Dasyatis pastinaca)
Every season a few sting ray are caught by sea anglers in this country, though it is doubtful whether anyone fishes for the species deliberately.
The sting ray is easily distinguished from the other rays by its elongated spine and long whip-like tail. There are no markings on its brownish disc, as there are in the case of the other rays.
This fish seems to come inshore in the late summer, particularly favouring the east coast. Unlike the rays we have been considering, the sting ray is viviparous, and seems to be less of a fish eater than the others, taking for preference molluscs and crustaceans.
The spiny tail of the sting ray is capable of inflicting an unpleasant wound in its own right, but its long spine can cause severe pain and possibly a fatal wound by reason of the venom it secretes. Immediate medical attention is necessary should you be unlucky enough to receive a sting. On landing a sting ray, the best plan is immediately to cut off the tail where it joins the body.
The long-nosed species, the skates, do not present quite such formidable identification problems as the rays. Three of them come within the scope of the British sea angler.
Common Skate (Raia batis)
The Common Skate, the ‘big skate’ species most commonly taken by British sea anglers, is a drab, browny-grey above, and there may or may not be small light spots on it. Beneath it is greyish — not white — with possibly a number of black `pores’.
The White Skate (Raia marginata)
The White Skate is distinguished from the above by its pure white underside and the distinctive ‘bottle nose’ that has caused it to be known in some quarters as the Burton skate. It is the largest of the British skates.
The Long-nosed Skate (Raia oxyrhyncus)
The Long-nosed Skate is easily distinguished from the other skates by reason of its particularly long snout. It is greyish on both sides, with spots and streaks on the upper.
No precise information is available at the moment as to how fast skate and rays grow, but the impression is that they are a fairly slow-growing race, as well as being not particularly prolific. As far as thornbacks are concerned, anything over 15 lb is a good fish. Blond rays grow bigger — up to three feet and more — as may the spotted ray. The cuckoo ray is quite a small fish, with a suggested maximum length of two feet. The sandy ray may reach twice this size.
The skates grow to a mighty size; indeed they are the biggest fish to inhabit British waters, if basking shark, of no interest to anglers, are excepted. Fish in excess of 400 lb have been taken by trawlers, and the white skate may attain a weight of 500 lb. The long-nosed skate runs considerably smaller.
Once again I should like to stress that expert identification is necessary if you want your ray or skate considered for record purposes.
The spawning period of skates and rays may extend over several months. The fish ‘lay’ eggs in horny purses, rather like those produced by the dogfish, which are generally buried in the seabed. Failing this, they carry sticky threads which pick up fragments of marine rubbish – bits of stone or weed – causing them to sink. The young skate remains for a very long time in the capsule; when it finally becomes free very little of the egg yolk remains attached to it, as it does in the case of most young fishes. The process of incubation may be extended over a very long period – six or seven months.
It is not known with much certainty what migrations these species undertake. Certainly, however, from one’s observation as an angler, it can be noted that the fish are more plentiful at some times of the year than at others. Thornback rays seem to be particularly common between May and November – they do not seem to be active inshore in the colder months of the year.
Sometimes there are mysterious movements of skate from one locality to another.
Rays are often taken in shallow water, sometimes by anglers casting out from surf beaches. This applies particularly to thorn-backs. Blond rays prefer deeper water, ten fathoms or over. Spotted and cuckoo rays are often shallow-water dwellers, but the sandy ray is certainly a deep-water species. Big skate are chiefly found in depths of fifteen fathoms and over, though occasionally they may be encountered in shallow water.
All the species we are considering prefer mud, sand, or gravel, but it is noticeable that the big common skate are chiefly taken on patchy ground, where sand and gravel are broken up by areas of weedy stones. Generally speaking, while thornbacks and some of the other rays come within the shore angler’s range, a boat anchored well off shore is needed to come into contact with the big skate.
Read more: Fishing Methods for Catching Skates and Rays