Targeting The Elusive Spotted Eagle Ray

The spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari is by far the most beautiful ray in the ocean. It's also the most difficult to target. Rudolph Scheepers looks at the reasons.

The spotted eagle ray has a diamond-shaped body with pointed wings and is much wider than it is long – its tail is 2.7 times longer than the body and carries one to three serrated spines. The underside of the fish is a pale white colour with almost no markings. The spotted eagle ray is a coastal species and found mainly along the coastline of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) during the summer. It is family of the duckbill (Pteromylaeus bovinus) – one of the other pointed wing species caught along the east coast on a regular bases. The duckbill is not as brightly coloured as the spotted eagle ray and has a brown colour and broad crossbars visible on its body. The duckbill has a shorter tail than the spotted eagle ray and is only 1.5 to 1.8 times longer than its own body. Unlike the spotted eagle ray, that is mostly confined to the KZN coastline, the duckbill can be found as far south as the west coast and all the way up to KZN’s north coast.

There is a third eagle ray cousin, well known to the Cape coast anglers as the bull ray (Myliobatus aquila). This is a smaller fish than the spotted eagle ray and the duckbill, and a specimen weighing close to 20kg is considered a big bull ray. On the other hand spotted eagle ray and duckbill can obtain sizes of more than 100kg. The body colour of the bull ray is light to dark brown with its short snout the most distinguishing difference between itself and the other two species. The bull ray is caught regularly along the west and eastern Cape coastline, but to land one on the KZN coastline is truly very rare.

Is it possible to target the spotted eagle ray?

In my opinion the spotted eagle ray must be one of the most difficult fish to target, which begs the question – is it even possible to target this species? I would say it is not due to a lack of finding the fish, during summer months we often spot them swimming in the shallows – mainly over flat reefs. Probably the most difficult question is what bait to cast for them. During the past years l have seen many anglers casting all sorts of bait as the rays cruse past us in the shallow water. Sometimes they will stay in the same area for hours, swimming over the buffet of food presented to them by all the desperate anglers trying their luck at a bit of glory. Often they will feed so shallow that their wings will flap in the air as they move back into deeper water. I must also add, that including myself, l have never witnessed any of these fish being hooked – and this is not because of a lack of trying, we have tried all sorts of bait, ranging from crayfish to crab, mussel, prawn, chocca, redeye, you name it – and the guys have tried it. Personally, I have seen them eating mussels off the rocks, and I am confident they will eat anything fresh they can find.

I have heard of two separate occasions where anglers have seen them swimming in the shallows and casted bait and hooked the fish. One of these occasions was earlier this year, during late summer. Koot Scheepers (my dad) went down to one of his local fishing spots in Umkomaas, KZN. As he was standing on the rocks making long casts for summer flatfish, he noticed a spotted eagle ray swimming up and down past him. The fish was basically five metres from the edge of the water, and he watched it for almost two hours, while he was fishing. I don’t think he even considered targeting the fish, as he has tried many times before, with no success. When it was time for him to go home he started reeling in his bait, and as it came close to the area where he saw the ray, he decided to stop reeling and leave the bait there for a few minutes – it did not even take 30 seconds before the rod almost got yanked out of his hands and the spotted eagle ray took off like a underwater missile with his bait. The whole affair lasted only a few seconds before the fish cut him off on the sharp mussels. At least he experienced the power and speed of this amazing species, there are only a handful of anglers who are so privileged. So what bait fooled the ray this time?

Is it bait or opportunity?

There is a second story l know of an angler who targeted a spotted eagle ray that was teasing them in the shallows, many years ago at Cape Vidal. One of my good mates from Zululand was fishing the SA champs at Cape Vidal. He tells me a group of them were fishing off the ledges when they noticed a 60-odd kg spotted eagle ray swimming on the ledge, right in front of them. They all bombarded the poor fish with a variety of bait for at least an hour. The fish ignored all of their bait. Eventually they were all casting far again targeting other fish, while the spotted eagle ray swam past every few minutes, just teasing them. He tells me a while later an angler from the Free State arrives.

As he placed his gear on the rocks he noticed the eagle ray swimming in the shallows and went into a spin, obviously thinking that the other anglers have not seen the fish. Hastily he attached the bait (apparently it looked like a mackerel and red-eye mix); then he walked to the front of the ledge, lobbed his bait about five metres into the water and joined the group of anglers.

Seconds later my mate saw the fish swim straight up to the guy’s bait and grab it. In his haste to get to the spotted eagle ray “that no one has noticed” the poor guy forgot to loosen his drag. He almost landed face first on the rocks as the fish flew away – it sounded like a gunshot going off as his nylon exploded under the immense pressure this extremely strong fish exerted on it.

Now it brings me to the question – what bait to use when targeting the spotted eagle ray? To get back to the bait my dad used, he was using a plain mackerel head cut off short, just behind the gills. I have only hooked three spotted eagle rays in my whole fishing career: the first one was about ten years ago, fishing for a sandy with a mackerel head as bait. Unfortunately I lost that fish at my feet as the line got cut off on the sharp rocks, l was fishing from. The second was about two years ago when we took two of the top management from Pure Fishing in Europe on a day’s fishing while they were in South Africa for business.

The story behind this specific spotted eagle ray sounds a bit bizarre but it is true. We fished in an area just north of Umhlanga. It was a nice hot summer’s day and we managed to get the guys into a few small sandys and some brown skate. By the afternoon the sun was too hot and we decided to have one more cast before we take our guests back to their hotel.

I casted a mackerel head with cutlets on the side for the one guy on a grinder and braid outfit, and the same bait for the other guy on a multiplier with .50 nylon. I made sure to cast the bait at least 50m apart so that they do not burn each other off, if one hooked a fish. We stood for a while when both of them got pulled flat – almost simultaneously and dragged towards the sea. I quickly loosened their drags and then tried to find out who tangled with whom. It just seemed impossible that they both had fish on. I also noticed that their lines were close together and I realised one had a fish on and the other one has tangled up with him. After a while, trying to separate the lines, l gave up and told both of them to pull together. To make a long story short, after more than an hour the two guys were almost dehydrated and dying of heat stroke. We fed them cold beers to try and give them some strength as they handed the rods to us, their hands were cramping and both of them were suffering unbearable back pain. Whatever they had on was extremely strong and every time they got the fish close to the side it took off with great speed, back over the backline. Eventually they landed the fish: a catch of a lifetime for our guests! A spotted eagle ray of about 65kg. It ate both their bait, with one hook in the one side of its mouth and the other on the other side.

The third one l hooked and the first one l ever landed was last year during summer, on the rocks near Umkomaas.

Once again l was fishing for summer flat fish. The bait l used was mackerel head with cutlets on the side and once again the spotted eagle ray decided to eat this specific bait.

The question begs

If you had to ask me how to target a spotted eagle ray my answer will be as follows: fish for it during summer months along the KZN coastline. They seem to prefer reef, so stay around this area.

And the bait? Well in my experience they love a fresh mackerel head with cutlets on the side.

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