What’s at the End of the Line?
A big, powerful surprise
The rod tip dipped, then dipped again. Reaching out, my longtime friend Sandy Sempliner eased the rod from its holder. His reel spool then began to turn slowly. Thumbing it lightly, he tried to determine if extra tidal current was providing the force or if a crafty fish down below was making off with his bait.
The pull on the line increased, and the spool blurred. Sandy was sure now that something big had his chunk of menhaden. Giving it a half dozen or so additional seconds, he finally threw the reel into gear. Pointing the rod directly at the fish, he cranked until the line came tight, then slammed the rod back hard, hammering home the hook. The heavy-action rod bent down into the corks. The fight was on.
Saying that August has been a difficult month for catching rockfish would be a gross understatement. It has been brutal. White perch have been virtually absent as well, at least in the mid-Bay. Even charter boat skippers with their wealth of experience are having trouble pleasing their clients.
The adrenaline that a big fish starts up in your body can be exhilarating. Sandy’s grin was as wide as his face, his eyes bright with excitement. The reel’s drag was ripping now and his rod, bending hard over, was making that creaking sound that sometimes comes just before the graphite shaft blows into a thousand shards. He eased up and let the fish run.
The big fish cut across far behind the stern of our skiff as I rushed to get the other trailing lines out of the way. Then the fish came toward the surface. We looked aft, expecting to see the explosion of a silvery striped flank, but in the distance there only appeared a broad brown wing tip cutting through the surface with a long whip-like tail trailing behind. It was a cownose ray.
It wasn’t the trophy we thought. However, having already spent almost three hours fishing without a nibble, the hook-up was a welcome break from the morning’s monotony.
Over long and laborious minutes, my friend finally worked the brute close enough to the boat to release it. I had intended to remove the hook. But our quarry had other ideas, and I certainly wanted no part of the serrated, toxin-laden spike poised at the base of its thrashing tail.
I cut the leader as close to the winged monster as I could and watched as it slowly made its way back into the depths from which we had disturbed it. Sandy had never caught a ray before and was impressed with its power. I had to agree it was a graceful and handsome creature.
The Bay’s Rays
European explorers first encountered cownose rays in 1608. Near the mouth of the Chesapeake, Captain John Smith attempted to spear the specimen with his sword. In the struggle, he was hit in the shoulder by the ray’s stinger.
Some current piscatorial literature describes the toxin as “a weak venom that causes symptoms similar to that of a bee sting.” Smith’s crew, observing the captain’s long and extreme agony, were so sure he was going to die that they dug his grave.
Captain Smith survived the ordeal. The place where it happened is still called Stingray Point.
Schools of cownose rays, sometimes numbering in the thousands, travel down the Atlantic Coast to visit the Chesapeake every summer, coming all the way up past the Patapsco River. They dine on young oysters, clams and mussels, while tormenting anglers by eating baits meant for other species.
The rays feed and mate in the shallows during these warmer months and also give live birth to baby rays conceived the previous year. The pups have a wingspread of about 12 inches.
Named for their broad, bulbous head that resembles a cow’s sizeable nose, the adults can reach 80 inches wing tip to wing tip and weigh in excess of 100 pounds, though the average is less than half that. They leave the Bay each fall to migrate farther south.
Sandy and I caught and released a number of good-sized rays that morning. It was not quite the experience we were looking for, but it did have its moments. The brute power of the rays tested our tackle and our knot-tying before finally sending us packing.