Two Fins Against One
Surprise Abounds on our Bountiful Bay
by Chris Justice
Whether by birds, fish, weather or water, the Bay routinely surprises those who visit it regularly.
On a splendid Sunday June afternoon, I was fishing with two friends from work aboard the boat of Capt. Tom Cross, out of Kent Narrows. We were bobbing along on his Fast Break, and the early morning waters were blankets of glass. The sun was ruthless. We traveled widely to find fish, at one point slamming into a frenzied school of 12- to 15-inch rockfish. The school covered at least four acres of water. We drifted for 45 minutes, following the school, and picked up several fish but no keepers.
Later, we settled directly outside Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and bottom-jigged for rockfish along the man-made current produced by the plants hydro-powered discharge. Like all good captains, Tom pointed out the nuances of the Bay, including the history of its islands, popular fishing spots, the plants unique positioning and the Bays prized denizens: crabs, great blue herons, oysters and rockfish.
He was particularly informative about the cow-nosed rays mating around the boat. Periodically, males would mount the females, causing lustful splashes. Our heads darted to the scene, hoping a school of rockfish was arriving, but we saw only the two ominous wing tips of the rays, which resemble the dorsal fin of a shark. Of course sharks have only one dorsal fin.
Did you know they use grinding plates to crush shellfish? he asked. Yeah, they are usually on the bottom, but not by choice; they sink because they have no swim bladder, which helps most fish float. Like sharks, they are made of nothing but cartilage. But sharks, mostly bulls and sandbars, are their only predators in the Bay. He seemed an encyclopedia of ray knowledge. Meanwhile, at least a dozen pairs of rays flopped within a 20-yard radius of the boat.
Rays and the Bay have a long history. Stingray Point as well as a marina and lighthouse, all located near Deltaville in Middlesex County, Virginia holds that name because thats about where a ray stung John Smith, the colonial explorer. Captain Cross said the ray was most likely a southern stingray, which, unlike their northern relative the cow-nosed ray, is more likely to inflict wounds. Smith survived, although his colleagues prepared a grave for him due to the gravity of his initial condition. According to legend, Smith ate the ray for dinner. Though potentially fatal, ray stings are rare and treatable.
We drifted slowly, and as the rays orgy continued, so did their splashes. Soon, our heads stopped darting to them. Our concentration refocused on rockfish.
Minutes later, as if on cue, a splash cracked the surface. This splash was much louder, unusually louder. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a cow-nosed ray suspended in mid-air a foot from the surface. Directly behind it lurked a distinct fin, one forever embedded in our collective unconscious: a single fin, much larger than any wing tip.
Man, look at that, Tom yelled. Looks like a bull just nailed it.
We were all astounded, and our captain the most. That thing was at least six feet long, maybe longer. Probably a bull. Ill tell ya, Ive never seen that before.
If he never saw it before, after decades of fishing the Bay, I suspected I would never see such a sight again. Cross radioed his captain buddies and reported the news.
I knew sharks inhabited the Bay; I just never expected to see one in predatory mode.
When hes not fishing, Chris Justice teaches English at The Community College of Baltimore County. He last reflected in Bay Weekly on Bay Symmetry (Vol. xii, No. 42: October 14).