Bait and Switch: Impostors on the Tidewater
By Dennis Doyle
It didn’t take long. Chumming in 30 feet of water, the left-hand rod twitched then dipped, then bent down hard. I fetched it promptly into my hand and let the critter run against a firm drag. Finally, sure of a good set for my circle hook, I leaned gradually back in a solid pull. The drag wailed as line accelerated off the spool into the bright waters of the Chesapeake. It was a grand feeling.
This was an angling adventure at its finest, a big rockfish on light tackle. The brute on the end of my line cut well off to the side and then gradually angled forward toward the bow of my anchored craft. Then it broached with a powerful surge. That was when I saw the tip of a wing break the water about 50 yards out in a one-fingered salute as a big ray pulled away, still taking drag. I had hooked an old and not particularly welcome adversary.
Cownose rays are unique marine creatures that visit the Chesapeake in substantial numbers, as they have for centuries, every year beginning in May. Living their life cruising the Atlantic Ocean littoral from New England down into the Caribbean, these graceful, kite-shaped, long-tailed creatures are one of the more spectacular marine beasts visiting our shores. Unfortunately, it is most often encountered by anglers seeking other species.
For cownose rays, the Chesapeake is one of their most important breeding and birthing grounds and serves as a nursery for their young. Weighing up to 50 pounds when mature, with a 30-year lifespan and moving in various sized schools, the rays feed with powerful crushing teeth that can consume small oysters, clams, crabs and any fish they encounter as they comb along the bottom.
After an 11-month gestation, the female ray delivers a single live pup of nine to 11 inches in size and then subsequently resumes mating to deliver the following season. Males leave the Chesapeake beginning in June to resume their ocean wanderings but the females remain until late summer when water temperatures begin to drop.
The wing meat of the rays is considered a delicacy by many cultures but around the Bay they are merely regarded as edible, not particularly desirable.
Big rays are powerful adversaries on fishing tackle of all types, however, and do offer some special battle experiences once hooked. These include an immediate testing of your fishing knot integrity, a good idea of how smooth and sturdy your drag systems are plus a better idea of how much stress your line is capable of enduring.
While powerful adversaries, rays don’t possess much speed and you can break off unwanted rays with 10- and even 15-pound test lines; fresh 20-pound mono will usually be strong enough to turn the beasts. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice 100 yards or more of line to cut an uncooperative rascal free, you’ve got to fight it to shore or your boat to unhook it—and that can take some time and not a little effort.
When landing and unhooking a cownose ray it is also especially prudent to be aware that they have a wicked sharp and venomous spine at the base of their long tail. A wound from this weapon is incredibly painful and though non-fatal, will usually require an immediate visit to the emergency room. Also, keep in mind that primary wound treatments of hot water baths and hot water compresses are recommended to mediate the pain. Cold temperature remedies are contraindicated and merely prolong the venom’s toxicity.
- Catching a glimpse of cownose rays at the surface is a treat for many boaters. CBM’s Cheryl Costello shows us where they’ve been spotted this month: https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/video-cownose-rays-back-in-the-bay/
The rockfish bite has moved well north above the Eastern Shore’s Swan Point. Look for the large chumming and live-lining fleet that has been accessing the bite up there and taking the bulk of fish harvested over the quite sizable school. On the edges of that school, chartreuse soft-bodied jigs fished deep are scoring as well and sometimes taking fish over 30 inches. Elsewhere throughout the main channel trolling small and medium bucktails tipped with sassy shads are scoring but not in any particular areas other than channel edges. Run them at least 15 to 20 feet deep. White perch are reported to have moved into the main Bay and holding on the lumps well off of Love Point and taking bloodworms on the bottom. There are still rock in shallow water in the early mornings and evenings that can be tempted with topwater baits and soft-bodied jigs cast toward structures such as rock jetties, rip rap and bulkheads. Crabbing is coming on strong in 5 to 9 feet of water; get some quick before they end up on someone else’s table.