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By Pat Lefemine
Last year, a friend of mine went bowfishing for Stingrays in Maryland and came back hooked on it. His party had limited out in a short time and he remarked that I would love it - especially since Rays are one of the few fish that are excellent eating. So this year, Mark Timney and I set up a weekend with Rob Davis of Salisbury, MD to give it a try.
At our first meeting, Rob was someone I knew I'd like. His home is filled with archery and bowhunting memorabilia. Horns, arrows, broadheads, bows and pictures of bowfishing adorn his walls. The dates of the pictures are equally impressive; a photo of Rob with a shark from the fifties, various groups of archers with stingrays and sharks that go back 45 years. Rob was bowfishing long before it was ever popularized by Fred Bear and has some neat stories and photos to prove it.
After our tour of the home and a chat with his lovely wife, Betty Lou, we loaded up the boat and headed down to the Chincoteague Bay in Northern Virginia, within minutes we had Rays darting off the sea floor in a puff of mud. Ray hunting is done by slowly moving the boat along the surface of shallow salt-water bays and marshes while your eyes are glued to the sea floor.
Video Clip of Mark Stalking Rays on the boat (450k)
Many times you will simply see the commotion in the mud, but oftentimes you see the white underbody of the ray as it flaps furiously to escape the boat above. Depending on the direction the escape and the conditions of the water - will determine your success. If the water is choppy, visibility is drastically reduced and the ray will disappear within seconds. But on a clear day with good water clarity, you can often follow the stingray by site and hopefully get off a quick shot.
My first opportunity came within an hour of our launch. A ray had been spotted darting off the bottom in a cloud of mud. I picked the closest edge of the ray and shot for it (a good rule of thumb when shooting rays to accommodate for the refraction on the water). The shot was a miss and the ray took off. After a few missed opportunities, Rob spotted a group of Cow-Nose Rays (often called Devil Rays by the locals) that were literally flapping their wings out of the water. We chased them with the boat and as they submerged I shot and hit a cownose dead center of his body. The Ray took off, peeling the line from the bottle until it pulled the bottle off my bow. This was supposed to happen since it is dangerous, if not impossible to hold the bowfishing line.
I felt like Quint (Jaws) following the barrel as it raced across the surface of the ocean. I readied for a second shot as Rob pulled alongside the float. A second shot sent both floats whizzing through the water but the ray tired quickly and we pulled the cownose ray into the boat. The cownose ray was of average size at 30lbs but it was a heck of a fight and great beginning to our hunt.
A half-hour later I spotted a much larger ray dart off the sea floor, Rob turned the boat as I came to full draw. The arrow hit the ray and the line peeled out again. After following the float and a quick second shot, we pulled the big Southern Stingray into the boat. Southern's are typically twice the size of the Cownose variety and this average size ray went 60lbs. By far the biggest fish I had ever shot.
This Southern Stingray took two arrows and weighed in at 56lbs.
Safety Precautions with Stingrays
The stingray has a barbed spike, approximately halfway down the tail on a Southern Ray, and near the base on a Cownose. The stinger is similar to ivory and contains hundreds of tiny barbed needles along the side. The barb itself is covered with an oily mucous that is highly irritable to other fish and especially humans. Safety precautions are critical when landing a stingray since exposure to that mucous could land someone in a hospital. Here is Rob's technique for making sure that nobody gets hurt:
- With two arrows firmly planted into the ray, reel in both bottles evenly until the ray is up against the boat (it should be fairly exhausted by now).
- GAF the ray and pull his head up out of the water, making sure his tail is down and out of harms way.
- With a Billy club or hammer, strike a sharp blow to the ray's head, a bit down and between his ears. This will render the ray helpless and you can now pull him into the boat.
- With the ray in the boat, cut the skin and muscles at both sides of the tail, this will prevent the ray from being able to whip his tail around with a stinger in it.
- Now cut off the stinger and gently place it in a safe place like a plastic water bottle. The ray is no longer a danger. You can fill the bottle with ½ bleach and ½ water to remove the mucous off the stinger(s) and make a dandy souvenir from your hunt.
I shot one other ray that day and Mark missed a couple. Unfortunately the weather turned sour and we had to cut the trip short. We returned the following day but the seas were very choppy and the skies were overcast - we saw a few rays but quickly lost them in the rough seas. Despite the weather turning for the worse, it was a lot of fun and something that I look forward to doing again.
Video of Mark Shooting at a Stingray (184k)
Filleting a Cownose ray
Unlike Carp, and Gar, stingrays are delicious and taste similar to crabmeat and shrimp. It is one of the few species of fish that are great to bowfish and are edible. The meat of the stingrays are found in the wings. On the cownose rays, there is considerable meat on both the upper and underside of the wings, on the Southern Ray most meat is found on the top of the wing. Make a cut similar to the one shown in the picture however be certain not to cut into the white stomach lining which looks similar to silverskin on a whitetail. Skin back exposing just the fillets, and cut along the bottom of the ray's wing to remove the meat. On a 60lb stingray you could expect about 10-15 lbs. of boneless fillets.
For cooking, Rob mixes 1/3 soy sauce, 1/3 oil, and 1/3 lemon juice and marinates the fillet overnight. He then prefers to grill the fillet or use it in one of Betty's delicious Seafood Casserole dishes, substituting the shrimp and crabmeat for the stingray fillet.
The string peels off the bottle then the bottle pops off the bow.
Rob's Bowfishing Setup
When Mark and I arrived at Rob's, he had shown us the simple but ingenious bowfishing rig he developed after nearly 50 years of bowfishing. It consists of a simple ketchup bottle, a chair leg cap that attaches to your stabilizer hole on your bow, string and a fiberglass arrow. Rob Fills the bottle with foam spray and paints it fluorescent orange. Next he ties off 200 lb. line around the cap of the bottle and wraps the string around the bottle itself. You need to clip the string in place with either a rubber band or a paper clip attached to the side of the bottle then simply push the bottle cap into the chair tip on your bow. He uses a half-loop on the nock end of a fish arrow and that's it. When he shoots at the stingray, the line peels off the bottle until it runs out then the bottle pops off the bow. You simply grab another rig at your feet and you're ready for your second shot. This simple method seemed like a great idea and it worked fine for me, however Mark had problems with the bottle coming off the bow at his shot. See the video footage below which illustrates Rob's setup.
Video Clip of Rob's Bowfishing Setup (600k)
Common Stingrays Southern Stingray - More round, about twice the size of a Cownose Ray, averages about 60lbs with a big one in the 100+ range. The largest caught with Rob was 154# - a real monster. Cownose Stringray - Easily identifiable by the pronounced 'wings' and square face. The Cownose is smaller and can often be spotted by its wings lifting out of the water. The wings look like devil-horns from a distance thus the name 'devil ray'.