The bite from the stingray was gentle by most standards, barely noticeable. There were a few tell-tale bumps before the line started moving slowly to the left. The rod tip came up in anticipation and the fish sensed the resistance. It bolted across the bay bottom, throwing up large plumes of silty sediments in its wake. The drag washers on the light spinning reel heated up as more pressure was applied in an attempt to slow the line that was rapidly spooling off the whining reel. After a few minutes of intense struggle the fisherman felt the animal begin to tire and started regaining the lost line inch by inch. Just when he thought he would surely land the animal the line suddenly stopped. In spite of maximum pressure from the straining rod the creature could not be moved…
If you fish much in Franklin County you have assuredly had this experience; most likely attributable to one of our local species of rays. Good sized stingrays are a true challenge to land due to their habit of sticking their disc-shaped bodies to the bottom like a huge suction cup. Rays, although very different in their general body shape, are placed into the same scientific grouping as sharks. They are all considered fish but are separated from the bony fishes because they have a skeleton made completely of cartilage. Other cartilaginous fishes occurring in the northern Gulf of Mexico include such oddities as sawfish, skates, guitarfish, and even manta rays.
Some species of rays possess a defensive, venomous spine on their tail which can be whipped sideways into an offending predator. However, we also have a few that have no “stinger” at all, including the smooth butterfly ray and the lesser electric ray. Yes, I said electric ray; a small, spotted ray with fins on its tail and the ability to produce a shock of 14-37 volts to stun prey or defend itself. One of the most common species of rays in our area which is also the cause of most human injuries is the Atlantic stingray. These medium-sized rays grow to slightly over a foot in width and bury themselves in the sand, often in shallow water near shore. If stepped on they can deliver an excruciatingly painful sting. The most effective way to dull the pain is to immerse the wounded limb in hot water (not scalding though) until you can get to a doctor for an examination and antibiotics to ward off potential infection.
Another locally common stingray that gets much larger is the southern stingray. It can attain a disc width of 6.5 feet and weigh over 200 pounds. The introductory paragraph depicts one of my many experiences with this species. One other large species that typically inhabits deeper water has an amazing feature on its tail that compliments its large venomous spine. The rough tail stingray can get over 7 feet wide and weigh over 600 pounds. Its tail is covered with structures resembling thorns on a rose bush.
One of the most dramatic things I’ve ever witnessed involving a local ray species is the jumping ability of the cownose ray. I’ve seen them jump several feet out of the water and clear at least 15 feet. This medium-sized ray migrates long distances in large groups. Locally, this species is most commonly called a “bat” ray, due to its pointed “wings”. Several times I have been fishing along the shoreline and seen wingtips of this ray breaking the surface, resembling twin shark fins at first glance. This ray will feed quite frequently on molluscan shellfish, including oysters, by crushing the shells with its hard dental plates. Another interesting feature many of our rays share with their shark relatives are special electroreceptor organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini. This is a network of jelly-filled pores, usually on the underside of the snout area. They are thought to assist rays in locating prey buried in the sand. In the end, regardless of how you feel about the tug of a stingray on your fishing line, you have to admit that they are another amazing group of creatures that occupy our coastal Franklin outdoors. Just remember to do the stingray shuffle when wading near the shore. This causes the rays to bolt before you can actually step on one. And when you land one on a fishing rod, be very aware of that whipping tail.