When the ray is mightier than the rod


In the middle of last week, the new rod arrived. Seven feet of graphite that weighed about as much as a feather duster, but was rated for 12- to 25-pound test line and lure weights from three-eighths to 1 ounce.

A marvelous looking thing, it balanced perfectly when the baitcasting reel was attached.

In the front yard the evening it arrived, the new rod cast beautifully, sending a half-ounce weight low and straight to bushes and fence posts, trash cans and utility poles.

On Sunday, the new rod was taken to the mouth of the Severn River, where the bottom fishing had been superb for several weeks on hordes of jumbo spot, large croaker and white perch.

The new rod, of course, was meant for bigger game, and a half-ounce bucktail and a three-inch sassy shad were tied on in the hope that stripers or bluefish might be found roving along the deeper edges.

The tide was ebbing, the drift set to carry along the 20-foot edge. The bucktail could be felt bumping bottom intermittently, the tail of the shad could be felt in those periods when the lure swam just above the bottom.

An amazing tool, this graphite wand. And in the shade of the bimini there was the urge to doze while awaiting a strike.

Ten minutes after the drift began, the strike came, and 20 minutes later the graphite wand had lost its magic and 2 feet of its tip -- broken off at what had seemed to be the end of a fight with a large cownose ray.

A half dozen long, deep runs, with the reel's drag giving line smoothly, the new rod showing backbone on the retrieves. The 20-plus-pound ray being worked to the surface, sassy shad and bucktail set in its jaw, and then, with a powerful flapping of its wings, gone again on another long run.

Through the summer, once the big stripers have migrated out of the bay and the black drum have dispersed from the Stone Rock and Poplar Island, rays present the best chance for middle bay fishermen to tangle with a hard-fighting fish. At up to 3 1/2 feet across the pectoral fins, or wings, and weights to 50 pounds, they can be big.

They also are dangerous and should be handled with care because at the base of the tail, rays have one or more poisonous spines, which must be avoided. Rays also have strong jaws, which they use to crush and eat clamshells, so keep your fingers out.

One good method for landing rays once they have been brought alongside the boat is to use a gaff with a 3- or 4-foot handle. Hook them under the chin. Bring only the head to the gunwale and then either retrieve your rig and release the fish or dispatch it with a billy before bringing it aboard.

Relatively few people keep rays, but the meat from the wings can be filleted and eaten.

Rays frequent areas where there are clam beds, their preferred food, and when they are feeding they are easily found.

To feed, rays move their wings rapidly up and down, using the resultant water flow to wash away sediments or grasses so they can get to the clams. The turbulence turns the water a murky brown and when numbers of rays are feeding in one area, the surface water will be heavily stained.

Once you find them, you are almost assured of a long, wonderful fight -- although it can be a bit rough on feather duster tackle.

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