Best-laid plans for rockfish getting snagged by rays


In early evening last weekend, baitfish were skipping across the bay surface, where the depth at Tolley Point falls away sharply from 4 feet to 20. The boat was idled up tide and a cast made into the breaking school.

Almost immediately, the lure had a fish, which began to strip line -- lots of line and very quickly.

For an instant, the prospect of a keeper rockfish was bright.

But then, looking around somewhat belatedly, the prospects turned darker.

With the current running out across the bar came clouds of murky water, stained with sediments from the shallow bottom, where a clammer's float still marked the end of a dredge line.

And even before the light, bait-casting reel had begun to regain line grudgingly, we knew the hooked fish was a cownose ray, rather than a hefty rockfish.

After a quarter of an hour, the 20-pound ray was brought alongside, the line cut close to the small casting spoon deeply imbedded in its pectoral fin, or wing, and the ray was released.

A few days earlier, trolling small bucktails with Ted Downey, a boat shop owner from Annapolis, two rays were hooked within minutes of each other, and eventually released, taking the bucktails and plastics with them.

"Shoot," or words to that effect, said Downey, "that's three skates on two trips out here. It's almost enough to stop you from fishing. I mean, what are you going to do with them, even if you can get them to the boat?"

Steve LaChat, a heating and air conditioning specialist from Montgomery County, got the feel of a large ray during a sailing outing 10 days ago, when one perhaps as heavy as 30 pounds snagged its wing on a 10-inch Rappala Magnum being trolled at close to 7 knots.

The ray stripped out close to 100 yards of line from a heavy bay trolling reel on a trio of runs before the fish and the $9 lure were cut off at the side of the boat.

Rays have been plentiful this year, so numerous, in fact, that areas that normally hold good numbers of rockfish have produced poor fishing when the rays are feeding.

Rays, which reach our waters early in June and hang around until early fall, apparently pose little danger to other fish, preferring to feed on shellfish such as soft shell clams. But certainly they cause a commotion when they are feeding -- hovering over the bottom and vigorously flapping their pectoral fins to clear mud and sediment away from the beds of shellfish.

Where rays are feeding, the water will be heavily stained, baitfish will be scattering and most finfish will move elsewhere until the commotion subsides.

Cownose rays -- often called skates by area fishermen, but a separate species -- often are not kept by fishermen, and more often are cursed heavily as they disappear with a favorite lure. But they are edible, and can be handled, so long as care is used.

Cownose rays have a venomous spine at the base of the tail, which can cause severe injury. But proper gaffing -- deeply setting the heavy hook under the head below the jaw -- can bring the fish to the gunwale, where it can be dispatched with several blows from a fish billy aimed between the eyes.

Once the fish is dead, remove the spines with a pair of pliers or vise grips and then place it in the fish box or cooler to keep the meat fresh.

Back at the dock, the wings can be sliced into fillets and later grilled, broiled or baked.

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