"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Assault on the Stingrays

My feelings on arrowing a magnum-grade stingray flip-flopped over the last year. Before I just didn’t get much sense of sport from it. But I eventually talked my way into believing otherwise, if you’d like to follow my manner of thinking here. For one thing, it’s been a non-productive year bowfishing. Whatever chances I have had were crippled by murky water or crying children. Success can come in any form, I suppose, even if it is flat and ugly. Next, I wanted a trophy-sized fish. Much like mourning dove, mullet and gar don’t hack it in this regard, no matter how many I shoot. Granted, I would have preferred something a little tougher, a little stronger, a little more trophy-like than a ray, say a shark or marlin, but neither of these are legal to shoot in Florida, and I don’t tend to run across marlin in the shallows with any frequency anyhow.

So stingrays. Every summer since I was born my family has stayed in Vero Beach for a week. We haul a 25-ft. AquaSport over to fish around Ft. Pierce or Sebastian Inlet. If the weather and will to get out of bed before sun-up cooperate, we’ll run offshore to troll for dolphin and kings. Some years we bottom-fish the numerous wrecks and artificial reefs along the Treasure Coast. Last year I mixed it up with my first attempt at bowfishing this region. I coveted a barracuda; however, circumstances intervened, and my boating days to overcome these were limited by a very pregnant wife. So I settled for plunking a few mullet on the flats.

While out there, Dad and I noticed a bunch of very large Southern Stingrays. I was timid. I’ve caught plenty on rod and reel, and their fight is a short run at high speed, slows to jog and is followed by an endurance contest akin to hauling an oak door through the water. I wasn’t real sure my AMS Retriever Pro was up to the task. I envisioned the PSE Kingfisher being yanked from my hand and towed across the flats in a hasty wake.

Plus, I just wasn’t sure what I’d do with a stingray if I shot it. They are good shark bait, but I don’t want to catch sharks – just arrow them. I suppose I could have one mounted and placed by the front door like a bear rug - that’d be a conversation piece. I’ve since learned they are edible, and there are an astounding number of YouTube videos demonstrating not only how to clean but also how to cook stingray. The Internet is everything its innovators hoped it would be.

So with a little more purpose and a bundle of willful stupidity, Dad and I spent Tuesday morning hunting the Indian River for my prize. And one would think that it’d be easy – even for an archer of my sub-standard proclivity for hitting what I’m aiming at – to drill the piscine equivalent of a broad side of a barn, but that just shows me you’ve never bowfished.

My first shot on a 25 - 30-lb ray was batted away like a bubble caught in a stiff breeze. He was on a gentle cruise, maybe ten yards off the bow in three feet of water. Though the arrow entered the water at the bulls-eye position, at that particular shallow angle and with his wings flapping, the arrow planed off the mark amid the turbulence of his motion. I doubt the Muzzy tip even glanced his slimy back, but that fish certainly scooted showing nothing but the taillights and plumes of sea mud across the grass bed. Lesson learned. I required a fish closer to the boat to take a more direct shot. Wonderful. I mean, stingrays aren’t the brightest animals, but even they get leery by a lurking boat and the shadow of a large sweaty guy standing on the anchor pulpit with a bow.

The next attempt was a failure by way of taking an ill-advised shot. This ray was settled on the bottom in five -six feet of water. At this depth, I’m not sure a .223 would kill one. That water resistance is simply too much to allow a broadhead much penetration, at least with my rig. But that’s a charm with bowfishing – the arrow is on a string and easy to retrieve. Might as well try. Still, the arrow harmlessly tapped him as he scooted away.

Things were starting to feel awfully incompetent by this point. Dad was getting restless and decided to anchor near a grassy sandbar to castnet live bait to fish with. I sensed he’d lost faith in my skills. I was sour. I’d also missed a couple mullet and a nice sheepshead to much dismay and profanity. A break was probably in order.

As I watched Dad fiddle with the castnet, I noticed a dark shape stroking our way. Catching sight of the boat, the ray came to a stop and dug into the grass. Directly beneath me and in less than 3 feet, if I’d missed, the bow would now be lodged in the muck on an otherwise non-descript Ft. Pierce, FL mangrove island. I drew the recurve back like I was about to shoot the moon and let the arrow fly.

The ray did exactly what I figured it would – kicked into high gear and made a run across the flat. Like I described before, though, it starts with a quick run, slows to a chug, then it’s a matter of muscling it in boatside.
Ft. Pierce Southern Stingray

I wasn’t too sure how to handle this. It’s not like fishing tackle where you pump and reel – in fact, reeling was about worthless. Fortunately the ray made another error. After making his initial run, he chugged back towards the boat and into the deeper water off the transom. This allowed Dad to participate. He grabbed the orange line and heaved while I reeled in the slack. When the fish was at the foot ladder, Dad yanked him aboard as we all stood back.

A fresh stingray on a boat deck is a live wire. They don’t flop about like trout or tuna. No, they possess that long tail with a barber’s razor towards the end of it – in this case, the spine was every bit of ten inches long. And, man, he was waving that that blade around menacingly. Approaching the beast reminded me of those games they play – if I’ve learned anything cultural from Indiana Jones movies – in places like India where they have a live cobra striking at the hands of, well, let’s just say it, idiots reaching within the strike range for coins, jewels or other baubles.

I wanted to pull the arrow in a hurry to get him back in the water as quickly as possible. A stingray’s wing is meat and cartilage; in a sense, I pierced his ear. It’s a lighter shade of cruelty, and I was prepared to carve him up had the shot been in the vitals, but this guy could fight another day provided he steers clear of any hammerheads or folks with bowfishing gear. While keeping an eye out for his tail – as a tall person would keep a heads-up for low door frames or rotating helicopter blades – I carefully removed the arrow. Once clear it was a matter of sliding him back in the water, not an easy task with an animal that’s tough to handle and potentially lethal. But we safely got him back into his stomping grounds. He lingered on the surface for a moment and then shot down into the depths, seemingly no worse for the wear.

We saw plenty more stingrays that morning but all were about the same size, and I’d had my fill. We guessed our one victim to be in the 20-25-lb range. I’ve seen much, much larger fish in these waters, though. I may stand up to that challenge one day and will definitely look to shoot a bigger fish if I do. I have learned it is more sporting than originally thought, and I’d love to try the meat sometime.

Plus, I think that mount would look awesome at the front door. 

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