Copyright © John Page Williams Jr. All rights reserved.
This is John Page Williams reading from Chesapeake Almanac. The month is June and the title of the sketch is "Cownose Rays Are Really Graceful."
Captain Jim Webb had a group of anglers aboard his charter boat, Afternoon Delight, trolling surgical hose lures for bluefish off the mouth of the Patuxent. Seven rods stood in the boat's holders, with lines streaming astern. Suddenly one of the rods jumped and bent over. Line poured off the reel as a heavy fish ran with the lure.
Jim smiled. It was the tenth of June, too late for a big rockfish, so he knew what they had hooked. It was a big cownose ray. He took the boat out of gear and let it idle. One angler picked up the rod and began to work on the fish while the others brought in the empty lines.
The ray was big, 30 inches across the back and 30 pounds in weight. It made four long, steady runs before the angler could lead it to boatside for Jim to gaff. "Gee," said the angler rubbing his arms, "I didn't know they were that strong."
Back at the dock, Jim cut four big fillets from the ray's wings. The angler took them home and came back the next week raving about how tasty they had been. Jim smiled again. What he likes most about charter boat fishing is helping people enjoy themselves, and if they learn something in the process, so much the better.
For Jim's clients and for most of us, rays and skates appear at first to be most peculiar and unconventional. It is hard to think of them as fish. But they form a group that includes a large number of species adapted to several different lifestyles in habitats all over the world. Diversity and wide distribution are considered two good indicators of success for a biological design.
Like sharks, rays and skates have cartilage skeletons instead of bone. But unlike the sharks, the rays' pectoral or side fins are greatly enlarged, becoming dominant body features that we refer to as "wings." Dorsal—on the back—and caudal—as in tail—fins are very small or absent altogether. Gills are inside a series of slits on each side of the body, as they are in sharks, but instead of being above the pectorals, they are below, on the flat underside next to the mouth.
Skates belong to a family that is related but separate from the rays. They are primarily bottom dwellers. Only a few true skates occur in the Bay, mostly down near the Virginia Capes.
A number of different ray species turn up in the Chesapeake. By far the most common is the cownose. Schools enter the Bay each year in late spring and stay till fall, feeding heavily on shellfish. Sometimes a school can be located by the mud stirred up as its members work through a softshell clam bed. They beat their wings down hard on the bottom, dislodging sediments and exposing the clams.
Newborn cownose rays are about 12 inches across and 1 pound in weight. They can grow to wingspreads of 45 inches and weights of over 50 pounds. Cownoses are more agile and active than skates and indeed of most other rays, appearing to fly through the water with powerful wing strokes. They are particularly well adapted to feeding on shellfish, but in addition they eat some finfish. On each jaw the teeth are fused together into a solid mass like a small paving block with a convex surface. The upper and lower jaws work together as crushers.
Rays have a remarkable system of reproduction. Unlike skates, whose young develop in egg cases, rays are viviparous—-that is their young are born alive. The female cownose has a uterus with two chambers, each equipped with tiny fingers called Villi that are richly supplied with blood vessels. The unborn young apparently develop while nestled in the villi, taking food and oxygen from them. Births occur as soon as the rays come into the Bay from the ocean in early summer.
Catching and handling a ray requires some care. Almost any one caught on a hook and line will weigh over 10 pounds – a strong animal with very few handholds. In addition, the cownose and almost every other species of ray in the Bay has one or more sharp, venomous, barbed, 2-and-a-half inch spines at the base of its tail. The spines are dangerous weapons, and anyone struck with one needs immediate medical attention.
But a ray at boatside can be handled safely. First, gaff it by reaching underneath the head with the hook of a gaff. Feel for the mouth and teeth, then pull the hook home and raise the fish's head to the boat's gunwale. Hit it between the eyes with a billy club or similar instrument. This is an unpleasant task but certainly the most humane way to treat any fish taken home for eating. Then place the ray in the cockpit and, still controlling it with the gaff, remove the spines carefully with a pair of pliers. Ice it down like any other fish.
Once it's filleted, it is also a good idea to soak the fillets for an hour or two, or even overnight, in either milk or buttermilk.
Rays are easy to clean and very good to eat, as Jim Webb's anglers discovered.
For more happenings around the Bay in June see our other Chesapeake Almanac podcasts and read our blog post "Worms in Love in June."
Subscribe to this podcast at https://chesapeake-almanac.captivate.fm/listen