CBM STINGRAY HUNT
By Gene Schang
We were unloading our gear at the dock in anticipation of our afternoon charter on the eastern shore of Maryland, when a center-console skiff came roaring across the bay in our direction. As Captain Marc Spagnola of Dusk to Dawn Bowfishing began maneuvering up to the pilings to offload his clients from the morning trip, it quickly became apparent that he takes bowfishing very seriously. This was not a fishing boat that is used for bowfishing on the side. On the front of the flat-bottomed boat were a series of high-output sodium lights positioned around an elevated shooting platform. A tower, complete with additional lights, sat to the rear of the vessel with a half a dozen, fully rigged compound bows strapped to the top. The clients from the morning trip were only too happy to share their experiences with us and that did not help quell the excitement building in all of us. Maryland’s abundant population of Cownosed and Southern Stingrays would be the targets of the day.
As we stepped onto the Dusk to Dawn, Captain Marc said, “So, is it crossbows only on today’s trip?” A resounding “YES!” came flying back from the crew of Crossbow Magazine. We were here to test the Parker Stingray and break new ground by bowfishing in the salt with crossbows. We were also hoping to gather enough video footage to put together another webisode for Crossbow Magazine’s video series. The captain looked over our gear with a critical eye, and then admitted that he had never guided bowfishing clients who were using crossbows. After a crash course in boat safety, and an explanation of how the hunt should unfold, we idled away from the dock into deeper water for the first test of the day. Captain Marc asked for the Parker Stingray and quickly took a practice shot to get a feel for any unique challenges that may lie ahead. While he was retrieving the arrow from the bottom of the bay, he said: “That should work. Let’s go fishing!”
Bowfishing has been around for a very long time. Long ago, Native Americans used spears and self bows in their perpetual quest for protein to feed their families. The sport of bowfishing has been growing steadily for the past several decades, largely attributable to the explosion in the interest of archery. Recurve bows, with large spools of line attached to the front of the bow, were once standard bowfishing gear. As the use of compound bows grew, so did the variety of bowfishing accessories that became available. Currently, many compound bow manufacturers make bows specifically designed for bowfishing—completely set up and ready to go, out of the box.
Parker Bows, a Virginia based crossbow manufacturer, has been a leader in the world of crossbows since it entered the market. The designers at Parker, taking notice of the rapid growth of bowfishing, went about designing a crossbow specifically for bowfishing—the Parker Stingray. The Stingray is very compact, with a draw weight that is easily adjustable from 100-125 pounds, without the need for a bow press. For shooting carp in streams, the user can adjust the weight down by simply turning a wrench. We set our Parker’s up with 125 pounds of draw weight in anticipation of the rather large stingrays that prowl the waters of coastal Maryland. The length of pull is modest to accommodate a wide variety of body types. The bow was as comfortable for me to shoulder as it was for our Managing Editor, Ellen Spieles, who is quite petite. The Stingray is available with open sights or with a zero magnification scope. We outfitted one of ours with Hawke Sport Optic's Eclipse—an ideal scope for close, fast shots.
Parker went with the biggest name in bowfishing accessories, AMS Bowfishing, for good reason. AMS Bowfishing, based in Wisconsin, manufactures a huge variety of bowfishing accessories that will handle everything from small Suckers to Gar—and even Alligators. AMS also has their own line of bows set up specifically for bowfishing and Captain Marc swears by their gear. With a reputation for landing giant rays consistently, when Marc recommends gear everyone should take notice. Our Stingray’s were rigged with AMS’s Retriever Pro Reels, which can be purchased with a special crossbow mount that allows the reel to be attached to the existing quiver mounting holes. At Marc's suggestion we upgrade to AMS’s Gator Grapple Points, which are much more robust than the standard issue bowfishing points most use for fish.
The Dusk to Dawn slowly made its way across the bay towards the much lighter-colored water of the extensive bars that dot these bays. It was there that the hunt began. When we booked this trip many months ago, Marc mentioned that the ideal day on the water would be during a stable high-pressure system with light winds. Sun and clear water would be our friends. We had many friends that day because the timing of our hunt was perfect: visibility was superb, with a very light chop on the water. As we edged up onto the shallow flat, Ellen and myself stepped up onto the shooting platform feeling both nervous and excited. I have been bowfishing many times over the past twenty years, but never in the salt for rays. Ellen, however, was staring into the water for her first time with a bow in hand and stingrays on her mind.
I fixed my gaze on the bottom, right in front of the boat. After all, I thought most of the rays would just be laying on the bottom waiting to be shot. I found out very quickly, I was wrong. After some further instruction from Marc on where to look and what to look for, we began scanning 20 yards ahead of the boat; looking for moving brown shapes just under the surface. “Ten o'clock and moving right to left,” came the shout over the sound of the idling motor. Marc directed our attention towards the first ray of the day. He instructed us to point our arrows at the ray and he followed our signals to pull us within range. When the Cownosed ray passed just in front of the bow, it darted swiftly off to the left and into deeper water. I had a shot, but hesitation cost me my first opportunity. That ray showed us just how fast they can swim if they want to. This was going to be interesting!
I have shot my share of Carp and Suckers over the years and correcting for light refraction in the water is a huge part of this sport. Aiming directly at your target will result in a miss almost every time. I was re-playing my hold under from the previous shot in my head, when I spotted the second ray of the day. I pointed the Parker in it’s direction, and readied for the shot as Marc moved us within range. The safety clicked off and I sent another arrow into the bottom of the bay, harmlessly under the Cownosed ray. So much for my pre-conceived notions of rays being easier to hit than Carp.
Redemption came soon thereafter. Not five minutes later, Captain Marc was lining us up on another Cownosed ray. When the shot felt right, I squeezed the trigger, and the ray shot out from under the boat as line peeled from the reel. Following Marc’s instructions, I placed the bow down onto the deck and attempted to slow this beast down. The line ripped though my fingers as I grimaced from what would be the first of the many rope burns some of us would endure that day. Thankfully, I was able to slowly win the tug of war, and Marc brought the big Cownosed ray to the gaff. I have seen many in the water, but up close, I marveled at every curve and feature of this strikingly beautiful creature of the ocean. At an estimated weight of 35-40 pounds, it was an average Cownosed for this area of Maryland. The ice was finally broken and the trip was barely thirty minutes old.
The action was essentially non-stop throughout our five hours aboard the Dusk to Dawn. I stepped down and our Publisher, Todd Bromley, joined Ellen on the shooting platform. The captain's shout alerted us to a big Southern Stingray that was off our starboard side. As we got closer, the ray sensed something was off and moved towards slightly deeper water. For whatever reason, the stingray turned and came back towards us. Ellen focused in on the ray, pulled the trigger and watched the line peel from the reel as her shot found its mark. This was our first southern stingray of the trip and it was a brute weighing in at 43 pounds. Not only was that Southern a big stingray, it was Ellen’s first harvest with bowfishing equipment. Not a bad way to start off one’s bowfishing journey. Todd was next to put a ray into the Dusk to Dawn with a perfect shot on another Cownosed, and he followed that up with an average-sized Southern in short order. All of us rotated up onto the deck; the fish barrel steadily filled as the afternoon unfolded. Even our cameraman, who does not hunt, wanted to get in on the action. Garrett stepped up to the plate and made us all look bad by placing an arrow into the first ray that presented a shot. It was another Cownosed, but it had a very rare double barb at the base of it’s tail.
Everyone went through the same learning curve, even though a few of us had plenty of experience bowfishing. Not only did we each become better shots as the day went on, but our ability to spot the cruising rays well ahead of the boat improved significantly. The Cownosed were the most challenging target for sure. They are fast swimmers, keenly aware of everything around them. It was very typical for the Cownosed to dart off to the side just as we were getting ready to take the shot. Captain Marc was at the ready though, and he was usually able to follow them in short order, creating another shot opportunity. Marc explained that on some days, one species will be more visible than others. On this trip it was an equal mix of both species.
Both Cownosed and Southern Stingrays have dangerous barbs on their tails that deserve a lot of respect. The Cownosed has a barb located at the base of it's tail, while the Southern’s barb is located at the mid-point of the tail. If either feels threatened, they will swiftly lift their tails upwards, thrusting the barb toward whatever danger is above them. The venom contained within the barb is similar to that of a bee: painful, but relatively short-lived. If you happen to be allergic to the venom, an immediate trip to an emergency room will be in your future. However, the real danger for most people is a localized or systemic infection from the wound. The area around the barb is covered with bacteria that can eat away at the flesh surrounding the wound. Oftentimes, some debriding of the wound and a course of antibiotics are necessary to clear up any resulting infection. Each ray that was brought to the side of the Dusk to Dawn was quickly dispatched by Captain Marc before being lifted into the boat. The next step was removing the barb and placing it in a bottle of bleach. The bleach quickly kills the bacteria and neutralizes the venom, resulting in a bone-white stingray barb for Marc's clients to take home as a trophy of their hunt.
Several more stingrays were taken into the boat throughout the afternoon and the abundance of wildlife contained in the backwaters of Maryland held our attention in between shot opportunities. Blue crabs were seen making a perilous swim from one sand bar to another. The peculiar, snake-like needlefish was rather common. Puffer fish and small sharks kept our eyes busy as well. A variety of turtles and a huge population of coastal bird species had us all admiring this thriving ecosystem that is so close to major population centers.
With about an hour and a half left in our hunt, I was again perched on the shooting platform hoping for yet another shot. Marc swung the boat so that the sun was to our backs and idled up to the shallow water bar to begin another hunt. At my 11 o'clock position, I made out the white undersides of a stingray’s wings, ever so slightly rippling in the current. I threw my left hand up in the air and marked the location so Marc could line us up on it. This ray was different. Other than the white underbelly that occasionally revealed its presence, it was much harder to see. It did not have the typical light brown appearance of all of the other rays we had seen that day. This ray was a very dark brown and I struggled to keep my eyes focused on it as we drew closer.
At fifteen feet I was locked on, with the safety off. When the ray was almost right under me, the Parker recoiled and the AMS Grapple Gator Point pierced the water into what I hoped was another stingray for the barrel. The surface of the water erupted in spray for moments, then all went quiet and still. There was definitely tension on the line as Marc swung the boat around. A pool of murky, gray water began to surround the point at which my line entered the water. Marc had seen this behavior before and immediately shouted: “This is a big southern guys. He is sucking himself down onto the bottom.” None of the other rays that we had shot followed this pattern. This was our first indication that this was a different beast.
Captain Marc positioned his boat right on top of the ray. The visibility was essentially zero as the ray desperately clung to the bottom with every bit of force he could muster. Since we could not see it, nor could we see how well my arrow was attached, Marc ordered another arrow sent on its way into the muddy depths and Todd obliged. When that line came tight as well, it became a contest of will to survive versus experience. As Captain Marc finessed the beast from the bottom of the bay floor—clearly a place it did not want to leave—he grabbed his long-handled gaff and began to feel around hoping to hook something more substantial into the creature below. When the gaff bit, the momentum changed and we started to get our first look as the tip of the stingray's right wing came to the surface.
“Guys, this is why I hunt these things. This is a huge stingray!” When those words were spoken by our captain, the excitement level onboard rose through the roof. I knew the stingray was big, but I had no idea how big it truly was. After carefully clearing away all of the heavy seaweed covering the ray, it was quickly dispatched and hauled into the boat. Only after the stingray was sprawled out on the bottom of the boat did we get our first real look at size of this leviathan from the deep—and he was a giant in every sense of the word. A creature that looked both nightmarishly ugly, yet beautiful at the same time. The boat fell eerily silent as we admired what lay at our feet. Captain Marc has seen thousands of stingrays, yet he joined all of us as we sat on the side of the boat and alternately switched our gazes from the ray to each other. Our smiles became larger as a sense of what just occurred finally sank in. Congratulatory handshakes and hugs eventually made the rounds when the stingray pulled #97.2 pounds on Marc’s digital scale.
Captain Marc's sense of pride was obvious, as was his excitement in sharing this experience with us. He kept emphasizing the rarity of what we'd just accomplished and reiterated his deep respect for these big stingrays. As for me, it began to slowly sink in as Marc explained that he has only had a few rays of this caliber on the bottom of his boat. Since this stingray was shot with a crossbow, Marc felt it could be something special and suggested making the trek to a marina in Ocean City that operated a certified scale. It would cost him more fuel, and us the remainder of our fishing time, but no one hesitated as we buttoned up the boat and hit the channel.
Upon our arrival at Ake Marina in Ocean City, the hoist was readied, and the stingray was lifted up off of the deck. We all gathered around the digital scale and the reading settled at #96.5, just a ½ pound less than our reading on the boat. A young girl sheepishly came over and asked me if I got that stingray where she swims. To ease her fears, I told her it came from pretty deep water. The reality was, this ray was shot in twenty inches of water, not far from where boaters had pulled up onto an island and were swimming. A photographer from a local newspaper, the Coastal Fisherman, showed up at the dock and took some pictures and information to include in their next issue. He was very intrigued by the crossbow we used and mentioned that he had never seen folks bowfishing with crossbows before. I suspect that will change in the future.
At the time of this writing, my stingray is potentially the largest stingray harvested with a crossbow that has been weighed on a certified scale. I am not into record books as much as I am into the sport of hunting and fishing, though. If it does become certified as a state or world record, I would be happy just knowing that maybe I exposed many people to the world of bowfishing with crossbows. A very exciting sport that is right at the front doors of most people in this country. Whether that is in the local stream for Carp, or in the salt for rays, the opportunities are endless and I encourage every crossbow enthusiast out there to give it a try.
Captain Marc Spagnola is a busy man. He runs saltwater bowfishing charters up and down the east coast, but most of his trips are centered in and around Ocean City, Maryland. With a high percentage of return clients he books quickly, so it is never too early to give him a call to arrange your bowfishing expedition. Half day, full day and night trips are available depending on availability. May through September is the prime time to chase stingrays, but Marc recommends June as the best month for numbers. As the water cools in the fall, the fish make their move toward warmer locales. Marc provides everything you need for the trip, including light refreshments. Polarized sunglasses are a must, but not provided for your hunt. Crossbows are not provided as of now, but perhaps someday—based upon his first hand observation of their effectiveness—Captain Marc may expand upon his standard equipment and include crossbows. He was impressed with the performance of the Parker Stingrays. Most notably, the penetration we saw on most of the shots and our low pull out rate.
It is important to recognize that even though many view rays as a “trash fish”, because they can do extensive damage to shellfish beds, Captain Marc does not. He has a great deal of respect for the fish he hunts and promptly filleted off the firm, white meat from the top of the rays wings and put it in our coolers for the trip home. The meat is firm, but somewhat fibrous (it has often been compared to scallops) and in many areas of the world it is considered a food fish.
Give Captain Marc a call at (717) 324-7649 or visit his website at www.dusktodawnbowfishing.com for more information on his various bowfishing adventures. I can also be contacted through our home page at www.crossbowmagazine.com or on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/crossbowmagazine to discuss my personal experiences hunting with Captain Marc. The webisode of this stingray hunt is scheduled to air in the fall of 2014. It will be linked from our homepage, so please visit us there to watch some great footage of big stingrays being taken with crossbows. This trip turned out to exceed my expectations for sure and I hope to be fortunate enough to be able to do it again. Until then, I hope to see and hear some great stories from our readers who choose to take advantage of the bowfishing opportunities that await us all. Happy fishing!