Catching Sting Rays From The Surf

One of the most intriguing aspects of surf fishing is the fact that you never know what you are going to catch.

“GO-GO-GO!” I do not know if I am talking to my rod or the fish or my feet, but each time I say that word, my voice becomes louder and my feet move faster. As I watch the tip of my fishing rod bend toward the horizon, I find it difficult to contain my enthusiasm. Why do I always put the best bait on the rod furthest from my beach chair?

As I get closer, the rod is still bending and now the reel’s drag is “singing”. I know this sound is a good indicator of a big fish because I tend to keep my drag set fairly tight. This also ensures the circle hook sets correctly. I pull my rod out of the sand spike and the tension I feel pulling against me confirms I have really hooked into something powerful.

About fifteen seconds later, the fish slowed down and I carefully pull back my rod to get a “feeling” of how the critter fights. It is definitely heavy and constantly moving, but it does not fight like anything I had ever felt before.

After fighting a few fish, an angler learns how to distinguish one fish from another by comparing the strength, speed, direction and vibrations on the line. For example, the headshakes of a big striper or red drum are much different than the slow but powerful pull of a large stingray. Most fish have a unique feeling, however you never REALLY know until you get a good look at the critter.

Within a few minutes, I begin making progress by regaining some of my line. Standing in knee deep surf, I scan the water’s surface for signs of fins, tail splashes or anything “fishy”. The last thing I expected to see on the end of my line was another fishing rod!

Now, in case you ever find yourself fighting another fishing rod, keep in mind it can be tricky business! Do your best to let go of all preconceived expectations and just keep reeling.

As I watch the bottom of the rod repeatedly surface and submerge, I do not even consider what is causing this. After all, my sinker and the reel should be weighing it down, causing it to drag along the bottom of the ocean floor. I’m still amazed at the weight of this rod but I am able to bring it in close enough to grasp the handle and secure a firm grip. Luckily, I have a friend standing next to me who is able to take my rod while I quickly separate the line from my “new” 11′ St. Croix.

Now standing in waste deep water, I briefly glance from the bottom of the rod to the reel and am surprised how clean it is compared to other “items” I have accidentally snagged in the past. I pull the rod completely out of the water to get a better look and find the main line still attached! It is almost as if the fish and I simultaneously realize the same thing. I feel another very strong pull and prepare myself for round two, this time holding a completely different rod. Without looking, I reach for the handle of the reel, attempt to make the first turn, and the spool does not budge. I quickly realize the reel’s gears are full of sand.

I begin to feel tension building up inside of me as the fish puts more stress on the line. Realizing there is nothing I can do at this point but hold on and wait, I scan the water hoping for a glimpse of the critter I am fighting. As the line snaps, I see a large, brown stingray break the water’s surface about thirty yards in front of me. I am exhausted, still a little dazed, but very satisfied.

With the increase in surf water temperatures, you will find many unique species of stingrays in the surf, both large and small. They primarily feed on crustaceans and smaller fish but will not hesitate to chew on a fresh piece of bait.

To many new anglers, making the distinction between a skate and a small stingray can be confusing. The commonly found Clearnose Skate will have small prickly spikes covering the entire top of its body, including the tail. While the small spikes can cut you and cause a stinging sensation (similar to a bee sting), they are not considered very dangerous.

The southern stingray is similar in size; however the top of its body is smooth. At the base of the ray’s long, slender tail will be a very dangerous barb used for defense against predators. This barb easily blends in with the tail and is covered with a black, slimy protein-based toxin. All stingrays caught from the Delmarva surf will vary in size and have different characteristics, and nearly all of them will have this toxic barb.

I have caught many stingrays over the past few years and have learned many valuable lessons, one of which put me in the hospital and left me with a scar on my wrist. While rays can be fun and challenging to beach, keep in mind, they are being pulled out of their element and will do their best to defend themselves. I want to make sure I am clear on the fact that this barb is the stingray’s main defense against natural predators. Rays do not actively seek swimmers and try to “sting” them. I also strongly encourage all saltwater anglers to research the different characteristics of both skates and stingrays.

People are occasionally punctured by this jagged barb, but most cases are due to accidentally stepping on a ray in shallow waters. If you catch any type of stingray, use extreme caution when unhooking and releasing them. If you happen to be punctured by a stingray’s barb, the first thing you should do is find someone to help you.

For me, this toxin caused severe pain unlike anything I have ever felt. After forty-five minutes of thinking I could handle it, I passed out on the way home. Luckily, it was a rare occasion when I was able to convince my wife to join me on the beach and she was driving. She does not fish with me much anymore for some reason…

The only thing that will immediately alleviate the pain is submerging the wound in very hot water (don’t burn yourself of course) or pressing a hot pack against punctured area. Then, seek immediate medical attention. Even if you think you can handle the pain after applying hot water, there can be a significant amount of bacteria in the wound along with broken, jagged pieces of the barb.

Stingrays can be very powerful creatures and when one of the larger ones grabs your bait, you had better have strong knots and a stronger back! Of course setting your drag properly and having a solid, deeply set sand spike will help you keep your favorite rod on the beach. Although, I can always use another!

Sam Kilgore is a published author and owner of He also owns and operates Ocean Computers, a computer repair and website design business. His passion in life is learning and teaching people many aspects of saltwater fishing.

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