Encountering Georgia Stingrays

The author shares a personal story about a stingray encounter—then says to avoid being stung, do the “Stingray Shuffle” or cut the line. After all, hooks are cheaper than doctor bills.

Capt. Spud Woodward | November 1, 2006

Stingrays are caught by coastal anglers looking for speckled trout and red- fish. This one took a jig tipped with a live shrimp as it was fished along the bottom of a tidal creek.

Each year thousands of stingrays are caught by saltwater anglers looking for speckled trout, redfish, and other gamefish. Some of the unlucky ones find out why they’re called stingrays.

“Hooks are cheaper than doctor bills,” is an old adage in saltwater fishing. For 20 years I’ve been saying that to novice anglers when warning them about removing hooks from toothy critters like sharks and other potentially dangerous sea life. You’d think that I’d have the gumption to live by my own advice. Well, they say confession is good for soul, so here’s my story.

A couple of summers ago, GON Editor Brad Gill decided to bring the family down to the coast for a vacation. Feeling obligated to help diversify Brad’s angling skills I offered to take him and his brother-in-law, Michael Brownlee, out in my Pathfinder to sample some Golden Isles fishing. A stiff easterly breeze foiled our plans to work the beachfront shoals for tarpon, and we ended up fishing inside the estuary for slot-size redfish and trout.

Our trip started uneventfully; we caught a few pesky yellowtails and short speckled trout. Looking to spice up the action, I rigged an egg sinker/circle hook terminal rig while Brad and Michael continued to work an oyster shell bank with the slip-float outfits. After threading a live finger mullet onto the thin-wire circle hook, I pitched it out behind the boat and let it settle to the bottom. I tightened up the slack, adjusted the drag, and set the rod in a gunwale holder.

No sooner than I had turned to check the progress of my anglers, the rod bent sharply as line peeled off the spinning reel.

“Brad, come and get this fish,” I said, as I moved to clear a path to the rod.

A few seconds after he lifted the rod Brad commented, “It’ s not moving, sure it’s not hung on the bottom?”

“Sounds like a stingray,” I replied with a bit of disappointment in my voice. “Keep the pressure on, and he’ll move.”

State Rep. Al Williams, of Midway, battles a big southern stingray hooked while fishing for redfish in the surf on Sapelo Island. The stingray was over four feet wide and was estimated to weigh around 75 pounds.

After about 10 minutes of a stop-and-start fight, Brad had the stingray boatside. It was hooked in the corner of its mouth, and I had the great idea that I’d save myself some re-rigging time by removing the hook instead of cutting the leader. At my request, Brad swung the bucket-lid-size stingray over the gunwale and turned it upside down on the foredeck, all the time keeping him- self at a safe distance. With leader stretched tight in my left hand, I reached for the hook with my pliers, being sure to come at the ray from the front, avoiding the tail area. All I need- ed to do was grasp the hook at the bend and roll it out. Easy enough, right?

Well, the stingray had other ideas. With a flap of its wings, it righted itself and whiplashed its tail forward all in one millisecond. Somewhere in this process the sharp spine on the stingray’s tail punched into the end of the middle finger of my right hand.

It happened so quickly that Brad and Michael didn’t realize anything had happened until they saw the look on my face as I dropped my pliers.

“You okay, Spud?” asked Brad who was still holding the rod with the stingray attached to the other end.

“No, that stingray managed to pop my finger with its spine,” I replied with a grimace. “Swing him back over the water and cut the line,” I instructed Brad.

Now that the flapping menace was gone, I could attend to my injury. I immediately squeezed my fingertip. The blood flowed liberally from the puncture wound, hopefully carrying with it some of the toxin left by the spine. Thankfully, it appeared the barb had pulled free leaving no pieces behind. After a few seconds of squeezing, I washed the wound thoroughly with some bottled water from the cooler. The blood ceased to flow, but the pain began to intensify. I left the wound uncovered and applied some antiseptic cream from the boat first-aid kit.

The effect of a stingray’ s venom on humans varies from person to per- son. Some are highly sensitive while others are not. Having been through this once before, I knew what to expect. For the next hour, I cradled my right arm in my lap as pain I can only describe as heated electricity traveled from my fingertip, up my right arm, through my shoulder, and into my neck. Fortunately, I didn’t experience any nausea or dizziness, although Brad watched me as if I was about to go to Glory at any moment.

Realizing that I was not really enjoying the sunny afternoon, Brad suggested that we call it a day. Not in a mood to argue, I started the engine as he pulled the anchor. About 20 minutes later we were back at Jekyll Harbor Mania.

“Sure you’re going to be okay?” asked Brad.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be alright in a couple of hours,” I replied as I maneuvered the boat away from the dock.

As soon as I got the boat on the trailer and back home, I ran a bowl full of hot water at the kitchen sink and took an Advil. Feeling a bit silly, I sat down at the kitchen table and stuck my finger in the bowl. Immediately, the pain lessened. I kept up the hot water treatment for about an hour, changing out the water as soon as it cooled. By then, the pain in my shoulder and arm was pretty much gone and all that was left was a dull throb in my hand. Over the next two days the tissue around the puncture sloughed off, leaving a nice divot in the end of my finger. The wound fully healed in about 10 days, but there was some residual numbness in my fingertip for several weeks.

So for a 20-cent hook and few extra minutes of rigging, I subjected myself to several hours of excruciating pain, a couple hours lost fishing time, and embarrassment in front of a GON editor! Fortunately there were no doctor bills — this time. What did I learn? Next time Brad handles his own stingray!

This stingray sports a matched pair of spines and is capable of inflicting serious injury to a careless angler. These spines are used as a defensive weapon and carry a very potent toxin.

My experience with the stingray is not uncommon. You don’t have to go far around a coastal community before you find someone who has been on the receiving end of a stingray or some other venomous critter like the gafftopsail catfish. If you spend enough time around saltwater eventually you’ll have plenty of opportunities for a mistake. Fortunately, most are not fatal, just painful.

Even Capt. John Smith, the famed English explorer who helped found Virginia while courting Pocahontas, had a run-in with a stingray in the Chesapeake Bay. His crew was ready to bury him before he regained consciousness. I know several folks who’ve spent time in the hospital and weeks in recovery because of a misstep or, like me, a foolish attempt to remove a hook.

Most recently, the freakish fatal encounter between the famed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and a bull ray off the Great Barrier Reef has brought the stingray back into the public eye. The ray’s barb pierced Steve Irwin’s chest and went into his heart, which killed him very quickly. Unfortunately, some angry citizens in Australia decided to go on a killing binge against stingrays in some way thinking that action was justified. Like all dangerous wild creatures, stingrays and other venomous sea life have their place in the ecosystem. We just need to learn how to avoid harmful encounters and how to deal with them when they happen.

Rays are found in warm coastal and ocean waters throughout the world and are in the same grouping of fishes as sharks with whom they share many characteristics — cartilaginous skeleton, birth of live young, and abrasive skin. Another flatfish commonly confused with a stingray is the skate. These are more common in cooler waters, and they lack the venomous barb common on stingrays.

Rays vary tremendously in size, from that of a human hand to garage- door proportions. Despite the differences in bulk, they all share the same pancake body shape with wings that are actually extended pectoral fins. Stingrays use their wings for movement and for burying themselves into the bottom when feeding or avoiding predators. The flattened body shape and powerful wings make a stingray, especially the large ones, a fierce opponent on rod-and-reel gear. They can literally create a suction on the  bottom, which makes the angler think he’s hung on some obstruction and not a fish. With large rays, the angler and fish often become locked in a tug of war that usually ends with the voluntary or involuntary parting of the fishing line.

Since their eyes are located on the top of the body and the mouth on the bottom, stingrays cannot see their prey. Instead, they rely on an acute sense of smell and electro-receptors, again similar to those of their shark cousins. Rays are opportunistic and feed primarily on clams, crabs, shrimp, and occasionally on small fish. Any natural bait fished on or near the bot- tom for redfish, whiting, and other coastal favorites will attract the attention of stingrays. Their mouths contain powerful, shell-crushing teeth, which pose little danger to humans.

Stingrays are common along the Georgia coast and are found in virtual- ly every type of habitat from the open Atlantic Ocean to barrier island beach- es to tidal creeks. Because of this widespread distribution in areas where saltwater gamefish are found, anglers very commonly encounter them.

There are two basic types of stingrays: those that spend most of  their lives on the bottom and those that swim up in the water column, also called pelagic rays. This pelagic group includes species like the spotted eagle ray, which has the curious habit of leaping out of the water, and the cownose ray, which is a favorite with coastal anglers because they often have cobia swimming along with them. These pelagic rays have barbs, but they are located near the base of the tail, which may discourage predators from biting the animal near its vital organs. Given the location of the barb, and the fact that it is uncommon to catch one on hook-and-line gear, pelagic rays pose little danger to humans, especially anglers.

Rays that spend their time along the bottom are most common in coastal Georgia throughout the year and are the ones most likely to injure a person. This group includes several species such as the Atlantic stingray, the roughtail stingray, and the Southern stingray, the females of which can have a wingspan of six feet and weigh in excess of 100 pounds. On most bottom-dwelling stingrays, the barb is located farther away from the body and higher on the tail, maling it a more effective and dangerous “striking” weapon.

As a rule, rays generally do not attack aggressively or even actively defend themselves. When they perceive danger, they instinctively swim away. In the Cayman Islands, divers and snorkelers hand-feed large stingrays at a popular spot called Stingray City. Each year, thousands of people interact with the rays and never get injured.

Although normally docile, stingrays have a potent defense. When they’re attacked by predators or stepped on, the threatened ray will whip its tail up and forward in a motion very much like that of a scorpion. This whiplash motion can drive the barb forward with tremendous force. Because of its serrated edge, a stingray barb is capable of making a serious cut. The point is extremely sharp and can penetrate easily through clothing, waders, rubber and leather boots, and the like. The barb often breaks off in the wound, which is non-fatal to the stingray but a serious complication for the injured person.

Most stingray injuries occur when swimmers, wading fishermen, or flounder giggers accidentally step on a ray. Consequently, most humans are usually injured in the foot or ankle.

Large rays can bury a spine in the upper calf muscle of an adult or the thigh of a child.

In early September, a young girl swimming along the Jekyll Island beach received a combination puncture and cut in the upper thigh. Although originally reported as a shark bite, the characteristics of the wound and the child’ s symptoms indicated a large stingray was the culprit. She required the attention of a physician and prescription medicines.

The venom apparatus or “sting” of a stingray is a spine or modified dermal denticle (the scales covering sharks and stingrays) with two grooves filled with venom-producing tissue. The venom itself is a largely protein- based toxin that causes great pain in mammals and may also alter heart rate and respiration. It’s comprised of several nasty things, all of which blend into a witch’s brew for the human body. Enzymes in the toxin destroy tissue and help the venom spread. Serotonin magnifies the body’ s response to injuries and causes symptoms ranging from swelling to convulsions. A particularly nasty fungus is associated with the spine, which has the potential to cause a persistent, highly resistant, and sometimes fatal infection.

On the positive side, the venom is protein based so it can be inactivated by exposure to high temperatures. Because of this, immersion of the wound in near-scalding hot water or application of a heat compress is recommended as an immediate treatment. So, take note that heat packs should be a part of every coastal angler’s first- aid kit. Coastal folklore incorrectly holds that one should urinate on wounds of a stingray like you would for irritation caused by by jellyfish or sea lice. Before you add insult to injury just understand that urine and vinegar are not effective treatments for a stingray injury.

While heat treatment will help reduce the initial pain of stingray venom, it’s no substitute for proper medical care. Small pieces of the spine can be left in a wound leading to secondary infection and prolonged recovery. An X-ray or a thorough surgical examination under local anesthesia is often the only way to make sure the wound is clean. If the fungus starts, you could be looking at months of unnecessary suffering.

Pain normally lasts up to 48 hours but is most severe in the first 30 to 60 minutes and may be accompanied by nausea, fatigue, headache, fever, and chills. Persons who are especially sensitive to the toxin might experience breathing difficulties and unconsciousness — serious business anytime but especially dangerous when you’ re out in a boat or on a remote beach.

How do we avoid an encounter with a stingray? Those of us who spend time wading in coastal waters have learned to do the “stingray shuffle.” Instead of lifting up our feet as we move, we shuffle them along the bottom. Stingrays will sense motion behind them and flee the area. In states like Texas where wade-fishing the shallow bays has been elevated to an art form, anglers often wear leg protectors such as those made by Walk-N- Wade.

When it comes to handling stingrays caught on hook and line, learn from my mistake. Leave the ray in or over the water, and cut the line as close to the hook as safely possible. If you insist on handling the smaller rays, make sure you securely hold the tail with pliers when trying to remove the hook. But, above all, remember what I said at the beginning, “hooks are cheaper than doctor bills.”

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