Kevin Cobb takes aim during an early morning outing on Maryland's Patuxent River. (Ken Perrotte)
PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — High-performance military aircraft aren't the only winged beasts with great destructive potential around Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Chesapeake Bay.
Every summer, bay waters and tributaries north and south of Pax River are invaded by millions of cownose rays. With wingspans pushing 4 feet and a whiplike tail tipped with one or more poisonous, saw-edged spines, these stingray relatives could put a hurt on any swimmer who steps on or accidentally disturbs one.
Those kinds of incidents are rare, but the rays wreak havoc on fragile underwater grasses and oyster beds. They can mow through a reef of oysters in hours with their well-designed teeth, arrayed into flat, hard grinding plates.
But with a bow and arrow, a baseball bat and a boat, local outdoorsmen are making a dent in the ray population.
Kevin Cobb, an Air Force veteran, has spent the past decade honing his bowfishing skills. The cownosed ray is a prime bowfishing target, and Cobb is serious about perfecting his craft. The Fairfax, Va., resident has also become a regional apostle for the sport, recruiting friends and hunting guides into this exciting way to use archery gear.
Wearing a "Bowfish or Die" T-shirt, he demonstrated his technique in early June on the Patuxent River, just north of Solomon's Island.
Hunting the hunter
To get a sense of the rays' destructive power, consider their impact on an Army Corps of Engineers oyster-restoration project in the Great Wicomico River. In June 2004, they dined on nearly 1 million disease-resistant baby oysters that had been painstakingly set on artificial reefs.
Rays also wiped out another oyster-replenishment program involving nearly 750,000 oysters planted in Virginia's Piankatank River, cleaning out the oysters in a few days' time.
Oystermen have taken to costly solutions, such as growing oysters in 300-pound steel cages. (That's why fresh oysters can cost about $1 apiece.) Now, the state of Virginia is exploring commercial markets for both the meat and leathery hide of the rays.
If you're looking for your own taste of ray meat, you'll find your targets working shallow water, often just off sandy beaches or locations near oyster reefs.
The water of the Chesapeake and its tributaries isn't as gin-clear as tropical waters, and the rays often appear suddenly, materializing in the murk a few feet from the boat. They have a distinctive brownish-yellow diamond shape, and it's hard to miss the slowly flapping wings as they propel through the water. Sometimes, they make a muddy swirl when fanning the bottom and feeding. Good-quality polarized sunglasses are critical to seeing them quickly enough to aim and shoot.
Cobb, who shoots traditional stick-bows with no sights when he hunts deer, began his ray hunting with a no-frills setup. He has since switched to an Oneida Osprey, a compound bow with a 55-pound draw weight and no sight.
"There's no time, anyway," he said. "The shooting is instinctive. When the ray offers a shot, you often have just a second or two to draw and shoot."
Cobb tips his arrows with Muzzy Stingray points, which have a sharp chisel head for penetration and sturdy blades that lay against the shaft until after they pass through the fish.
"They open up to hold like a grappling hook," Cobb said. "Spin it counterclockwise and it releases the barbs, and you can pull the arrow free."
Billy Bryant, a hunting guide and a buddy of Cobb's, outfits his boat with a raised shooting platform at the bow. This puts the archer in a more elevated position, allowing better visibility and arrow trajectory through the water. As soon as an arrow hits the water, some deflection is possible. A high shooting angle optimizes target surface while minimizing planing, Cobb said.
"I always aim a little low when I'm shooting from the bow of my boat," he said.
Cobb attaches 400-pound test Fast Flite string to the arrow, using an AMS Safety Slide. A key safety consideration is ensuring that the string is attached well in front of the bow's limbs and riser, Cobb said. "If that got wrapped when you released the arrow, you'd have a potentially very dangerous situation," he said.
Heavy thunderstorms the night before our expedition stirred up silt in the water, and 10-15 mph winds generated a surface chop that made spotting the elusive rays even more difficult. Finding wind-protected shoreline gave us a better chance.
Moving into a small bay where a couple of guys were fishing and crabbing, we dropped the trolling motor. It didn't take long before we glimpsed quick flashes of swimming rays. One big brute rose near the boat and vanished, all in a split second. A group of three patrolled close to shore just out of bow range.
Finally, a medium-sized ray appeared 10 yards out. Cobb pulled back and shot. The arrow cut through the water like a torpedo, narrowly missing the top of the ray. The startled creature sped off in a muddy swirl of flapping wings.
Missing is part of the bowfishing game. Cobb retrieved and reset his arrow.
As we entered shallow water where the trolling motor prop began bouncing bottom, another group of three rays materialized off the port side. Cobb's stepson, Joe Dirsa, took the first shot and missed. Ready with a fast follow-up shot, Cobb unleashed an arrow. Within seconds, line began zipping off the bow.
As Cobb tightened the line by hand, all hell erupted on the water's surface 15 yards away. The skewered ray valiantly but vainly resisted efforts to bring it alongside the boat.
"This is where it can get exciting," Cobb yelled, as he instructed Joe to grab a long flying gaff.
Once hooked, Cobb carefully raised the ray just out of the water, mindful of its tail barbs. Its wings pounded the boat, demonstrating why aluminum is the construction material of choice for bowfishing boats.
Wielding a short steel bat, Cobb administered several hard blows — he calls it "delivering the blessing" — to the ray's head. He held the fish in the water until he was certain it was a goner, then used both hands to haul the 15- to 20-pound ray into the boat and into a rubber trash can he had secured on the deck.
The next promising spot was near where a waterman was working an oyster reef. We could see rays moving along the edge of the cloudy water stirred by the oyster boat's work. Despite the target-rich environment, there was only time left in the morning for one shot — a miss.
Later, as Cobb filleted the bloody meat from the cartilage framing the ray's wings, he explained that, under better weather conditions, we could have easily arrowed seven or eight rays.
"This one is small to medium sized," Cobb said. "I've taken them up to 40 pounds or so. There are so many rays in this river, it's surprising there aren't more of us out here doing this."
Gear up, chow down
Ready to give bowfishing a try? Here's a look at the gear you need before you hit the water and what to expect from ray meat.
The gear. To spot rays more easily in often-cloudy water conditions, good-quality polarized glasses are a must. Wiley X Mavericks and Costa del Mar Hammerheads were both effective. For good advice on gear and techniques, see http://www.bowfishusa.com.
The taste. Ray meat is low in fat and textured more like shark than typical flaky fish flesh.
A popular recipe calls for marinating wing fillets in olive oil, wine vinegar, oregano and lime juice, then grilling them. You can also soak the meat overnight in milk, then bread it and fry it.
The meat is growing in popularity; a whiskey-marinade grilling recipe was said to be a big hit in South Korea, and tasters at a Virginia festival also spoke highly of the taste of grilled ray-wing meat.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.