Fishing: Summer Rays Bend the Rods in South Jersey
Cownose rays, bullnose rays, and spiny butterfly rays. These are the rays along the south Jersey shore that provide hot, hard fighting fishing even though catching them is a distraction when targeting summer flounder or, from the beaches and bulkheads, sharks, namely small threshers and hammerheads, and jumbo smooth dogs.
Brown sharks, a popular and, from this corner, plentiful in-close species, cannot be deliberately sought by law, but they’ll also put the teeth to baits meant for other species.
Should a brownie be landed, it must be immediately released.
Back to the rays.
The cownose (brownish olive) is the most plentiful and like the bullnose (reddish-brown to dark brown), is caught primarily in the surf and also in bays where they are vacuuming the bottom for clams, oysters, crabs, shrimp and marine worms. The cownose’s snout is squared, like a cow’s, while the bull's is thinner and longer, almost like a waterfowl’s bill.
The bull's pectoral fins (wings) are wide with pointed tips, while the cow’s are narrower but also pointed. Both have a long tail armed with a venomous spine at the base. Cow’s get hefty, ranging anywhere from 25 to 75-pounds, and there have been reports of specimens getting close to the 100-pound mark. Bulls some in less, generally topping at 30- to 40-pounds.
Both will inhale baits such as a cut or whole bunker or mackerel, wads of clam, whole squid...just about anything. On the hookset, they’re off to the races, quickly draining spools unless closely followed and/or eventually turned. If not kept for consumption, the easiest way for a release is to cut the line as close to the maw as possible. If handling, be very aware of the barb at the base of the tail. About the eating: the wing meat of the cownose is red and chewy. So-so at best either grilled or fried after soaking in cold
saltwater for a couple of hours. We’ve never harvested a bullnose, much less cooked the wings.
The spiny (oft referred as “spiked’) butterfly ray is another matter. This magnificent ray has a wingspan that can reach 10-plus feet, has a mottled color pattern and a short, stubby tail armed with one, sometimes two short ‘n nasty barbs. It will move into the same areas as the cow and bull and consumes they same prey. Supposedly it is not as plentiful as the aforementioned pair, but it sure makes up in size what it lacks in numbers.
Our encounter occurred in Absecon Bay a couple of summers ago while drifting live minnow (killie) baits and bucktail/Gulp! Combos aboard Time Out Charters. A dead stop to my jumbo minnow was cause for a sharp lift of the rod, and a Nantucket sleighride ensued. Having corralled cownoses before, there was something different about how the hooked was acting, and I convinced Capt. Scott Newhall that I wanted to see this fish even though we were losing a prime flounder drifting tide. Nearly half-hour later and aided by a skipper’s acquaintance who motored close and tossed a gaff, it took both of us to drag what was a huge ray into the stern of boat. Long story short: its dimensions were 69-inches by 74-inches, easily a foot-plus thick, and the weight was guesstimated at 125 pounds.
Early that evening, the wings were filleted and we found two distinct layers of opaque-bordering-on-white meat. It was impossible to cut through the bottom of the wing, so the filleting to place in strip fashion. The flesh turned white when baked and, if your taste buds can conjure a taste of scallop with a shrimp’s texture, well, that’s the butterfly delight.
We’ve had it grilled, in chowder and “parmed”, and it’s an epicurean treat.
We’ve decked several more spiked butterflies since then, none approaching that size but still respectable at 50-60 pounds and just as delicious.
Cows and bulls can come and go, but the butterfly should be taken home.