Fish are just fish, right? That might have been the accepted opinion at one time but today with whole industries devoted to black bass, trout, and billfish, it seems a slightly outdated concept. Some fish are big bucks, some are not, and in our consumer-dominated society that simple fact often translates into publicity and sharp distinctions as to what fish are good and what fish are bad.
One fish that has recently begun to gain attention in California, and to buck this trend, is the Darth Vader imitatin’ bat ray, Myliobatis californica, a ray found from the Gulf of California to Oregon. Long maligned, and still abused by some ill-informed anglers, it has begun to attract a new legion of admirers even though it wouldn’t seem to be able to compete with the better-known species.
Perhaps in part this is due to the various aquariums around the state. Bat rays, minus their stingers (they’re generally trimmed down once a month), are allowed to be in petting pools that kids can reach. The rays almost always display a nose nuzzlin’, non-fish-like behavior loved by most kids. Happy kids = happy parents.
It may be due to the publicity surrounding the fighting ability of the bat rays, a trait that has led to the popularization of a second name—mud marlin. They are often the largest and strongest fish in the areas in which they are found and even though a Huntington Beach fish weighing 181 pounds 0 ounces holds the state record, several fish approaching or exceeding 200 pounds in weight have been reported.
Another reason for their popularity may be the Mud Marlin Get Togethers that have been held at the Berkeley Pier for the past five years. Most years see upward of a hundred anglers and also a medley of concoctions (including anchovy-stuffed squid) cast out by anglers eager to lure the hard fighting fish to their hooks. When hooked, the crowd follows the fight, although only about one in three fish actually is netted and makes it up to the pier. Once measured, the fish are gently returned via the net to fight another day.
Lastly, a major reason for their popularity may be the discussions and posted threads on the Pier Fishing In California Message Board (pierfishing.com). Often the neophyte anglers simply admire the fighting ability of the fish or their size. Several of the more experienced anglers though have noted their special traits and some have even decided to no longer pursue the fish. One long time expert, Boyd Grant of Goleta, stopped completely after catching a large ray—and giving it away—to a fellow angler in Morro Bay. He said the fish had watched him with its Bette Davis eyes and he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. Strange talk from an experienced angler with nearly fifty years fishing California’s south coast.
The bat ray, often given such nicknames as stingray, sea ray, eagle ray, batfish, big black, sea bird, flapper, and monkey face ray (not to count the derisive term ghetto fish used in a Lodi Sentinel story), just seems to glide along winning converts and respect.
Attention though must be given to their stinger. The stinger, located on their whip-like tail, can cause a painful wound. And, as seen in the recent case of Steve Irwin, the noted crocodile expert who was stung by an Australian species of stingray, even death is a possibility. However, most anglers who seek out the fish are careful and most have never been stung.
Aside from the stinger, the fish is a harmless fish never known to attack a person. They tend to prefer a flat, rocky bottom or sand among rocks and most commonly are caught in bays or in waters around coastal piers. The distinctive rays have a very heavy raised head and a dorsal fin at the base of their tail. Their coloring is blackish or blackish brown above and white below.
Oysters, clams, crabs, shrimp, abalone, snails and worms are the rays’ main food but bat rays will take almost any bait. Frozen squid seems the favorite bait of most anglers but live bait such as anchovies, ghost shrimp, and grass shrimp often work best.
Catch and release has become the model for an increasing number of ray hunters but some people still keep and eat the rays. Their flesh is good eating but has a strange texture, much like scallops, and they do take time to clean. Recipes on the Pier Fishing In California web site have ranged from teriyaki smoked bat ray to bat ray chowder so the meat is versatile. Still though you have those Bette Davis eyes and many prefer just to release the fish gently back into the water.