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A Stingray Tale

A Stingray Tale

The head of Queen Charlotte Sounds are tidal. The tide range is not huge, but the water being as shallow as it is, low tide reveals a great expanse of brownness. Ringed by lush native bush to the waterline, this little corner of Marlborough is paradise to a small boy. That great area of exposed mud, littered with stranded puddles of left behind sea, pockmarked with crab holes and their scuttling tenants, dark seaweed smell everywhere, draws like a magnet. Large holes left by monster snapper excavating for succulent molluscs with their bone crushing jaws, floated tremulous images before his eyes of what the next high tide may bring.

Spirits soaring along with the flowing tide he trudges up the dusty strip to collect his fishing gear. Containing his excitement, he knows precisely how long the advancing sea will take to creep up over the mud, so he need not hurry. Nevertheless, with the trembling thrill of anticipation running through him, he finds it difficult not to break into a trot.

Gear was pretty low tech back then and consisted of a hundred yards of sturdy green woven twine, wound bobbin like onto a handy piece of discarded squared off dowel. A home poured barrel lead weight slid down nestling against the brass swivel linking the line to three feet of heavy gauge nylon. Knotted to the end of this nylon is his favourite ‘fish killer’ hook. Glittering in the sunlight, its wicked barbed tip is buried deep in the layered green strands wound on its stick. This is it then, the mighty snapper killer, costing all of five bob(five shillings) in the old currency, to make. Compare this if you will, with the price today of putting together an effective fishing ensemble of expensive rods, reels, lines and boxes of lures.

Stepping back onto the first few grey planks of the long rickety jetty, his fishing line nestles comfortably in his left hand. The jetty stalks its way the best part of a hundred yards out over the squelchy mud. Tapping his toes on the ancient grey boards, he rattles out the last of the sharp stones from his sandals. Squinting along the jetty, the twisted boards stretch into the hazy distance like ever diminishing tramlines. Many times he had set out along them with the intention of counting each board, all the way out to the end. His steps however, always reeled them off faster than his brain could keep up and, with the easily distracted mind of a young boy envisioning monster fish, he never got beyond five hundred. Being about a third of the way, his estimate of fifteen hundred was probably fairly close, but it always rankled slightly that he never did get an accurate count.

Swirling around the mussel festooned pilings, the inflowing tide foam capped fans out, bubbling its way over the mud flats, filling the myriad crab homes as it goes. The occupants, bolder now, scuttle about freely under the silt filled blanket of advancing brine.
One hour before and one hour after high tide, is the best time for hooking into a monster snapper. He knows this precisely, ambling his way to the outermost end of the jetty. He is in good time and will be able to organise his position, bait up the snapper killer, and heave it into the water, hopefully so it comes to rest near a crab hole that a cruising snapper would want to investigate.

Approaching the end he sees he has the whole jetty to himself. He has known this from the moment he stepped on, but still, it fills him with a great satisfaction for it to be devoid of any other humans – he will share it with a largish black backed seagull eyeing him warily from the outermost bollard. This is how he likes it. Toes protruding over the very end, he stares down into the murky water, fascinated by the swirling patterns slowly eating their way up the dense carpet of bearded mussels.

Rummaging in his small fishing bag he extracts the specially prepared bait and cuts it into decent sized chunks. Weaving it carefully onto the hook he works the barb until it is just wickedly exposed through the tough skin. The skin of a Trevally is so tough that many a time when a cast has been unproductive, producing only a few nibbles, he has retrieved the line to find all the flesh removed, leaving only a sodden, sorry, grey strip of skin wetly dripping on his hook – this morning though is the time for big fish only!

Casting a final professional eye over his handiwork, he is all set. The green line is ready, coiled on the dock awaiting its whistling journey out over the water just as far as he can heave it. Grasping the line two feet up from the weight, he begins to twirl it around his head in long slow sweeps. As it picks up speed he allows more line to slip bit by bit through his fingers until it is whirring around his ears in an ever increasing arc. The combination of length and speed when it is just right transmits its message into his arm via the brain, and leaning into it as he steps forward, he releases it on the upward swing at precisely the exact moment. The solid lead weight leaps forward in its path to escape, lifting the coils off the deck as it goes and travels its parabola, curling down into the water with a far off plop. As it hits the surface he puts his foot on the remaining coils, picks them up and feeds out enough line to allow the sinker to drop to the bottom – not far in these tidal flats. Glancing around, he notes the seagull blinking, but with no applause forthcoming, he assumes it is indifferent to his skill!

Leaning up against a bollard he settles down to wait in the warm sunshine. The high overcast this morning breaks the power of the sun, and with a slight breeze wafting up the Sound, it makes for very pleasant basking. The far off drone of a NAC DC3 rumbling its thundering way to Wellington somewhere beyond the hills, rolls down the valley. His old floppy sun hat shields his eyes so he can spot any movements in or on the water. High tide is approaching, so water motion has slowed right down. The line rests lightly in his fingers, tingling as they anticipate the first tug. A constant war rages within as high tide approaches without a bite. Does he pull in the line to check the bait and possibly miss a fish? or does he leave it out there, hoping the bait is still intact? There is something pulling on his finger right now, and looking down he sees a horrible large bug eyed red cod latched on, so big it is dragging him off the wharf and into the water!

He starts, instantly alert and realises he had dozed off in the morning warmth. The line is slowly sliding through his fingers and gathering pace. He knows it is a snapper, and in its cautious way it has picked up the bait in its mouth and is slowly swimming off with it, testing. Any resistance in this shallow water and he will drop the bait straight away. After a few yards the fish will have enough confidence and swallow the bait. All he needs to do at that point is stop the line in his hand and set the hook with a hefty tug. This he does. The snapper doesn’t like this and fights back with the familiar steady thud, thud, thud, as it shakes its bony head against the pull. A snapper this size is quite strong and pulls very hard at the outset but, with the hook embedded in its stomach, rapidly tires and he is able to pull it to the jetty after a few minutes. Floating on the surface now right by the piles, he is able to lean over and quickly gaff the fish and lift it weakly flapping on to the dock. He pulls out his kauri kerri and gives it a smart blow over its forehead and it lies still. It is a fifteen pound beauty.

Immediately gutting the pink and shiny snapper, he examines its stomach contents and yes, as he suspects, it is crammed full of crabs, caught on the incoming tide and mostly still alive. Fresh fish very quickly becomes stale and smelly fish if left out too long in the sun. Quickly baiting up again, he launches another cast in case the partner is snooping around and runs all the way up the jetty to hang his prize in the cool, dark shed at the top. Admiring his catch shining out of the gloom, he sees the other two empty hooks which he plans on filling today. Three snapper that size will feed the whole company!

Turning away he hurries back along the dock, light of foot and whistling to himself. Arriving once more at the end he cannot believe what he can’t see. At first glance his fishing line has completely disappeared, gone. Then he sees it, the end still tied around the pile, but no spare coils on the dock, and it is stretched taut to twanging point directly out to sea. He leaps on to it, knowing that with no give, the line will snap. He pulls in a short length to gain some slack and there is a huge pull back. He stands there, not gaining, not giving, for some moments trying to figure out what is on the end. The familiar tug, tug, tug has been replaced by a strong steady heaving pull, which is threatening to haul him right off the dock. What to do – the stout line is cutting into his hands, but he dare not let go as the line will snap when it comes up taut at the end of its knot on the piling. Right at the moment when it is going to be either the fish or him, the monster turns and for some reason begins swimming toward the jetty. Pulling in line as fast as he can to keep up, the fish turns again and starts moving in large circles. This pattern continues for some twenty minutes and with each circle the fish swims he is able to work it a little closer. He can feel it tiring now and once again it turns shoreward, heading toward him and those mussel covered piles.

He gets his first glimpse of something black and something massive. Still not sure what it is, he works it ever closer. Emerging slowly from the murk is a huge black waving blanket, which gradually transforms into a gigantic black stingray. He has never seen a fish so big, and suddenly is a little scared. This is replaced pretty much straight away thinking about the ‘mana’ he is going to receive from the others when he has landed this monster all by himself. Meantime, the next problem is rapidly growing in his mind. Way too large to gaff out onto the dock, he is going to have to walk it all the way up the jetty to the beach. How is he going to do this without the fish swimming in under and into the piles and cutting his line on the sharp mussels?

Help is at hand. Looking along the dock he spies two people walking down. Now is the time to invite other humans to be involved. He lets out a strangled cry, and they come running. Not quite believing what they see, the problem is assessed and they race back to get some large sticks. Returning with some suitable length manuka sticks, they begin thrashing the water between the ray and the pilings. Every time it attempts a dart under, the shouts and thrashing rise to a crescendo so the poor animal never has a chance. Exhausted now, it floats just above the mud by the wooden steps. There being no concerns about the preservation of marine stocks in those days, our young hero is only concerned about securing his trophy. A stout rope is foraged out of the shed, slipped through the rays’ gills and with the help of three other burly participants from the gathering crowd, it is hauled up the wood of the steps. Not wishing it to have a slow death and having seen the recently released movie ‘Psycho’, he takes his trusty fishing knife and proceeds to stab it many times in the head. With all its life drained away, he steps back, looks at the sleek shape, and is almost overcome with sorrow for what he has done. Never mind, it’s only a fish, and supposedly they don’t feel pain.

Many estimates of its weight are bandied about, but after a few minutes of banter, the general consensus is that it must weigh something close to five hundred pounds – truly a monster from the sea.
After the initial excitement has died down, one or two of the onlookers started to question the ability of this one boy to catch this huge fish by himself. What effrontery is this? The taller of the two boys who had helped scare it away from the jetty was quite happy to let them think that he had caught it, so our man was forced to take some action. He stepped up and thanked them both for their vigorous thrashing of the water and the fellow didn’t say much after that. He removed the barbed sting from its tail which, along with any photographs will be proof enough. Cameras started to come out and many a shot is taken of our proud young man.

The sting itself is almost twelve inches (29cm) in length and covered with black venom. Washing it away and examining the sting he can see that many of the barbs are worn down and he comes to the conclusion that his stingray must be very old. This species of ray lives for thirty odd years and this one must be close. Finding it difficult to feed itself in the open ocean, it probably cruised up here looking for easy pickings. Strolling back up the metalled road, drinking in the adulation, he thinks all in all, notwithstanding there are still two empty hooks back in the shed, not a bad days fishing. Tomorrow is another day.