Part II: Devil Fish
Written by Michele Roldán-Shaw
ast month, in Part I of this series, we looked at the black bears which formerly inhabited the coast—some say they still do—and we also examined the possibility of this animal making a comeback in our area. Now we will investigate that monstrous, yet factual, creature known as the devil fish. These giant rays once provided rousing, death-defying sport for wealthy planters, although they surely struck fear into the hearts of other small boaters who weren’t hoping to encounter them. Although devil fish are seasonal inhabitants of the Lowcountry and not observed very commonly, many people in Bluffton claim to have seen or experienced one in an occasion they will never forget.
The man who popularized the sport of devil fish fishing, and later immortalized this pursuit in his writing,
was rice and cotton planter William Elliott. A native
of Beaufort, Elliott hunted and fished all over the Lowcountry during the early 1800’s, eventually preserving his experiences in a book called Carolina Sports by Land and Water, now a classic in local natural history and adventure literature. Practically a third of the book is devoted to devil fish fishing, and he opens it with this description:
“...the mightiest, strangest, most formidable among [all the fish] for it’s strength, the devil fish; then rarely seen, and deemed, even down to our own times, scarcely less fabulous than the Norwegian kraken!...a monster measuring from sixteen to twenty feet across the back, full three feet in depth, having powerful yet flexible flaps or wings, with which he drives himself furiously through the water, or vaults high into air: his feelers (commonly called horns) projecting several feet beyond his mouth, and paddling all the small fry, that constitute his food, into that enormous receiver...”
Elliott found that the devil fish frequented the Carolina coast during the summer months, and that by going out in a small boat to harpoon them, he and his buddies could be taken on a wild ride by this powerful creature. He gives play-by-play accounts of many of these trips, always portraying himself as the valiant hero. But perhaps the most interesting tale is actually one of pure hearsay, an older anecdote that was passed down to Elliott by his grandfather. This man had a bone to pick with the devil fish because at flood-tide a shoal of them came right up to the shore of his property and tore out several posts from his water fence. Determined to exact revenge, he:
“...launched his eight-oared barge, prepared his tackle, notified his neighbors of his plan, and waited patiently for the next appearance of his enemies. It was not many days before they reappeared, to renew their sports. He then manned his boat, and soon glided with muffled oars into the midst of the shoal. ‘May,’ said my grandfather to his favorite African slave, who acted as his harpooner, ‘look out for the leader, and strike a sure blow.’ ‘Let me ’lone for dat, massa,’ said May, as, staff in hand, he planted his foot firmly on the bow of the barge. He stood there but a second, when, grasping his staff in both hands, he sprang into the air, and descended directly on the back of the largest devil-fish, giving the whole weight of his body to the force of the stroke! The weapon sunk deep into the body of the fish, and before he had tightened the rope, May had already swam to the boat, laid his hands on the gunwale, and been dragged on board by his fellow blackies, who were delighted at his exploit.”
The devil fish then dashes off furiously with the barge in tow, while other planters row out and tie up to the barge so that soon the poor fish is pulling so much weight that it tires out, floats to the surface and is speared to death. But not before pulling the men so close to Elliott’s grandfather’s house that, like a true Southerner, he orders drinks sent on board “to refresh and exhilarate the sportsmen.” When landed on the beach, the fish measured twenty feet across the back.
Over a century later, another famous Beaufortonian, J.E. McTeer (“High Sheriff of the Lowcountry”) would reference Elliott’s work and spin a few devil fish yarns of his own in Adventures in the Woods and Waters of the Low Country. By this time, attitudes had changed considerably towards this fish, as evidenced by contrasting Elliott’s enthusiastic narratives of being towed by a devil fish with this story, told to McTeer by Scipio Stewart, “an old timer for the Broad River section.” Scipio was fishing at a place he calls “means rocks” and hoped to sail to Bay Point rocks to catch drum, but there wasn’t enough wind and he didn’t feel like rowing such a long distance. He wished out loud, “Lord, I’d sure like to be on Bay Point rocks,” then:
“...I had no sooner made the wish than my boat jerked around and off I went, faster than my boat had ever gone before. My anchor line was tight as a fiddle string. I was on the back seat and scared to move. At times the bow of the boat would almost go under. I wasn’t wishing now; I was praying. Straight for Bay Point rocks I was heading. Looking ahead I could see the large wings of the devil fish threading the water and then down and away he would go again. I thought that my family would never see me again. This devil fish is going to take me out to sea and drown me for sure. We came to Bay Point rocks. The fish turned the anchor loose and there I was, right where I had wished to be.”
McTeer asks Scipio if he caught a lot of drum fish that day, but the man admits he was so shaken up he didn’t feel like fishing at all. A breeze had come up so he hoisted sail and headed for home, glancing repeatedly over his shoulder to see if the devil fish was still following him. These are extravagant tales to be sure, but what is the reality of the devil fish? The online encyclopedia Wikipedia defines the devil fish as Mobula mobular, a large eagle ray endemic to the Mediterranean, but which can also be found throughout the Atlantic. The page did little to shed light on the habits, life-cycle or even the size of this fish.
Also posted on the Internet was an old article from a 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix Magazine. It states that a 5,000-pound manta ray became entangled in the anchor and line of a fishing vessel off the New Jersey coast, nearly capsizing the boat. The Coast Guard came to the rescue and killed the fish with 22 shots from a high-powered rifle, but when the carcass was dragged to shore, it apparently gave birth to an 18-inch baby ray. In conclusion, the article notes that, “these huge ray fish are seldom seen, since they live in the deepest parts of the sea.” There is also a grainy photo depicting the giant beast, with ten men lined up all along the front of the wingspan, room to spare, and one man is actually holding the baby ray.
Other interesting (but not necessarily relevant) information that turned up on a Google search: a B-grade, Jaws rip-off movie called Devilfish, a famous poker champ named Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot, and various applications of the word “devilfish” to describe giant squid, octopus and even a type of whale. Suffice it to say that for some reason, there just isn’t a lot of good, scientific information available about this mysterious creature.
So we turn to contemporary local sources. Longtime partners in the shrimping and oystering businesses, Frank Kidd and Joe Spencer have inadvertently caught many devil fish in their shrimp nets during their 40+ years on the water.
“If you a shrimper, you don’t want to come in contact with that fish,” said Frank of the fearsome giant rays. “They be so big, if they get in that net and open their wings they tear up the whole net. You know you have one because the boat start pulling to one side.”
The two men recall a particular incident in which they were shrimping off Hilton Head and caught three devil fish at once, two in one net and one in the other. They say the procedure for when a devil fish becomes entangled is to pull the “lazy line” and try to empty the creature out of the mouth of the net.
“Sometimes they act nice and let us let them out,” said Joe, who estimates that the largest devil fish he ever saw had a wingspan of 15-20 feet, off Gaston Bank on the South end of Hilton Head. “But if they get down in the small part of the net, they gonna take out the whole net. Other than that, they ain’t gonna bother you. In the summertime they are a local but then they go on about their business.”
Larry Toomer, another experienced shrimper, has the most amazing devil fish story of all. In 1990, he was three miles off the north end of Hilton Head when a monstrous ray he estimates at 50-feet across the back got stuck in his net.
“It was too heavy to even lift out of the water, but you could see what it was all rolled up in there,” said Toomer, a serious man who is not given to exaggeration. “It was a 60-foot net and the ray was somewhere in the vicinity of as big as the net. When we finally got it out of the net, it hit the propeller and stopped the engine, which if you know anything about those engines, you know it takes a lot to stop one of them.”
Besides that incredible encounter, Larry says he routinely sees 5-6 foot rays in the waters off the dock of the Bluffton Oyster Company. He adds that devil fish take their name from their “horns” and bat-like faces.
One of the most striking characteristics of the devil fish is its fondness for jumping high out of the water and sailing through the air before coming down with a frightful splash that is liable to put the fear of God into even the most seasoned small boater. If navigators of the May River thought they were safe from potential heart failure caused by a leaping devil fish, they can think again because at least one giant specimen has been sighted on the river. Avid kayakers and everyday naturalists Brandon and Shellie Waring, who live upriver directly across from the “little sandbar,” were down on their dock one day last summer when they witnessed something totally unheard of.
“This thing about the size of a garage door came blasting out of the water and landed with a huge splash,” said Brandon, who estimates he was standing about 30 yards from the disturbance. “I said, ‘Oh man!’ and Shellie looked up in time to see the splash. Then it did it again and we both saw it come way up out of the water in broad daylight. It blew my mind!”
It takes a lot to blow Brandon’s mind, considering that he and Shellie are out on the river every day and are familiar with virtually every creature to inhabit this area. But this giant ray, with its wings, horns and ghostly white underbelly was certainly a first. He declined to make an estimate of its wingspan in feet, saying only that it was literally the size of a garage door. Though Brandon and Shellie have seen plenty of large sting rays and bat rays in the river (including a sting ray caught off a local dock that later gave birth, just like the devil fish in New Jersey), none of them came close to equaling this creature in size, leading the Warings to believe that what they saw was none other than the giant manta ray, which was not previously thought to venture as far inland as the May River.
The depths of the great oceans are home to many strange and wonderful creatures that have yet to be fully described by science, if they have ever been seen at all. Perhaps one of these denizens of the deep occasionally wanders up to the light of shallower waters, causing fishermen and sailors to question what they thought they knew about marine life. Readers who were not previously aware of the existence of giant devil fish in the Lowcountry must now acknowledge this reality, and perhaps think twice before casting a net, tossing an anchor or wishing to be on the Bay Point rocks, lest they tangle with this formidable entity!