Hunting the Devil Fish of Padre Island

© 2012 Steve Hathcock

Manta rays were once called devil fish by sailors who saw large “horns” extending forward from their heads. These horns turned out to be ingenuous scoopers which, when unfurled, guide plankton into the manta’s mouth. Manta wingspans can reach up to 20 feet, and they glide though the water like birds. The manta ray (manta birostris) has long been regarded by fishermen as dangerous. Occasionally and for unknown reasons, mantas have been known to leap onto small boats oftentimes causing considerable damage earning them the name, devilfish. Though they are distant cousins of sharks, mantas are not man eaters. Their preferred diet consists almost entirely of plankton and small fish. When mantas encounter a shoal of fish, they quickly move in to feed, swallowing as many fish as they can. Like whales, the manta rays were oftentimes hunted for their oil and abrasive skin. At one time they were very plentiful along Padre Island but overhunting as illustrated in the following and destruction of their habitat has greatly reduced their numbers.


1912: While on a fishing expedition to Tarpon Beach on the southern tip of Padre Island, a group of visiting anglers devised a six inch steel harpoon to which was attached 150 feet of rope. Armed with their lethal barb the men set off looking for one of the famed devil fish or giant mantas that frequented this part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ed Kline, a local fisherman of some fame was hired to help the anglers find one of the giants. Around 10 o’clock that morning a huge manta was observed basking in the sun a short distance from the jetty. Its broad back rose well above the surface indicating its huge size. Quietly approaching close to the slumbering creature, Kline stood up in the boat and hurled the harpoon as hard as he could. The sharpened tip sank several inches into the flesh of the monster fish. The creature woke with a start and immediately plunged for deep water. The men hesitated as the rope fed out at their feet. Should they cut the line or take the ride. Their dilemma was solved when the wounded fish suddenly changed course and sped out into the open gulf at a speed that soon left the land behind. The monster swam out about 6 miles before circling back towards the shore. At this time, the crew of another craft attached themselves to Kline’s boat. To the amazement of the men, the added weight seemed not to affect the giant beast in the least. One by one fourteen other boats attached themselves to the line tethering the giant ray. Undeterred, the huge fish continued to dash here and there. Before long it became obvious the battle had developed into a contest of stamina. Overhead a tropical sun burned down and slowly, the fun went out of the contest.

Once the fish dragged the men some 25 miles out into the gulf and it dawned upon the men that they may be in of danger. Twice the creature set a course for the boats that foamed along behind him but fortunately passed beneath without overturning any of them. Occasionally it would come to the surface and throw itself about madly. At the end of 6 hours the men finally realized the creature might tow them about indefinitely.

A signal of distress was hoisted and the man on watch in the cupola of the Life Saving Service over on Brazos Island immediately ascertained the problem. A crew arrived shortly with a 30-30 rifle and another harpoon. The second harpoon was thrown into the creature and again it threw one of its mighty wings into the air and headed out to open sea. Incredibly, the creature continued at a rapid pace for 2 hours without seeming to tire in the least. Nine hours had passed and the exhausted men all suffered from heat prostration, thirst and hunger, but none demurred from their quest.

 It was time to use the rifle. The first shot was fired into its body and the fish immediately sank far beneath the water and headed out through the pass into open water. But the weight of the boats and men were beginning to take their toll and the creature was finally hauled to the surface where several more shots were fired into its body. That ended the struggle. A rope was attached to the body and the great fish was towed to land by one of the gasoline powered launches. It was estimated that the weight of the creature was in excess of 3000 pounds and it measured 15 feet across and 30 feet long.

Giant Manta caught off South Padre Island circa 1950s

Giant Manta caught off South Padre Island circa 1950s

“Altogether our fight with the monster was an experience that none of us would care to go through a second time.” One of the men later told a reporter, “In addition to the constant risk of our boats being capsized, there was something uncanny about being hauled backwards and forwards through the waters of the gulf by some hidden power of the deep. Other sea-devils were seen in the locality while we were there but we made no effort to capture any of them. One victory of that kind is enough for a lifetime.”

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