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January 07, 2014

Friendly Jab

Sometimes even pros need to take their own advice.

Ninety-plus years. That’s how long veteran outdoor writer Joe Doggett and I, collectively, enjoyed fishing and surfing around the world without a ­stingray hit. This past August, he broke our streak and left me waiting nervously now for my hammer to fall.

Doggett had already written outdoors columns at the Houston Chronicle for 12 years when I started there in 1983, and we churned out copy as teammates for 23 more. We traveled together to Mexico, the Bahamas and around the Gulf Coast. We visited most of Central America, and he made regular journeys to prime bonefish flats around the Pacific Ocean. We waded salt water — clear and murky, ankle-deep and thigh-deep — for dozens and dozens of miles.

We walked around and among countless stingrays. We bumped them with the toes of our wading boots, and regularly wrote about how dangerous they could be.

This past summer, on a day not unlike thousands of others, Doggett took a step he’ll never forget. (He’s healing nicely, so I feel comfortable poking — oops, there I go already — a little fun.) He’d ridden a wave and was walking the longboard back to deeper water. Best he can figure, his toes might have brushed the animal’s back just before he dropped that foot. The ray’s defenses kicked into gear; its tail and ­ice-pick barb whipped upward at precisely the wrong time for Doggett.

“The pain was immediate, like an electric jolt,” he recalled. “I was alone, too; I drove myself to the hospital.”

Doggett’s pretty tough for a man in his 60s, not scared of much after handling venomous snakes and having a grizzly bear walk beside his tent one night along the bank of some Alaskan river.

He’s also an excellent writer and selects his words carefully. When he said “electric jolt,” I could feel the buzz. The puncture was in his heel, a vertical shot that bled freely over the beach and up the rocks and into his Tahoe — and stung like crazy until emergency-room personnel soaked it in warm water.

I didn’t doubt my friend’s account, which the attending physician noted clinically as a “marine envenomation,” but I had to take a passive jab.

The barbs of big stingrays get broad, almost like paring knives with serrated edges. His wound was smaller, more like he’d stepped on a ­supercharged toothpick.

“Maybe it was a hardhead catfish,” I offered; he couldn’t see my grin over the phone. “Maybe it wasn’t a stingray at all.”

“The doc said it was a stingray,” he insisted, “and I’m going with that.”

Fair enough, since stingrays have a far more sinister reputation than do bewhiskered, bottom-feeding catfish. People wince at the thought of a s­tingray hit. Catfish, not so much.

Doggett and I had a good laugh recently about how much more impressive his story would be if he could say he reached immediately into the water and yanked the stingray from his throbbing heel, then draped it across his hood on the way to the hospital. The truth, though, and even Doggett agrees, is that it probably was no bigger than a Denny’s flapjack.

Either way, there’s no denying he got stuck and that it hurt.

Moral of the story? Well, there’s not one, really. Just shuffle your feet in salt water. Or never get off the board or out of the boat.