Dealing With ‘Saltwater Stings’

I have had the great misfortune of encountering a couple of saltwater creatures equipped with very potent defense mechanisms — namely, stingrays and hardhead catfish.

My first incident occurred while wading when I stepped on a very small stingray. It hit me in the ball of the foot, through the sole of a pair of cheap beach shoes. At the time I did not know what it was, but the burning pain was mercifully short lived.

An eagle ray. They are seldom a problem because they stay higher in the water column than stingrays — but they do have stingers at the base of their tails.

When I stepped on a much bigger stingray a year later, I knew what it was because I saw it swim away. This was a whole new venue in the world of pain. I was in the middle of a school of tailing redfish and loathe to leave, so I kept fishing. But as the pain quickly intensified, I knew I was in trouble and headed for home. By the time I got there 30 minutes later, the pain was so severe that the local hospital emergency room became the only option.

Hot Water Relieves Foot Pain
At the hospital a doctor looked at the wound and pronounced it to be a stingray and ordered a pan of hot water. Much to my relief, as soon as my foot hit hot water, the pain subsided. The stingray’s venom is protein based, and is quickly neutralized by heat. However, they left me sitting there by myself for about 20 minutes and the water cooled, and the pain returned with a vengeance. Someone finally heard me groaning and got more hot water and I stopped hurting.

When I got home, I logged onto my computer and Googled “stingray hits.” The first site I logged onto told me everything I needed to know; the venom is neutralized by heat, preferably 120-degree hot water, and that it takes about an hour and a half to run its course. It also said that meat tenderizer applied to the wound will minimize the pain until you can get it into hot water. Had I known all this beforehand, it would have saved me a $400 trip to the emergency room, not to mention an hour or so of intense, teeth-grinding pain. You can bet there has been a container of meat tenderizer in my tackle box ever since.

There are other complications that can occur should you be unfortunate enough to have a losing encounter with a stingray. If the barb breaks off in the wound, obviously it has to be removed, and if there’s any doubt, you need to see a doctor. And if your tetanus shot is out of date, you will need to get another.

A dehooker will keep your hands at a distance from the toxin-loaded fins of the hardhead catfish.

Shuffle Feet When You Wade
The best method to deal with rays is to avoid them by shuffling your feet when you wade. More than 99 percent of the time, they will get out of your way. However, it’s all about knowing what to do when you run into the 1 percent.

Another critter that packs a venomous punch is the ubiquitous hardhead catfish. It has been my misfortune to get stuck twice by these slimy, undesirable creatures. The first one hit me under my thumbnail with its dorsal fin. I was on a charter with a lady and her three children, and when I turned pale and broke out into a cold sweat I’m not sure who was more scared. It passed in a few minutes, as the penetration was slight. After that trip I purchased a dehooking device to avoid further such painful encounters. But even that did not prove totally effective.

On a backcountry trip for redfish with cut bait, I landed a 12-inch hardhead on a circle hook, right where it was supposed to be, in the corner of his mouth. I grabbed the shank of the hook with the tool, and gave the fish a shake. Instead of going over the side, it bounced off the gunwale and landed dorsal fin first on the left side of my big toe. The resulting half-inch gash quickly covered the deck with blood, and I doubt that a red-hot poker could have hurt more. I quickly reached for the meat tenderizer, and it did indeed lessen the pain. However, it still hurt, and it hurt a lot.

Home Remedy: Try Meat Tenderizer
I got home in 20 minutes and quickly Googled “catfish stings,” and was again saved by the first website listed. Same treatment as for a stingray hit — hot water! The pain subsided immediately, but overnight my foot swelled to twice its size and was tender in the extreme.

A dehooker and a pair of needle nose pliers will help you stay out of harms way. The meat tenderizer is for the other times.

My grandmother’s remedy for a festering wound was to soak it in hot water laced with vinegar and Epsom salts. Mercifully, after a couple of hours soaking in the solution the swelling went down and the pain went away. A day later my foot was back to normal.

Anybody who fishes in saltwater should carry some meat tenderizer and know what to do in the event of a sting. Now there are also hot packs that are chemically activated that will neutralize the venom. It’s a thing best avoided, but even when every precaution is taken, that 1 percent is always going to be there. Knowing how to deal with either creature will minimize pain and expense.

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