Does it sound like a trick question? Whatever in the world could an extremely large saltwater fish have in common with a small upland game bird? But they do indeed share an interesting trait: They are both animals that were once common in Southwest Florida, but now both of them are quite scarce for reasons that no one seems to be able to understand.
There were still a few manta rays around when I arrived here in the 1970s, but they were not abundant. I can remember following them around the north bar alongside the Boca Grande ship channel and casting to cobia that clustered around them. The trick was to cast near enough to the giant rays to entice the cobia but not so close that we’d snag the huge, unstoppable mantas. This happened less and less often, and I don’t think I ever saw a manta ray in this area after about 1980 or so.
Apparently those ‘70s rays were the last remnant of a much larger group which used to frequent our coastline. There was such a large population of manta rays in the area in the early 1900s that wealthy sportsmen traveled here to hunt them.
It sounds a bit gruesome, but in those days the practice was to slip in close behind a surface-cruising manta ray in a small boat and dart the ray with a harpoon, akin to harpooning a whale. Then the hunters would cleat the harpoon’s rope off to the front of the boat and enjoy the ride while the ray exhausted itself by towing the boat around. Sometimes these “Nantucket sleigh rides” would go for miles before the ray would tire sufficiently to be hauled up on a beach somewhere.
But now there are no manta rays in our area. We do see a few of the similar-looking but much smaller devil rays along the coast, but I cannot recall the last time that I heard a report of a manta ray in the waters of Southwest Florida.
Why is this? Did we harvest so many from the local population that some minimum threshold or tipping point was reached and their numbers became unsustainable? Did they just move elsewhere? There are populations of manta rays not too far away in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Did the water quality change somehow in the middle part of the last century to become unsuitable for manta rays, or for their prey? No one seems to know.
There used to be lots of quail here too, but their numbers have crashed. A hundred years ago it was possible to hunt for quail by simply grabbing a shotgun and going for a walk in the woods. No hunting buggies, no purebred and highly trained bird dogs — just go for a walk with your gun.
In the 1970s, we used to hunt quail in eastern Port Charlotte by simply cruising the endless miles of newly-built roads, mostly between U.S. 41 and where I-75 now runs. General Development Corporation had crews building those roads way out in advance of the construction of any homes. You could drive for miles without encountering any houses and you’d probably not see any other vehicles while you were cruising.
We’d drive around until a covey of quail ran across the road, or until we saw quail heads pop up in the swale. Then we’d stop the car, grab our guns and walk the birds up. We didn’t spend much time chasing singles after flushing a covey; it was easier to just hop back in the car and go find another bunch. Quail were common in built-up neighborhoods too as long as there were a few vacant lots around, and hearing the characteristic “bob-bob-white” call was not unusual at all.
But something happened to our quail, and now they are mostly gone. True, there are still some quail around. For example, there are pretty good numbers of wild birds living at the Webb/Babcock WMA just south of Punta Gorda. But that property is managed specifically to produce quail. Underbrush is chopped and burned and food plots are maintained just for quail.
Elsewhere in the area, you might be lucky enough to hear a quail call or see a few birds do their comical head-held-high scamper across a road, but this doesn’t happen very often any more. My unscientific and totally seat-of-my-pants guess is that there are less than 10 percent of the quail in Charlotte County that we had in the ‘70s.
What happened to them? No one seems to know. The mystery of disappearing quail is not unique to our neck of the woods. Quail numbers have plummeted across much of the southeastern U.S. All kinds of theories have been put forth: Fire ant predation on quail nests, overdevelopment of former quail habitat, housecats, coyotes, and many more. But no one knows the answer.
Could the crash in quail population somehow be related to the disappearance of our manta rays? It seems unlikely, but since neither has been explained, who really knows? We just know that they’re gone. I miss them both.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.