Any day now the quaking callers will start flooding phone lines at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Chesapeake Biological Lab: "Sharks in the York; sharks in the Patuxent . . . hundreds of them."

It won't be sharks at all, through those roving predators occasionally do make their way into the brackish waters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries. Instead, it will be the annual influx of cownose and blunt-nose rays, graceful brown nuisance fish that delight in foraging through carefully planted oyster beds.

People mistake rays for sharks because when the big bat-winged fish feed and cavort in the shoals their wing tips break the surface, like sharks' black fins. Not to worry. Rays pose little threat to swimmers. But they do drive oystermen up the wall.

The rays began arriving in the Bay two weeks ago, completing ocean voyages from as far away as Central America.

In the deep sea they travel in schools of thousands, eating only enough to keep going. Once here they break up into smaller schools, head for the fertile shallows and grind shellfist to streads with their vise-like jaws.

The female bear pups almost immediately after arriving. The young spring fully mobile from the mother, 12 to 14 inches from tip to tip at birth. Then the females seek out the males for mating to start the procedure all over again.

The adult fish, ranging from 14 to 45 pounds are famished after the long migration and feed voraviously all summer.

"It's like an all-you-can-eat special," said Dr. John Merriner, head ichthyologist at VIMS. "When they find an available food source they gorge themselves, in the habit of most fishes. You've seen them tearing up the flats. They mine the bottom for clams, oysters, scallops and the crustaceans.

"It's worst when they hit a bed that a seed oysterman has planted. He's like a farmer. He planted his crop and he plans to harvest it. The rays are like locusts to him."

Merriner has been trying in recent years to interest the seafood industry in rays. He is still optimistic, but the Fulton Fish Market isn't exactly breaking the door down.

"We've shown it's edible," Merriner said."In fact, we've shown it's quite good. It's just a matter of public education." The public hasn't responded.

Another option is to interest sport fishermen. Last week a party of anglers I was with in North Carolina accidentally hooked a half-dozen cownoses in Ocracoke inlet. Then Wednesday another group tied into one in the mouth of the Potomac.

Dave Rowe spotted the ray's wings breaking water on the flats near Point Lookout. He cut the motor and tossed a small bottom rig over the flippers, in seconds he had a hookup.

The spinning reel line dragged lazily off, Rays don't exactly leave you breathless with their fight. They just casually flap out to sea with your bait and stop when they feel like it.

"I don't think he knows he's hooked," said Rowe.

A half-hour later he still was wondering. "I'm beginning to think I shouldn't have done this," he said.

Another 10 minutes and Rowe was waking us up to boat the monster. I grabbed a gaff and when Rowe pulled the ray alongside I sunk the book.

That's when the cownose decided it had had enough. It was like gaffing a brahma bull. The ray came a half-inch out of the water and flapped like a windmill in a hurricane.

"We're sinking," someone shouted.

Blessed bad luck saved us. The ray jumped off the barbless gaff, broke the line and cruised away.

Based on that experience, Merriner will have his hands full convincing anglers this is high sport. But a ray hookup can keep a bad day from being disaster.

Look for rays on the shallow bars near river mouths around slack high tide. They'll bite just about any cut bait, Merriner said. And they are edible, should you surprise yourself and get one into the boat. The wing meat is regarded by some Europeans as a delicacy. More bad Bay news. The stinging sea nettles are mounting their annual invasion and this could be the last week of jellyfish-free swimming at Sandy Point and elsewhere around the Middle Bay.

Jellyfish expert Dr. Paul Zubkoff said the nettles were held back some by the cool, wet spring. Instead of accumulating gradually over six to eight weeks, they have now hatched all at once.

They were thick in the Great Wicomico River below the mouth of the Potomac last week and should proceed up the Bay in short order. Sea nettles wield stingers and a mild toxin. They are an annoyance to most people, but in rare cases the sting can cause severe reactions leading to temporary paralysis, shock and even mild cardiac arrest, Zubkoff said.