Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Winter Thoughts, Friendly Falcons and Bass Ear Bones

Well, we’re into that ugly interim phase of winter, when once-fresh snowfall becomes sickly, pale and splotchy -- peppered with black pieces of random whatever. Backyard objects are edging out from beneath sagging snowdrifts, worse for winter wear. The parking lot mountains of Wal-Mart and Stafford Square are getting worn and road greased, but perched to stay in place clear into April – seemingly hoping to offer the very last visages of as rough a winter as anyone could want. By most measurements, we broke the record snowfall for a single winter, surpassing 46.9 inches tallied back in 1966-67.

More upbeat, fishing flea markets are in full swing. Fishing reel cleaning is in high gear, parts strewn on tabletops, as the Winter Olympics sound off from the new high-def TVs. The monster phonebook-sized Cabela’s “Master Catalog” has arrived – so we can get a great read on what we can’t live without this year, so we can go to our locale tackle shops and buy the exact same stuff locally, sans shipping and handling fees.

REMINDER: Don’t forget the Southern Regional Fishing Rams flea market this Saturday in the Middle School. It runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is chockfull of fishing minutiae. There is a $4 entry fee but keep in mind that every penny goes back into covering the costs of fishing trips and guest speakers for the members of that club. In fact, with that fine angling usage in mind, why not round out that entry fee and make it a five-spot? It’s an investment into our fishing future.

Any other winter, we’d be talking spring already. This year, we’re shell-shocked enough to not push our luck by even hinting winter might be on the outs. Still, the less-than-dead-on long-term forecasts indicate an ever so slothful surfacing of springness 10 days from now.

For this column I’m again pulling in items from near far and in-between.

Follow-up: I got a note regarding the washed up ocean sea scallops. According to Jim G., the finder of the stranded naturally fast-frozen scallops, he thawed them, gave them the old reliable sniff test and cooked them up. “Let’s see, that was three days ago and I feel fine.” Three days? I’m thinkin’ you’re in the clear, Jimbo. As to the advisability of routinely scarfing down things that wash ashore, might I suggest saving such taste tests for those times your airliner goes down and you’ve just paddle a wing-tip to the sands of an uncharted South Seas island.

FRIENDLY FALCON: I got an interesting response to my peregrine falcon segment of week’s column. A local angler hooked me up me with some outback folks who had hosted a resident peregrine for years. The gregarious raptor has adopted the family, stopping by annually to sit on a favorite tree stump in their Pinelands backyard. They fed the bird, which really liked raw fish (no surprise) and also raw steak.

Surprisingly, that down-home peregrine did not have a leg band. I have oft heard of exceptionally “friendly” peregrines, many freely living right next to humans. Many of those are rescued or research birds that have essentially taken to humans, primarily for the handouts they offer, though a genuine bond also seems to be in play. Those happy-with-humans type falcons almost always bear colored leg bands, indicating humans -- at the state or federal level -- once held them.

Not that many years back, we had a super close-up and personal falcon down Holgate.

I first met the amiable bird when I was inattentively walking back to my truck after a plugging session. I looked up and did one of those gecko-eyed double takes. The husky healthy raptor was poised large as life on my opened driver’s-side door, only feet from my face. It was more than a tad intimidating. If you’ve never seen a raptor’s eyes, eye-to-eye, they have a truly penetrating and foreboding gaze that cannot be read. They’d make ideal poker players. “Damn it, Falk, I can’t believe you only had a pair of threes and I folded!”

I always find it intensely odd that people begin earnestly chatting with any form of wildlife they come across. “Pretty bird.” “Aren’t you a noisy seagull?” “Hi there, little bunny.” “Oh my, what a big angry black bear you are. Just give me a minute to load my shotgun.” Still, my first reaction to that eyelevel raptor was an edgy, “Uh, wuzzup, dude?” Unsure of its answer, I went to the back of my truck and grabbed an almost whole bunker. I threw it on the sand but the bird barely gave it a glance. I sarcastically offered, “Sorry, I’m all out of lobster.” And with that it took off, leaving me rethinking that talking with animals’ thing.

Anyway, it turns out that pesky-ish Holgate peregrine had landed on the buggies of numerous mobile fishermen on the south end. I did some background checks and couldn’t find an exact answer to raptor’s identity. I guessed the bird was a coastal migrant (it was fall) that had either established an attachment with humans elsewhere or was once injured and was thereafter appreciative of the good things humane humans can offer.

By the by, it is unadvisable to get into the hand-feeding mode with wild falcons. It’s borderline illegal. However, the folks I chatted with had nothing to do with the regular visits by their “resident” falcon. Yes, they got into feeding it. I would have done the exact same thing. It seems to be human nature. We’re not always real great with other humans but there’s often this inexorable urge to buddy up with wildlife. One of the largest pet-related industries in the world is birdseed (and such) for feeders. Estimates place bird-feeding folks at nearly one-third of the U.S. population.

Peregrine falcons are making a fair recovery in Jersey, despite their eggshells remaining way thinner than they should – the lingering effects of ugly chemical pollutants. Per the latest peregrine falcon studies, New Jersey coastal peregrines continue to have some of the heaviest loads of DDE and mercury (Clark et al. 2009). That DDE is the next phase of DDT, after it is ingested by smaller fish and chemically altered into an equally damaging form (DDE) that is passed onto predators eating the smaller fish.

The lingering DDT/DDE presence has baffled scientists since the U.S. strictly banned the use of such chemicals back in the 1970s. The problem seems to be the long-lingering presence of the once-ubiquitous pesticide, primarily in marine and freshwater muds. Also, a re-exposure to the chemicals is taking place when birds migrate abroad – to countries still using or only recently ending the use of DDT. Inexcusably, when the U.S. banned DDT production, it allowed chemical companies to sell-off its entire massive inventory, often to third-world nations.

As for those third-world nations still freely spraying DDT, there is an ugly paradox within that usage. The pesticide’s unparalleled ability to kill mosquitoes has led to human malaria being all but wiped out. This is a good human thing, despite the obvious catastrophic impacts of the chemical on wildlife. The World Health Organization recently publicly recognized that the human health benefits of DDT easily outweigh the environmental damage. It’s hard to say if the massive financial contributions to WHO by U.S.-based chemical companies played into that determination. At the same time, kids are the number one victims of malaria so I balk at suggesting that wildlife comes first

SEABASS MAKE DUBIOUS COMEBACK: It’s official. NOAA is freeing up a ton of black seabass after taking the advice of the Atlantic State marine Fisheries Commission. I had previously written about this possibility after sitting in on an on-line ASMFC meeting last month. There was some uncertainty about NOAA’s acceptance of new (divergent) data indicating the stocks were way better than thought. I was fairly confident NOAA would do a turnaround – after it had implemented an emergency shutdown of the fishery last year.

Here’s part of a recent Recreational Fishing Alliance news release, concerning the increase in the allowable take of seabass. The full release can be found at the RFA website.

“Four months after declaring an emergency six-month recreational closure on the black sea bass fishery, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) voted in favor of another emergency action, this time to increase the 2010 quota for black sea bass by nearly 61 percent. The good news for recreational anglers is that NOAA's action will expand the 2010 black sea bass season from being open only during the months of June and September as is currently slated; by how much, is yet to be determined. The bad news is that NOAA's decision does not affect the present closure, and the federal government has no intentions of opening the traditional fall and winter sea bass fishery in federal waters…”

SIDEBAR: I can sure see the need to have some targetable species out there after the ongoing cutbacks on fluke and tog, along with this year’s virtual moratorium (one fish a day) on weakfish. However, you have to agree that it’s immensely odd that one minute there is this radical emergency action based on how horrible the seabass stocks are faring followed, in short order, by an allotment increase of nearly 61 percent for 2010. Was last year’s stoppage bogus or is this year’s NOAA gift-giving the stuff of systematically snuffing out a species?

No, I’m not riding the shutdown route but I fairly fear there is something amiss here. When management is sliding all over the board like this – and NOAA is essentially the final word in management -- it’s usually the fish that end up the huge loser.

I, like everyone, want serious science to reign supreme. However, I don’t say that in a way that is now commonly used, i.e. knowing it is almost impossible to quantitatively measure how many fish are in the sea so any and all data can be constantly classified as intrinsically faulty. Such a science-always-sucks strategy allows a continuous denial of the facts -- and the eventual annihilation of fish species. It happens constantly. Just ask the nearly annihilated bluefin tuna or the close-to-vanquished Floridian grouper group. Speaking of which, I still marvel (in a malevolent way) over how a meticulously monitored species can be reduced to 3 percent of its historic biomass, right under everyone’s eyes.

Bluefin tuna have been all the talk, worldwide. The species is near collapse and even extinction. This is all taking place under the watchful (blind) eye of management groups like ICCAT. It’s further proof that commercial lobbying efforts can accomplish malevolent miracles by bandying about the danger of suspect science, meant to convince legislators that all that talk about species being fished to extinction is all tripe.

A weakfish stock assessment that ran from conducted in 1999 and peer reviewed at the 30th Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop (NMFS 2000) indicated “weakfish were at a high level of abundance and subject to low fishing mortality rates. This assessment was updated in 2002 with data through 2000 (Kahn 2002).” Might I re-mention that the stocks are now considered so horrifically poor that we’re lucky to even be allowed one fish a day.

Is it just me or does something amiss here?

DEAD FISH; MIXED MANATEE NEWS: As you likely heard, there was a savage fish kill in Florida.

Last month, cold weather went Attila on the entire Sunshine State, ravaging its famed waters and killing tens of thousands of fish, some trophy-grade.

Some anglers I know down that way offered me some gruesome visuals, by word and photos. I got some personally disturbing descriptions of huge seatrout going belly up at my favorite Banana River fishing cove, tucked near the main bridge connecting Cocoa Beach and Merritt Island.

“Some of the trout that washed up were near state-record size,” emailed a buddy of mine, who runs a “swamp boat” fishing business half way to Orlando. “I couldn’t help remembering you talking about hooking trout that big there. I believe it now. But I’m not sure any survived.”

Checking further into that seatrout loss, it seems only the big ones died off there. That same area is epicenter for small spike-sized trout. None of those washed up. I’m not sure if they were lees susceptible to thermal shock or if they also succumbed but were the prefect eating-size for predatory fish – and the massive population of blue claw crabs that reside there. Equally tragic fish loses were recorded around the state.

While there is very little good comes out of that thermal shock die-off, it did lead to one of the highest manatee counts ever.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reported 5,067 manatees statewide. That number was gathered by 21 observers from 10 organizations. The total count consisted of 2,779 manatees on Florida’s East Coast and 2,288 on the West Coast.

It’s not like the cold helped the manatee numbers. In fact, it is feared that over 300 of the mellow marine mammals died from the cold. Manatees can’t last long in water less than 68 degrees. Instead, the chill instinctively spurred the manatees to move into warm-water springs and effluents from power plants.

The calm cold weather also fostered extremely clear water conditions, allowing an ideal read of the manatee population, especially the count taken by helicopter.

This year’s final tally surpassed the last year’s count by 1,000. The yearly count is considered the “minimum population” since many manatees might have holed up at smaller warm-water refuges, outside the count zone.

Locally, we’ve become attuned to manatees after wayward members of the Florida population have made surprise summer visits up this way.

Last fall, a1,100-pound 16-year-old male, nicknamed Ilya, got in a big spot of hot water when he stayed in Jersey way past that 68-degree watery distress point. He seemingly survived by hunkering down near a warm-water outflow pipe at a North Jersey refinery.

The big mammal had to be rescued and flown to Florida, where he was absolutely no worse for wear. In fact, there is a possibility that he’ll retry the trip, as other northbound manatee have done in the past.

Interestingly, New Jerseyans are among the largest donators to Save the Manatee organizations and their related fund drives.


I’m going through midlife crisis in an odd way by going back to college for my Masters Degree. It’s in Biology. I’m developing my own thesis theme, one close to my love of fishing. I’m hoping to study the effectiveness of otoliths in determining the age of bass. I recall you had written about era bones in the past. Any advice on removing them? K.K.

Hey, sounds like a lot of fun. Good luck and instead of keeping your nose to the grindstone you might want to keep your ear there.

As for semi-surgically extracting otoliths from stripers, it’s one of those riding-a-bike things: Once you learn how to fall off, you’ll never forget – or something like that.

Getting to cut-point to remove a fish’s otoliths consists of moving up a particular gill, following it to the back connection point and digging in thereabouts. See: http://tagotoweb.adfg.state.ak.us/ADU/OtolithRemoval.asp.

I’ve removed many an ear bone and it’s messy but rewarding – though it does get some suspect stares from passing mobile fishermen, who drive by as your sitting cross-legged on the sand in your waders, up to your elbows in fish blood and scales, systematically hacking apart just the head of big washed up bass and triumphantly holding up this tiny piece of calcium carbonate for passing folks to see.

I once heard, “Seven in them morning and already that boy’s not right.”

Since stripers grow slowly, they have real nice otoliths. The slower growing the fish species, the larger the ear bones.

Once you’ve obtained a load of otoliths, reading them can be all over the board.

Under a stereomicroscope, some annuli (annual growth lines) are easily observed – to later be photographed and numbered. This is still the best way to age an older fish – while counting scale annuli is more accurate with younger fish.

However, other factors, from lean times to injuries, can bedevil the effort to number annuli. “What the hay? That circle is square.”

One of my favorite ways to prepare an otoliths is to first “toast” it. Yep, you just brown the sucker one good. This darkening adds contrast to the annuli. A few drips of oil to sheen it a bit and countin’ becomes clearer. Obviously, if you’re just collecting random otoliths for you on-the-wall display, you don’t want to fry ‘em up. However, I do heat (not boil) them in a very mild bleach and water solution, giving them greater whiteness.

Hey, K.K. might I further suggest extending your study to centrifugally analyzing otoliths for heavy-metal contents. I saw an amazing technical paper comparing the metals in modern otoliths with otoliths dug from ancient Native American middens. By all indicators, the heavy metal (methylmercury) presence in the old otoliths was easily equal to -- if not worse than -- today. That stunner is just now trickling down to mainstream science, where peer review will likely show that some of our modern highly publicized fear of certain fish, as food, is unfounded.

Another astounding fish-ear angle can be found at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/12/1209_021209_TVFishEarBones.html. Per that site, it seems that otoliths can answer some elusive fish migration questions. Annuli taken from some species indicate those fish couldn’t be spending winter in the cold, as previously thought. The lack of dark winter rings rpoves they’ve found somewhere warm to overwinter.

Per a related NatGeo article: "The daily rings in the otoliths of juvenile bluefish, for example, contain a geochemical signal that could be used to map their migration pathways," says Simon Thorrold, a fish ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. "Some fish may be making migrations as amazing as the monarch butterfly, but currently we have no way of knowing," says Thorrold, who pioneered the use of geochemical analysis of otoliths to determine marine fishes' spawning grounds.

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