Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

MARCH 17, 09 -- Ruinous dredging about to begin in Mill Creek; weekly column

March 17, 09:
Late breaking: I have it on good authority that Stafford Township accepted bids to dredge Mill Creek, with work beginning as early as this week. In fact, some initial clear cutting near the deposit area has already taken place – right where perching takes place.
You’ll note in the weekly column below that perch fishing has already taken off in the area where Mill Creek flows into the channel. This dredging will not only kill a potentially powerful perch bite but will likely ruin the upcoming herring run, which I think might be one of the better runs in recent years. Not so if the water is so muddied and disturbed that the fish are driven away.
An alarmed angler from Stafford has already made calls to the DEP and the town. The DEP was actually surprised an OK was given to begin dredging (seemingly) without the proper state councils being notified. The DEP is looking into what went wrong and will be getting back to the angler. RFA is also stepping up to the plate, with Jimmy D. himself looking into it.
The town administrator said there is nothing that can be done since the dredge contracts have been awarded – which means the town could be penalized if the work is not allowed to begin on schedule. However, if the permitting went through the wrong channels there could be hell to pay.
Along with the DEP folks, I have to be amazed that such disruptive dredging is allowed to take place at the height of the migration of anadromous fish into the Mill Creek area. It is so flagrantly in violation of environmental integrity that one has to wonder if there is more to this dredging than meets the eye. Something stinks – and it ain’t the fish that will be wiped out by this project.

Frickin’ Candles and Weird Buzzards
In the face of dreary news, I live by that famous quote – said by either Confucius or Eleanor Roosevelt – Tis better to light just one candle than to walk around cursing all day. Admittedly, that damn concept hasn’t done me one helluva bit of good but it’s still important to have a philosophy or two to live by – though those frickin’ anti-cursing candles don’t come cheap.
I bring that candle lighting up in the face of a ton’s worth of dark regulatory stuff now flapping around like fishes out of water -- grounded as the water sucks out before a tsunami. The regulatory impacts on Angling 2009 is going to be as hard and heavy as any year since the Great Striped Bass Moratorium.
The biggy is, of course, the pathetic fluke season we’ve been forced to swallow -- and the accompanying lost Labor Day weekend for this summer-only fishery.
Don’t get me going on that summer angle. It’s as if we of a fall fishing and surfcasting ilk don’t even exist any more. The last couple years we were at least thrown a bone via a fluke season that carried into September. Now, we get squat. Not that fishing folks were happy about the season’s parameters, but it sure seemed as if the main flow of anger was focused on the fact that summer anglers didn’t get their final weekend. Many regs truly treat local coastal anglers like chopped cod liver.
The next regulatory hit to our Jerseyan solar plexus is just now flowing on-scene. And it’s as odd as it is weird, destined for controversy.
Allegedly ahead of schedule (see below), Pennsylvania and Delaware regulators have received permission from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to implement a slot season, whereby bass as small as 20 inches can be taken by Delaware River-fishing anglers in those states.
I’ll note here that both those states have very realistic claims to their allotted portions of the bass fishery, poundage fully unattainable with a size restriction of 28 inches and up. In some ways, this is one of the first displays of striper management sensibility, at least as far as culling out smaller fish is concerned.
What that season mean to Jerseyans: Garden State anglers will be able to keep 20-inch Delaware River fish during that slot season, they just can’t return to the banks of NJ with them. Either go ashore in Delaware or Pennsylvania or cook up the bass and eat the suckers out there. Our regs will remain rigid: 2 fish at 28 inches or greater (with an extra bass via Striped Bass Bonus Program). If you so much as arrive in Jersey with a fish beneath that 28-inch mark, you’ll be tazzed and sent to live out your days in Hackensack. That, or simply fined.
For your perusal, here’s the some of the legal language put forth by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in changing its regs:
Male striped bass are abundant during April and May on the spawning grounds and about 90% are shorter than the 28 inch length limit. Furthermore, very few sublegal female striped bass are present on the spawning grounds. This Commonwealth’s anglers desire an opportunity to take advantage of this restored striped bass population and the potentially excellent fishing that it could provide. Past regulatory and habitat protection efforts by the Commission have largely benefited coastal anglers and anglers outside of this Commonwealth.
My read: I’m 1,000 percent for the culling out of small male stripers, which feed like fiends, their diets composed of every young-of-year species they comes across. What’s more, those small bass get into the bay where all our other to-be gamefish are born.
Since that slot season for Delaware and Pennsylvania is currently only scheduled – it’s due to kick in this summer -- the frustration of Jerseyans is currently somewhat subdued. Won’t stay that way. Just wait until Garden State anglers are unable to tap into small good eatin’-sized stripers while folks within eyesight (Delaware River area) are bagging them left and right.
To visualize this future fiasco further: boat anglers will be fishing side by side in Delaware Bay and those heading back to Jersey won’t be allowed to keep 20- to 26-inch bass (only bass over 28 inches) while boats all around them, bound for Pennsylvania and Delaware ports, will be bagging small stripers left and right. Again, that’s when it’s going to hit home – and nerve endings.
Talking off-the-record with some buddies of mine at the state level, they were taken back a bit by the velocity with which Pennsylvania and Delaware applied to the ASMFC and were granted this seriously appealing slot season. NJ authorities knew those neighboring states would be requesting a slot season but thought it wouldn’t be until next year.
So why doesn’t Jersey scurry out and make the same appeal for its anglers fishing the Delaware?
Here, it get quite sticky, quickly.
Jersey is already more than proficient at exhausting its allotted annual bass poundage. My buddies couldn’t offer me even a guesstimate on how much bass poundage would be taken should Jersey get a Delaware River-based slot season for small bass. We are the most crowded state in the nation, per square mile. We could suck up a stick’s shake worth of stripers in nothing flat.
Then there’s the mind-boggling enforcement question of how to determine if a 20- to 26-inch bass was taken in those specified river waters. Where’s the line that separates Jersey’s Delaware River water from Jersey’s ocean water, where stripers must be over 28 inches? Could I pull into a berth in Beach Haven with slot stripers and claim I just motored back from the Delaware?
All that confusion aside, it gets stickier yet when it comes to how NJ must go about gaining a Delaware River slot season of its own.
Years back, in a snub of the then slow-acting and somewhat-suspect NJ Marine Fisheries Council, anglers opted to have the state’s Legislature handle all things striperish. Big mistake? Maybe yes, maybe nope. Regardless, it now requires a virtual act of the State House to get changes to the bass laws – and they are laws, not regulations. Now we’re talking slow. No need for a civics lesson except to say that law changes require a proposed bill introduction to both a senate committee and an assembly committee, for debate and comment. If passed on, the bill goes on to the full senate and assembly, where it languishes amid a myriad of other legislative activities before debate and possible passage. Even if passed by both houses, it needs the gov’s signature. Obviously, things can go awry at any point – as we’ve seen too many times, most recently with the Reef Bill. One of the biggest bill killers is the end-of-year bugaboo, when all proposed legislation essentially dies in December and must be reintroduced the next year. Still, it is likely such a bill for a slot season will be introduced if enough angler groups request it.
Could there be unwanted ramifications of a Delaware River slot season in Jersey, were we to get it? Always. I could see our Striped Bass Bonus Program poundage going to the west side of the state, so to speak.
And could there be good things for us along the coast? Always. I’m wondering about a statewide one-fish (20 to 26) for a short summer stint. Having it take place for a few weeks in, say August, would make midsummer bassing a blast. That is an unlikely scenario until the regulators realize we have to go hog wild on small male stripers and back off drastically on fish between 30 and 40 inches. In fact, one highly desirable attribute of the effort to gain nationwide gamefish status for stripers(forever) is the fact that all the commercial poundage gained would require recreationalists to massively catch and keep small bass.
That is just a few angles on NJ acquiring a slotfish season for Delaware River bass. Much will be said about this in the future.
ODDITY DU NATURE: Here’s one of the odder nature observations I’ve ever made. I was using metal detector near a lightly traveled macadam road in the deep Pines. As I swung the machine around, I’d catch an occasional glimpse of a circling turkey buzzard overhead, showing now and again through breaks in the scrub pines and leafless scrubby oaks. Its persistent circling told me something somewhere had met its end. Big black carrion-loving birds have a certain air of looming gloominess about them, as they examine dead meat to make certain it’s all the way dead. Nothing scares a buzzard worse than biting into an assumed corpse to have it jump up. Same thing goes for an undertaker, I’m told. Anyway, I assumed this buzzard wasn’t establishing a new dining regime by swooping down on humans and taking a bite of their shoulders. I paid it little mind, until I caught sight of it suddenly moving way closer to the ground.
Crouching down near the roadway, I watched the five-foot wing spanned bird make a somewhat clumsy landing on the opposite shoulder of the road, maybe 40 yards away from me. I figured I was about to see what carrion goodie this dogged bird was hot over, likely some highly appetizing roadkill mess. That’s when the weirdness set in. All I could see on the road shoulder was one of those large plastic Pepsi bottles, two liter, I guess. I assumed there was also something decidedly decaying near that litter.
If you’ve never seen a turkey buzzard walk, it moves with an odd swagger, not totally unlike a John Wayne gait. Well, this pilgrim was confidently moving toward its target with an obvious look of anticipation across is truly ugly featherless pink face.
Up it struts, right to the bloated Pepsi bottle. It did one of those head cocking check-out actions, closely scrutinizing the bottle. Then, inexplicably, it began pecking it as if the piece of plastic contained cold rotting innards. I’ve never seen anything like it. It aggressively pushed and poked the bottle until it was onto the roadway. On occasion, it would stop and look skyward to see if any of its carrion-savoring buddies wanted in on the action. This went on for easily three minutes and would have likely carried on until who-knows-when if I hadn’t gotten so immersed in the bizarre behavior that I moved too noisily forward and spooked the bird.
It was all so strange, I just had to walk over to see if just maybe a mouse had gotten into the bottle and had died therein. Nope, just a cup’s worth of stagnant soda within. So why the hell was that goofy bird …? Hey, there’s one in every flock.
After it was all over, I realized I missed my chance to make mint by recoding the scene on video for the Pepsi Cola Company.
BURSTS OF BIG SEABASS: While surfing through on-line fishing reports, I noticed some legitimately huge black seabass are being taken from mid-distance wrecks. One report had a pool winning seabass of 7.5 pounds, seconded by a fish of 7 pounds even. Those are not a helluva long distance off the state record of 8-pounds, 2 ounces. Could this be another one of those kick-ass seabass years? We had one of those a few years back.
Weigh-in note: I handle a metric ton’s worth of fishing weights throughout my writing year. I get a tad crazed over the unadvised use of decimal points in the place of commas. I’ll explain. Per above: The seabass at 7.5 pounds is NOT 7 pounds, 5 ounces but 7 pounds, 8 ounces. That .5 is half a pound, which is 8 ounces. I can’t tell you how often I get fish weights sent to me representing a 20-pound, 5-ounce fish as 20.5 pounds. Conversely, I’ll have a 35.9 fish as 35 pounds, 9 ounces when it’s actually (and mathematically) in the vicinity of 35 pounds, 9 ounces.
RIVER RALLYING: As for Mullica River bassing, it has activated slightly but is not right on schedule. Upriver bass, all small, are coming to light, per those actually working those often out-of-the-way landings and such. It all seems bait oriented. Perch are more plentiful (see related perch report below). Water temps in the upper river and nearing Graveling Point have moved up fairly quickly, urged upward by some very mild sun-saturated days. The Great Bay temps are not quite there due to side-ass winds (south and then north) stirring up bottom waters.
I’d sure like to hear we have Boston macks coming on scene. Fisheries management claim the fishery is doing incredibly well. I sure don’t see it. Neither do tackle shops, which have gone the last few years with nary a mack being sold to them by anglers heading out to sea a ways, jigging mackerel rigs.
PERCH SUDDENLY APPEAR: As the weather makes it’s typical crawl toward spring, it seems that one fairly popular gamefish has decided to fire up way earlier than expected. White perch are being caught locally, not only earlier than usual but at a rate we haven’t seen in many, many years. Those knowing the Mill Creek ropes have pulled in perch to the tune of many dozens, all the popular “better sized” models. This is a bit of a baffler to yours truly. While my fishing skills are right up there with a Wile E Coyote’s roadrunner skills, I do have a penchant for keeping track of fisheries and where they seems to be going.
In recent years, I’ve openly fretted over the near disappearance of this historically significant close cousin to stripers. The last thing I would have predicted is a mid-March push of perch in near bizarre numbers. Fortunately, I have an out, so to speak. When dealing with not only fish but also with many mammals, there is the boom/bust factor. Technically known as the boom/bust cycle, I’m likely treading on dangerously emotional and economic grounds by noting that we as humans are going through one of those cycle thingies, though it has purely to do with the population of money within our pockets – Our people population is a bit too boomy, the planet having reached a top-heavy 6.76 billion human inhabitants. Hell, that’s so many people that if we stood on each other’s shoulders the guy on the very top could pick rocks up off the surface of the moon. “Is he there yet? My shoulders are starting to hurt.”
Where was I, oh, that boom/bust cycle thing.
For whatever reason, nature seems to favor booms and busts over status quo-ing. The problem with determining where fishing populations stand, nature-wise, fish is our hunger for same. It’s hard to see the booms and busts through the nets and hooks. However, white perch have long fallen through the cracks when it comes to heavy-handed harvesting. This is not to say that fyke nets haven’t snared them down in the Mullica River. Also, hardwater fishermen along with eager spring anglers are not immune from loading up on these tasty critters. Still, this species is likely to show natural boom/bust cycling more than mankind-adjusted species like stripers or summer flounder. Yes, we as humanity all but own most fish species. We are now capable of nearly wiping them out before nursing them back to health, per our whimsies. Nature has lost control over such manipulations. It might be said he have, indeed, fooled Mother Nature. You know the follow-up saying that goes along with that.
Back to perching, this late-winter thrust of fish might only be a prelude to a piss-poor regular perching season, which generally doesn’t begin until April-plus. Or, going bright side up, this might be a good sign of all things anadromous, i.e. fish that move from saltwater to fresh or brackish water to spawn. Might the herring also be on a boom cycle? I have a feeling more than a few bait-seekers will soon be out there scoping creeks where the herring try their hardest to hurry upstream.
For the sake of peace and justice, I no longer offer directions to perching holes in the Manahawkin to Tuckerton zone, however, most tackle shops familiar with the hotspots will give specifics. Late-day has always been the charm for me when perching. With Daylight Savings now in full bloom, after work jaunts are highly doable for many folks.
Cooking tip: White perch are truly delectable, top fare. The problem is they only offer a minor chunk of meat when filleted. Obviously, having a tassel of ‘em to filet leads to a goodly pan’s worth. On the other hand, cooking them in the round – head and all, is my way – offers that much meat again. Oven baking whole white perch, the skin goes crisp quickly, holds in the moisture. All that needs be down after the cooking has darkened the skin, is to gently lift the skin with a fork (steam warning), exposing perfect displays of luscious white meat. Dip in drawn butter or a fine black bean sauce. Make whatever goofy noise you’ve assigned to surges of delicisoity.

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