Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Catching Bait Mariachi-style;

Cougars Bound to Show Up

Winds have proven ruinous to boat fishermen – and a sand blast to faces of surfcasters. It seems we’re into a protracted wind whack that could carry on for many days to come.

By week’s end, we might see the first serious west winds of the fall, along with chillified nighttime temps. We sure need something to lower what are some of the warmest ocean water temps ever seen in late September. North winds blew in 76-degree water on Sunday.

It’s time to start alerting all you surfcasters that the 2010 version of the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic is right around the beach bend. Please (!), sign up for the Federal Saltwater Registry so no problems arise over whether or not a Classic contestant is fishing legally or not.

Also, this year’s Classic “Super Surf Casting Seminar” is going to be bigger and better than ever. It’ll take place Saturday, October 9, 2010, Ship Bottom Beach, 9 AM to 1 PM.

For all the details, go to http://www.lbift.com/.

I’ll have more on the Classic – and the related Oceanside Bait & Tackle 2nd Annual LBI Surf Classic Pig Roast -- in coming columns.

For the sake of those who want to exit this column early – and miss cool tales of cougars and invading fiddlers crabs – I’ll do a quick run-down on what is being caught.

The kingfishing has been super, at least for those in the know. The south end of the Island, from Town (Beach Haven) to the Holgate front beach, has offered enough kingfish meat that some fishing folks have had their fill of this taste-laden panfish. Bloodworms work best. If you want exact kingfish-catching locales, please ask at local tackle shops.

I’ll also inject this report from a master of subtle bayside angling:

“Jay, Just a quick email to report some awesome night time bay fishing over the weekend. Caught bluefish, herring, and sea bass but the big story was the massive amounts of weakfish and fluke that we caught. Fish of all sizes. Fluke were 10-20", weakfish 10-18", and bluefish to 2 lbs. White 4 " gulp mullet and a 1/4 oz pink head was all that was necessary. Once the tide slowed the fishing turned off. Caught 50-60 fish total in about 2 hours. Spent Sunday pulling out folks that got stuck on Holgate...newbies of course. Joe H.”

Bluefishing remains weirdly slow. Tiny snappers are the only consistent action. In the past week, I plugged maybe half a dozen cocktails, to three pounds. Many/most Septembers offer a steady to downright monotonous showing of cocktails. Not this one. Again, the impact of 76-degree water.

Black seabass are thick on the wrecks -- but just try to find a crack in weather to head out, then try to stay put above structure.

Bassing pretty much sucks for us mere mortals. I hear of some sharpies finding strieprs with regularity but with the huge swells, wind chop and often turbid water, I question anyone having an easy time tracking bass.

Which kinda bring us to the failing mullet run. While I’ve heard of some finger mullet explosions just to out south, we’re having the worst September mullet showings in over a dozen years. That paucity or prey surely keeps the bass from being drawn this way. I will mention that we had a couple days worth of fairish net throwing for mullet last week but absolutely nothing near normal. It could still happen – or not.

Sticking with the swash area of LBI …

HIT THE SPOT: Email: “I’ve been catching spot as bait but some are so large I was wondering if they’re good to eat.”

I have heard they’re OK-ish. I also read they can carry some harmless (flavorless) parasites, since they often spend a great deal of time in very hot and muddy shallows. What I do know for sure is they’re like candy to stripers, favored above and beyond even eels, herring or bunker. You can kinda see why if you look at a spot closely – which I’ve been doing on a daily basis since so many get by-caught in my castnet. They’re chubby, stubby, soft-bodied and low on pokey fin action. They’re also not so fleet of fin, so even lard-ass bass – often the biggest bass – can nab them.

While it is a decent year for spot, they’ve been known to arrive in insane numbers. Long term, the population of this species is tough to follow. It seldom lives past 4 years old, opting to go out to sea to spawn -- to never return.

The offspring from that annual spawn of spot reach the bay by swimming with strong oceanic currents that deliver them to places like Barnegat Bay. Those same currents deliver hundreds of marine species our way, to mature. While those life-bringing currents have been reliable enough to maintain a steady flew of essential species, this natural process could easily be impacted by current changes due to global warming.

I’ll do a segment this winter on the fascinating – and perilous – way baitfish and gamefish larva reach us. If you’re Jonseing to know more before then, pick up a copy of the excellent, albeit academic book, “The First Year in the Life of Estuarine Fishes in the Middle Atlantic Bight,” written by Ken Able (officed over at the Rutgers Marine Field Station, Tuckerton) and Michael Fahay.

POMPANO SHOW: Now, if you’re thinking of eating some smaller fish – and you’re even remotely adept at throwing net – the swash area from Barnegat to the tip of Holgate is loaded with pompano, as large as I’ve seen up this way. We’re still talking palm-of-hand sized fish but still dibble. The odds of them successfully making the migratory trek to Florida is low-to-none so it’s not the worse thing to grab maybe a dozen to cook whole -- and butter-dip some of the finest fish flesh known to man. In Florida, pompano is well over 10 bucks a pound.

To net them, you have to blind-throw – just randomly and repeatedly throw the net near jetties. Pompano are very hard to see, visually, even though they feed in the shallowest of water, where they dine almost exclusively on tiny sand crabs. They’re also blazing fast when spooked.

How will you know if you’ve netted a pompano? Firstly, you know what spot look like, with the pinkish tint and light stripes. Mullet are an easy ID, and obviously inedible at finger size. Baby bunker are another easy ID. The only bright silver fish that looks like something straight out of a saltwater aquarium is a pompano. Its orange and yellow fringe markings are also a dead giveaway.

TYPOS AND BLACK TIGHTS: I recently sent an email to a Native American silversmith artist I know in the far northern reaches of New Mexico. I was explaining I hadn’t been doing much artwork because I was too busy catching baitfish (mullet) with a castnet. Unfortunately, my computer’s spell check didn’t have the word “castnet” in its dictionary. Unbeknownst to me, it switched the unknown word “castnet” to “castanet,” as in those clicky flicky finger percussion things used by Mexican dancers.

Gospel truth. The email read, “I’m very busy catching baitfish by using a castanet. It’s very tiring and demanding.”

I was to later hear about the oddly poetic and overtly artistic image this desert-oriented Amerindian fellow envisioned of me dancing in heavy-heeled shoes by the edge of the ocean, fully decked out in one of those Mexican black mariachi outfits, with butt cheeks squeezed to death by tight pants, snapping my bait catching castanet over my head while spinning in circles, triple time.

His image apparently became a tad uncertain when he tried to imagine how, exactly, this led to my catching baitfish. So, in his laidback impeccably polite manner, he sent a simple reply, “I hope you get back to your artwork soon. Also, please send some photos of you at work catching fish with your castanet.”

When I realized what had happened, typo-wise, I called him and ended up damaging my stomach muscles laughing, as he relayed, in a total deadpan voice, his High Plains vision of me castanetting baitfish along the Jersey Shore. I have no doubt he wanted the photo to put images to canvas.

FIDDLERS ON THE LOOSE: I’ve been getting in some Holgate clamming, scratching for both hard-shell and soft-shell clams. While the clamming has been so-so, that south end area is now seeing fiddler crabs in bizarre abundance. I’m not talking a mere smattering of these surface-scampering terrestrial crustaceans but an unprecedented population superburst.

The epicenter of fiddlers gone gonzo is seen where we first drive into the grasses to get back to the mudflats. The ground thereabouts is nothing but thousands of perfectly round crab holes, punctuated by countless balls of rolled sand and mud material, meticulously excavated by crabs digging holes some 15 inches down and needed to off the rubble.

Having worked and walked that area for over 45 years, I’ve never seen a crabification like this. I know this showing is unprecedented for one major reason: I’ve been one of the few folks to regularly dig soft-shell clams in Holgate. The only way to find the larger soft clams is to look for their distinct air holes, found up in harder ground, a goodly distance from hard clams. As of this past week, many of the places I dig softies now have so many fiddler crab holes I haven’t got a chance of locating the small and subtle soft-shell clam holes.

An odd and eerie angle to the crab take-over is when hundreds of these spidery side-steppers slowly and silently emerge from their holes, like little clawed zombies. It’s a real horror show visual.

As to whether or not these buggers present any kind of environmental horror, I’ll have to read up on that. I do know that they’re still one of the finest blackfish baits known. Anyone out there know how to entice them into traps and such?

PUMAS ON THE PROWL?: There may be something big and dangerous lurking in the Pinelands underbrush – along with Big Foot, the Jersey Devil and some guy who likes to dress up like various shrubberies to jump out as passing hikers. Hey, I only do it once in a rare while.

Here’s a genuine bona fide email: “Jay, … Have you ever seen or heard of Cougar in the pines? Well; this is no bull story either .A very good friend of mine was traveling down Caranza road halfway between Speedwell road and the Caranza Monument mid morning about a week ago when a deer suddenly bolted across the road in front of his jeep and right behind the deer were 2 cougar (not 2-legged ones) and the larger one stopped and looked at him for a moment in the roadway. He said the whole episode only lasted about 15 seconds and he said he sure wished he had his camera with him. This is not the first time he has seen them either. I was stunned to say the least as I bow hunted this area for several years.”

I hear you huffing off that email. Well, put this in your pipe: Not that long ago, law enforcement went into a large predatory mammal search mode up around Manalapan after matching reports of a cougar clearly seen along a roadway. That’s not that far off as the cougar flies.

Needless to say, cougars, a.k.a. pumas, are massive – and man-attackers, problematically so out west, where attacks on hikers and such have inexplicably increased drastically in the past decade.

Hereabouts, cougars are the stuff of myths and not-so-mythy sightings, dating back over 100 years.

In past columns, I’ve written about a “huge cat” that was seen, in-full, by a highly-skilled local hunter and former political persona, John S. That puma-esque feline bounded across Hilliard Boulevard in just two bounds. That Hilliard sighting was decades ago but it is so similar to since-then stories that it further spices the platter of potentiality.

I CAN’T RESIST: The cougar thing is so steeped in Pinelands folklore that a popular Pine Barrens preservation group holds regular “Cougar Hunts.” It’s a fun family affair.

That group is quite cool but I just can’t resist envisioning a fully-populated cougar hunt group, comprised of older and portly folks, bopping down an overused well-marked Pinelands trail, wearing recently purchased L.L. Bean outfits, sipping from hydration packs spiked with energy drinks, and giddily calling out, “Here, cougar, cougar” – and suddenly being put upon by two ravenous man-eating pumas.

I know that’s nothing to trivialize, so I’ll just take a second to compose myself, while I listen in on the two cougars causally dining in the aftermath:

“I told you this was a good trail to work, didn’t I Mel.”

“You were spot-on, Sam. It was like a walkin’ takin’ buffet.”

“Boy, you gotta big ‘un there, didn’t ya?”

“Yeah, I did. But is it just me or does this guy taste like Red Bull?”

“Damn, you’re right, Mel. You know, now that I think about it, my guy seems to have the slightest touch of Disarrono.”

“Hey, drag him over to that pile of gravel. Then you’ll have Disaronno on the rocks!”

Hysterical cougar laughter echoes over the Pinelands.

Finally, and I’ll let this fantasy fade, can you picture the court case?

“Your honor, I can’t imagine what these people can be suing over. They clearly signed up for a ‘cougar hunt’ and during this ‘cougar hunt’ they just happened to come across a couple ravenous cougars. Sir, I’d call that damn successful hunt,” offers the defense attorney, making little quotation mark finger gestures every time he says, “cougar hunt.”

GOT ME: I’m a blue-collar tracker -- pretty much a year ‘round thing I’m not much on the amazing tracking intricacies forwarded by the master Tom Browne, who looks at tracks and knows an animal’s DNA. I simply get deep into the outback, guzzle a Crazy Cougar Energy Drink (no such thing), belch and traipse into the woods in search of tracks. Once found, I identify tracks (when possible), then follow -- looking for other indicators, like hair strands, sheds (snakes), rest points, feed points, skirmish points, burrows, dens – anything offering a creature’s trail.

Heavily working much of Ocean and Burlington counties, I cover a good chunk of the core Pinelands. Can’t say that I’ve ever come across cougar signs of any sort, i.e. former “Cougar Hunt” members.

As to cougars lurking right around the bend, if nature has taught me anything, it’s pretty much to rule out nothing, especially when it’s pitch black and my truck has just broken down on a sugar sand Pinelands road. Believer or not, you won’t hear me calling out “Here cougar, cougar.”

WORLD SERIES WINNERS: 2010 64th Annual LBIFC Fishing Tournament, held last Saturday.

Total number of anglers: 305.

Fish Caught: 503.

Team Awards and Points:

First Place: Brigantine Sharks, 324.50.

Second Place: One & Done, 288.00.

Third Place: Merchantville Fishing Club, 270.00.

Most Points (Male): Brigantine Sharks 11, Bill Kephart, 104.75.

Largest Fish (Male): Barnegat Light Heavers, Joe Thiel, Striped Bass, 29.50 & 18.00.

Most Points (Female): NJ Beach Buggy Association, Linda Graves, 56.75.

Largest Fish (Female): Women's Surf Fishing Club, Michelle D'Agria, Bluefish, 16.25 & 8.00.

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