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Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Wednesday January 28, 08 -- Icing the lakes; verts with a jail term

Icing the Pines; Beach Vertebra Law

They refer to the core of summer as the dog days yet that name seems a ton more apropos to this frozen time of year, when one can easily envision an overfed hound plopped within spark distance of a fireplace, responding to the after-dark question, “Wanna go for a walk” with a barley raised eyebrow and an all but audible, “I’ll tell ya what, wake me when you get back and let me know how it was.”
While we’re not crushing any long-standing cold-temp records, things are decidedly not adhering to strict global warming protocol. We’re having what amounts to a bona fide winter – after a slew of mellow ones.
If you’re already antsy to get out to wet a line, I’ll alert that there is a strong correlation between real winters and an orderly and extended springtime move-out of bass from the Mullica River, past Graveling Point. Something to target.
Hey, that spring striper surge is not that far off – I say as Collins Cove lies frozen, ice fishermen working white perch and an occasional small striper.
Related email: “Jay, I was reading that there is ice fishing down on the Mullica River near Chestnut Neck. Formerly haling from upstate New York, some of my fondest fishing memories are of times sitting in ice shanties and catching walleyes (Silver Lake) – even cooking them up right there and then… I heard that white perch and striped bass are caught on the Mullica. However, I’m told that you cannot keep the bass. I know about the 28-inch size limit. Is that what they’re talking about?”
No. And welcome to Jersey. The easiest way to explain the ban on keeping “river” bass is it’s an old rule that still languishes despite its uselessness. It harkens back to low bass population days (1980s), when every effort was made to protect vulnerable bass overwintering in estuary environments. I questioned the worth of that ridiculous rule when it was first enacted and chortle over it now that we have way too many small stripers. Still, you cannot keep a Collins Cove bass until some time in March. In the same ice vein, I assure you that perch are easily as tasty as stripers. Warning: The ice on the cove is nothing like the truck-bearing cap that tops lakes in western New York. In fact, the days seem numbered for the current ice cover as some long-term forecasts have much warmer air by as early as next week.
ICING PINELANDS PONDS: Though I had every intention of doing hardwater time down at Collins Cove last week, I instead, last-minutely, did something I haven’t done in eons: I went “icing” on some back-Pines lakes.
Icing is my expression for inching atop hopefully-hard-frozen cedar lakes, primarily to explore the heavily-stumped headwaters, areas way too wild and muddy to mess with in summer. It’s a pretty unique look and feel, standing on patterned ice, amid misshapen stumps and tall lifeless swamp cedars. Kinda spooky, especially when the ice lets out with one of those crackling sounds.
Icing also allows for taking a shivery gander at what watery wildlife is waiting out winter beneath the ice. At three different lakes, I found sections of crystal clear ice where I spotted my all-time favorite pineland’s fish, the Pine Barrens sunfish, technically known as backbanded sunfish (Enneacanthus chaetodon).
What a cool little fish – literally, in this case.
The blackbanded sunfish is delicate looking, resembling many top-dollar aquarium fish, but is as tough as pinelands creatures come -- which is saying a lot when considering the intrinsic harshness of the environment out there.
You could be a total dyed-in-blueberry-juice Piney and still have never seen one of these relatively common (to NJ) little fish. Books refer to them as “secretive” but they’re simply small, unobtrusive and perfectly blend into the pines brownish waters. Their very compressed, somewhat rounded bodies make them that much tougher to see when looked down. When viewed from the side, it’s a whole different story. They’re lookers. Though they only get to maybe half-dollar sized, their black stripes on a bright silvery background give them the glitz of the highest priced pet store tropical fish.
I should note that I might have illegally kept them as aquarium pets, many years back. Unlike gamefish found in the state’s waters, this species may fall under the protective watch of the DEP and Fish and Wildlife. While South Jersey is still chockfull of backbanded sunfish, we’re the last such place on the planet. The species is in deadly straights throughout its (former) range. It’s disappearing from Delaware southward to Florida. It’s been extirpated from Pennsylvania.
After keeping my Piney sunfish for a couple years – they were as friendly and hardy as a pet fish can get – I released them in a very low pickerel area. I have no doubt that pickerel and heron are the number one stalkers of those little guys.
Which brings me back to icing. The only significant wildlife species I saw while gingerly walking the hardwater was a great blue heron, though I saw the recent tracks of foxes, coyote, deer, raccoons, possum and skunk, the last being a species that is making a super comeback after what must have been some disease-based decline.
The heron I came across was very intriguing because it was at the exact same place where, years back, I had to free one that had become entrapped in the ice. I’d like to think this one was the same one – and significantly wiser since it was well atop the ice not frozen into it with a confounded look on its face.
DISCLAIMER: I have to warn that walking on hopefully hard0-frozen Pinelands lakes is as dumb as it comes. Doing it alone, as I do, is in some other dimension of dumbnicity. Don’t go there.
BONES AND BEACHCOMBING: Email: “Jay, I was the one who found that mandible on the beach last year in Holgate. Spoke with some detectives a week ago and Trenton still doesn't have an ID. My thoughts r that this was an unregistered immigrant. There was dental work done on around 4 teeth. I would think if there were dental records they could match. Don. K.”
I’m guessing there won’t be anyone coming to claim it. Over many decades, we’ve had some unfound drowning victims. It’s possible that mandible is from one of those cases -- though you’d think that modern forensics would be able to match dental evidence to documented victims. To me, that notion of a wayward immigrant dying with no proper burial or notification of next of kin is quite disturbing.
Sticking with the Holgate beachcombing theme, but backing off a bit on the morbidity slant, I was recently dialed up by a gal who found a massive whale vertebra on the beach. I believe she picked it up near the entrance since she said she had one helluva time getting it back to her car. To quote her, “It was so large it was hard getting my arms fully around it.”

Over 20 years ago, I found a similar big-ass whale vertebra, as cool a thing as I’ve ever driven upon out there. I could readily picture the one she described. Unfortunately, I’ll only be able to imagine the one she found. All but jokingly, I told her to be careful because virtually all parts from any marine mammals fall under the ultra-strict Marine Mammals Protection Act. Recalling some hubbub over my vertebra, I blurted out that she might not legally be able to possess that bone without a permit.
Although I was bringing up this legal possibility as a mere point of trivial interest, the vertebra holder was a tad taken back by the permit concept. In what had to be as piss-poor a segue as possible, I then asked her if I could come and get a photo of her find. She literally hung up on me. Doh! She probably pictured me as some sort of government informant turning in anyone bearing marine mammal bones.
I pondered calling her back but thought better of it. I pictured her huddled nervously in a closet, clinging to her prized vertebra. Instead, I rung up our buddy Bob Schoelkopf, down at the Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center (hopefully relocating our way someday soon.)
Turns out that the matter of found whale and marine mammal bones is a big issue, made worse by a growing potential that such parts could make it into the marketplace -- though the selling of same is a federal offense in most instances.
But, what about you or I (or the gal I scared half to death) finding and keeping the likes of a whale bone we come across on the beach?
It’s both a simple and hugely complex issue, one that even extends to ongoing efforts by native North American tribes to maintain historic lifestyles, which include the utilizing and crafting of marine mammal parts, primarily from whales.
If you’re really hyped to legally keep that just-found whale vertebra, it might be as easy as contacting the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (for a positive ID of the part), followed by the acquiring of a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Schoelkopf said the stranding center is more than happy to make IDs based on pictures of a found part. The trick is to make sure you send sharp photos taken from a couple/few angles and always include something for size perspective. A ruler in a photo has been known to work pretty well. The big deal over ID’ing is to determine if the part is from an endangered species. Only pros can make that determination.
If a found item is, in fact, from a endangered species, it technically must be handed over to authorities. However, you can go the next step of asking the feds if you can keep it. “Technically, you have to request permission to keep (the vertebra). It’s a fairly simple process,” said Schoelkopf.
By the by, any marine mammal body part that still has fleshy material on it is fully off limits, keeper-wise. As if you’ll soon be hauling home a big old dolphin carcass, right?
Well, check this out.
Recently, a roof in Ventnor became the final resting place for just such a deceased dolphin. Per Schoelkopf, the homeowner had placed it there to allow natural processes to clean the creature down to the bone. Apparently neighbors got wind of the remains and contacted authorities, who, after asking, “He’s got a what drying on his roof?” contacted the feds who in turn notified the stranding center. Eventually Bob Schoelkopf was contacted to investigate fully. “They (NMFS) made a federal case out of it,” he said.
Schoelkopf not only ID’ed the species (bottlenose dolphin) but was able to further identify it as a specific corpse the stranding center had previously examined and documented.
“This guy had planned on placing the dolphin skeleton in a restaurant, “ said Schoelkopf.
Wow, now there’s an advertising approach that needs to be thought through, especially if the restaurant serves dolphinfish on the menu.
Schoelkopf further explained that one of the reasons the feds require municipalities to quickly bury any examined and documented DOA strandings is to prevent the proliferation of parts, so to speak.
And parts like that do go missing.
A large whale that had washed up on LBI not long ago, was initially examined by the stranding center. It was moved to a public works yard for burial at an undisclosed locale. When Schoelkopf arrived to oversee the burial, the whale’s jaw had walked off.
After the legal federal implications – and ramifications – of such a heist we’re loosed by Schoelkopf, the jaw sort of worked its was back to its former and intended place. (It should be noted the jawbone was not taken as an overt act of the pilfering but was removed for later placement in a museum. However, the de-jawer had no idea of the long arm of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
So, do I have the permit for my huge whale vertebra? I wish I still had the bone to permit-ize. It walked off in an untimely manner, much to me ire and throwing of things.
Obvious note: It is fully and wontedly illegal for non-natives to sell marine mammal parts, even with the best of permits. In fact, the word “commerce” is used in the law, meaning, had that restauranteur managed to glean a perfect skeleton from his roofed dolphin (illegal), he would have been breaking yet another federal law by using it even as a conversation piece in his establishment.
There is an upper shelf beachcombing angle to this story. As the work begins this year on a federal beach replenishment project in Harvey Cedars, there is always the chance that fossilized bones and teeth might surface. Although the equipment used in the project is meant to faithfully screen out all larger items – like mastodon trunks, teeth and, uh, prehistoric fuses – that doesn’t mean the work won’t loose some cool stuff that storms will kick ashore later. Some of you might recall the astounding archeological find made by a father and son walking the sands of Beach Haven last year. The two dragged home a large piece of a Lenape dugout canoe. It is very likely the largest artifact of its type anywhere. I’m firmly convinced it was released from a sandy tomb during the Surf City beach replenishment project. (We’ll do an update on that find soon. The last I heard it was in the ultra-long process of desalination, during which it is immersed in water until all salt is leached out.)
When it comes to collecting prehistoric items while beachcombing, including marine mammal parts, the Marine Mammal Stranding Act falls to a form of grandfathering. Since paleo-parts surely predate the act’s creation in 1972, they can be freely kept –and even sold. Still, it takes a full-blown expert to make certain a found item is, in fact, the stuff of prehistoric times.
The stranding center’s website is: http://www.marinemammalstrandingcenter.org.

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