Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

Getting Pickled for Christmas; the Angling Year That Was

By JAY MANN | Dec 18, 2012

Well, it’s time for the Christmas break here at The SandPaper. I’llfinally get a bit of a break – a well-deserved one, if I do say so myself.

While I’m a known non-wimp, I have to admit this whole Sandy thing has knocked the mick out of me, as I’m now fond of saying.

Despite the mental deceleration during a nice long vacation, mefears I’ll be doing a ton of blue collaring, as I try to power my house back on-line again.

FABULOUS FEEDBACK: Speaking of Sandy (admittedly ad nauseum), I sure enjoyed being able to serve so many readers, via SandPaper storm and recovery stories. As managing editor, I all but sat back and allowed the SP staff to shine on. Great job, A-Company.

In more than 25 years here, I don’t recall such an outpouring of thanks for keeping folks, near and far, informed. It brings a tear to my eye. No, hold on. It’s actually a grain of sand stuck in my eye from trying to do a little plugging in the wind this morning. Still, thanks immensely for all the thanks.

I should note that I’ll be maintaining a bit of a blog presence at jaymanntoday.ning.com. Also, I’ll be pitching in to maintain our cloud presence at thesandpaper.net. However, our e-soup won’t be back, full-bore, until the office returns for the Jan. 9, 2013 issue – Mayans permitting.

PICKLED STOCKING STUFFER: My favorite stocking stuffer oddity this year comes via a company called Pickled Willys.

OK, are you done your childish giggling? Now, computer over to pickledwillys.com and check out the jars of pickled seafood stuff ready to head straight to your doorstep from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Yep, the Kodiak Island.

That midnight sun venue alone is quite cool, literally, but the pickled products from this year-old, mom-and-pop business are off the map. In fact, top chefs from all quadrants are homing in on Willys.

The little company’s biggies right now are Pickled Alaska King Crab, Pickled Alaska Sockeye (Red) Salmon, Pickled Alaska Halibut, Pickled Alaska Ling Cod, Alaska King Crab Tails. Pickled octopus and sea cucumbers are being tested for Pickled Willysness. I already signed up for some.

Per their literature: “All of our seafood is caught in the waters off Kodiak Island and/or in the Bering Sea. Every jar is made with fresh hand-trimmed seafood, organic vinegar, pure cane sugar and our special blend of pickling spices along with the pride of Kodiak, Alaska.” Adding a shake of localness to their line is the fact they get their spices from the Amish in Pennsylvania.

I got a few taste tests from folks just back from an Alaska sojourn. The Pickled Alaska King Crab and Alaska Sockeye Salmon is outer dimensionally excellent. It does help to have taste buds with a background in the likes of pickled herring. The oddish thing is how different various pickled seafood items can taste.

Of course, like everyone who spends six months of the year with skies that are either dark or thinking about getting dark, the Pickled Willys folks can also get a bit out there. Per Mrs. Pickled Willys, “We save all of our salmon skins and have wallets and stuff made out of it …”

I have no idea what a pickled salmon skin wallet might look like but I think I’ll get me one. I just sense it will slip in and out of my pocket with ease. More importantly, it will come in handy if I find myself trapped in a snowbank with nothing to eat.

I’m not sure you can get Pickled Willys items in before Christmas but it’s well worth a try. If the sled dogs can’t get the goods here fast enough, they’ll carry over perfectly for New Year’s.

SAD CLAM SEASON: I’m told I have to nix any thoughts of taking bivalves from Little Egg Harbor down to Holgate. The DEP has found unacceptable levels of bad bacteria and vile viruses in clams from that zone.

What a holiday pain.

I first harvested Holgate’s world-class clams at Christmas back in kid times. I’ve done it, without fail, for at least the past 25 years.

This Sandyified year, I devised a special game plan for clamming Holgate. Since we obliviously can’t buggy the long haul to the Rip – and around back to the mudflats – I had well-lubed intentions of mountain biking down there, rake strapped to my back. Now, it looks as if Sandy will have yet another cruel chuckle at my expense. She’s a storm that just keeps giving. I’ll still be checking back with the DEP, in case bay things miraculously clean up at the last possible holiday second.

REPLACING 4WD WITH PEDAL POWER: As to that beach bicycling thing, it’s a fairly viable means of beach transportation, helped along a bit by legs of steel.

Better quality mountain bikes work amazingly well in the hard, wet sand found exclusively near the water at low tide. You could have legs of titanium and still not be able to pedal through dry sand.

Vis-à-vis beach buggying, the trick with a bike is to air down. It then comes down to tweaking the tire pressure for the give-and-take of the wet sand quirks on a given day. It only takes a small, hand-powered air pump to micro tweak bike tires to the perfect psi.

I’ve covered many an LBI beach mile atop my ultralight, carbon fiber bike. Unlike most mountain bikes, it has special low-bite/grip tires. Balloony tires make all the difference when pedaling sand.

If you give beach pedaling a go, make sure you give your mount a decent rinse, followed by a soothing spray of WD40, or some high-tech Teflon grease. Always go lube crazy on the chain.

TOP WHATEVERS: Some Decembers, I do a very specific rundown of the main angling events for the departing year. This go-’round, that would entail energetically wading through 50 columns, gleaned from dustily paging through stacks of papers in the “morgue,” where old issues go to die.

Screw that. I’m beat, dude. Instead, I’ll just free-fire some angling highlights my brain has grudgingly allowed to stay memory-ready.

I’ll begin by officially signing off on the 2012 LBI Surf Fishing Classic, rudely and prematurely ended. That was something of a low point in “Derby” history – but mess-maker Sandy was also a high-water low point. Let’s shake it off. See all you entrants next fall. Remember, you’re in scot-free next year if you entered this year.

I’ll sidebar a bit here by assuring, with a certainty seldom bandied about in the fishing realm, we will be back on-line – be it mono or braided – by this coming spring.

A tad less cockily, I’ll tentatively hype the annual spring Simply Bassin’ surfcasting event as a perfect way and means to prove that surf angling has recovered and returned. Now, to get it up and running.

Notching the hope machine down a good many levels, we might even see some drivable beaches by spring. OK, so maybe that’s jamming the hopefulness machine into a gear higher than it can handle right about now. Still, hope springs eternal in the angling kingdom. I, for one, would love to ride the beach right now. What a way to wind down for the holidays. No chance, though – at least not on four wheels. See below.

Another big 2012 story by my thinking was the remarkably long mullet run. The hitherto unheard of multi-month migration added some spice to what little “normal” fall fishing we managed – right before a giant sinkhole formed and an all-time superstorm set in.

I’m not sure how a massive mullet migration translates into future runs but there will surely be a slew of spawning mullet in Florida this winter. After that, there’s the beyond-unpredictable drift of mullet larvae out into the Gulf Stream, then northwards – slowing off our coast to wait being blown landward and into our backbays to mature. Obviously, that wafting about in the open sea is wrought with woes, coming via wrong turns, a whale’s worth of predation and killer temperature swings.

By the by, that temperature thing sure seems to be at the root of this year’s epic mullet showing – and more. It’s tough to overlook how certain species went gonzo in perfect alignment with the mildest winter in modern times.

Possibly related to last year’s near nonwinter was a spring/summer/fall showing ofspotLeiostomus xanthurus, in numbers last seen in the late 1700s.

Limited to bait fish status hereabouts, spot are wholly delicious eating. In fact, they are often sold whole in fish markets to our south. Those Dixie spot are a good deal larger than we see.

Last summer, I whole-cooked a skillet’s worth of larger Yankee spot, netted in Holgate. Once past the bones – and they ain’t all that bony – the white meat was delectable. They hit the spot.

I also have to throw a bone to the phenomenal kingfish presence this year. Many savvy anglers caught cooler load’s worth, almost daily.

Many a kingly kingfish meal hit the tables of the few folks who know the deliciosity of this small drumfish.

Chowing down on kingfish always entails knowing how to catch them with regularity. Oddly, using the absolute simplest of fishing methods – small hook, light line, sinker, worm, close-in casts and sheer patience – most often brings home the kingfish. Thusly, many a photo of doubleheader kingfish hookups this past summer were of kids learning the angling ropes by starting with barebones basics.

Fluking was, well, fluking. Plenty of fish. Plenty of throwbacks. Plenty of doormats. Plenty of bag limits. Plenty of skunks, when the stars didn’t align.

Through shear numbers – and a bit of over-conservation, by my thinking – this fishery is all but in the bag, on an annual basis. It’s now as close to a sure thing as the sea offers to nearshore anglers.

While I never tapped into what amounted to storms of summer blowfish, I had some puffer-fishing aficionados (working both Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor) tell me puffering gets no better.

Once we exclude that freaky blowfish overload in the 1960s, the 2012 bite was seemingly one for the books. I received photogenic evidence on numerous occasions, via pictures showing not just five-gallon buckets filled to the gills with blowfish but even larger coolers loaded to the point of needing an angler on each end to lift. That’s a load of blowfish.

I don’t have to tell most folks that blowfish tails are also as good as seafood munching gets, especially when the tails are breaded and deep fried. In a way, they’re more of a backyard BBQ-type delish. When forced onto more discerning platters, they pretentiously become sea squab. La-di-da.

It was borderline wow-ish on the weakfish front. We had us a slew of bayside weakies, although conservational constraints kept most fishing folks from thinking in terms of targeting the sparklers. Even as bycatch-and-release, the number of spike weakies was a bit like good old summer days of the past. It seemed a damn good sign of bigger things to come. However, harkening back to spring, the showing of hefty spawners and genetically gifted tiderunners remained suspiciously lacking.

Unexpectedly, stripering took a nasty dip this year. Admittedly, there was the ruinous Sandy thing. Still, going clear back to spring, the striper numbers were way off the anticipated mark. That even takes into account a couple decently frenetic bouts of snag-and-drop angling, which showed early on. Also, there has been some rampant fall boat bassing just to our north. That action paid us no mind.

Why the bad bassing? Once again, the temperatures carried the fishing days. A lukewarm winter led to ocean water temps in the 70s by spring and into the 80s by summer. No self-respecting bass would be caught dead in water that mild. The linesiders filed northward – and then even farther northward. Not only were they totally off the map for summer stripering but it then took them even longer than usual to sulk back southwards. By the time our nearshore ocean waters became thermally suited to stripers, up steps Sandy.

For the umpteenth year in a row, bluefishing was both fabulous and abysmal.

Beginning in spring, tailor blues were out and about and readily biting – and often the only available species complimenting a fluking day. The fall tailor bluefishing was fierce.

I was among many relishing in the readily available, eater-sized blues, converting them into jerky that I’m still savoring to this day.

It’s when turning the other bluefish cheek, the abysmalness sets in. Along the shoreline, slammer bluefishing action was absolutely AWOL. And that hurts the whole feel of fall surfcasting. Beachline blitzes of insane slammer blues have long been the meat of legendary autumnal surfcasting.

Why no biggy blues? It just might it be globally-warmed fall waters kept the choppers farther out at sea – where they can sink into cooler waters when not feeding. However, the mystery deepens when factoring in the aforementioned super showing of tailor blues. Those one- to three-pound fish abound, then pull out in the fall but seemingly never return as four- to eight-pound tweeners, precursors to slammers. Something awful must happen out there, somewhere – a bluefish bloodbath where the predator becomes the prey.

While the missing bluefish thing is sure weird, such has been the saga of bluefish stocks throughout their written history, dating back to the 1600s. The stocks come and go on some cosmic schedule.

Missing in action this summer and fall were Atlantic croakers. Not that many years back, we were so neck deep in them that they were damaging fall bass fishing, via incessant bait grabbing. I didn’t hear of a single one caught this year. Instinctively, I blame the return and resurgence of shrimping to our south, an industry that kills billions (with a “b”) of croakers each year.

More than few folks might ask: Do we even need croakers?

Lesson: A complex and varied ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem. The more variety, the healthier. It’s simple math. If an ecosystem is down to merely a few remaining species, you can deduce that system is in a world of hurt.

Might the admirable abundance of other species, like blowfish and kingfish, compensate for the absence of certain other species? As is said of location, it comes down to variety, variety, variety. A royally ruint ecosystem can actually be chockfull of the few remaining species. Numbers alone can’t cover up the pending doom.

Black seabassing is way off the mark, approaching catastrophically so. Togging isn’t much better. This is not meant to slight the occasional hot-hooking sessions, when these fish seem to froth forth. It’s the big-picture numbers that horrify. The stocks are swirling down the eco-crapper.


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