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Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

It’s that humbling time of the year where I ask for donations to keep this blog up and running. It is a time consuming enterprise but I enjoy it. It’s kinda therapeutic. I hope you find it fun – and functional. I’d also like to take this time to sincerely thank those who email or phone me with tales, fishing reports and questions. It’s energizing. Donations can be mailed to: Jay Mann, 222 18th Street, Ship Bottom, NJ, 08008-4418. Being Type A I don’t always have the time to mail Thank-you note but, believe me (!), your donations are fully appreciated.
Update: I’m PayPal ready for donations. Just go to PayPal, click “Send Money,” type in my email, enter amount and click “Services” box. It’s a snap and I’m grateful beyond measure. J-mann.

Weekly blog Nov. 11, 2009

Bunker Balls, Thirties30s Bass and Cold Cranberries

It was a yo-yo week. We had a turned-on Friday, as bunker balls swept down the beachfront, some coming in as close as net-casting distance from the beach. It was easily the best beachfront bassing of the season was had. Though I cast many a plug, I was mainly an observer, driving from mid-Island southward.
It’s easy to tell when surfside angling action is afoot. The previous days of quietude on the catching front had surfcasters lazily lounging about or making sand castles with passing kids. Not Friday. Virtually all surfcasters were handholding rods or anxiously waiting near spiked rigs. There was also a goodly amount of baitball chasing, as haul-ass pods of bunker swept mainly southward, chased by anglers who would break from their home bases to throw plugs at the moving targets. Obviously, mobile fishermen had the edge, as they’d stop, cast on some frantic baitballs then, as the fish flurry fizzled, mount their trusty motorized steeds to head the baitballs off at the pass, i.e. the next jetty.
In typical fashion, I began throwing all my finest plugs toward the bait balls. I worked my way up to a very large – as in huge – buoyant wooden hand-carved plug that swims as purdy as a picture. I swam it slow, letting it sashay seductively near the surface, the very look of a gorgeously wounded and near-death bunker. (Huh?) As nearby folks pulled in massive bass, don’t I take a hit and reel in a 16-inch fluke? Gospel truth. That flattie came up off the bottom like a shot. The thing is, it couldn’t have gotten a bunker that large down it’s throat with crowbars. I showed my feeble catch to a couple chuckling anglers and headed back to my truck to put away my rod and grab a camera to get some pics of real anglers at work.
The top striper sightseeing I had was near a jetty in north Brant Beach, where, in short order, I saw a bass easily pushing 40 pounds taken by Dante S. and, not that long afterwards, a 25-pounder taken by Chris. Neither is in the Classic but boy do they both fully enjoy their catch-revive-release fishing. By the by, they were using the snag-and-drop method (see more on that below).
The odd part of that particular baitball bass bonanza was the way that batch of bunker stayed perfectly put. It was in full-circle survival mode, meaning it was spinning like a tornado, making little if any forward progress.
Scientists believe this tornado-ing avoidance effort is meant to confuse larger fish into thinking there is more than meets the eye within a swirling school of usually harmless forage fish. If you watch any of those nature shows showing baitballs videographed from scuba divers down below, they really are kinda spooky looking. If nature teaches all creatures anything it’s to be very wary of thing that don’t look quite right.
Less aggressive predatory fish, like striped bass, seem very reluctant to blinding bolt headfirst into a confusingly dynamic baitfish vortex, thus the repeatedly documented predatory behavior whereby gamefish will stalk baitballs waiting to single out stragglers and wounded fish drifting away from the main swirl zone.
This holding ground strategy might seem like a doomsday scenario, whereby one bunker after another can be picked off until all is lost. However, the sheer overall population within a baitball and the fact that only stragglers are doomed makes the overall chance of survival pretty good, albeit nerve-wracking. If you crunch the numbers, even ten big bass down below can’t eat more than a dozen big bunker in a day. That’s 120 not-so-fast fish in a school of thousands, sometimes many thousands. And, yes, there are times when predators just go away full allowing the apparently hapless bunker to move on, unmolested -- though, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, coming back as a bunker might be a sign you weren’t all you might have been as a human.
Another interesting trait of that stationary bass-bearing baitball off Brant Beach was its contrast to other schools of bunker bolting by, almost always with bluefish on their torn-apart tails. That could be a point of demarcation when chasing baitballs looking for the ones with bass beneath, as opposed to blues.
In case you hadn’t guessed, bluefish is one of those type-A species not a bit impressed with the twirling dervish ploy of bunker. Bunker schools know this. In the face of slammers, they don’t waste their time getting all circley and stuff. They need all the energy they can muster to high-tail it from attacking choppers.
SNAG-AND-DROP SURF-STYLE: As snag-and-drop anglers in boats have made their mark from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts, the roots of this killer method may be imbedded in the LBI sands.
Firstly, the snag-and-drop process in a boat is fairly simply. You get atop a bunker baitball, essentially jig-snag a bunker and drop it to the bottom, where leisurely dining bass await just such wounded fallout. The snag-and-drop system has become just about the greatest method ever seen for nabbing monster stripers.
So, where did such a snag system develop? I think right here on LBI. I kid you not. Of course, folks will claim they’ve been using snag-an-drop since the days plesiosaurs. Whatever.
Back in the 1990s, I heard of local folks casting Hopkins lures (metal spoons) into bunker schools, hoping to get any gamefish down below to grab at the fairly unconvincing strips of shiny metal. Early on, a few casters foul-hooked bunker from within the tightly packed schools. My guess is one or more of the anglers had bass or blues take a quick and exacting interest in the snagged bait.
Whatever the discovery process, there was this huge rush to tackle shops to buy Hopkins for snagging and dropping bunker. Not long afterwards, Hopkins lures were nixed for improved snagging equipment, ranging from the squid-snagging weighted trebles to dropper-looped bare trebles hung ahead of a Hopkins or even just a sinker. Virtually any way to get a bare hook into a bunker was (and is) used.
I’ll note here that surfcasters have the toughest time executing a snag-and-drop. It can demand fairly precise long-distance casting just to reach the often way-out bunker balls. Hitting a bit beyond the baitball is best. It takes a feel for subtle line signals that the cast line (and snag device) is amid shoulder-to-shoulder bunker. Then, a violent sidearm whip of the rod is needed to affect a solid snag. Unlike snagging from a boat, where a bait can be reeled in and checked for a solid snag, surfcasters have to hope for the best and allow the snag to drop right there.

REALITY CHECK: I want to add this email form my buddy Walter. It gives a perfect feel for that which one seldom reads in most columns, which survive by emphasizing catches only.
Fished Saturday, one bass from the rocks, and one bass and one monster blue from the fleet working the birds just north of the inlet. Geared up early Sunday morning and cleared the inlet before sunrise hoping for the banner day with the good weather forecast. I saw no working birds so I headed out about a mile to a small group of boats. Nada. Headed north off the CG station, Nada. Headed into 15’ water at the beach, Nada. Headed back to the north jetty with clam at the start of the 8:30 tide hoping for a tasty blackfish meal, Nada. Gave up on that and fished the inside of the rocks with spot, Nada. Even the regulars fishing the inside were coming up empty. Moved out to the bars off the south jetty, Nada. Ran back inside behind the dike, Nada. In all my travels I did not see one fish boated or even a bent rod other than mine getting hung up on the rocks. Free Willied my remaining spot and headed for the boat launch disgusted. Maybe the weather was too nice. Heard a similar report from my friend fishing the Little Egg area.
DEPRESSED TOM NOTE: I have to give a goodly gob of this column to touch on a really important, albeit disturbingly depressing, letter from one of recreational fishing’s top advocates, Tom Fote, JCAA. I’m only using some prime paragraphs but nothing is taken out of context, in other words, it’s all bleak -- be it bite-sized portions or the entire bad news buffet.
Returning from last week’s Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting in Cali, Tom wrote:

It is pretty bad when the only good news I have to report from the
ASMFC meeting is that we did not allow a commercial rollover of the
striped bass quota and instead of a complete moratorium on weakfish
we only reduced the 6 fish bag limit to one. So far this year I have
made the motions and voted to reduce the winter flounder catch to a 2-
fish bag limit and a 45-day season and the weakfish fishery to one
fish per day. The only alternative I had was a complete closure. I
used to think there was a light at the end of tunnel and we would see
increased recreational fishing opportunities. I used to come home
thinking I did something for the good for the resource and the people
I represent. Now I come home depressed and disillusioned. I no longer
expect good news but just hope it is not a disaster …

NJ's catch is over the recreational target on summer flounder and the
coast is over the recreational target on black sea bass but not on
scup. It is our turn to take the hit from Marine Recreational
Fisheries Statistical Survey (MRFSS). According to MRFSS preliminary
data, NJ, DE and MD are all over the recreational target on summer
flounder but as a whole the coast is under quota. NJ is over by
191,096 fish not pounds. There is an increase in quota for 2010 but I
am not sure it will cover the MRFSS overage. It will mean no
relaxation of regulations in NJ, DE and MD …
On black sea bass, the coastwide quota will be exceeded according to
MRFSS preliminary data. Unlike summer flounder, where most states have
closed their fishery already, there is still fishing going on in
state waters for black sea bass. For that reason, we do not what the
final outcome will be …
According to MRFSS preliminary data, our scup catch is over target in
the northern region and under target in the southern region. We are in
the southern region and there is an increase in quota for 2010.
BH CHARTERS HEAT UP: Here’s one of the weekly press releases I get from Beach Haven Charter Fishing Association:
The sudden spell of warm weather last weekend not only made fishing comfortable for the captains of the Beach Haven Charter Fishing Association, it also produced some nice catches.
The “Miss Beach Haven” with Captain Frank Camarda did some wreck and bottom fishing last Saturday, and all anglers caught multiple blackfish along with some porgies and one triggerfish. “Bam-Bam” from Philadelphia was the pool winner with a 4-pound blackfish. Sunday’s bite was a little slower but hard work by Captain Frank put a keeper blackfish in everybody’s cooler. The pool winner Sunday was 5.5-pounds.
Captain Fran Verdi of the “Dropoff” reports good striper fishing even though he usually has to make a few moves every day based on the tide and winds. One day he had Mitch and Bruce out for limit catches by both anglers. The fish ranged from 34 to 38-inches.
Another day Captain Fran had the Jeff Austin party out, and they started in the inlet and moved to the bay waters. The group ended with four keepers to 18-pounds. A check of the fish bellies showed the ocean fish were eating clam chunks and crabs while the bay fish had clam, sand eels, and a small flounder in them.
On Sunday Captain Fran had the Matt King party out, and he started fishing in the bay first. With a lack of action there he moved to the ocean. Although they lost a couple of big fish close to the boat, they ended up with several bass to 20-pounds.
Captain Carl Sheppard on the “Star Fish” found big striped bass both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday he fished the white water of the inlet with a bushel of clams for chum and bait, eels, and fresh bunker. The clams and bunker both produced fish including David Oppenheim’s first ever bass.
Captain Carl reports Sunday was more of the same except the fish were larger and some big bluefish showed up. The blues favored the fresh bunker chunks.
OUTDOOR DAWDLINGS: Last Sunday’s weather was as if the sky wanted to remorsefully apologize for all the junk it had mailed in for the past couple months. You couldn’t make a prettier day even by throwing in some Spanish saffron.
I took in the beach, bay and pines. I even stayed in the woods until dark to take in a autumnal anachronism that commonly takes place after a few cold nights are followed by daytime air temps in the 70s. Sure enough, just as the sun bowed out, frisky spring peeper (frogs) began sounding off with a springtime enthusiasm. This untimely tuning up indicates that these little buggers are always ready for mating season. It also scientifically indicates they have no sense of time; hibernating for a mere week or two feels pretty much the same as going under for the far more traditional 5-month hibernal siesta. I tracked down a couple premature peepers and noticed they were very orange. I’ve never seen that color during my spring herptile counts.
COOL CRANBERRY PICKIN: I’m continuing to collect incredible cranberries from a long-abandoned bog. These are now fully organic. I know this since every single berry is growing a bright “USDA Organic” label.
I’ve been feverishly picking berries while hosting this certainty that the first freezes will polish off these ace anti-oxidant fruits. Actually, I had no idea when, exactly, a season’s cranberries go down for the final count -- and become little red mushy balls that literally ferment in their own skins. I decided to consult Steven Lee III, someone whose knowledge of cranberries is in the agriculture stratosphere. I ran into him at church.
Steven is one of the Lees of the multigenerational Lee Bother, Inc., Chatsworth. The Lees have 20 bogs located on 135 acres of Pinelands. Amazingly, they have some working cranberry vines dating back to 1868, though those vines tend to be grumpy, hate noisy kids and sleep a lot.
Anyway, Steven offered me in-pew tips on dry-picking cranberries. Unbeknownst to many folks who savor the saucy flavor of cranberries during the holidays, the pints you buy at the groceries and fruit stands are pretty much hand picked, a.k.a dry picked. They don’t do protracted swims in those picturesque flooded bogs. Dry picking assures the fruits’ protective waxes stay put, allowing for really long shelf lives. In fact, in a crunch, I use fresh cranberries to wax my surfboards (not true, don’t try).
Hand picking cranberries is the definition of work-intensive, as I – and loads of fellow Vietnamese field workers -- can confirm. Back in the day (late 1800s), bogs like those that once flourished at now-Stafford Forge, drew on everyday folks from surrounding communities to come out to help hand harvest the crop. There are some remarkable pieces of artwork showing a somewhat highfalutin harvest, replete with ladies and gentleman of obvious import, dapperly attired, all pickin’ away. I guess, in some ways, workers of “import” still come into play nowadays, eh?
Steven Lee III, allayed my fears that the first of the fall frosts would end my cranberry pickin’ ways. He said it takes a truckload of cold to kill berries that are still firm and on the vine. Then he offered me a fairly stunning weather note. Do you recall a coolish night last week, one that frosted the grass on LBI? Astoundingly, the official temperature in the Lee’s cranberry bogs dipped down to 14 degrees. I guess those premature singing frogs really did get a feel of winter when buried in the nearby dirt.

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