The Fish Story

Big Post-Season Surf Will Remain Deadly; Bunker Balls Could Become Too Plentiful

By JAY MANN | Sep 18, 2019
Photo by: Jay Mann BAIT ON THE HOOF: Holgate has become fiddler crab central; almost scary-like.

Long Beach Island — We’re well into the post-season, and the winds are playing the all-to-ourselves spoiler. A second round of fishing-ruinous northeast winds is not only making things sloppy for boater anglers, but also creating lead challenge for surfcasters. While there have been some workable breaks twixt wind-whackings, this stint of riled surf won’t be ending anytime soon.

DEADLY SURF TIMES: The strong wind swells have mixed with powerful long-period hurricane waves, making for a deadly surf cocktail.

Rip currents combined with brilliantly sunny days, warm air and sea temps are proving tragic. Drownings and near drownings have marred the famed “Better in September” aura.

The most heart wrenching was a drowning incident involving a just-married husband/wife couple who had swum out to a sandbar in Haven Beach on Sunday. A pair of brothers on the beach first noticed the newlyweds might be struggling in the pounding surf zone. When certain, one of the brothers, a top swimmer, put on flippers and the other, also a waterman, grabbed a surfboard and headed out. Upon reaching the two, the husband demanded that the brothers take his wife in first, saying he’d stay behind.

The brothers used the board to get the woman to shore, where passersby had to restrain her from going back in to help her husband.

When the rescuers headed back out for the man, their hearts stopped when he was nowhere to be seen. The brothers could only go back out to where they had seen him last. Once they were out there, people on the beach began shouting, pointing to where they could see the man floating. Quickly finding him, the brothers pulled him onto the board. When bringing him in, they began lifesaving procedures.

Despite the very rapid arrival of first responders and intense CPR procedures, the man had apparently taken in unsurvivable amounts of water.

Over the past couple weeks, despite virtually all Island towns offering numerous warning about rip currents and high surf, numerous water rescue incidents have been reported. Below, you’ll see a Barnegat Light First Aid Squad comment regarding how the few remaining lifeguards have done their understaffed part.

STAY VIGILANT: There are very few lifeguards still on duty, not nearly enough to keep watch over almost 18 miles of highly treacherous beachfront surf. That often leaves surfcasters as the closest eyes on the surf, with waveriders the only timely rescuers. Since many upcoming weeks could host deadly surf and daring swimmers, I’ll officially call out to surfcasters to assume a role of lifesavers, if only in the observational dial-911(!) sense.

Waveriders have long known their tacit duty to rescue struggling swimmers. Over 50 years of surfing, I have truly lost count of how many struggling bathers I’ve assisted shoreward. Scant few were legitimate hardcore life-and-death rescues. Of course, had I not been there to assist … One insanely hazardous summer day, a group of us waveriders were helping so many rip-besieged swimmers that the in-water conversation went:

“Oh, not another one. Hey, I helped the last guy.”

“Well, I helped those two kids. Hey, Skip, it’s your turn.”

On LBI, many waveriders recently had their rescuing skills heightened by classes on the art of making saves using surfboards, paddleboards or bodyboards. Thanks to first-responder Bob Selfridge for organizing those classes.

As a final point of emphasis to potential off-season bathers, no surfline along the Jersey Shore is more dynamic than LBI’s, thus our rating as one of the prime surfing beaches on the entire Eastern Seaboard. The obvious downside to that dynamic is the deadliness for anyone not highly proficient in water skills – better depicted as anti-drowning skills. Knowing to stay calm and shout or wave for help is a huge anti-drowning step to live by. Even if you think your waving or shouting is going unnoticed, simply stay calm, stay afloat and keep signaling. Help is on the way. Struggling is just what deadly rip current creatures covet.

Here’s a recent post by the Barnegat Light First Aid Squad: “The first call came through as ‘3 subjects in water screaming for help.’ By day’s end there were six. SIX water rescues today. A Monday. When kids are in school and adults are at work and volunteer first responders are limited. If you enjoy the ocean, swim near a lifeguard. If you can’t find one, appeal to your town. And as always and with everything, safety services come at a cost we should be prepared to bear, or live (or not) without. These six were saved by the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol, which provides roving coverage in the shoulder season.”

RIP ROARING CHANGES: In recent years, the Island has seen rip current intensifications related to beach replenishments. The beach fixes have added a huge amount of material to sandbars. Breaks between sandbars, where outgoing surf-driven water rushes seaward, are at the heart of rip currents. With sandbars now shifting all over the place – jetties/groins used to keep them somewhat regular – breaks between bars are just as changeable.

While volumes have been written about recognizing rips by reading the ocean surface before entering the water, I need to take things a step farther. Based on deep experience, I’ll warn that some of the worst rips form in a heartbeat, in places that only minutes before presented visually as smooth swimming. Changing tides are notorious for fostering insta-rips.

The insta-rip phenomenon is common when hurricane swells are in play. The waves from far-off cyclones are often highly inconsistent. During lulls, the ocean can offer the look of pure placidity. “Look how calm it is. Let’s go, kids!” The calm is instantly demolished by massive waves that, to the unacquainted, seemingly charge in out of the blue.

Boaters near our inlets must also be wary of believing their eyes when it comes to potential waves ahead. Heading out to sea, it’s always best to rely on real-time reads by those in the know, along with incorporating some skippering logic. When the Weather Service is broadcasting warnings to mariners and swimmers that hurricane swells are creating risky conditions, you’d best believe waves are truly in play, even when unapparent during looks over the bow. Virtually all the boating fatalities within the confines of Barnegat Inlet have been due to captains misreading wave conditions.

This is where I mandatorily mention there is no such thing as a “rogue wave” coming ashore along the beach – or within inlets. Rogue waves have been scientifically proven to be remarkably complex short-lived open-sea phenomena. They are caused by the cataclysmic clashing of water masses, most common where opposing currents hit head on, though one amazing North Sea rogue wave seemed to be the result of two massive, differently angled waves shouldering up and joining forces. It jacked up to 100 feet.

Whatever the meet-up cause, true rogue waves, generally pinnacled in shape, can break wave-height records. However, they are not generated shoreward and usually dissipate as quickly as they form.

Wanna see a theoretical rogue wave? When you’re carrying a 5-gallon bucket filled with water, watch the riled water within. As it bounces off the opposing sides, it will sometimes come together in the middle and go straight up in an A-frame formation. If you’re a bit whacky, build a tiny half-inch boat – replete with sleeping quarters and maybe a commercial net reel – and throw it in the bucket. Maybe write a book, The Perfect Bucket.

On that reality departure, I’ll conclude by noting that huge waves that suddenly arrive during already wavy conditions are best called set waves – the largest of the day’s regimen of breakers.

BUNKER DEFIANCE: In the Chesapeake Bay, an act of defiance by the Omega Protein company, famed bunker netters and processors, could indirectly hit fishing hereabouts. The bunker harvesting giant has advised the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission and the state of Virginia it has every intention of blatantly exceeding a 51,000 metric ton harvesting cap set by ASMFC. The cap set for the Chesapeake harvest had been 87,216 MT. In 2017, federal management recommended a 40 percent cut due to suspected overfishing in the famed bay. Omega Protein vociferously objected. It now is taking it beyond mere verbiage.

The reason for the company’s bayside defiance is the sea itself. Things have been so rough out there that Omega’s factory ships can’t safely fish, according to the company. The relative quietude within the bay allows for a safe filling of a predetermined quota, as the company tries to maintain its huge menhaden market share.

Coming into question for both fishermen and management is the data used to evoke the 40 percent reduction. Both ASMFC and Virginia admit more info might be needed. It’s coming. In a seafoodsource.com article by Chris Chase headlined “Omega Protein signals intention to exceed Chesapeake Bay menhaden cap,” deciding on a quota will soon have more scientific muscle. “Creating an accurate quota for the bay may become easier in the coming months, as the species is under two different stock assessments: One taking the species on its own and one using ecological reference points. The ASMFC will meet in October and will get an update on both assessments, and once all assessments are complete the board will have more scientific data on which to base any future decisions.”

Conservation groups, backed by angler organizations, are not liking the hesitancy of authorities to rein in Omega. Those favoring harvesting cutbacks in the bay have long hyped the ecological essentiality of the forage fish. In fact, we can share that mindset, as rapt lovers of striped bass, many of which begin life in C Bay … eating bunker. For now, we’ll await those studies before jumping up in protesting Omega’s harvesting aggression.

BUNKER DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN: Looking at the upside of the Chesapeake Bay bunker to-do, it seems that nature’s riling of the ocean will mean many tons of harvestable bunker will not be netted out at sea. In turn, we could very well become bunkerstruck this fall. Such a menhaden overload is a mixed bag for Island angler groups.

Boat anglers should prepare to be up to the gunnels in surface-haunting bunker baitballs. Constantly circling bunker schools take on a relatively rounded shape, as the tightly packed schools try, usually in vain, to confuse predators.

For boat bassers, the live-bunker angling method known as “snag-and-drop” plays into the mouths and mindsets of lazy-full bass, as they contentedly hang on the bottom. Those fat-cat fish are content with casually sucking down any wounded bunker falling their way. For boat bassers working baitballs, comely jig offerings bounced off the bottom are also a must-try when targeting satiated stripers.

The potential losers in a highly bunkerized underwater world are often surfcasters like me. Once filled to the gills, there is no pressing need for trophy bass to exert themselves by swimming all the way shoreward – just to chase elusive mullet schools. It’s also not worth the exertion to come in close to suck up crabs or surf clams, both of which have been decimated by the likes of beach replenishment.

As to not play a total Gloomy Gus, I’ll mention there has been a slight uptick in once highly abundant lady crabs, as the Island beachline topography regathers itself after beach fixes. Maybe the bulging bass below the bunker pods might want a little change in menu, coming within surfcasting distance for sweet crab meat. Hey, it’s worth a wonder.

jaymann@thesandpaper.net

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