The Fish Story

Tall Trees Set to Take a Fall; Snakeheads Snake Into Jersey

By JAY MANN | Apr 17, 2019

TALL TREE CONUNDRUM: I find myself forced into a state of noncommittalness over the battle to prevent the clearing of Depression Era white pine trees impinging on the vista of officials manning the Bass River Forest Fire Tower. Not that it matters since the NJDEP has OKed the cutdown of a goodly number of those mankind-planted old-growth trees.

I profoundly and personally relate to the towering aesthetic presented by the doomed trees. They’re top-tier gorgeous, despite a marked non-indigenousness. In the same appreciative breath, I’m always ethically committed to supporting safety for all people, especially the outdoorsy types living/camping/hiking in that nape of the Pinelands. So, I discreetly choose to step back and accept the decision of the more qualified sorts who have waded through the controversial matter, favoring folks over forests. OK, putting it in folks and forests terms might insinuate a bias on my part, but it’s also seeing the forest through the trees – as in, sadly, “Timber!”

Getting more brazenly political, I balk at the notion the view-blocking white pines played a slowdown role in the initial reporting of the recent Spring Ridge Wildfire. One report even timed it, suggesting the semi-blinded Bass River fire tower personnel were delayed 10 minutes, visually, in getting wind of the blaze – as if other within-eyeshot Forest Fire Service towers somehow failed to espy the fire until it was already running wildly amok. By all retro reads, that blaze was off and uncontrollably running with its first taste of open air. It’s beyond a firefighting stretch to think even a full-vision/deforested Bass River Tower would have been on the smoke early enough to muster the troops to quickly stomp out such a freewheeling wildfire. It wasn’t an everyday blaze, closer to a 25-year fire.

Now, buddying up with the early-warning concept as a fire safety imperative, I can see defending the need for a full-scan Bass River Fire Tower. It’s essential when it comes to quickly spotting smaller and more containable fires, especially within its immediate vicinity. Almost immediately below the tower are a slew of heavily used campgrounds, not to mention good old nearby New Gretna.

On an equally ominous note, horrible things happen when sudden wildfires send blinding smoke over packed highways. It doesn’t get any more packed than the Parkway, which is in spittin’ distance from the Bass River Tower. With Parkway traffic now flirting with 80 mph speeds, just imagine a wall of thick smoke suddenly tidal waving across it. That’s a case where minutes, even seconds, count in at least getting word out to Parkway authorities.

I’ve fielded loads of input on relocating the be-treed fire tower. Fat chance, governmentally. Our budget-blackened state is cold as ice about throwing serious bucks into such a move. There goes my grand plan to have a dual-purpose forest fire tower and lifeguard stand placed on the beach at nearby Lake Absegami.

Unfortunately, there isn’t time to commence with a forest-roots rally for donations, though it would have been fun to see one of those targeted-amount thermometers on a billboard right next to signs displaying the current wildfire risk.

Afterthought: What about selling the cut-down lumber and using the profits to reforest some area in need of trees? That would be a decently emblematic effort. As of now, I hear the wood will be planked for park usages.

SNAKE! … HEAD!: Boy, have I got a snakehead story -- northern snakeheads being one of the wilder invasive species to ever hit American waters. A dang large specimen was caught last week in nearby Camden County waters. I got word of the semi-troubling catch via a photo and some follow-up communiques.

Channa argus is an elongated, flat-headed, amazingly fast-growing, thoroughly savage fish – and that’s all before breakfast. It arrived with a slew of other émigrés-non-grata species from Asia. It’s thought the first ones snuck into America down south, possibly in Florida, arriving as either aquarium pets or (more likely) as part of a purposeful introduction by Asian-American folks, who covet the species – as tasty fillets. They’ve really taken a hankering to the waters of the Potomac River Basin, a waterway that resembles the snakeheads’ Yangtze River Basin roots. Mustering so nearby, it was inevitable they’d muscle their way up here eventually … if not sooner.

The size of the Camden County snakehead indicates it was a resident for at least a few years. As to size potential, things quickly grow theoretical for Americanized models. In Asian environs, they max out at 3 feet long. But, when invading a predator-free environment, like New Jersey, they’ll be top food-chain dog, likely reaching 4 feet or longer! Imagine that on light gear. I shouldn’t even joke about such an ecologically imbalanced concept. In fact, just imagine snakeheads arriving in waters regularly state-stocked with trout. Hell, the Pequest Trout Hatchery guys would pour their fish into a lake and those trout would jump back into the hatchery truck before it can drive off.

The mounting number of Jersey-caught “snakes” being taken by casters is causing a ruckus online. Eco folks noisily warn of the species’ ability to destroy an entire watery ecosystem in nothing flat. Very few fish species can so thoroughly take over an entire freshwater ecosystem. They’ll eat every living thing in sight, including feathery creatures, even those only standing on water’s edge.

Taking a more cavalier approach to the arriving invaders, many anglers openly embrace snakeheads as one of the most ferocious plug attackers in the world.

The state strongly sides with ecologically sounder minds. The NJDEP has published kill-on-sight advisories regarding any and all invasive fish species, with snakeheads topping the hit list. That tangentially means it’s not a great time to be an innocent lookalike species, the Jersey bowfin. The bowfin can be distinguished from a snakehead only by its small anal fin. A snakehead’s lower body fin is quite long and drawn out. Nonetheless, it could still become guilt by similarity, despite the bowfin being totally unrelated.

I’ve caught a few snakeheads down south, never in NJ. They display a gonzo feeding demeanor, insanely annihilating fishing lures. I jumped a foot every time one exploded on my surface plug.

As to the snakehead’s reproductive rate, National Geographic, referring to the species as “Fishzilla,” reports it reaches sexual maturity by age 2 or 3. Each spawning-age female can release up to 15,000 eggs at once. Since snakeheads can mate as often as five times a year, a single female can release up to 150,000 eggs in a two-year span.

I’ll steer clear of hyping snakeheads as gamefish but guarantee that the U.S. will soon become the keeper of IGFA’s world-record snakehead. I’ll even strike up a record-breaking similarity between snakeheads and transplanted pythons in Florida. A recent Fox News headline read: “Florida man’s 18-foot, 150-pound python breaks record in state.” Records are meant to be made.

As to their famed-in-Asia edibility, I’ll gladly try a snakehead caught in NJ, even though I’m dead-set against eating our freshwater fish due to toxic chemical loads. I figure the snakeheads are so new to the area – and grow so rapidly – that they can’t be polluted.

As to the language of NJ regarding invasive species: “The possession or release of live, potentially dangerous fish is prohibited. These species include Asian swamp eel, bighead, grass (diploid) and silver carp, brook stickleback, green sunfish, flathead catfish, oriental weatherfish, snakehead and warmouth. Anglers MUST destroy these species if encountered while fishing and are directed to submit specimen(s) or photos to a Fish and Wildlife Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries biologist for verification. To reach a biologist, call (908) 236-2118 for north Jersey or (609) 259-6964 for south Jersey.”

DEAD-END SIDEBAR: How the likes of snakeheads make invasive leaps to bodies of water far from whence they arrived is one of the least well-answered questions in the world. Dating back to Darwin, it has been conveniently assumed that birds are the transporters. A study titled “Experimental Quantification of Long Distance Dispersal Potential of Aquatic Snails in the Gut of Migratory Birds” by Casper van Leeuwen, et al, reads, “Many plant seeds and invertebrates can survive passage through the digestive system of birds, which may lead to long distance dispersal (endozoochory) in case of prolonged retention by moving vectors.” By extension, fish eggs might join such flights, possibly as external hangers on. There are papers written on how sticky eggs can hang onto duck legs. Peer reviews are sketchy.

However, emerging science says not so fast with the long-lived avian fish egg transport theory. A University of Basel (Switzerland) study titled “Dispersal of fish eggs by water birds – just a myth?” casts serious doubts. The results indicate that “no in-depth scientific studies exist to prove that water birds disperse fish eggs.”

How then? It’s not like there’s a flock of options out there. Barring cosmic or extraterrestrial intervention, getting from Independent Point A to Independent Point B entails an unfathomable leap of many hundreds of miles.

I’ll assure right now that there is not a secret underground interconnected water system in play, as has been theorized.

Then there’s the much-pondered meteorological transport system. This Wizard of Oz thinking has some merit, based on documented frogs and fish raining down in parts of the world. But such animated rains are rare beyond compare, especially when factoring in the indubitability that newly built lakes and ponds will soon sport fishes, sans stocking. Something far less tornadic is regularly conveying eggs. Again, birds have to be the most commonsense albeit highly unprovable choice.

RUNDOWN: I probably shouldn’t even bring up the remarkable bass bite up Raritan Bay for two good reasons: 1) It’ll draw folks away from the LBI region; 2) It’ll rub in the fact that we might once again be out of the bass loop. Bite your tongue, knave! Nonetheless, I have to point out that boat fishing for stripers off LBI has been dead to date. But head far enough north ... I thought I told you to bite my tongue!

It seems bluefish are making forays into bay regions. I had two bite-offs of plastic tails after dark, mid-Island. I then switched to metals and plugs and couldn’t draw a touch. Only assumed the bite-offs were blues. What else?

Opting for upbeatness, the black drum crew I know has been beating bay waters. Iffy weather, mainly winds, have been ruinous to both black drumming and my front storm door.

I’m not sure there’s any connection, but down OBX way, the black drum showing has been above average. I know that can mean fun fishing in Delaware Bay, but it’s hard to gauge what that might mean hereabouts.

With early black drum, the simplest possible rigs rock – literally little more than a circle hook and sinker. Drum have very tough mouth skin.

Some drum-fishing folks hang a 2/0-ish hook off a 3-inch tensioned dropper loop, located about 18 inches up from a tag-end bank or cushion sinker. Others go with a straight-up fluke-type rigging, with a dark beak hook cinch-knotted at the tag end. One of the best drum fishermen I knew – passed last year – used an always faithful three-way swivel, though that’s a lot of metal by my thinking. He was one of the last drumfish listeners, going from a stethoscope held to the bottom of his boat to a modern high-tech side-scan acoustic mic.

I will forever stand by my conviction that larger drumfish are poor table fare. I’ve had only middling success with medium (15 pounders) when fried, though many Southerners stand by their acquired taste for them. I’ll give a good to very good taste rating to small (Jersey) drum, which has a fully different meat texture than the larger ones. I’m told if you can still see a black drum’s stripes, you’re in good-eating territory. The stripes go as they grow.

You can legally keep three black drum per day (per angler) with a minimum size of 16 inches.

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