The Fish Story

Trouble in Holgate High Grasses; Bluefish Should Get Angler Love

By JAY MANN | Oct 02, 2019
Photo by: Jay Mann Stockton U. students do some surveying to keep track of where the south end sand is headed.

Surf City — DE-FOXING TO SAVE PLOVERS: I got a scathing phone call from a gal fully infuriated after getting word that lethal means are being used to eliminate foxes from the Holgate Wilderness Area, part of the Forsythe Refuge. I didn’t have the nerve to explain this is nothing new. “I’m on it, ma’am.”

The trapping and chemical killing of foxes in Holgate has been going on now for many years, even decades. It’s ostensibly meant to reduce predation on nesting bird eggs and chicks, most famously those related to piping plover nests.

While foxes have been taking the heat – along with occasional cannisters of cyanide – I feel compelled to further confuse the anti-predation matter. Currently, it doesn’t take more than a passing glance at the mammalian wildlife tracks in Holgate sands to semi-exonerate foxes.

Undoubtedly, there are foxes of many a size, shape and age pussyfooting haphazardly across the Holgate Wilderness Area, having mistaken the “Wilderness” concept as accepting of their ilk. However, fox tracks are now easily being matched in number and coverage by paw proof of river otters and minks also traipsing predatorily about. Based on natural history, these smaller more water-oriented mammals are fully capable of doing a destructo number on the eggs and offspring of nesting birds. As to roving foxes, if given their druthers, they greatly prefer filling up on the massive number of rodents within the refuge.

Regarding those Holgate rodents, I once turned over a washed-up piece of plywood and what lurked beneath was dang near horrorish. Dozens of large voles scattered and skedaddled, one running up my leg. That was a goodly number of years back so I’m not sure they’re still that gothically populous; the species is famed for experiencing enormous number swings. Also, that was when foxes had been removed, possibly sparking the vole count.

The reading of scat indicates south end foxes are rodent nabbers of the highest order. Oh, they’ll opportunistically scarf down the contents of a nest of nestled eggs or chicks. However, a piping plover nest’s worth of vittles wouldn’t keep a high-metabolism fox going for more than a day, tops. What’s more, there simply aren’t that many nests to be devoured.

As to foxes allegedly taking down other protectable birds within the wilderness area, there’s absolutely no evidence of that blowing about. Bird kills leap out, feather-wise.

I’m simply saying foxes aren’t all they’re knocked down to be when it comes to plover nest predation, though their tracks have implicated them in the looting of many buried diamondback terrapin nests.

Nature tidbit: Holgate foxes will collect live clams, sometimes stealing them from gulls, and bury them in dry sand away from the water. They’ll return a day or so later to dig them up, after the bivalves have died and opened. I’ve found clam caches indicating a fox has buried a slew of them in the same spot. I sometimes use the dug and licked-clean shells for making wampum jewelry.

Returning to the otter and mink presence, both of those species are killing machines when it comes to foraging, easily outdoing foxes. They also tend to quickly haul a capture back to a watery domain, leaving little or no evidence of their deadly deeds.

I should mention in passing that racoon tracks are showing amid the many other paw prints. Talk about eating machines.

SACRIFICIAL VICTIMS: So, how many forms of all-too-common wildlife should be lethally eliminated – or allegedly relocated – for the sake of endangered forms?

First, in fairness to the refuge, aggressive predator control actions are also constantly being used by state and local authorities. For instance, last spring, in a one-month period, the NJ Bureau of Wildlife Management used 1,979 trap-nights at nine sites from Cape May State Park to Brigantine Natural Area to capture 42 beach nest predators. Their take included 1 opossum, 2 coyotes, 19 red fox and 20 raccoons.

Holgate is apparently a whole other animal when it comes to beach nest predators. While I’m seemingly painting an appealingly compassionate picture of everyday wildlife thriving in Holgate, I’ll nonetheless remain quite neutral regarding the human – some might say inhumane – necessity of removing any animals that possibly threaten the piping plover. Many nature-knowledgeable folks have asserted there is worldly merit in sacrificing dozens of wild creatures to save even one example of a dying species. It’s something of a mammalian moral dilemma.

To that end, I’ll go fully prejudicial by blaming humans for the endangered state of piping plover. Sadly, survivalist wildlife like foxes, racoons, possums, otters or minks have to pay the piper for the plight of piping plovers. Face it, we are ultimately the ones forcing the decidedly unnatural leveling of the survival playing field, leading to the eliminating of many common Holgate species. The refuge is merely doing our dirty work.

And I wonder why I have so few human friends.

RUNDOWN: Let’s loose at least a small round of applause for bluefish. With fluke regulated off the table, blues are once again saving many a fishing day from take-home nothingness. In last Saturday’s 73rd annual “World Series of Surf Fishing,” run by the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Club, Harvey Cedars, 721 of the 806 fish taken by 48 teams and 303 anglers were bluefish.

Island, inlet and bayside blues are running cocktailish, meaning anywhere from a pound up to maybe 5 pounds. Oddly, they’re very thin, despite loads of forage in the form of mullet and spearing. Island Beach saw some slightly larger bluefish this week, over 5 pounds. Here’s hoping that’s a sign of bigger choppers cruising in to greet us. We’ve been forsaken by fall mega-blues for several years now. Maybe this will be the year they come back to their traditional, coastline-hugging migratory fall senses.

The mullet run has been hot, though unable to draw in any larger gamefish … so far. That’s not overly unusual. Nature has set the mullet migratory schedule to be just ahead of the cooler-water arrival of big bass and slammer blues.

Stripers are MIA. Again, this is not overly unusual for early fall when the ocean tenaciously holds onto its summer 70-degree warmth. Likely extending the bass standoffishness will be some arriving record warm air temps, prior to fallish air moving in by this coming weekend’s start of the 2019 Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic.

The nine Classic weeks of fun fishing and surfside camaraderie will be totally kick-ass this year. There are tons of prizes and mucho moolah. See related story this issue.

Of academic interest, there are still loads of fluke hanging out, mainly oceanside. They can’t be kept regardless of size but will be showing as Classic competitors soon begin chucking bait and, in my case, casting every lure in the arsenal.

Not to over-live my one Classic-winning 50-pound bass, but it was one of the only grand prize winners taken on a plug. I hooked it on a school bus yellow Bomber, amid a furious feeding frenzy right next to the beach in Holgate – where big bunker were beaching themselves in terror, as much as screaming to me, “Fish here!” I obliged … and kindly removed one of the bass terrorizing them. It should be noted that the most famed bass of all time, Al McReynold’s former world record striper, taken in Atlantic City amid busting mullet, was caught on a lure.

BASS REG BINGO: It’s a good time to bring up the matter of 2020’s striper regulation change. The writing is already on the regulatory wall that no bass over 40 inches will be keepable.

While I can offer sound science that such a move is borderline ridiculous, it nonetheless caters to (and quiets) those who want trophy cows for their hooking (and releasing) pleasure, more so than any inordinate number of eggs mongo bass bring to the spawn table.

Remarkably successful efforts to save overfished striped bass stocks back in the late 1980s were predicated on allowing smaller bass to be protected until large enough to spawn at least once, thus the 32-inch emergency minimum. It rightfully emphasized the lower end of spawning size spectrum. The results were quite possibly the greatest fishery comeback ever seen. Now, suddenly, success has somehow taken on a whole other size perspective: “Save all the huge fish.” Again, it’s all about placating anglers more than applying sound science.

Here’s a read from the state, based on a recently completed online survey form sent to 146,660 of NJ’s registered anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. With 24,018 responses, it was determined, “Anglers generally thought Striped Bass regulation changes are necessary now.”

When it came to support for a slot limit regulation that would prohibit harvest of striped bass over 40 inches “respondents overwhelmingly supported this option.”

The survey showed anglers who supported the slot limit “overwhelmingly supported” prohibiting the keeping of fish over 40 inches as opposed to hiking up the minimum size limit, which would likely have been allowable under federal mandates to cut back overall harvesting. We might have gone back to the proven successful 32-inch minimum.

I found one part of the survey interesting in a Classicesque way. “We also asked anglers what size Striped Bass they personally consider ‘trophy’ or ‘memorable’ size; the most common responses were 36- and 40-inches.” That offers a sense that the Classic, even when saddled with a 40-inch max cap will remain “memorable.”

One nonissue within upcoming reg changes has to do with the degree circle hooks enter the picture. I see it as a no-brainer: Circle hooks are great. They’re also efficient. Ask commercial fishermen who use them. Still, there is some debate circling overhead, leading to three so-called options coming into play – though I can ferret out only two amid the supposed three. The state’s language: “Status quo (recommend states promote their use), a mandate that states implement regulations requiring the use of circle hooks, and a mandate that states promote the use of circle hooks (via, for ex., educational materials).”

Just use the bloody things … and let’s get fishing.

HOLGATE HAPPENINGS: Monday morning’s high tide along the Holgate refuge saw a spookily stunning ocean overwash, somewhat out of the blue.

A drone shot taken from north of the Forsythe Wilderness Area – no drones allowed over the refuge itself, mind you – clearly showed at least half of the Island’s far south end being swamped by surging seas. As many as eight crossover points can be seen, where ocean flowed briskly into the bay.

The inrushing ocean waters were the result of powerful ground swells, which we’ve been experiencing off-and-on for weeks, egged on by high astronomical tides.

Regardless of the tide-encouraging cause, there wasn’t an overly impressive showing of oceanic might considering the eye-opening extent of overwash. It reflects how easily ocean and bay now greet each other as the north end of the Forsythe Refuge property steadily erodes.

For a Holgate long-timer like myself, it’s not a stretch to see these increasingly frequent oceanic overwashes as a softening up, akin to a naval bombardment. Things are being readied for a big hurt, via a kickass Island-attacking storm.

For one instant, forget the whole ocean rising/sky falling rhetoric and more practically recognize a big-hurt storm will surely come, the likes of which have regularly shown since LBI time first began. Holgate is not ready, not even remotely able to take such a blow. The reason is obvious: No replenishment sand has been placed from just south of the Holgate parking lot to near Island’s end. The whole effectiveness of the ongoing Barnegat Inlet to Little Egg Harbor Inlet Long Beach Island Storm Reduction Project is replenishing all of LBI – not leaving an unprotected end dangling for the ocean to dine upon.

I hear ya: “Oh, there he goes again with his replenishment whining!” Hey, I can’t quit now that the writing is on the sand. We just can’t allow 2.5 miles of LBI’s finest undeveloped real estate to break away. And it will/is.

Even though the refuge owns the bulk of the far south end land, its property is still part of our Long Beach Island. Overall, the refuge is excellent about being good neighbors in the many communities where it coexists with locals. Fully realizing Holgate is unique as a wilderness area, this does not preclude the refuge being sensitive to and working with local municipalities to protect and preserve its Island property.

Finally, I’m more convinced than ever that replenishing the far south end beaches would absolutely benefit nesting piping plover by greatly reducing the chances of nests being destroyed en masse by increasingly frequent ocean-to-bay overwashes.

Replenishment of Holgate is all good and good for all.

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