The Fish Story

When ‘Game Wardens’ Make Presence Known; Pickerel Fishing Hooks Passing PETA Mom

Me and My Dog Named ... Fluke
By JAY MANN | Aug 20, 2019
Photo by: Julie Ruth NOW IN SEASON: Cara Ruth and her pup, ironically (or not) named Fluke, show off a fine Barnegat Bay flattie.

Surf City — The New Jersey Conservation Officers Association page on Facebook is always a fascinating read. It carries reports of its fish and wildlife enforcement activities. And, yes, those Conservation Police Officers (CPOs) are still commonly miscalled “game wardens.”  Old tags fade slowly.

A CPO report that jumped out of the water at me took place when conservation officers Klitz and Moscatiello – they never use first names – were night patrolling along the Shark River. In the black of night, circa midnight, they became duly suspicious when coming upon – imagine this – two snorkelers in the water wearing headlamps. Adding to the suspiciousness, they were armed with spear guns.

Per the follow-up report, “After a brief surveillance period, the CPOs observed one of the divers exit the water and place a bag next to a garbage can.”

When the midnight marauders finally exited the water, the conservation cops were there with what I’ll gratuitously paraphrase as, “Hello, boys. And isn’t it a lovely night?” I’d also paraphrase the boys’ under-breath response, but I can’t publish what followed “Oh …”

Not surprisingly, the night divers immediately assumed a creative stance when asked what in bloody hell they were doing. Hey, maybe they went with the old “school project” route. If so, I’ll give them an “A” for inventiveness.

An “F” should then be given for their lack of creativity when they were asked about the bag next to the garbage can. The best they might have mustered was, “And what bag might that be, sir? Though we can assure ahead of time we have no knowledge of any such bag.” Hell, that’s worthy of an F-.

The bag’s content, eight undersized summer flounder, ratted them out. While oozing illegality, I’ll admit that jacking undersized fluke at night with snorkel, mask and speargun shows something akin to criminal originality.

In the end, in-the-bag charges of taking undersized summer flounder sunk the divers … times eight. Then there was the concurrent citation for being two fluke over their daily possession limit. Yes, CPOs can double-dip in that manner.

The men had an unexpected charge tacked on when they were written up for BS’ing the cops. I’m serious. It reads as “interference with the duties of a conservation police officer.” That’s a nasty little charge that takes much longer to go away than jacking fish after dark. Computers never forget.

As I’m wont to do, I’ll guess this wasn’t their first malicious midnight dive.

Another CPO report validates the long, ex-post facto arm of the law. You’ll see what I mean.

While doing a standard check-about at a boat ramp, conservation officers were spotted by an angler who jumped in his sturdy Chevy stead and “sped off through the wildlife management area at a high rate of speed.”

Clean getaway? Not quite, bucko. CPO Lt. James managed to grab the tag info off the fugitive’s ride. The tag info was punched into the administrative console in their patrol vehicle. With the owner’s name soon in hand, it was determined he lacked a current fishing license. As to the bolter’s truck, its registration had faded into the sunset long ago. His rap sheet indicated the man had previously been saddled with striped bass violations. Quite the outlaw.

Which brings us up to that ex-post facto angle, demonstrating the long-reach abilities of the “game wardens.” The thought-home-free fisherman soon found his mailbox sporting summonses for an unregistered vehicle and operating an unregistered vehicle on a wildlife management area. Unwritten but correspondingly passed on: “We’ve also got your number, dude.”

While I’m on a CPO tale role, a minor bust offered a touch of my kind of humor.

CPOs Riviello and Mascio were on the lookout for river-fishing folks keeping stripers out of season. Yes, rivers have closed seasons. Approaching an angler that they spied holding a herring, said herring became a flying fish, as the man shovel-passed it into nearby weeds. Playing linebackers, the CPOs read the angler’s deceptive move and thwarted the play. Displeased with such an insultingly obvious, un-sleight-of-hand move, Riviello and Mascio instructed the man to just go into the weeds and fetch the flung fish.

Now to the chuckler.

While writing up the man for “illegal activity,” one of the officers noticed, “the entire area where the man threw the fish was covered in poison ivy.” Offering a vague touch of law enforcement humor, the report said, “The man was given instructions on how to handle his summonses … as well as how to wash the poison ivy oils off.”

I’ll end this CPO segment by touching on a troubling point for many of us sportsmen, namely, the way obvious and convicted wildlife poachers seem to get mere hand-slap fines and punishments for even more egregious misdeeds against nature. Too often we see fines that are covered many times over by the profits of ne’er-do-wells. Well, a CPO report out of Cape May proves that leniency doesn’t always apply when it comes to illegal dumping, the bane of Jersey’s amazing wilderness areas.

CPO Lt. James nabbed five men dumping solid waste on an access road into a state wildlife management area. Good work, LT! The suspects knew they were dirty – and inescapably busted. They pled guilty in court … and got dumped upon. Typical $100 hand-slap fines flew out the courtroom door. Just for beginners, they were fined $4,950 for violating a local township ordinance regarding the dumping and transporting solid waste. After that wallet hit, they were nailed with $6,500 for “dumping deleterious substance into fresh waters of the State.” Then, the two vehicles used during dumping were seized/arrested, costing the culprits $400 in towing and storage fees prior to being released.

A truly bizarre tack-on fine was added to the dumpers’ tab – and I’m not even going to venture a guess as to how this charge entered the picture. A $250 fine was given for “loitering in a public place for obtaining drugs.” Maybe the dumpers expected to get paid in weed or such. Oops, I ventured a guess.

Fittingly hitting the dumpers when they were on the ground, the judge ordered the men to clean up every last bit of offloaded solid waste, which consisted of construction and demolition debris.

It’s a long shot but maybe this case will strike fear into the black hearts of anyone thinking about dumping on our wilderness.

PEDAL THE NATION: I’m not a bucket list person, even though many of us can all but hear that to-be-kicked bucket gathering rain just over the horizon. However, I recently got a feel for the bucket list concept after reading that the Great American Rail-Trail is half done, 10-speeding toward completion.

The trail is a bike and, I believe, pedestrian “path” that will open a cross-country track to non-motorized vehicles.

Here’s how path producer Rails to Trails Conservancy (railstotrails.org) explains it: “Picture yourself … pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway – or walking a local trail that connects along historic routes. Imagine the incomparable experience of exploring America’s heritage by trail – its potential, its beauty and bounty, its people and places. Consider the economic opportunities and the benefits for communities along the route of a multi-use trail that stretches more than 3,700 miles between Washington and Washington.”

It sounds like a cool pedal, theoretically – he says while sitting on a plush chair in an air-conditioned office.

You can go online to pledge support toward the effort, which has already procured 3,700 trails, covering 1,900 miles. Yep, that procured distance is already out there and waiting. The organization’s website maps out the coverage area to date.

This path came to light for me via a former mountain bike buddy – from times when I’d put in over 2,000 miles a year biking off-road trails and fire ditches, mainly in the Pinelands. He is organizing a group to test some of the existing Rails to Trails routes. He has hopes of doing a super cross-country pedal when the path is a completed path.

I just emailed him that I’ll think about that big pedal – for when I have enough money saved up to retire… around 2087. I must painfully mention that he has the time for such adventuring, having retired last year at – I shake my head in jealousy and disbelief – 46 years of age. Well-to-do is an understatement in his case. He got there by responding to the first seductive calls of information technology. Gospel truth: During many a ride, he would say, “Jay, you gotta invest in this computer technology (and IT) stuff.” Nah. It’ll never fly, just a flash in the pan. I’ll just keep my trusty savings account, which offers an annual interest of a penny per $100. Nice. Hey, a penny saved is …

PICKEREL AND PETA: Mainland lakes and creeks are unusually high for this time of year, due to this summer’s deluges. Paddling the Pinelands’ creeks with kayak, canoe or even paddleboard is a downstream breeze. No dry “pull out” spots common to August.

On that stream of thought, I’m told pickerel fishing this summer is exceptional. You’d think it would always be about the same. Nope. The high water since spring has them fat and on the attack.

You’d be amazed at how many dedicated pickerel anglers there are in South Jersey, including a slew of our local surfcasters seeking a change of scenery. And our pickerel waters are some of the comeliest places in the pines. Here’s hoping pickerel seekers practice wet-handed catch-and-release, always. There’s no keepage value in this skinny, bony species. It is low – if not rock bottom – on the edibility scale based on the heavy-metal mercury nastiness inevitably absorbed by pickerel.

My only personal run-in with a full-blown People for Ethical Treatment of Animals-type person was during a pickerel trip to Lake Oswego. A whiny animal rights proponent took me to task as I was lazy-day casting a Mepp’s spinner from atop the old wooden bridge near the lake’s public swimming beach, not far from the Rutgers’ experimental agriculture bogs. She had stopped her car next to me. I first assumed it was for a friendly, “Any luck?” shout out. But, with my luck …

“How would you like to be hooked in the mouth!?” she offered, her bleach-blond hair and thick, beachgoing makeup offering very little by way of disguising the ugliness of her attitude.

Unable to let it slide, I assumed my genetic wise-ass modus operandi.

Noticing she had three young kids in the back seat, I squelched my mind’s initial suggestions for a highly explicit comeback rant. Instead, I rather cunningly chose to take a backseat route.

Utterly ignoring her, I directed myself toward the wide-eyed kids, all of them bearing expressions silently screaming, “Are you nuts, Mom? This guy looks crazy!”

Quite so. I was coming off a low-sleep night of camping nearby. Those were also my wild-hair, display-arm-tattoos days.

Using my best Mr. Rodgers voice, I asked, “Now, kids, did you know there are cute little sunfishes and happy, hoppy frogs that swim in this lake?” They timidly shook their heads in agreement, as the mom looked on suspiciously. “Well, did you also know there are these big fish – the ones your mom says I’m hurting their poor widdle mouths with my hook – that rush around and rip those tiny fish and friendly frogs into bloody pieces with their needle-sharp teeth? Now, what do you think hurts worst, my hook in their mouths or having your tiny body shredded to pieces by the horrible fish I’m hooking?”

I was tempted to then suddenly launch into my screaming, Sam Kinison imitation: “Well, answer me that! Huh? Huh?! I can’t hear you!” But PETA mom caught onto where I was headed and screamed a comment that even I wouldn’t loose upon young, easily influenced little ears. She hit the accelerator and fishtailed off.

I kinda left quickly myself, not knowing if she might call the park police saying I had traumatized her kids. Once safely away, I did get a repetitive chuckle over the exchange, as I drove back to Ship Bottom to get some badly needed post-PETA sleep.

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