The Fish Story

Almost Killed ’Em Off, Now Need ’Em Bad; New Sleeping Bag for Sleepwalking?

By JAY MANN | Aug 02, 2016
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When problems get ugly in the fish realm, you need to get uglier. I’ll explain.

One of the ugliest fish in our nation is the alligator gar, a throwback to Cretaceous times. It has the head of a particularly unpleasant alligator and the body of a pike, though the body doesn’t much matter when you sport an ugly-ass alligator head, with row after row of nightmarish teeth gleaming forth.

Now their ugliness is looking beautiful to folks desperately trying to fight an ugly invader, the Asian carp. But is this instant gar appreciation too little too late?

BIG AND REELING: Giant gars are able to contend with real alligators, size-wise. In a perfect world, they’re able to exceed ten feet in length and easily host 300 pounds of thickness. But this second largest freshwater species, outsized only by the endangered white sturgeon, is now all but dead in the water.

Why are they reeling? Because of our reeling.

Due to the gar’s gruesome garishness, fishermen began systemically eradicating them. They used catch-and-kill, even resorting to dynamite to meld the two steps together.

A big chunk of the angler-based prejudice was the assumption that the species got so insanely large by ravenously dining upon prettier and far more desirable gamefish. The teetering species has now been reduced to cowering in some secluded riverine and stocked lake waters.

But now, out of the ugly blue, this angler-despised fish is being hailed as the Ben Kenobi of the fishery management.

Whadda ya mean, “Who the hell is Ben Kenobi?” You’re telling me you’re so “Star Wars” illiterate that you don’t know that’s the exile name of Obi-Wan Kenobi? Yep, the Obi-Wan of “You’re our only hope” fame.

The Obi-Wan alligator gar is being nursed back to population health, ordained to make an eco-rescue of an environment crapped up by carp. As we speak, itty-bitty alligator gar are being farm raised to eventually undergo special forces training to attack Asian carp.

How invasive are the carp? A single lady carp can contain two million eggs. Currently, the carp population in Middle America is scientifically tabulated at “Too many to count.” Let’s see, too many to count times two million eggs …

The prolific carp have already numbered out many indigenous river species. They’re now mustering to make moves on the Great Lakes. Once in those massive bodies of water, there’s not even a Katy-bar-the-doors move that can help.

Not that we aren’t fighting back in the truest American fashion, as evidenced by the most recent Asian carp “turkey shoots.” Yes, it’s as it sounds.

A natural tendency of Asian carp, when spooked by the likes of a boat, is to jump high out of the water – sometimes 50 or more fish going as high as ten feet into the air. Under the pretext of carp population control, double-barreled Midwestern folks are loading up and boating about, spooking up the invaders – then vaporizing them like clay pigeons. Needless to say, there are seldom huge crowds on the shoreline watching these carp shoots – with buckshot and carp innards flying about.

Grassroots retaliatory actions against carp don’t end there. A personal de-carping favorite of mine is known as batting practice, which is sorta self-explanatory once you envision a slew of outdated motorboats whizzing around, loaded to the gills with fully fueled rednecks, each sporting a Louisville Slugger. It’s amazing the carp batting average some of those good old boys host – until one of them falls overboard and all the others start laughing so hard they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

There are now also many competitive “carp roundups.” Entire flotillas, comprised of every sort of watercraft known, zigzag the waterways, nabbing flying carp by any means possible, short of firearms. Last year, a single roundup netted thousands of Asian carps … after which someone asked the better-late-than-never question, “Now whadda we gonna do with these stinkin’ things?”

In that vein, there have been efforts to dine on Asian carp, but, as someone pointed out, an hour after eating them you’re hungry again.

Sadly, none of these creative carp control methods have put so much as a dent in the overall population of the speedily reproducing fish. Which cycles us back to a now more understandable Obi-Wan alligator gar connection.

Researchers have proven gar are as carp unfriendly as they are eye unfriendly. Even a medium-sized alligator gar can take down a larger carp, which can reach 100 pounds.

Farmed gar will soon become assets in launching counter-strikes against the Asian aggressors. As we speak, gar are being invited back into existence by researchers sheepishly saying, “Sorry about that extirpation thing.”

Allyse Ferrara, an alligator gar expert at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, recently told the L.A. Times, “What else is going to be able to eat those monster carp? We haven’t found any other way to control them.”

She also reflects on the abuses of the primordial fish. “Some horrible things have been done to this fish,” referencing the wholesale targeting of the gars by anglers, right through the 1900s.

Ferrara then explains the alligator gar’s indispensable clean-up role when it comes to wreaking havoc on any arriving, ecology-ruining species, like the carp. “It’s similar to how we used to think of wolves; we didn’t understand the role they played in the ecosystem.”

Whether or not the alligator gar perseveres – and Obi-Wans the bad-carp day – could fall back into the hands of anglers.

“It will be interesting to see if fishermen have enough integrity to pass up a 7-foot fish that’s 200 pounds,” Christopher Kennedy, a Missouri fisheries supervisor, told the Times. He even hopes to induce a total turn-around in angling attitudes. “We’d love to create a self-sustaining population that we can turn into a trophy fishery.”

But won’t it take forever for an alligator gar to get trophy-ish? Alligator gar stocked in an Illinois lake have already grown to over four feet long – in just six years! I’ll gladly take a piece of that catch-and-release Obi-Wan action.

CLIMBING INTO CAMPING: I’m about to get a Selk’bag® Sleeping Bag. It’ll place me firmly within the très chic camping crowd, even more than the L.L. Bean tattoo across my chest, letting the world know I only camp among the finest trees and bushes.

The Selk’bag Sleeping Bag is pretty much a wearable, form-fitting personal enclosure. I first saw it being modeled on the catwalk at an outdoor equipment show. The 96-pound gal modeling it ended up looking just this side of a Richard Simmons fat-rescue case.

To ready for a night spent in the wilds, you climb into the Selk’bag Sleeping Bag the way you would a jumpsuit. Once inside, you’re kinda cocooned within. When you lay down, you assume a shape much like the chalked outline of a crime scene victim.

But why in the name of tradition would a camper want such a thing?

Simply put, when enveloped in a Selk’bag you can stop-and-plop anywhere your tiring body desires. You’re a walking piece of ready-to-roll sleep. The entire forest floor becomes your sprawl zone.

Unlike bygone sleeping bags, if you don’t like the feel of the ground beneath you, just roll around in your Selk’bag, feeling around for a perfect-fit piece of earth. Ahhh, just right. Now, will the fire ants you just rolled upon agree?

With a formfitting sleeping bag, you can bag entire camping sites by just standing up and doing a Michelin Man waddle off to a far better place, ignoring nearby animal sounds that translate, “Check it out. It’s Poppin’ Fresh?” Led by those damned wise-ass owls.

One camping group that might want to pass on wearable sleeping bags is the chronic sleepwalking contingency. Imagine falling asleep in Ocean County and waking up somewhere in northern Delaware – with a cancelled Cape May/Lewes Ferry baggage tag clipped to your ear.

Because no proper authorities read this column, I have to bring up some secret perks of jumpsuit sleeping bags.

The state of New Jersey has some insanely encumbering camping rules. No, you can’t commence to laying your head down just anywhere in the outback. The state’s permitted camping grounds are mapped out, down to the square foot – a square foot you have to battle for with mothy swarms of other campers. If you’re caught camping outside established campgrounds, you’re subject to fines and even forfeiture of camping stuff – which, I’m guessing, is sold to cover State Park Christmas bashes.

Now, out jumps the wearable sleeping bag. Picture yourself sprawled out and snoozing like a chipmunk on a cozy piece of camping-forbidden forest floor. Suddenly, you’re lit up by a ranger, possibly hot on the trail of a forfeiture Pollyanna gift for the Christmas bash.

As he’s celebrating nailing an off-limits camper, you’re geared to play party pooper. You simply pop up, all, “Great night for a stroll, eh, Ranger Bob?” Stretching out your massive Selk’bag arms, and running in place a bit, you offer, “Well, I best be getting back to my hike if I hope to reach those legal campgrounds anytime soon.”

And you waddle off; the ranger standing there, head cocked sideways, all, “What the hell just happened?”

But a wearable sleeping bag can come in handy closer to home, namely, when reclining upon our “No Sleeping on the Beach!” sands. You already see where this is going, right?

“Oh, good evening, Officer. Nice quad. And isn’t it a lovely night … all 3 a.m. of it?”

“Hey, you know there’s no sleeping on the beach.”

“Perish the thought. I’m not even remotely sleeping on the beach! Truth be told, I’m into astronomy and this is, uh, my star watching outfit. In fact, I was just observing the, what is that, the Klingon galaxy?”

“Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I see you a month back; while I was working my State Forest Police job?”

“No, that couldn’t have been … Hey, wait a minute. Is that you, Williams?”

“Sure is.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. I thought I recognized the voice. Hey, how’s the little lady’s sciatic doing?”

“Decent … but the medical bills have me working nights over here.”

“I guess that’s why they call it moonlighting, eh? But when the hell do you sleep?”

“Well, that’s why I’m glad I ran into you. Where can I get me one of those jumpsuit sleeping bags?”

RUNDOWN: Kingfish in goodly numbers are in the surf mix, though ruinous arrivals of eelgrass, arriving on the heels of northeast winds, have been putting a strain on the lighter lines used to fish for this savory species. The north end of the Island seems to be showing these tiny drumfish best.

By the by, there is a decent showing of coquina clams in the Harvey Cedars swash. I think these little bivalves attract panfish, including kingfish. I once caught a 29-inch striper totally loaded with them, some of the clams still moving. That was also Harvey Cedars. That year, the coquinas were so thick the wet sand was totally carpeted with them when waves receded.

Got reports of mullet, bayside LBI. That’s a tad ahead of time but not by much. They’ll now hang on this side of the bay, fattening up. These mullet are bait-worthy but only if fished live or very soon after netting. Bay mullet are packed with phyto- and zooplankton. If you hold onto them too long (or freeze), they will rot out.

It is still many weeks before this year’s crop of ocean-run mullet will move out, after which they literally crap out all their algal contents, making them plump and ripe for freezing – or even keeping icy-cool for up to a week. Here’s hoping we see tailor/cocktail/eater bluefish to feed on mullet baits.

Related, I’m getting more and more reports of huge numbers of both bayside and oceanfront forage fish schools. Bunkies, baby bunker, are packed in like sardines, so to speak.

While I’m always encouraged when forage fish numbers shine, I never know how that might translate into angling to come. Could it be the baitfish schools are so big because there aren’t many gamefish around, or, will all hell break loose when fall gamefish move on-scene and find a forage fish supply worthy of insane blitzes?

Oh, wouldn’t it be a sight for sore eyes to once again take in one of those full-tilt beachfront blitzes, like in days of yore. You know as well as me that the past many falls just haven’t been exploding with bluefish of striped bass blitzes. Hey, with paddleboards and kayaks now everywhere, we have the ways and means to zip out after any blitzes that flair-up just out of surfcasting range, as they often used to do. Talk about a test of balance: Hooking into huge choppers, one after the other. Yehaw!

Below is a Capt. Dave DeGennaro, Hi Flier Sportfishing (hiflier.com) report. It shows what I think is one of the most fun forms of bay fishing: chumming with grass shrimp to coax up a slew of species, boatside.

“Fishing is starting to heat up in the bay. We have had some good action with weakfish the last few trips. Most are just under or just over the legal mark but we have also had some 17- and 18-inch fish. Also in the mix are fluke, sand sharks, burrfish, hickory shad, and snapper blues. We are chumming with live grass shrimp and using six-pound ultra light spinning outfits.”

To his list of pan-sized hookups, I’ll add the potential of nabbing blowfish, kingfish, black sea bass, cunners, triggerfish, houndfish, needlefish, tog, spot and even an occasional what-the-hell-fish – all of which I’ve taken using this method in and near Myer’s Hole. It reaches its peak in late August and early September.

Shark fishing remains insane. Day, night, in-between; jumbo sand tiger sharks, big browns/sandbars and occasional duskies are being hauled ashore, most often by very conscientious anglers taking great catch-and-release care. Prime bait remains bunker.

I won’t get into sharking methods or gear set-ups except to say massive sharks can sometimes be taken using surf gear for slammer blues. However, when you’re talking about a 300-pound-plus fish, there is a lot of gear upgrading that can be done. That’s where your local tackle shops shine. They’ll gear you right … and steer you right.

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