The Fish Story

Puffer Poisons Overrated; Time to Return Cougars to Our Outback?

By JAY MANN | Aug 09, 2016
Photo by: Jack Reynolds (L-R) Jourdan Travers and Cheryl Syminink pause for a photo with a fluke while fishing in the inlet.

TOXIC MISREAD OF SMOOTH BLOWFISH: I need to begin with a now much-traveled photo passed on by reader J. Terhoon, bearing the message, “Smooth Puffer fish caught in Barnegat Bay. Sushi anyone?”

Smooth puffers are the large brothers to our northern puffers/blowfish.

I’ve seen and caught a goodly number of smooth puffers, Lagocephalus lagocephalus, but never thought in terms of making them into sashimi – in the Japanese fugu vein. Of course, I’ve never thought of going sushi with our always-eaten northern puffer/blowfish, Sphoeroides maculatus.

Both are members of the family Tetraodontidae, binomial home to the death chew types of puffers, which possess a no-prisoners poison known as tetrodotoxin.

As is expected, the media is jumping all over photos of smooth puffers, portraying them as both a rarity – and a potential poisoner? Overall, this big-ish puffer species is seemingly becoming more common hereabout, possibly yet another sign of an ocean temp-related shift of marine biomasses. I guess such a movement might be viewed in a “South Will Rise Again” sense.

Regarding a northerly shift in the to-our-south marine biomass, ponder this: A mere six southbound hours away, as the Chevy truck flies, is the Chesapeake Bay. What might it mean if all its species get atmospherically nudged our way? It would be a northward species shift of colossal consequence, considering there are 350 species of fish now hanging out in Chesapeake Bay. Not that our own Barnegat Bay is a slouch, with maybe over 100 species – during a good summer, when counting a slew of fish oddities that might blow in from the Atlantic Bite. But 250 arriving newbie fish?!

But back to the now-being-caught smooth puffer. Along with related porcupine fish, this puffer tends to show up here after periods of onshore winds, like we just saw. Smooth puffers are sometimes called ocean puffers, indicating their preferred haunts.

As noted, the highly excitable media is taking the toxic route regarding its reporting on smooth puffers, going as far as issuing warnings about not only eating them but even handling them. It reads sexy … but borders on bull.

Firstly, when pondering smooth puffers in relationship with our scrumptious northern puffer, the science side is actually more on the side of the northern blowfish being the far more historically toxic of the two species.

Calm down! As you’ll see, neither presents us with a toxic threat.

Many of us have eaten local blowfish tails until they came out our ears – and the only negative aftermath to those pig-outs came via overindulging in the beverages served along with the tails.

My buddy Wikipedia emphatically points out, “The flesh of the northern puffer is not poisonous.” It then dutifully adds what I have long pointed out, that a blowfish’s viscera (gonads especially) can maybe be a tad toxic. Of course, I can then reference some folks who love fried blowfish roe. That is NOT an invitation to try same. Those roe-eaters have been kinda odd since I’ve known them. Any puffer poison-related weird behavior would likely go unspecified.

I’ll repeat that neither the smooth nor northern puffers are toting a toxin load when they get this far north. That said, I’ll be the first to point out that down Florida way, they never eat the plentiful, known-tasty northern blowfish. And those folks are fish-eatin’ fools … in a good way.

I take that fear of puffer into deep account when down there, where I catch plenty of very familiar-looking northern blowfish; some even ask, “From Jersey, eh? What inlet?”

To be sure, the Floridian northern puffers are genetically identical to those we eat up here. But, when down there, I eat as the Romans do. Only once did I fry up some Indian River northern blowfish. I was so anxious, I didn’t really eat eat it. I kinda chewed the meat a bit, barely tasting anything – being far more focused on any arriving lip numbness, vis-a-via Asian fugu failures. Nothing bad happened, though I stopped prior to a second chew. I was tempted to feed the leftovers to the local feral cats but envisioned a pack of NY cat-lady transplants coming after me.

Knowing the warnings about not daring to eat blowfish in the Sunshine State, I had to ponder the possibility, even likelihood, they just might be right in nixing the “squab,” a sales pitch name for puffer.

Bearing that out is this FDA read: “The State of Florida currently has a ban on both commercial and recreational harvesting of puffer fish from the waters of Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties on the east coast of Florida due to persistent toxicity. Puffer fish harvested from these Florida counties have been found to contain significant amounts of toxin in the flesh regardless of the preparation technique. The Northern Puffer fish from the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, typically between Virginia and New York, has not been found to contain toxin …”

So, could there be something toxic in the tropical waters that is absorbed into the puffers?

I turned to a recent pufferfish study published in From the get-go, it states the smooth puffer, found in the Atlantic Coast of the United States, “showed no considerable toxicity.” Nanny-nanny boo-boo.

The study did allude to the where/when factor. “Geographic distribution, seasonal and individual variation may produce different toxicity levels in puffers.”

The study’s “seasonal” angle further hints at some sort of intake – and discharge – of toxins when puffers hang out in southern waters – and then head north.

All that said, one of the final points of the study suggests puffer toxicity levels are “not completely known.” That’s, uh, good to know.

All I know is our northern puffer is nontoxic when up this-a-way. The smooth puffer, though seldom taste-tested, is also so low on the toxin front I’ll gladly give it a go – just none of that puffer sashimi. I get a contact toxic reaction just reading about failed sashimi efforts made with Japanese blowfish.

ARE COUGARS A-COMIN’?: Last week, I waxed poetic regarding the birthing of baby alligator gars to someday feast on invasive Asian carp. Oh, I see you recall. Well, this week, an even weirder translocation news alert got my NJ juices flowing.

A number of states, including ours, are being strongly urged to marshal back cougars. Yes, we’re talking aka mountain lions, the big-ass predatory cats that adore eating deer – and an occasional human that kinda reminds them of a deer.

“Could you get the camping bags out of the SUV, dear?” … and a nearby cougar is all ears.

I’m guardedly gung-ho over importing a slew of once-indigenous cougar – far more coolly called puma, a name that just sounds like something you don’t want rustling the bushes next to you.

For me, any larger mammal, other than another human, might make our comely wisps of wilderness a tad more natural. There’s something motivationally outdoorish about seeing a cougar bounding across the 16th green at, say, Sea Oaks.

“What the hell is that, Lyle, some sorta giant cat?”

“Uh, I think it’s that new goose discouragement project the greenkeepers were telling us about.”

“But it’s running right at us.”

“And, notice, no geese.”

“Oh, yeh.”

This is one of my unpatented segues into tale telling.

We possibly/maybe/perhaps already have a cougar or two in our midst. Talk of puma among us go back to the 1700s. And I’m among a handful of cougar glimpsers. I have absolutely possibly seen cougars … twice.

The most compelling mighta-seen, for me, was a massive cat – pushing six bobcats in length – bounding across a paved roadway in a heavily wooded section of Manahawkin. That was decades ago but I still recall it clear as day, even though I saw it at night in the high beams of my gold Chevy Vega. Hey, it was a damn nice car – before that little under-the-hood explosion episode.

Intriguing follow-ups to my Manahawkin couger-esque sighting were fully concurring sightings by two devout hunters, including a big-game hunting township commissioner, come mayor. All three of us even agreed on slight fur coloration details of the mega-cat.

My other sighting was far fleetier and freakier – and more recent.

I was way off-roading in my Toyota truck, Bass River State Forest vicinity. Slip-sliding down a sugar-sand fire road, I was working my way back to civilization after night catfishing in a defunct gunning and fishing club lake. Then, maybe 100 feet up ahead, something huge and light tan-colored leapt across the single lane. It was clear as day in my high beams – and gone before I could get even the “W” out of a “WTF!” I hit the brakes and, for protection, reached over for my trusty … damn, I left it at home.

With only the afterimage to ponder, I registered the fast-mover as the largest mammal I had ever seen in the Pines.

And don’t try to give me the “deer” spiel. I’ve seen whitetails by the field load, including many a piebald. Unlike the high-leaping gliding motion of a deer, this animal lunged across the road far lower to the ground, it’s head and shoulders slouched. I could even make out seriously thick side musculature. No deer works out that much. It was absolutely the shape and movement of a huge cat.

Once again, there was an odd bit of ex post facto corroboration with this sighting. Locals spoke of seeing the same, low-lunging shape bolting across back roads in the area. One fellow I talked to swore it was a pet puma lost by someone or other a town over.

By the by, those Bass River State Park sightings might even be at the root of the park’s ongoing, not-that-serious “Cougar Night Hikes.” I can’t help but picturing every news channel in the country glaring their camera lights at the leader of the cougar hike, and him, scratch marks all over his face, all, “We never thought we’d actually come across one! … And if it wasn’t for the heroic actions of Thelma Livener and her mace gun even more folks might still be lost and wandering around out there … somewhere.”

Now, back to adding some meat to what are now just the dry bone tales of Pinelands pumas.

A group called the Society for the Conservation Biology is highly suggesting that a number of onetime cougar states should use translocated cougars to, well, save human lives. That definitely could use some serious explaining, especially after seeing the name of a study the society just published, titled, “Socioeconomics benefits of large carnivore recolonization through reduced wildlife vehicle collisions.”

That “wildlife vehicle collisions” thing hits close to home. Per capita, Garden Staters run down more deer than any other state alive.

The study’s subhead, “An ecosystem service of cougars,” is where the rubber hits the road. It bandies about the significantly spooky 2012 data that an estimated 1.23 million deer-vehicle collisions occurred in the U.S. between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, costing more than $4 billion in vehicle damage. There were upwards of 200 human deaths and 29,000 injuries within the deer v. vehicle wreckage. That’s according to State Farm, the nation’s leading auto insurer.

Enter the concept of killer cougars to kill the killer deer. The study indicates, in both monetary and lives-saved terms, that deliverance could rest firmly in the jaws of carefully placed pumas.

Per an article, NJ could possibly save $2.4 million and avoid 24 injuries each year caused by deer-vehicle accidents. Scientists came to that conclusion by analyzing factors including “starting deer density, final deer density.”

In case you missed the subtlety there, “starting deer density” is pre-cougar and “final deer density” is with roly-poly pumas fully in place.

In the same article, Jeff Tittel, president of New Jersey’s Sierra Club, tabulated the state has 432 square kilometers of cougar-friendly terrain, representing two percent of the state. Per Jeff, that two percent could support about 8 to 15 cougars. One of the top cougar maybe-zones is my pet Wharton Tract in the Pinelands.

Possibly with outbackers like me in mind, the study fully acknowledges that a human or two might be collateral cougar damage – it’s that “dear” and/or “deer” homonym thing. But, when factoring in the deer v. vehicle savings, it would apparently be a damn decent trade-off. I’m not making up that tit-for-tat trade-off. It’s in the study.

As for NJ’s reaction to becoming a cougar-ready state, it’s not so big-cat friendly. “To put a cougar into those residential areas ... makes absolutely no sense,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, adding “You’re never too far from somebody’s home.”

Hey, that means you got somewhere to run, right?

More on this, should pumas emerge.

RUNDOWN: Fluking-wise, we’re back to the low ratio of keepers, similar to what we’ve seen in recent summers. Nonetheless, the take-home count has often been stellar. Yes, I take into account folks who don’t communicate because they got skunked. I know enough anglers that I get a feel for the no-fish percentage. It’s not all that high. More telling is the ongoing showing of huge fluke.

I hesitate using the term doormat because that’s a lot like those school tests based on a sliding scale. Many a summer fluke test would have a doormat rating at six pounds – and that weight might be the average doormat starting point. This summer, a six-pounder almost withers away when lain side-by-side with the many 10-pounders strutted about in photos. Eights and nines are a daily occurrence. Obviously, those doormatish numbers can also reflect our truly massive angler pool.

Worth a post mortem mention, I’m seeing a number of reports listing fluke belly contents as “empty.” Fluke are among the fastest and most proficient regurgitaters in the business. It goes along with their tendency to inhale foodstuff – literally waiting until a downed item is well inside before deciding if it’s a keeper or a throwback, as in a throw-up. A large fluke is a fighting handful. By the time it hits the deck, it has usually blown out any and all stomach contents.

Being a bit of a mud-stick, I’m pretty sure we have nearly reached our recreational fluke quota for 2016. I’m not suggesting backing off one bit. You fluke until the fat fishery manager sings. I just forever fret that quota overages might eventually come back to bite us.

SEEKING A KING: Kingfishing is there – and not. Once again, if you’re on a kingfish-chosen beach, you’re rolling in these delectable panfish.

Seeking kingfish? While this is not the best time of year – temps and crowds – to trek the beach ferreting out a hot fishing hole, it is well worth at least a quick north/south exploratory beach walk when kingfish searching. Just stroll along, casting and slowly retrieving worms along the way. The schools can be that close to where you came on.

Also, my best luck with kingfish comes when the water is clear and you don’t need the floats.

By the by, kingfish aren’t big on jig presentation. Oh, they’ll go for a worm on a leadhead – you simply have to allow it to roll. You can’t jump it. Kingfish aren’t that aggressive when eating. In fact, they startle easily should something jump up in front of them. I’ve seen small fluke, or even a snapping crab, send them scooting a few feet away. Think of kingfish as nose-down, sorta casual feeders. I’ve watched them feed when diving. The only time I’ve seen them move fast is when zipping over to a fellow kingfish pulling something kinda large out of the sand. I’ve seen two of them fight for a long worm like humans trying to speed eat the same strand of spaghetti.

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