The Fish Story

It’s a Time for Salmonologists to Dine On; When Sheepshead Ruled Bayside Fishing

By JAY MANN | Sep 19, 2018

I gotta go gastronomic this week, which I’m always prone to do since seafood is my only foray into non-vegetable dining matter. I last ate meat when Lyndon Johnson was in season. Anyway, being a long-toothed pescatarian – and a cookist – I want to alert that local markets are now offering some mighty fine wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

I became a salmonologist beginning right about the time I created the word. My favoriting of salmon improbably harkens back to the kill-that-author book Satanic Verses. Say the author’s name, Salman (Rushdie), and it sorta sounds like salmon. For me, that was some sort of sign to run out and buy some Rushdie – I mean salmon. Delicious.

During Salman times, I luxuriated in wild-caught salmon. Nowadays, it’s regularly farmed salmon reclining atop beds of ice at local stores. Most often, it’s Atlantic salmon on display, a species that farms out nicely. As to wild Atlantic salmon, it has been fished into “endangered’ defunctness. Any “Atlantic salmon” you see for sale is always farmed, sometimes grown as far away as East Jabip – or Florida. In fact, the world’s best “cold-water” Atlantic salmon will soon be coming out of sultry Florida, where a Norwegian company, Atlantic Sapphire, is tapping into the purest water ever used in aquaculture: multimillion-year-old salt and fresh water from many geological layers down. I have an order in already.

Salmon is easily the best-tasting of all farmed fish. Nonetheless, the taste buds of even non-salmonologists can detect there’s nothing man-grown that can match the epicurean perfection of wild, open-range salmon. This year, Alaska is doing its part in getting the “wild-caught” product out there. As of this week, over 110 million fish have been harvested in the Up-There State, where most salmon types – let’s see, there’s king, sockeye, coho, pink and chum – are looking fine, both in a tastefulness and conservational sense. So, run out and grab some wild salmon while the getting is good. After the wild has gone, the also-swam farm-grown types are a dang decent option, especially if they have Florida tags on them.

DEATH TO A PROVERB: I’ve begun chewing away, in a crabby way, at the old saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” I simply order frozen stone crab claws. After boiling them up for just a short time, adding in Old Bay seasoning, I begin to tastily besmirch the proverb. Some of you Floridians might already know where this is going.

Heavy-shelled stone crab claws – usually sold pre-cracked for somewhat easier opening – offer some of the finest crab meat known to man. Amazingly, nary a single claw contributor must die in the feeding-mankind process.

The crabs from which the claws have been professionally harvested – it does have to be done just right – are skillfully returned to the water. For the free-again, albeit clawless crabs, it’s then a case of regrowing their gone grabbers, something stone crabs do with remarkable speed and aplomb, beginning with the next molt. I read a study on stone crabs that suggests they might eventually replace lost claws with even larger ones – to then be re-caught in an “Oh, not this again” manner.

So, does the claw rip-off pain the crustaceans? Not so much. A crab’s claws are nature-made for a quick release in emergencies. Being grabbed by fishermen is about as emergency as it gets. I can make an appealing case that merely needing to regrow a couple yanked-off claws is a bargain when compared to the fate of virtually every other type of seafood.

While I have no doubt PETA will luxuriate in complaining about the suffering of all crabkind, I stick by my worldly premise that stone crabs present a unique case of a renewable resource allowing me to have my crab and eat it, too. I’ll go as far as saying it’s a form of catch-and-release-and-eat.

A SURF/SWIM THING: While the following email and answer is more in the watery waveriding domain of my SP columnizing partner Jon Coen, I feel obligated to address it due to my work with the National Weather Service in developing the state’s rip current awareness program.

“dear mr mann: i have been a frequent (every summer) lbi visitor since circa 1950 – a resident of ship bottom since 1993. i don’t recall being prohibited from swimming in the ocean due to high surf until relatively recently – maybe the last 5-10 years. i understand the safety aspect of the policy. however, i have formed a bond with the surf and respect it’s (sic) reality and resent ‘big brother’ dictating what has previously been an individual’s decision. i swim in san diego waters these past several years each winter and encounter surf far more intense than the storm surf of lbi almost on a daily basis without interference from ‘big brother.’ i welcome your thoughts. mike murphy.”

Mike, more frequent red-flagging could very well align with the birth of rip current forecasts – not to mention a drastic increase in drownings and near-drownings along N.J.’s coastline. I hear you, though. Having been a Long Beach Township lifeguard in the ’60s, I recall we would simply cross our everyday flags in front of our stand to designate closed swimming conditions. It was a very rare occurrence, indeed – which ushers in a more cosmic angle.

Having surfed my entire life here – and around the world, I should add – I have never seen N.J. surf as consistently large as it has become, beginning roughly 30 years back. Growing up fully immersed in the live-to-surf realm, I documented entire summers when the ocean never left the lake mode. Nary a knee-high wave. Something has changed – to the delight of waveriders. Rip currents also delight in the growing waveage.

Now, add those souped-up waves to replenished beaches, famed for having sudden swash drop-offs, known to make swimming a prohibitively hazardous undertaking the instant one enters the water. It can get swimmingly serious out there in a footstep or two. Whereas I would guard beaches with bottom conditions that barely changed at all, year after year, nowadays you can’t jump in the same ocean twice. Imagine trying to safely lifeguard with that variable underfoot.

I, too, lived/surfed/swam in San Diego. I believe there is simply a better understanding of big waves and cold-water ocean conditions thereabouts. Think about the day-tripper factor on our coast, where literally millions of folks come in from suburbia and city regions. Many/most are dangerously unacquainted with in-over-head surf conditions. It’s a Right Coast thing.

One last but fearful factor affecting lifeguarding in N.J. is the growing likelihood of “big city” legal action leveled against municipalities should a bather suffer even a minor misadventure. One cringeworthy case I followed was a lawsuit accusing a shore town of failing to warn swimmers of – wait for it – “rogue waves.” I know, for a testimonial fact, there was a bloody hurricane swell that day and the badly injured plaintiff had been unadvisedly bodysurfing gnarly shorebreak by riding waves straight in toward the sand … with arms straight out, i.e the back-break method. He had been mis-riding mauling shorebreak for over 30 minutes before the alleged “rogue wave” took umbrage at his defiant display of back vertebrae. Sadly, it ended in a loss of all leg mobility. He garnered a massive out-of-court settlement.

All that offered, red-flagging even a borderline-swimmable day has become a more practical and people-protective option, especially if sea rise is coming in as crushingly real as some say it is.

A FISHY LOOK BACK: My new favorite curl-up-with book is the 600-page Tuckerton: A Newspaper History, 1852-1917, compiled and edited by Steve Dodson, published by the Tuckerton Historical Society. It is an utterly mesmerizing, somewhat journalistic look-back at the innermost lives and times of backbay folks, focusing on the area from Tuckerton to Barnegat, though also looking over at “Long Beach,” better known as Long Beach Island.

Dodson has managed to pull riveting reads from issues of The New Jersey Courier, Pioneer Newspaper of Ocean County. I hope to regularly pull throwback items from the book.

Exploring only a small section of the book, I came across these fishing-related reads. It’s hard to imagine so many sheepshead once roamed here.

“August 14, 1873: Our bay seems unusually full of weakfish or sea-trout and sheepshead. A boat’s crew … caught ninety in a short time, a day or two ago. … Those fish are quite large, we saw one that measured two feet and  four inches in length. We saw sheepshead fish by the thousands a few days ago. Feeding and leisurely swimming on or near the bottom of one of the deep channels in our bay.”

“November 19,1874, West Creek: Capt. Wm. Gaskill of Tuckerton caught the past summer, from about the 15th of June to the last of August, with hook and line, 548 sheepshead, averaging 7 lbs. in weight, each. … The Captain quit fishing for about two weeks before the season closed.

“July 8,1875: “We are catching weakfish, bluefish, sea bass, sheepshead, trout, black fish, flounders, drum, gunard, eels, devil fish, sharks, lobsters, hard and soft crabs and sand pipers.” (I know “gunard” were our sea robins, but what the hell were “devil fish” and “sand pipers” – the latter of a fish variety? I might guess at devil fish being oyster crackers, or maybe stargazers. Sand pipers, thinking in terms of size, might cover panfish, like croakers, kingfish or spot – though spot, aka Lafayette, were highly famed back then, a nickname like sand piper is highly unlikely.)

“August 31, 1876, West Creek: “Now the blue fish that were wont to sport in Barnegat Bay, have drifted down to beach and bay in vast quantities, so much so, that boat loads have been caught and thrown away during the past week. Markets at Beach Haven and Atlantic City were glutted with sheepshead and blue fish …

“… The blue fish have averaged 8 lbs. George Cox, of West Creek, caught forty-four blue fish in a day last week which weighed 327 pounds. Capt. Alonzo Kelly took a party of gentlemen from Philadelphia, Mr. List and brother, Mr. Knight and Isaac Jones, outside the beach, after the fish. They bagged 50 blue fish, the aggregate weight of which was 400 pounds.

“Mr. Jones of the party caught a Spanish mackerel which weighed 14 lbs., the largest ever caught along the coast.”

Those are but a few fishing, oystering, clamming, beachgoing and hunting references in the book. Wait until I offer some wildly out-there things from over 100 years back, like a clammer being shot and killed for moving into another clammer’s spot.

Tuckerton: A Newspaper History, 1852-1917 is available through the Tuckerton Historical Society for $40. It is also available at the Tuckerton Seaport. All proceeds go to the historic society.

RUNDOWN: There are small stripers in the bay, being caught mainly at night. Small jigs are enticing them. Bassing in the surf has been blown away by winds and big waves. We’ll get a better read as seas lay down by later this week.

Cocktail/tailor/eater bluefish to a pound or so are in the swim, inlet areas. A slow bite, though.

Blowfishing is excellent, mainly bayside. Chum is a must. When the bite slows at one slick, it’s time to up-anchor and seek a new puffer locale. By the by, the tails don’t freeze all that well. I recall that from bygone days. Of course, freezers sucked back then.

Kingfishing is there for the taking. It’s the waves that aren’t taking it. The currently very rough surf conditions make it tough to properly feel these subtle biters, best caught on lighter gear, even freshwater-grade. Needing 5 ounces to hold doesn’t help the kingfishing cause.

I saw a lonely-looking spike weakfish caught/released bayside. Where have all the weakies gone, short time passing?

Mullet are staging around Barnegat Light and within other bayside areas of LBI. They’re still chowing down on bottom detritus, readying for their big southerly migratory march, heading as far south as Florida. No, they’ll never return – though their future larvae will float up this way (to the Atlantic Bight) on south-to-north currents. The larvae will then be blown into the bay on springtime onshore wind currents.

As fully expected, peanut bunker are bountiful in the bay. The tightening restrictions on nearshore bunker harvesting has made them a dominant forage fish factor, both bay and ocean.

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