The Fish Story

Of Mice, Men and Mosquito Bites; Red Drum Warm to Climate Change

By JAY MANN | May 22, 2018

Of MICE, MEN AND MOSQUITOES: At times, science seems hell bent on proving and further proving the obvious. Take for itchy instance, just this month, when a study out of Baylor University of Medicine in Texas proved, somewhatly, that mosquito bites can itch for a dang long time. Uh, ok. … Can I go now? Nope, there’s more to this than meets the itch.

While this collegiate-grade verifying of the obvious is ostensibly innocent – in a “gotta research something or other” academic way – you need to hear about the spookyish route the researchers took in getting from itch to re-itch … by first making mice more human.

In a Live Science article headlined “Here’s Why Mosquito Bites Itch for Such a Long Time,” writer Yasemin Saplakoglu explains, “In the study, the researchers, injected baby mice with human hematopoietic stem cells … When the mice grew up and had a well-established ‘human’ immune system, the researchers held an open vial of mosquitoes against the footpads of each mouse. The insects bit each mouse around four times.”

Are you serious, dudes?! Mosquito bites on the bottom of the feet are the worst. If you try to fingernail scratch them, you incite those ticklish, foot-bottom nerve endings; you end up cussingly rubbing one foot atop the other, even with shoes on. It’s a nightmare itch scenario, made more aggravating for the “lab rats” by the fact they were stem-celled to feel more human-like. It was surely a bitch of an itch to them. Brutal. I can’t believe I’m once again even remotely bedfellowing with PETA – but shove over, you buncha crazies.

As if life itself hadn’t started off on the wrong semi-human foot for those mosquito-bit mice, they were soon having their touch-of-human bodily fluids routinely drawn out with syringes. Baylorian researchers were monitoring the mice fluids to monitor how long telltale proteins in the anticoagulant saliva of a biting mosquito remained in their systems. Face it, you don’t want to be a mouse anywhere near the Baylor campus.

So, after all the stemming and hawing, what worldly conclusion came of all this research? Wait for it: Our bodies might react, in an allergic manner, to the itch-inducing proteins of a mosquito for up to a week.

Geez, there’s a novel concept. Can I go now?

Hold your fly-bitten horses! And, yes, mosquitoes are a form of fly.

Per the Baylorians, they’re still not immaculately sure about the life and times of mosquito bite itchiness. Their quandary: The human-cell-stemmed mice they used in their experiments were merely a wee bit human, assumingly in the foot-bottom region. The researchers, by their own admission, will feel dreadfully unsure of why a mosquito bite itch might persist … until they first make mice into men.

And just like that, we go from Baylor straight into the X-files. Mulder, Scully … Front and center! Let’s call the upcoming episode: “The Campus of Doctor Moreau.”

WHAT’S BEHIND DEER EXPLOSIONS: I’ve read numerous articles on how female whitetail deer respond to enhanced culling/hunting stresses by having more young, i.e. twin offspring/fawns. This rapid repopulating is often given as the reason that increasing deer-harvesting numbers for hunters seldom works when trying to pare back the sometimes dangerously burgeoning deer numbers in NJ – a state with the nation’s highest per capita deer-strike rate on its highways.

To suggest hiked up baby-making is how deer respond to greater culling pressure implies that some cosmic, telepathic-like message is received by female deer, far and wide, warning them of a suddenly fading biomass – thusly triggering an ecological directive to quickly pop out more fawns. Such a cosmic-messaging concept is, of course, absurd. What’s more, no creature responds to heightened environmental stressors by having more young, which would lead to even greater eco-stresses, along with a decreased possibility of survival for the young.

A far less mysterious, ecologically sound scenario plays out when whitetail deer numbers are suddenly shot down. The deer that survive instantly have things going their way. It’s good being a survivor. Due to greatly reduced competition, remaining deer have better access to the finest territories and forage. This suddenly easygoing existence – not the stressors and population plunge that created it – is what naturally sparks female deer to produce more than one young, in a make-hay way.

Now, add to this ratchet-up scenario the clever manner in which the state’s deer biomass has unmagically snuggled up to the “No Hunting” safety and fine-dining found within newly built, humanly-occupied former woodlands. Again, such fine and fat times spark twin production.

Sure, this is splitting deer hairs a bit, as to what, exactly, makes mama deer get all twinsy. Nonetheless, it’s living proof of how hard it is to keep these sometimes-invasive buggers in check. Short of a total hunting free-for-all, the whitetails will just keep poppin’ out progeny.

BANG THE RED DRUM SLOWLY: I know red drum, profoundly, though only historically speaking. Being a fishing-history devotee, I’ve read just about every shred of what little information there is on the red drum’s past in NJ, where it was known as the channel drum.

As a common Jersey species, Sciaenops ocellatus was egregiously despised by baymen, who saw the bullish bottom-feeder as a fish non grata, an attacker of prized crustaceans and shellfish, especially oysters. Anglers felt the oft-jumbo channel bass muscled out the far more favored members of the drumfish family, like weakfish and kingfish.

Angler/writer Al Ristori offers this historic read: “The first two world records for red drum came from Barnegat Inlet and ‘New Inlet’ – and almost all of those fish were over 20 pounds – causing major problems for anglers fishing for smaller species such as kingfish and weakfish as they ran off with expensive linen lines.”

By all indications, the times-past biomass of red drum in NJ, up to as recently as the 1930s, was on par with the famed red drum stocks of the North Carolina area. In our parts, such a significant bottom-foraging presence only heightened the distrust of the species, leading to it being intentionally and aggressively overfished – to within a scale-hair of extinction.

Old LBI fishing photos clearly show the slaughter. Dozens atop dozens of channel bass, including some looking to be an easy 50 pounds, were caught, hand over foot, especially near Beach Haven Inlet. They were then traditionally hung for photos – before being used as fertilizer or, more often, just dumped.

TASTES CHANGE: As to its culinary value, red drum was long thought of as poor eating, if not downright inedible. This distaste extended throughout much of its East Coast and Gulf shores range, though “redfish” (red drum) were occasionally eaten in the Louisiana Bayou, as proven by a 1933 recipe for “Creole redfish courtbouillon,” cooked with ingredients like lard and claret.

Prejudice against eating red drum vanished in a TV flash when, in the early 1980s, chef Paul Prudhomme hyped “blackened redfish.” Its popularity went viral, helped along by Prudhomme marketing the exact ingredients needed to properly blacken redfish. The species’ popularity was soon bolstered by other high-profile chefs going global with red drum recipes. According to a New York Times piece by James Gorman, “On March 1, 2009, redfish was the ‘secret ingredient’ on the television program Iron Chef America, with competitors Mourad Lahlou and Cat Cora both preparing several dishes from the fish.”

Ironically, NJ’s red drum population was fished to near extinction for its thought eco-harmfulness and gastronomic uselessness, while, in modern times, red drum stocks across much of the South have been critically overfished for its deliciousness.

With southern stocks being ravaged, the red drum is now among the most highly regulated of all nearshore gamefish, more so than even stripers – though both were combined in Executive Order 13449 of October 20, 2007, titled, “Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations.”

One of New Jersey’s least-known size limits applies to the red drum: We can only keep one slot fish, between 18 and 27.99 inches, per day. Yep, that’s truly true. For that reason, the state-record red drum of 55 pounds, taken (1985) in our own waters (Great Bay) by our own Dan Yanino (LBI) remains locked in place.

Worrisomely, very few saltwater anglers know about the state’s red drum size and bag regulations, i.e. can you imagine the average surfcaster knowing to release a 50-pound red drum? And don’t think a drum that size won’t soon be coming our way – on the wings of a warming ocean.

WARMING OCEAN BENNY?: Although I have fished for “bull reds” (big-ass red drum) when visiting the Outer Banks, NC, on surfing assignments, I’ve never come near latching into one of the 50-plus-pounders regularly taken thereabouts. But I’ve been guaranteed by a slew of top surfcasters that monster “reds” are the hardest-fighting fish a beachside angler can hook into, anywhere along the East Coast. For line run-off and prolonged fight, they can easily beat out stripers and chopper blues, I was told just last week.

By the by, red drum are so emblematic of Tar Heel State fishing that, in 1971, the North Carolina General Assembly voted it the state’s official saltwater fish. And right it should be. Not only has NC produced 10 of the top 16 IGFA-certified red drum but it also holds the world record. On Nov. 7, 1984, David Deuel bested a mind- and rod-boggling 94-pound, 2-ounces red drum, taken from the beaches of Hatteras. It fell for a chunk of mullet. Deuel’s fish beat out the reigning world-record red drum, which had been caught years earlier … only 17 miles away.

It’s historic hyperbole to suggest that an NJ channel bass caught back in the day could have flirted with 90 pounds, though I’ll again bring up the photos showing far-above-50-pounders … rotting in the sun.

While a 90-pounder is out of the question in nowabouts NJ, we might very well vie for the world record in ocean-changing days to come.

Recently, NOAA all but assured anglers that more and more southerly fish species will be warming to life in our zone, due to both water temperature increases and, more complexly, changes in water chemistry caused by an environmentally-transitioning shoreline.

You likely get a sense of where I’m going with all this, seeing I’m a firm believer that a warming planet will initially impact LBI in far more obvious ways – like monster redfish calling the LBI region home-sweet-home – than slow-to-show sea level rise. But, for you whiney global alarmists: Yes, we might be fishing for 90-pounders from the bayside banks … of Chatsworth.

Bouncing back to NJ’s bad old days, when our channel bass biomass was both impressively and distressingly large, conditions here were obviously quite conducive to the lives and times of the species. What now awaits any northward drifting red drum? Dollars to donuts, they’ll find things easily as accommodating as back-when times. We harbor some of the finest and cleanest maritime waters anywhere in the nation. We also have a tastily impressive and ever-increasing forage pool, comprised of bunker galore, an array of invertebrates, a veritable buffet of smaller finger-food forage fish, clouds of sand eels and countless crabs/crustaceans. This is the foodstuff coveted by drumfish … and stripers.

It’s likely a leap too far ahead, but how well might stripers and red drum coexist when vying for the exact same forage? As it now stands, that conflict is being side-swum. Very generally speaking, red drum reign south of the Chesapeake area while stripers trend northward from there. But a changing atmosphere might egg on a species overlap, possibly creating a conflict twixt these two heavyweights, taking place right here in NJ.

What an ugly irony if, once again, the red drum is locally seen as a destroyer of a more beloved species – and bashed by anglers. At the same time, jumbo red drum have garnered such praise among Carolina anglers that a similar high-regard could easily work its way this way, along with the species. That might even be why that executive order held both species in equal esteem.

One quick biological note: Red drum may be more adaptable than stripers when it comes to tolerating wildly-swinging oceanic and seasonal temperatures, though stripers are far from slouches when it comes to enduring wild climatological swings. In fact, if there were an odd fish out in the face of a climate-change species shuffle, it would be the weakly weakfish.

While all this surely seems a load of what-if-ness, I’m not the only sciencey soul who feels oceanic species are a-shift, with some species closing in fast. In fact, a red drum arrival – or is it a return? – is already behind schedule. However, it could easily happen in short order, especially with protective regulations reigning throughout its entire range. The next mild winter could spur things on, drumming up some exciting redfishing for our somewhat hurting surfcasting realm.

RUNDOWN: Nothing says spring more than … spring. And it may have finally arrived with the incoming weeks’ worth of mildness and brightness. By the by, just last weekend, with ocean-chilled east winds in charge, some folks needed to burn a log or two in the fireplace at night. Even if things heat up for the final month of spring, it’ll go down as one of the worst.

As to what could also make this springy week’s step a lot springier, a very clean, low-60s ocean is likely holding plenty of stripers and – if tradition serves us well – some black drum, bluefish and weakfish.

With the holiday weekend moving in fast, it should be easy to get a read on what’s hookin’ – bay, inlets and ocean-top. Keep me in mind if you have a successful day of it – or even if the skunk shows up. Drop me a line.

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