The Fish Story

Proselytizing Into the July 4th Weekend; A Herp Has Its Official Day in Trenton

By JAY MANN | Jun 27, 2018

It has been one weird week. I was contacted about the $29.95 YourAncestry spit-kit I mailed in. It read: “Mr. Mann, we’ve just gotten the results of your ancestry search and regret to inform you that you’re being deported.” Uh, back to the reservation in Arizona?

That’s about as political as I get on social matters. As to outdoors and nature issues, I’ll scream bloody murder … as in right now, after hearing about the dissolving of our nation’s scientifically accurate ocean-protection measures, being nixed in the name of Big Fuel!

Are you daft, dude?! Hell’s bells, America is already a world leader when it comes to fossil-fuel and natural gas production. Enhanced fossil fuel pursuits at this point are purely avaricious. The effort has coastline drilling slathered all over it. Not only would the exploitation of nearshore fossil fuels degrade and destabilize the tender piece of planet under the sea just to our east, but it sentences us to a fatally addictive, non-renewable energy existence.

OK, that’s plenty enough proselytizing prior to a glowing July 4th holiday weekend. I simply know this is The SandPaper’s ( largest readership time – and it’s truly great having so many of you hereabouts. Seriously. I will never outgrow my obsession with crowded fun in the summertime sun – fun meant for every race, color and creed. There I go getting political again. Sorry. In fact, I’ll neutralize that mini downer by suggesting you check our “Calendar” (Section 2) to locate the schedule of fireworks displays happening for the holiday.

RUNDOWN: Fishing looks bright on the fluking front, though we are rapidly assuming the typical tons-of-shorts summertime deportment. As an upbeat angle on that sorting-out process, there are some major doormats in the mix – more than usual. The biggies come in clusters. That “hot drift’ aspect is also part and parcel to both summer and fluking. Keep a chuckable marker ready to mark hot spots.

While I can’t burn specific sites, I’ll coyly mention that certain creek-ish sections on the west side of lower North Barnegat Bay continue to put out fluke in the 4-pound range, easily surpassing the legal minimum length of 18 inches. Even with a three-fish bag limit, doormats can fill the grill and offer the potential for freezing some filets for winter. Yes, winter. The days are already getting shorter, nights longer. Oh, what an awful thing to bring up! Sorry, again.

We’re seeing longer and longer periods of toned-down surf, after a fully riled spring of wind and swells. The lay-down allows for leisurely striper fishing, for those seeking resident fish. As the name tells, resident bass have taken a hankering to hanging hereabouts, all summer long. While they aren’t always of an adequate invite-home size, bassing has never been that much of a meat-seeking venture. As I enjoy pointing out, I don’t believe any other state is more dedicated to the catch-and-release of keepable stripers than New Jersey. I can’t count the number of 30-pound (and way over) cows that I’ve personally seen caught, photographed and let go – all friendly like, often after a careful tail-holding revitalization.

A goodly number of LBI jetties/groins are reemerging – at least in part – post replenishment. They offer target points when zipping to the beach to work the suds, early day and late afternoon. I keep waiting for the return of dedicated night fishing, with ye olden Coleman lanterns – real Coleman lanterns, fuel pouring and all. You don’t have to be all that ancient to recall those kinda eerie-looking night scenes with lamps glowing all along the beach. Quite cool.

Bluefishing has settled into an inlets-only proposition, though rushes of blues along the beach and into the bay can get lines jumping at any time.

If you really want a few eater blues to complement fluke at the next BBQ, think Barnegat Inlet – using jigheads complemented with plastics. Yes, plastics – as in sacrificial plastic tails. No need to go with the costlier GULP! brands and such. It’s always a novelty to count how many blues you can best on a single plastic tail before it loses any hope of attracting anything. Jigged plastics meant for blues will more than readily nab bass and big-ass fluke.

Despite the finicky water temps in both the ocean and bay, I’m hearing about an impressive showing of tropical-ish triggerfish around structures. I’m not sure if these hard-fighting flattened fish should be included within look-what’s-coming thinking. Will warming ocean waters have more and more of these fine-eating fish coming each summer? It’s not like they’re new to this area; mention of them in high numbers can be found in olden fishing documents. The last few years have seen them swarming around many wrecks and jetties. A diver I know told me he has never seen triggers showing like this. “There were dozens of them,” he said, referring to an unnamed site, rather close to shore.

I’ve researched fishing for them. Common tog rigs – 1/0 hooks on separate dropper loops with a tag-end sinker – work fine. This setup can get legally dicey since we’re not currently allowed to even “target” tog. I was distinctly told by enforcement that even rigging for a species during a closed season can be a citable offense. I’d therefore suggest not using typical blackfish hooks. Go with golden beak hooks.

Please bake triggerfish in the round/whole. It offers so much more meat than trying to fillet them. Not only does the skin peel off easily when cooked whole, but the bones obediently remain firmly in place when forking off the meat. Upper-end deliciousness.

15 MINUTES OF TURTLE FAME: I’m a herpist at heart. No, not a harpist – though I did find Harpo Marx quite cool, especially when he’d totally destroy a gorgeous grand piano and somehow make the remains into a harp. Rock on, Harpo destructo dude!

Herpist is an insider name for someone into herptiles, best known as reptiles and amphibians. Herptile is itself a coined word, adjoining the word reptile with … hell, I don’t know where the hell the “herp” part comes from.

My attachment to reptiles and amphibians harkens back to my early years, maybe 10 or 11 years old. I owned a truly monstrous bullfrog named Mo, a shorted form of Moby Frog. Anyone who stopped by the house got to meet Mo, as I proudly hoisted him up. My dad’s friends would be jolted upright, often offering, “Nice frog. … Kinda big, though, ain’t it?” Damn straight. My mom’s friends just shrieked and took off, way faster than I would have guessed gals of that size could move. Herptiles can have that effect on women.

Mo was skillfully caught by my dad during a pickerel fishing trip to a then-wild area of Burlington County, an area now quite built upon. I sure find myself pining for those old unspoiled wilderness days. At least I’m not pining for fjords. (Monte Python “Dead Parrot” fans know from whence that reference cometh.)

My dad hooked into mega-Mo by half-jokingly dangling a larger Mepp’s spinning lure in front of him.  Mo soared 4 feet into the air after it, figuring it was just about the greatest insect he had ever seen. Well, it bit back. And the fight was on. It was a wild fish-like battle, one that tested my dad’s light-action rod and 6-pound-test line.

Mo refused to go without a show … of strength. He dove underwater and power-kicked into weeds and snags. Long fight shortened, the man-on-frog battle ended with me hand-dragging in the line, weighed down by a massive clump of gunk – and frog weight. Once the clump was beached, I sorted through the muck and homed in on the most massive bullfrog this side of Calaveras County.

Once I had a firm grip on the upper part of both Mo’s legs, frog-holdin’-style, out jumped the most prototypical of kid questions: “Can I keep him … please?”

Here’s where I get to put in a life-plug for my parents – the greatest folks a herpist could ever want. Although my dad’s eyes were plattered out over the size of the frog, he offered a somewhat hesitant “Sure, why not.” I had me a mega frog.

Now, some of you might guess that a frog in a kid’s grubby, grabby hands might be doomed. Not even remotely so with Mighty Mo. He adjusted spectacularly to life after the lake, taking a noticeable liking to the large, caged-in backyard wetlands my dad and I built for him. He became downright enamored with being hand-fed nightcrawlers and hot dog pieces. For more-sensitive folks, I won’t get into the live mice thing.

In winter, Mo would do a hibernation burrow-down, just like back in the wilds. It even became a rite of spring for him to re-emerge.

Mo and I remained buddies for many years – until a chef from Taunton Lakes offered me $100 for his legs. It was so-long Mo. Oh, stop! I would never do such a thing!  Moby Frog was eventually released into a nearby state park, where he must now be pushing 60-something.

NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY: The above tale of Moby and Me is yet another typical-of-me flashback, leading toward something new and noteworthy in the wildlife world.

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy made one of the most important state-grade herp announcements in decades. OK, so maybe it was the only N.J. herp announcement in decades. Garden State residents can now salute our just-crowned “official state turtle,” the bog turtle, Glyptemys muhlenbergii, which I was taught as being the Muhlenberg turtle.

Despite its new title, the tiny turtle has very little else going for it, being one of the planet’s rarest reptiles. Hereabouts, it’s bordering on extinction – manmade extinction, as is too often the case. Its essential haunts are themselves becoming critically endangered, overrun by developers who feel they have every right to wrong nature in the name of profit – leaving in the dust the overall quality of life for those of us in the nation’s most crowded state. What is with my politicizing this week? Sorry, again.

As their name implies, bog turtles are partial to freshwater wetland areas. While wetlands are themselves barely holding their own, bog turtles complicate survival matters by demanding a highly specialized form of wetlands, neither too wet nor not too dry. It’s a need-things-just-right species, hinting of why it’s endangered. Even when somewhat-protected wetlands are only winged by developers, the building activity alters the wetness flow, which is ruinous for bog turtle reproduction/survival.

As to the possibility of your seeing a bog turtle, perish the thought. Even trained bog turtle counters admit examples are rarer than turtles’ teeth. I’ll venture that there are fewer than a couple thousand left in all N.J. They surely once numbered in the tens of thousands. I’m getting involved in perpetuating the species. More on that soon.

IT’S OFFICIAL … AND OFT GOOFY: It’s an ideal time to segue into other NJ “Official” things. No surprise, the Garden State official vegetable is the tomato, even though it’s technically a fruit. Hey, we’re gonna call it a vegetable … so just fuggedaboutit … if you know what’s good for you.

The state mammal is the horse, beating out the Jersey cow. A horse makes a bit of historical sense, harkening back to horsey colonial times. Then, not as far back, N.J. was a prime source of racehorses, especially pacers and trotters. Although the horse farms I once knew are now horse-free housing developments, this prized equid still resides in the legislative stables of Trenton.

Closer to home, the official state shell is the knobbed whelk, which is sometimes mistakenly called a conch. As creature-vacated shells, they’re a top collectible for beachcombers; that should account for some officialness. While not much is made of it, knobbed whelks are going the same disappearing way of many other Barnegat Bay shellfish.

Remaining docked in local water, the A.J. Meerwald is the state ship. A frequent stopper-by hereabouts, the Meerwald is a restored oyster dredging schooner from 1928. It now ports in the Bivalve section of Cumberland County.

Sure, there’s a state fish. The brook trout holds the honor in a freshwater manner. Yawn. Efforts have been made to nominate the striped bass for officialness, once an official saltwater division is, uh, made official. However, other states have already claimed the striper in one official form or another, though any state calling it a “rockfish” can, by law, be totally ignored. In lieu of the striped bass, I’d like to nominate the blowfish, though Trenton politicos might see where I’m going with that.

Getting flightier, things get subtle when it comes to the official state bird, the tiny eastern goldfinch. While quite comely, it lacks a certain presence for such a seemingly high-visibility birdliness. Note to falcons, ospreys, owls, kestrels: Some states have two or more official birds. Your time may come.

Now to a bit of official weirdness. For whatever seemingly out-of-step reason, our official state dance is … square dancing. Say what!? When was the last honkin’ hoedown you attended, fellow Jerseyans? Oops. I better not go there since Island folks have, of late, been routinely holding square dances at the Surf City Firehouse … and will be doing so again this year. So, rock on, you crazy promenaders and do-si-do-ists – do the state proud.

Our state insect also seems a flight of fancy. It’s the European honey bee. Did I mention European? I thought so. Hey, I’ll again take NJ’s official advice: fuggedaboutit. Of course, we all confidently know our branded state insect is the mosquito, which is concurrently the unofficial state bird. That’s just how (un)beloved it is.

Now to the greatest of all official state thingies: the New Jersey cryptid. That’s c-r-y-p-t-i-d.

To get a better feel for it, consult The Oxford Dictionary, which defines it as “an animal whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated; any animal of interest to a cryptozoologist.”

I’ll now help by going highly crypto, offering some of the greatest living examples, namely Big Foot, Sasquatch, Loch Ness Monster, Chessie, Chupacabra, Hellhound, Mothman and, a personal favorite, the Beast of Bladenboro, N.C.

With those TV-series-worthy cryptids in tow, you should have no trouble taking a shot at our official N.J. cryptid. Yep, the Jersey Devil … in the flesh … and blood.

I looked for an official state entertainer and found none. But I did see that leading candidate “Bruce!” wouldn’t necessarily be a slam dunk, going up against Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Jon Bon Jovi, Paul Simon, Frankie Valli, the Jonas Brothers, George Clinton, Lauryn Hill and The Shirelles. Ironically, the first song I ever heard Springsteen do, at Le Garage (Spray Beach), was an old Shirelles hit.

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