The Fish Story

Whacked-Out Snowy Owl Fallout; Tracking a Possible Bobcat Presence

By JAY MANN | Dec 12, 2018

SNOWY OWL SCAT: It’s hard to think of royal snowy owls as whack-o magnets, but they have become that for me. Without fail, so much as mentioning them in here looses some bird brains. My daring suggestion that a couple of these tundra birds may be overwintering somewhere in the 3-mile-long Holgate Refuge gets said whack-jobs squawking like goosed crows.

Last week, The SandPaper dared to show one of my photos of a snowy owl – somewhere within a 3-mile south end stretch. To hear a couple of those numbnuts go off on social media, you would have thought I had doomed the entire quite-healthy species. Hell, one of the whiners makes money by selling photos of snowy owls so it’s easy to see his self-righteous motivation. Another was most likely off his meds. These majestic winged creatures are meant to be enjoyed – not kept secret for a chosen few to surreptitiously possess for visual self-gratification, like some living fetish.

I will re-note that my whole intent in hyping the wondrous snowy white predatory birds is to garner support for all birds, all nature and, by politicalized extension, all voters needed to support preservation resolutions – in a state seemingly losing its grip on its last wilderness areas.

Birdbrains notwithstanding, I invite one and all to take the long, and admittedly arduous, journey along, but not into, the Holgate Refuge to scan for a perching snowy owl. As of this week, only one is regularly hawking the south end for vittles, usually in the form of mice and small birds. While the mice are plentiful, the overall bird count is way down. I attribute that to a very early cold snap for us, which might have spurred common overwintering species to slide a tad further south, likely Delmarva way.

As a lead-in to the next segment, I should point out that my reports of a snowy owl have triggered absolutely no increase in Holgate hikers. In fact, it has been close to dead, people-wise, short of the usual handful of hardcore annual birders. So much for a deadly Snowy Owl Rush 2018.

BUGGIES BUGGING OUT: This Island has lost an important fall freewheeling tradition. It has driven off into the sunset. Or, more exactly, it has been driven off.

For decades, going back to small-kid times for me – with my dad and his buddy, Mel B. – the autumnal beach buggy custom had been a mainstay of beloved off-season LBI times. As recently as the 1980s, surfcasting-related beach drivers had been a loosely knit but highly abiding band of buggying brothers, especially down Holgate way. During those now instantly-ancient days, when jetties abounded, buggies often graced almost every rock area, from Loveladies to the far south end.

In Holgate, it became an annual gathering of “the boys.” There were often dozens of vehicles caravanned from the parking lot south. Epicenter was the Rip, adjacent to the inlet. There was many a greet-and-chat session. Gabs could go on for lengthy periods, especially if a chatty-Kathy type pulled up, as a goodly number of older anglers tended to be. And it was great. What a fine way to catch up on whatever there was to catch up on, often done with minimal eye contact, spiked rods getting most of the attention, since there was once many a trophy fish to also catch up on. No longer.

The beach buggy culture has packed up and pulled out. A brotherly band of gritty anglers has gone the way of sanded-under Island jetties … and once-epic fishing. For the uninformed: Surfside fish have seemingly abandoned the LBI shoreline.

This fall, many of my Holgate trips found me the Lone Buggyist. Not even a Tonto to be found. Any four-wheelers out there now have tended to be birdwatchers. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, just indicative of a quantum shift away from the good old angling days.

Might the brotherly buggy days of recent yore return?

For much of the LBI beachfront, the loss of jetties – and a long-term plan to keep them under sand – makes that a tad less likely, though I saw a couple persistent buggy gatherings at the height of this year’s LBI Surf Fishing Classic. Still, something classic is missing on the buggying front. Might it be fish … and utter lack of same?

I’m betting any sudden and stellar return of beachfront stripers and bluefish will almost instantly bring LBI back to buggy life. The Holgate buggying fatherland will once again become powwow territory. Now, to convince the fish to return.

HERE KITTY, KITTY: From the mainland side of things, I got a highly-reliable report of a huge, stubby-tailed (ringed) feline, with markedly tufted ears … very bobcatish. It was late-day-roaming in the Nugentown area.

The following day, a second report read, “Went out to look for the tracks and I saw her! She stopped in the leafy area and looked right at me; did not run. Stocky, muscular body, stripes, around 25 pounds – and I made a special note to observe the tail. It was a few inches long with distinct black rings, and most definitely had a black tip.”

This is exciting, at least by my wildlife thinking. It’s also growingly possible that a bobcat is hereabouts.

The number of bobcats currently pussyfooting around Jersey has increased, possibly dramatically, since being reintroduced in the northern part of the state. Between 1978 and 1982, wild-caught specimens were translocated here from Maine. Prior to that, the species had been listed as “extirpated” in NJ, i.e. bye-bye bobcats. In 1991, the bobcat was up-listed from “extirpated” to “endangered.”

Regrettably, a goodly number of “sightings” are coming from roadkill, seemingly a common form of wildlife-watching in our state. More bobcats have been road-killed than were first translocated. The somewhat upside is most are those KIAs have been younger bobs … unfamiliar with NJ drivers.

A single bobcat in Ocean County is an important sighting, especially a livin’, breathin’ example.

Per the NJDEP, “Today, bobcats appear to be rebounding in northern New Jersey, but there continue to be very few observations in the central and southern regions of the state. Their elusive nature makes them a challenge to study. The public can help by reporting a bobcat observation with the Rare Wildlife Sighting Form (please include photos if you have them!). Report an injured or dead bobcat via the DEP Hotline: 1-877-WARNDEP (1-877-927-6337).”

Heading over to the area where the bobcat was spotted, I found a lone albeit highly-readable track. It was the right size, shape and body weight (track depth) for a full-grown bobcat. The surrounding vicinity has huge undeveloped stretches, in fact, over a million acres since it’s on the edge of the Pinelands.

Adding to the sighting’s mystique is a totally inexplicable vanishing of what had been a huge chipmunk population in the same area. While bobcats are geared to take down larger prey, from rabbits and turkeys all the way up to small deer, chipmunks and squirrel are perfectly sized for fast feeding the gang, as in a litter. Yep, I already have the sighting indicating an entire family. Hey, why not? The observed feline’s holding to a specific area, along with its tendency to forage in daylight, might be a telling indicator of kids. While lone wolves in nature, bobcat moms are very maternal, allowing their young to hang around well into their growing-up phase.

OK, so maybe I’m looking a lot into these initial bobcat reports, but this presents a fine time just to learn a bit more about these returning/restocked wild NJ felines. It should be mentioned that bobcats are listed as “common” and even “abundant” in many other states. When conditions are right, they can reproduce at a feral cat rate.

More on this possible bobcat presence as my trail cams do their magic.

OOPS … FUMBLE: A couple sharpies who really read this column caught a minorly egregious faux pas in last week’s column, in which I was explaining the size of Sputnik I. I said it was 22 inches in length. Hey, mistakes were made to be made, right?

In this case, it shows my mind can have a mind of its own. While my main mind told me to write Sputnik was “the size of a football,” my mind’s mind deviously sped me into writing it was “the length of a football.”

I know full-well the length of a football is 11 inches. It’s the circumference size that’s 22 inches.

Although it was a seemingly innocent mistake, I’m compelled by column-writing tradition to lop off a finger. That will leave me with one. That’s plenty enough for the way I type – or show people what I think of their driving.

RUNDOWN: It’s like a striped bass booby prize out there. With the official end of the 2018 LBI Surf Fishing Classic, rating high among the worst ever, schoolie bass are making their smalltime presence well known.  I got reports from Don I. and Tony C. that the mid-Island beachfront is putting out sub-24-inch stripers at a decent clip. Tony nabbed a slew in a short time span. His fish went mainly for teasers. Don has taken 29 bass in recent days – and, like me, is still looking for a 24-incher upon which to hang his NJ Bonus Bass tag. Don has caught all his bass on assorted lures, especially deep-runners. Don’s daughter, Wendy, has also nabbed a number of short stripers using artificials.

The beachside bass seem to be on sand eels. Don foul-hooked a couple of them on his lures. It’s remotely good news that they’re around, but it sure seems they were AWOL during bigger-bass days. I have a small mesh cast net I’ll throw to check on those sand eels and any other forage in the wash. Again, any forage is too little too late for all but us December hangers-on. Here’s hoping I can get that spot-on 24-incher in perfect alignment with a holiday dinner. I’ll be cooking it in the round to maximize the meat take. Listen to me, I’m already talking about how I’m going to cook it without having caught a bass all fall.

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