The Fish Story

When Warmbirds Return to Shore; Acquiring a Most Needless of Must-Haves

By JAY MANN | Feb 21, 2018

Welcome back to all you warmbirds. No, I don’t mean snowbirds, which comprise a whole other flock – a flock not all that ready to return from tropicalish climes. Brats.

Warmbirds, which also go by “nearbyers,” tend to arrive with the first signs of merciful mildness, like this week’s 70s. They zip in from sundry parts of N.J. – or from the edges of nearby states. For them, it’s a proverbial hop/skip/jump to the shore, many seeing the coastline for the first time since those early-on snowflakes flew and the freaky cold set in.

More often than not, warmbirds are property owners doing the first, oft-spooky house checks of the year, having weathered back-home nightmares of busted pipes down at the “shore house.”

If you want to observe warmbirds in their natural habitat, they’re frequently seen flocking at local feeders, i.e. restaurants.

Having always been a people person, albeit from an appropriately safe distance, I enjoy the look and feel of these annual thaw-out throngs, especially after what has been a dang rough winter.

I should note that the pre-spring surge of Island enthusiasts is never really big on surf fishing and such. Makes sense. Our near-beach waters are still far from surfcasting friendly. Even purportedly mild south winds, blowing in over 40-degree waters, can feel downright winterish when a caster is idly standing around with rod in hand. Unpredictable late-winter ocean conditions are also not particularly conducive to boat fishing, as we count down to Feb. 28, when the March-long closure on tog kicks in.

JUST DO IT, DUDE: Take one minute – make that less than one minute. That’s what it just took me to re-register with the New Jersey Saltwater Recreational Registry. It’s a hoop we must jump through annually. I know, it’s not like any of us have ever been checked for this mandatory “saltwater license,” nor have we been consulted about the intimacies of our fishing activities. Nonetheless, higher powers demand obeisance, so sign up and be counted. By the by, for 2018, I’ll once again cover the cost for everyone’s license.

FLOUNDER DOWNER: March 1 is the start of the winter flounder season, allowing us a bag limit of two fish at 12 inches or longer. That limit is hardly worth the effort, especially for boat fishing in the bay, where conditions can turn raunchy on a dime this time of year.

Not many years back, I was among the legion who approached winter flounder season in a rich and traditional manner. Along with formulating small-hook flounder rigs, I’d make meaty chum logs, buy cans of cheap cat food, thaw out bags of corn niblets and even break out the old bottom-mucker – a mud-sucking toilet plunger mounted on a long piece of bamboo.

The particulars of traditionally fishing winter flounder were almost as work-intensive as readying for offshore fishing – all to nab a tiny fish that fights less than a wet rag. It was purely a case of being back in the fishing saddle again after a winter hiatus.

Those memorable first fishing days of the year are now dead in the water, due to the two-fish limit and, even more so, the increasing lack of blackbacks, the old name for winter flounder.

In last week’s SandPaper, the premier professor on local fisheries, Kenneth W. Able of Rutgers University, offered a sneak peek at his upcoming book on popular local fish species. It was a segment on winter flounder – and it proffered some black news on blackbacks.

If you missed Ken’s piece in our hardcopy edition, go to Feb. 14 on the SandPaper “cloud,” found at On the homepage, scroll down to the “Commentary” section for a story titled “Where Have All the Winter Flounder Gone? Digging for Answers.”

Ken notes, “Given their preference for cold temperatures, it may not be surprising that as temperatures have warmed in our area over the last several decades, winter flounder are becoming less abundant.”

He then goes on to appropriately explain that the deeper story behind their disappearing act is likely a complex one.

“While the decline in abundance corresponds with increasing local water temperatures, the effect may not be direct. Instead it may be that predators, which may be becoming more abundant due to the increasing temperatures, are eating more of the winter flounder than they used to. But it is not the large predators that we typically think of, but very small ones that may be having the most effect.”

I’m very excited about Ken’s book-to-be, considering he’ll be simplifying and condensing a lifetime of studying marine species into a highly readable treatise. I’ll keep you posted on the book’s progress.

I SECOND THE “PREDATION”: Acknowledging that the good Dr. Able is the maestro of marine fisheries, I will humbly add that I doubly support the predation factor in the vanishing of winter flounder. I’ll even elevate predation above and beyond planet-based ocean water temp increases.

Anecdotal evidence points to more aggressive gamefish being critical killers of laidback winter flounder. Herein, I’ve written of three separate instances where anglers found striped bass filled to the gills with winter flounder. The anglers all used the same “stacked like pancakes” expression to describe as many as nine blackbacks in a single bass belly. Even back in the good old winter floundering days, I seldom caught nine such flatties. What’s more, two of the flounder-stuffed stripers were in the 28- to 30-inch range, one of the most common size-classes within the bass fishery. Do the math and there’s no doubt that striper binge eating is a doom speller for flounder.

More theoretically, might the rapid shallowing and water chemistry changes in the expanded Barnegat Bay system be contributing to worsening overwintering and spawning conditions in our area? Increasing amounts of nitrites and nitrates in the bay water, mainly during the summer, aren’t simply washed away with the tides. Suspended particles carrying such pollutants will often sink to the bay bottom, settling in the mud – right where the flounder overwinter. Settled pollutants surely become insidious chemical intruders, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of blackbacks, possibly forcing them to seek new digs – exposing themselves to greater predation and pollution.

Being more pragmatic than Dr. Able, I’m not sold on our local flounder simply moving on to friendlier and cooler haunts to the north. Such a relocating would necessitate a genetic de-encoding, a countering of innate homing instincts. Numerous studies have shown fish return to home waters – be it to spawn or overwinter – by following complex chemical signals issuing forth from places like Barnegat Bay. The taste of the bay is in their genes, so to speak. I liken it to diamondback terrapins, which instinctively return to the same nesting beaches, despite mankind having built to the hilt thereabouts. Unfortunately, we can’t manually protect returning/nesting winter flounder like we’ve begun successfully doing with growingly beloved terrapins.

It’s not a good time to be a New Jersey blackback, i.e. no country for old flounder.

AN ULTIMATE IN NEEDLESSNESS: I’m a sucker for gadgets. I have more gizmos than I have ... I’ll brainlessly stop there. To me, the prototypical gadget fills absolutely no pressing need – and does it perfectly.

A top-notch gadget is often a flash-in-the-pan delight, offering delightfulness just long enough to get thrown into a rarely opened drawer. It can also suck in the masses. Who among you didn’t buy – or at least try – one of those wiry, spidery, scalp-massage thingies? That was a masterfully useless gadget, virtually none of which are still being used – though most are safely drawered away somewhere.

For an advanced gadget guru like myself, it’s not the gadget itself but the excitement of suddenly coming across something new and fascinating – and profoundly needless. Wait until the Joneses see what I have this time.

This intro into gadgeteering is my lead-in to quite possibly the most mindbogglingly extraneous item to come along since lava lamps and pet rocks. Feast your buying eyes, my friends, upon “The Ultimate Desktop Jellyfish Tank,” by Jelly Tank ( Be still, my pounding heart.

Yes, this is a patented opportunity to acquire your very own jellyfish tank. How astoundingly superfluous.

Per company literature, “Jelly Tank is a desktop jellyfish aquarium designed for the home, office or commercial space. Owning pet jellyfish are (sic) now easier than ever with our state of the art tank. The Jelly Tank is the most affordable aquarium that makes keeping jellyfish simple for anyone.”

You read right: “Owning pet jellyfish are now easier than ever.” Who cares about a little subject/verb disagreement? They’re not selling syntax lessons, they’re offering us/me my/our very own frickin jellyfish – and making it easier than ever! I can only guess at how hard it must have once been.

The Jelly Tank is also the most affordable, leaving others in its wake. Such affordability is so inviting I can barely call up PayPal quickly enough. OK, now that I’m here, what does affordable mean, you know, in dollars and cents?

Let’s see, it looks like a starter kit, known as “The Jelly Tank 5.0,” seems to pretty much contain every dang thing I’ll need. It runs a most affordable $275. Oddly, I’ll need to dish out an additional $25 to get a jellyfish, seeing the Jelly Tank 5.0 doesn’t include an actual jellyfish. Pure genius.

Now, everything inside me is telling me to click that “Buy” button. Of course, it was everything inside me also telling me it would be just fine to take a selfie while holding up a huge Portuguese man o’ war, its tentacles running down my arm. Something inside also reminds me of summer surfing sessions when I was so thoroughly stung to hell and back by lion’s mane jellyfish that I blindly walked home, loudly weeping – forcing Boulevard traffic to come to a screeching halt. But I suppose I should let gelatinous bygones be bygones and spend a measly $300 to confirm I’m a master gadgeteer. That’s a pittance when one is about to acquire a state of needlessness nirvana.

(Click.) “Thank You for Your Order.”

Now to name my blobs. In fact, how about Blobby … or Blobina?

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