The Fish Story

When You See What You Want to See; The Politics of Express Line Standing

By JAY MANN | Feb 15, 2017

I often get outed for the way this column seemingly strays so far afield of fishing. Hey, “The Fish Story” title can be read in a slew of ways. Sure, angling is the more obvious way to go. But it is also written that Mann doth not live by fishing alone – nor could I, if forced to live off what I catch. Then there’s the double entendre side of anything called “The Fish Story.” Hell, with a name like that, there’s no guessing how many of them-there entendres might lurk within.

Example: Out of the blue, I think I’ll begin by annoying readers by disclosing how wrong all y’all have been regarding the late/great Dr. Seuss. Mark my words, his name is not pronounced as if it rhymes with Zeus. It is properly pronounced as if it rhymes with Soice – or, if you’re uppity, like the latter part of Rolls Royce. “Who says?!” you snarl. I’ll tell you who says: the frickin Soice-ster himself, that is when he was still Who’ing around.

Throughout his illustrious career, Seuss would often question how the entire planet, even his German root-land and home state of Massachusetts, mispronounced such a simple name.

How’s that segment for an entendre stretch?

ON TRACK FOR SUCCESS: I do a ton of wildlife tracking, almost always to no visible ends. I rarely catch up to the leavers of tracks. Why do it, then, right?

Firstly, putting nose to ground, figuratively, is the ultimate way to go even farther off the unbeaten path. By hawking tracks into the thickest underbrush, a tracker gets a unique read on the more intimate underpinnings of the outback. Admittedly, it can also get one a tad too intimately involved with the likes of green briars, aka stickers, which are sharpest and most vicious in the winter. “Uh, can I get a little help here?” Fat chance anyone will be offering a helping hand in there; a helping antler … maybe.

I recently celebrated a tracking success – in a flashing glimpse, big-paw way. Sniffing around near Route 539, I came across immense canine tracks near a mud puddle. This was a place far from where Fido gets walked – though I did, at first blush, think the prints might simply be the tracks from someone’s big-ass pet shepherd, or the large like. However, once on the track trail, the straight and steady gait of the track-leaver soon told me differently.

Pets, when a-walk, tend to frolic in a random, crazily meandering manner. Wild canines are all business. For them, playfully bounding about is a waste of essential energy. Also, there were no human prints in sight. Short of a dog walking itself, this was wildlife.

Ongoing examination of the tracks proved these were another example of the growing coyote presence in the Pines. By growing, I’m talking about both number and stature, i.e. size. Dollars to doughnuts, these wide tracks were compliments of yet another N.J. coywolf.

I’ve now found three such bigfooted canines in the Ocean/Burlington county region, leading me to wonder if we have an inordinately large population of wolf/coyote mixes. I’ll need a lot more evidence to make a scientific case for it, though I’ve already gotten anecdotal support out the kazoo, mainly from hunters coming across similarly huge coyote tracks – though virtually never actually seeing the speedily nimble animals.

By the by, your prototypical East Coast coyote (Canis latrans) is, at most, a medium-sized canine, by domesticated dog standards. While larger than their western counterparts, they are far from husky, more often looking a bit scraggly and even emaciated, especially during the early-summer shed. A common expression I hear about seen coyotes is “mangy looking.” Hey, life is tough and lean in the outback – any outback.

Enter the wolf, Canis lupusis, a full-sized canine, large beyond even German shepherd standards.

Side by side, there is no confusing a pure coyote and a pure wolf, though most coyotes have some wolf DNA in their system. Apparently, an undersized female coyote isn’t overly put off when a bulky wolf comes amorously calling. Voila … a coywolf litter arises. Pups can display size traits ranging from close-to-coyote dimensions to damn near wolf-sized proportions.

Coywolves displaying wolfier sizes first showed out west but have migrated eastward.

But back to my tracking huge canine tracks. No more than five minutes into the stalk, I was thoroughly shocked to get a glimpse of my quarry, maybe 30 yards up ahead – as it ran across a small opening. Sure enough, it was a heavily-furred, upper-end coywolf, very blackish in color. By my instantaneous reckoning, it was almost the size equivalent of a coyote and a half.

Fortuitously, my target was hauling ass away from me, like a hound out of hell. Despite its size, it had apparently inherited the timidity of a coyote. Wolves are known to exhibit a more contentious attitude when met.

A major factor leading to my successful coywolf glance was the high winds that day. Not only had they thinned out my scent, but the rattling underbrush had covered the sound of my less-than-stealthy human movements – a ruckus by wildlife standards.

I headed over to where I had glimpsed my ultraquick quarry. I confirmed the tracks were a match to those I was following.

My rare tracking success inspired me to let out a loud howl. I’ve likely seen one too many “Alaskan Bush Family” episodes on The Discovery Channel.

As I backtracked toward my truck, the same wind that had hidden my crunching boot sounds now had me a tad spooked. It noisily punched through the underbrush, mimicking something busting through the bush. I’m then thinking, “Why the hell did I have to go and howl like that?!”

Hey, that was one big-ass animal. What’s more, the largest climbable nearby trees were some scrawny pines. I pictured having to panic climb one with a huge coywolf snarling down below – as the flimsy tree starts to slowly bend over sideways, the awaiting beast offering one of those cartoonesque snickers as I move closer and closer to the ground …

SNOW-DAY IN-LINE DISCONTENT: It sure seems our little corner of the nation is on the emotional edge. I could base that solely on the prevailing social media nastiness. However, for me, it became more tangible last week, when I used the uncalled-for “snow day” to get in a load of shopping. In just a few line-standings, I witnessed three nearby shopper flare-ups.

While I wanted nothing to do with the drama, doesn’t one of the worst cases edge up behind me – eventually trying to sucker me in. I’ll explain.

I was tucked into a rather long grocery “Express” line, which, admittedly, wasn’t living up to its name. I won’t mention the grocery, except to say it’s often crowded – and was more so this day, likely due to the outside minor snowiness, which always sparks folks to survivalistically rush out to bolster their existing stocks of foodstuff.

Me and my plastic basket of storm-thwarting confectioneries were a goodly number of shoppers away from check-out. No biggy.

Directly in front of me was a big-backed fellow, leaning wearily on his shopping cart. It was sorta obvious his cart had pushed well past the permissible number of goods allowed in this “express” line.

Hell, I couldn’t care less. Nor was I particularly put off when the man’s tiny-by-comparison wife rushed over with two armfuls of items to add to the cart … before bolting off, apparently for another squirrely gathering run. However, a senior couple directly behind wasn’t nearly as forbearing. Already anxiously tailgating, to where their cart repeatedly butt-bumped me, the two started to simultaneously sound off, issuing hisses and mumbles of disapproval over the apparent contravening of express-line etiquette taking place just up ahead.

Things got even hissier when the little goods-gathering gal returned with half a dozen new shopping cart items. The anger boiled up behind me, husband and wife harmonizing in huffs of disgust. It built to the point where the wife began issuing entire sentences, delivering the likes of “Oh, that’s ridiculous.”

It was during this escalation of pissiness that I was unaccountably drafted into things. Doesn’t the riled wife sidle up next to me and loudly ask, “Can you believe what they’re doing?” Internally, I’m all “Why in bloody hell are you asking me, lady!?”

The problem was her question was not rhetorical. She wanted me to verbally confirm what she assumed was a consensus in-line indignation over the item-count ignorer. If I didn’t respond with a requisite “I know … I can’t believe it,” I might be seen by other line-ites as an accessory to blatant express-line abuse. Hell, for all I knew, the riled couple had gained the backing of the rest of the line. I was afraid to look back.

Making matters way worse, the angered elder’s words were leaking to within earshot of the targeted shopper non grata. From a back view alone, I could tell that the fellow being singled out was a highly burly, bruise-knuckled, steel-toe booted, Carhartt-wearing, haircut-needing blue-collar type – and more than likely highly pissed that he had just lost an entire day’s work for a did-nothing snowstorm.

Then, doesn’t this fellow’s speedy little sidekick return with a load of stuff that even I couldn’t believe one could gather in under, what, 90 seconds?

I knew what was coming next. I offered a quietish “Oh, crap” toward the floor

With this latest unethical addition to an already ethically overloaded cart, I could feel the behind-me folks vibrating with fury. That’s when my many years of perfecting timely discretion kicked in. Jerking upright, as if being epiphanied upon, I announced out loud, “Oh, damn, I forgot the rutabagas!”

With that, I busted out of the line, hoping the spot gained by my vegetable-based departure might suppress the in-line intensity. It might also allow the behind-me whiners to move forward ... and get a closer look at the ominous back-size of their mark.

Gospel truth: After feigning my rutabaga hunt, I moved many check-out lines from the frickin “Express” zone. I was now profoundly willing to take my low-number  gathering of food items and stand in a line meant for loaded-down carts, where there is never a counting of items. Then, as I’m passing a closed checkout lane, doesn’t a light go on above the register and a just-arrived cashier shouts out “next!” That would be me! Wow, it was like a tiny form of “Blessed are the peacemakers.” OK, so maybe I was only a peacemaker by default, but I still felt I had done my tension-easing job, especially when I walked out of the store without hearing “Clean-up on the express line … ASAP!”

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