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Jerry Vovcsko

First dunked a worm in Otsego Lake (upstate NY) some 68 years ago and began pursuing striped bass in Cape Cod waters 40 years ago. Pretty soon I should be able to get it right...maybe.

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January 25, 2016

Thin Ice, Noreasters and Good Times on Snake Island

by Jerry Vovcsko

Old Man Winter gets us in his icy clutch and fishing activity takes a sharp decline. Sure, there's ice fishing – tip ups and rustic shacks built on sled runners – but for the most part there's just fewer folks out there in pursuit of our finned denizen.

However, that doesn't mean that nothing's going on in our local water & woods environment. Nossir. Take, for instance, the afternoon ice fishing trip to Harold Parker State Forest in Andover that nearly turned tragic Saturday for three men from Lowell who fell through thin ice into frigid Field Pond. One pulled himself out of the water, while the other two were rescued by Andover firefighters about 150 yards from shore. Andover police and fire departments received several calls at about 1:15 p.m. from people reporting the incident, said Deputy Fire Chief Albert Deldotto.

The two men were "in obvious distress," Deldotto said. Two firefighters, outfitted with cold water rescue gear, pulled the men from the water. "They saved a couple lives."

Deldotto estimated the water temperature was in the high 30s. The men, ages 26, 29, and 32, were taken to Lawrence General Hospital and Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and treated for hypothermia, he said. Field Pond is a popular spot for ice fishing and dog-walking. The men had put a hut up on the ice and had walked several hundred feet away, before falling through the ice.

"It hasn't been cold enough to get the ice thickness needed to make it safe [for walking]," said Deldotto. "It looks safe, but where they walked, it obviously wasn't thick enough."

A scary experience, for sure but this time it had a good outcome.

The town of Dennis got some good news last week. They were one of five towns to get a share of a $50,000 state grant intended to improve facilities for saltwater fishermen. The town was awarded $15,000 to replace a gangway and two tie-up floats at Uncle Freeman's Landing, a state boat ramp on Bass River off Uncle Freeman's Road.

The money was awarded through the state Department of Fish and Game's Division of Marine Fisheries for saltwater fishing projects. The division's Public Access Small Grant Program uses revenue from the sale of recreational saltwater fishing permits. Gloucester, Marshfield, Plymouth and Rockport also received awards during this grant round.

And then there's the state's plan to revive a native endangered species on a remote island located in the middle of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. The state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, where the plan was hatched , has in mind to breed and raise 150 venomous timber rattlesnakes until they're good and strong, then turn them loose on protected land in the middle of the Quabbin Reservoir.

What could go wrong, you ask?

For one thing, snakes can swim. And although they may start out confined to the small island in the middle of the reservoir, there's nothing that guarantees they'll stay there. And if a few itinerant rattlers make their way to shore and end up around the neighboring hiking trails and homes, the go-wrong potential quickly spikes into serious uh-oh levels where hikers, homeowners and pets are concerned.

The lads and ladies at Fish and Game's headquarters offer assurances that the small island full of rattlesnakes will pose no threat. Any that escape the island will die during the following winter, unable to make it back to their nest, says Tom French, assistant director of the department. And in reality, rattlesnakes are shy creatures who bite people only when threatened, he added.

Not all local residents are reassured. In an interview with the Boston Globe, J.R. Greene, a local historian and author, and the chairman of Friends of the Quabbin, said some local residents fear the rattlesnake island plan could lead to the closure of the popular recreation area around the reservoir — "another example of Boston lording it over this part of the state."

Timber rattlesnakes once populated the forests and feasted on mice and chipmunks all over Massachusetts. But deforestation over the last two centuries left little habitat that allowed for deep underground nests in winter. Today, only a few isolated populations remain in the Blue Hills, the Connecticut River valley, and Berkshire County. Of course I seem to recall that one of those Blue Hills timber rattlers slithered down off the mountain and showed up outside Town Hall in Braintree last fall…a four footer if I remember correctly. Probably looking for an absentee ballot or some such. The Animal Control Officer scooped it up and took it back home to Blue Hills state park.

Since the two species' earliest encounters, it seems humans have done their best to eradicate rattlesnakes and continue to do so at every opportunity. Environmental officials say the whole point of putting them on an island is to protect the snakes from people, not the other way around. Rattlesnake bites are exceedingly rare in Massachusetts, and haven't been fatal since Colonial times. Venomous snake bites these days almost always involve someone doing something exceptionally foolish: attacking or trying to grab a snake, or keeping one as a pet. Environmental officials recall that the only bite that occurred in the wild in recent times was suffered by a researcher who was trying to photograph one rattlesnake and accidentally backed into another.

It's illegal in Massachusetts to keep a venomous snake as a pet, but people do it: there was the time officials got a phone call from a police officer who was trying to find out how much trouble he'd get into if he kept a pair of rattlesnakes. A year or so later, one bit him, and as the officer was driving to the hospital he crashed into a telephone pole. He survived. Someone on Cape Cod was bitten by his pet cobra. He lived, too.

I remember reading about the Cape Cod snake keeper. He housed his pet cobra in a glass terrarium in the basement and when it began to shed its skin he decided that he ought to reach in and help it wriggle out of the skin. Next thing he knew, he was on a helicopter headed for a New York City hospital where cobra anti-venom was on hand. He survived, thereby putting another crimp in Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest theory.

The weekend's nor'easter dropped a foot and a half of wet, heavy snow in the Falmouth area; six to ten inches around Sandwich and varying amounts heading eastward with Provincetown escaping with an inch or so. Air temperatures are due to hit the mid-forties later this week so it's unlikely there will be appreciable ice build-up on Cape ponds. That snowfall will make pond access difficult, though, so finding reachable open water won't be easy. Best bet for those who find accessible water would probably be a matter of letting shiners swim around and hope for the best.

As sports fans know by now, the New England Patriots season came to a close out there in Denver last Sunday. The Broncos put a lot of pressure on Tom Brady and the Pats came up two points short at the end. Disappointing, for sure, but we'll be back next season and in the hunt once again. The Patriots gave us a year's worth of excitement, lots of highs and lows and I have no complaints. We savored the good times…we'll handle the tough times. Go Pats.

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