by Jerry Vovcsko
The fire that burned off ten acres of pitch pines and scrub oak last month in the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod didn't make national headlines, probably because it was part of a multimillion-dollar effort by federal and state agencies to rebuild the dwindling habitat of the New England cottontail, which lives in the dense bramble found in new forest growth.
The fire consumed everything in its path but the scattered trees, leaving a bed of fertile ash and enough open space for the sun to reach the ground again, allowing growth of a new forest to begin.
That the cottontail population has been in trouble is an undisputed fact. Over the past 50 years, this wild creature has lost nearly 90 percent of its dwelling areas to development, which has also contributed to the loss of most of the region's young forests. The rabbit is the only animal from New England that federal officials are now considering as a candidate for the nation's list of endangered species. These rabbits play an important role in the ecosystem and the work being done to protect them also benefits scores of other animals who share the same habitat.
No one knows exactly how many cottontails remain in New England but wildlife biologists believe they have vanished from Vermont and dwindled to several hundred elsewhere. Those remaining live in young forests spread like islands over a few thousand acres across New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. They used to be found in every part of Massachusetts but now live only in Eastern Cape Cod and parts of the Berkshires. With the right conditions, wildlife scientists say, they could repopulate quickly. They can breed before their first birthday and females have two to three litters a year, ranging from three to eight bunnies at a time.
One wild creature that presumably would be delighted to see the New England cottontail population spike upwards is, of course, the bobcat…and it appears that recent sightings in the town of Sharon suggest the big cats are making a comeback in the state. One Sharon resident was surprised last week to look out her kitchen window and see a bobcat strolling across her back yard but recovered quickly and snapped a photo before it wandered back into the woods.
Tom French, assistant director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said it did appear to be a bobcat and, judging from the photo, was probably a young female, about 18 pounds. Bobcats usually avoid humans, French said, but they are common in western Massachusetts and are appear more and more frequently in eastern suburbia.
Leaving forest creatures to fend for themselves while we take a look at the latest doings on the salt water scene… the action has been steady, if not explosive. We haven't seen any of those boom-time blitzes just yet, the ones that rattle the nerves and jangle an angle's concentration…but we will before long. Closest we've come so far has been the discovery of some jumbo bass working over the sand eel population up Provincetown way.
The stretch of surf between Herring Cove and Race Point has been rewarding folks who dropped either sand-eel-baits or reasonable facsimiles into their midst. Some of those bass pull the scales down to the thirty pound mark and are more than willing to slug it out. These stripers don't stick to one spot and have also turned up south of Peaked Hill bars and southward toward Truro and Wellfleet. Fly-rod-folk have gotten good results with large streamer flies, Clousers and such. Top water needle plugs might work now and again but big plastics also are worth a try.
Bluefish have definitely taken up residence in Vineyard Sound and they'll hit just about anything an angler cares to toss their way. One Old Timer acquaintance of mine got tired of losing plugs and spoons to these big-toothed chomping machines so he took his battery operated drill and made himself a bunch of metal bluefish lures out of everything from beer can openers to Italian lire coins…bore a hole in both ends, hang a couple of split rings with a hook on one end and a swivel on the opposite side and he was good to go.
I asked him once about his lure-stock choices and he said "…that Italian funny-money is cheaper than buying scrap metal…and you can use the can opener to crack open a Bud when the action slows down." Like with all good fishermen, versatility is an important quality.
There were a couple of plus-thirty stripers taken at night from Devil's Bridge on the western end of the Vineyard and rumor has it the boat that accounted for these lunkers was drifting with live scup, a favored bait of pin-hooker pros. The usual suspects have been productive lately: Robinsons and Quicks holes, Sow and Pigs Reef and the stretch of shoreline between French Watering Place and Tarpaulin Cove. Heck…right now, anybody on site anywhere along the Elizabeth Islands at first light, should be able to catch three or four decent striped bass before the bite turns off just by getting a five inch swimming plug anywhere among the rocks near the shoreline.
Black sea bass continue to please the palate of those anglers bottom fishing in Buzzards Bay.
And keeper sized tautog continue to move into the boulders strewn around the Weepecket Islands as well as the rock ledges in Woods Hole channel. Green crabs are ‘tog candy but whatever bait is handy will usually get sucked down by these toothy crunchers. And every so often one of the over-five-pound ‘togs will take a whack at a plug meant for stripers.
Things are very pleasant on the salt water scene at the moment; the Cape is a good place to be. Now if the Red Sox could just start winning a few……