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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 29, 2014

Kettle Ponds And a Bowl of Portagee Stew

by Jerry Vovcsko

Mid-summer water temperatures in Nantucket Sound can easily reach the high seventies while the sunbaked beach sand sizzles under air temperatures pushing ninety and beyond. That's when we head for air-conditioned destinations and gripe about "…this dammed heat!" Of course, things feel a little different right now what with water temperatures in the Sound hovering at thirty-one frigid degrees while the air registers a brisk nine degrees overnight. Thirty one degrees in the water! That's one degree cooler than it takes to freeze water, folks.

We're talking serious ice here…and some of the real down-Cape Old Timers can recall winters where it froze all the way across from Woods Hole to Edgartown and the ferries sat ice-bound at the pier waiting for a warm spell and surging tides to break them free from Jack Frost's icy clutches. Well we haven't seen it that bad – at least not in the forty-some years I've meandered about the Cape wetting a line in both salt and fresh water fish-harboring locations. And I've learned along the way that come early May striped bass will find their way to Cape waters and come the fall those fish will head back to whence they came from. This year will be no different.

In the meantime, we anglers will make do with what we can find when Old Man Winter clutches us in his frosty embrace. Once four inches or more of ice forms on local ponds we can auger out a hole through which we'll drop a line baited with chub or shiner; dangle a shiny jig or spoon and wait for perch, pickerel, trout or salmon to take notice and swallow our offering. Cape Cod is the chief beneficiary of the last ice age when glacier and pack ice dragged huge boulders across the land scooping out a host of kettle ponds in the process and blessing local anglers with a bonanza of fishing destinations. Like so many watery grocery chain stores these ponds offer nearly every freshwater species imaginable. And not just a stringer of pan fish…nossir, double-digit northern pike inhabit Barnstable's Lake Wequaquet, salmon upwards of twenty pounds can be taken from a number of Upper and mid-Cape ponds and just last week one local angler hauled a twenty-nine inch brown trout from an un-named location.

There are big fish a-plenty to be had in these parts.

I don't know about anyone else but when the thermometer dips below freezing my thoughts turn to hot coffee and rib-sticking food. Back in 1958 when I was a young Marine attached to the Sixth Fleet for an eight month cruise around Mediterranean ports-of-call, a grizzled old Navy Chief Bosun's Mate told me the secret to brewing great tasting coffee. Fresh-ground coffee beans were imperative and required a handful of broken eggshells plus a pinch of salt in with the grounds. Percolate the coffee through that mixture and pour it steaming hot into a thick, white porcelain mug. Nectar of the gods.

As to food, here's an old-timey Portuguese recipe for a stew that'll fill your stomach and warm your toes:
Portagee Stew:
•1 ½ lbs fresh eel cut into 1-inch pieces
•Seasoned flour for dredging
•2-4 Tablespoons lard
•2-4 Tablespoons olive oil
•1 1/2 cups onion, small diced
•2 garlic cloves, minced
•1/3 cup white or red wine
•1 cup fresh diced tomato
•1 sprig mint, chopped
•1 sprig parsley, chopped
•Herbs for garnish
•Hot sauce (if you've a mind to)

Heat the lard and olive oil in a large cast iron skillet. When the oil's ready, add the onions and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and let sauté until it begins to get brown around the edges. Add the tomato paste and stir well, then deglaze the pan with the wine. Let reduce for a moment, and remove the onion mixture from the pan. Add a little more oil if necessary, and heat the pan back up. Meanwhile dredge the eel in the flour. When the pan is hot, add the eel pieces. Cook the pieces for a few minutes on each side. Then re-introduce the onion mixture, and add the fresh tomatoes. Cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook for about 10 minutes, and check to see if the eel is done. Add the fresh herbs, then taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper (and hot sauce) as necessary. Divide into four bowls and serve. (From an old Nantucket Island recipe)

Three weeks to go until the equipment-laden eighteen-wheelers pull out from Fenway Park and head off down Interstate 95 bound for Florida and spring training. As long-time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione would say: "Can you believe it?"

January 22, 2014

Polar Vortex, Redux

by Jerry Vovcsko

Just when we thought the January thaw was upon us, here came another Polar Vortex bringing us piles of snow – up to 18 inches falling on parts of southeastern Massachusetts – and temperatures that plunged overnight into the sub-zero range. There won't be much opportunity just now to fish the salt water, even if there were lots of fish around – wind gusts up around 40-knots saw to that. And pretty much forget freshwater action for a while as it might take half a day to trek through these awesome snow drifts just to get near enough to fishable ponds to check for sufficiently solid ice cover.

Yeah, we might just want to pull the old rocking chair up close to the woodstove and sip a bit of Irish coffee while perusing the spring Bass Pro catalog or taking another spin around the literary block with Papa Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. Myself, I'll be planted near the fireplace while shipping aboard caffeinated wet-goods in the form of a mug of dark French Roast coffee in one hand and a book of Tom McGuane's wildly entertaining fish tales in the other.

While we hole up waiting for Mother Nature to deliver more favorable weather our way, it helps to know that Gulf of Maine Cod swimming off Massachusetts shores have been tagged with acoustic tracking devices that will help scientists determine when and where the fish spawn. Scientists, state and federal environmental officials and local fishermen are working together to attach the electronic tags to cod and return them to the water. Fishermen began taking scientists aboard their boats in September to find and tag fish.

The tags are detected by a series of underwater monitors that pick up the sounds and track the movements of the fish, according to state environmental officials. Each electronic tag emits a sound once every minute, for up to six years, and each tag has a unique sound that allows scientists to track individual fish. The signal is recorded whenever the fish pass within a network of receivers deployed on the sea floor by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game's Division of Marine Fisheries.

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Mary Griffin described the tags as akin to an "E-Z Pass for fish," and said the tracking project will help scientists determine where cod spawn off the South Shore. Knowing where the spawning grounds are is important for recovery of the population as dwindling stocks of cod have led federal officials to institute fishing quotas.

Some fishermen report seeing cod only during their spawning season in the late fall and early winter, where in the past the fish were abundant most of the year, according to Frank Mirarchi, who has fished out of Scituate Harbor since 1962. Mirarchi was one of the local fishermen who pushed to research the spawning habits of cod.

"We hope to provide these fish with protection while they're vulnerable," Mirarchi said in a press release. "The expectation is that we can provide discrete, small protected areas which will not be disruptive to fishing, while helping the cod stock to recover."
The acoustic monitoring data will allow researchers to visualize the movement behavior of fish while they are on the spawning grounds, and when they leave the area – information that is needed to define seasonal closures and to better understand spawning behavior, according to environmentalists.

Meanwhile, some folks on the other side of the world got pretty excited when a fisherman in waters north of New Zealand came across an odd-looking, translucent sea creature swimming on the surface. Curious, he netted the creature to get a closer look and saw he had what he described as a see-through, shrimp-like creature.

"It felt scaly and was quite firm, almost jelly like, and you couldn't see anything inside aside from this orange little blob inside it," said fisherman Stewart Fraser.

Later, scientists at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, U.K., identified it as a Salpa maggiore (Salpa maxima). Paul Cox, director of conservation and communication at the aquarium, said that a salp is barrel-shaped, moves by pumping water through its gelatinous body, and that the life-cycle includes alternate generations of existing as solitary individuals or as a group forming long chains.

"In common with other defenseless animals that occupy open water—jellies and hydroids, for example—the translucence presumably provides some protection from predation," Cox said. "Being see-through is a pretty good camouflage in water."

And that brings me to the subject of my New England Patriots. They traveled to Denver last Sunday for the AFC championship game and got soundly trounced by the Broncos, far and away the better team that day. Can't fault the Pats too much, though, as they won a heck of a lot more games than most fans expected given the number of season-ending injuries to starters they suffered throughout year. Hats off to the Patriots for their next-man-up mentality and here's hoping Peyton Manning and his crew can grab a Super Bowl win in New York come February when they face the lads from Seattle. Oh, and spring training kicks off in mid-February, less than a month away now…think the Red Sox can repeat?

January 14, 2014

A Tunafish Big Enough to Feed Austin, Texas

by Jerry Vovcsko

It's a pretty well accepted notion that fishermen might possibly not be entirely trustworthy when it comes to weighing and measuring their catch. The old thumb-on-the-scales approach has a long history with anglers seeking bragging rights among their peers and measuring length by including a bit of the shadow hasn't been unknown to neighborhood sharpers gunning for king-of-the-hill status. Still, all those machinations are small-potatoes in comparison with the Internet when it comes to exaggeration and subterfuge. Like the tall tales that have surfaced recently on the World Wide Web.

Seems that earthquake that struck Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant a couple of year back has produced some dire effects on this side of the Pacific Ocean. According to "reliable Internet sources" (a concept some would consider an oxymoron), scientists believe that following the power plant disaster in the Futaba District of Japan, certain oceanic creatures suffered genetic mutations that triggered uncontrolled growth – or "radioactive gigantism."

Take, for instance, those folks strolling on the beach in Santa Monica who were said to have discovered what might be the largest modern colossus lying dead on the beach, a creature that supposedly started its life as a rare oarfish known to reach as much as 19-feet in length…only this Santa Monica oarfish was said to measure out at a stunning 130-feet. Radioactive gigantism, indeed!

Even more impressive, however, was the giant squid measuring a whopping 160 feet from head to tentacle tip that ostensibly washed up on another California beach. Nothing enhances the credibility of a tall-fish-tale like the supporting testimony of various "experts" and Internet sources abound in that arena.

"We are confident that this fish comes from the Fukushima Dai-ichi region," said one supposed Ph.D equipped fish biologist. "We can tell from the radioactive Cesium present in its tissue. We also have strong cause to believe that the nuclear event in Japan triggered radioactive gigantism in this particular specimen."

Another mightily-credentialed fishy expert provided some perspective for the possibilities inherent in these astounding assertions with the following: "These creatures give us the chance to study radioactive gigantism. Imagine a tuna fish that could feed a city the size of Austin, Texas. This is the potential of radioactive gigantism.""

Well, I don't know about anybody else but I'm a little bit wary of mutation on that scale. I mean, if we're looking at individual tunas big enough to feed a Texas city, then it only makes sense that we have to consider the possibility of Jaws the size of a New York skyscraper. Think I'll stick with the relatively benign thumb-on-the-scales maneuvers and leave the mega-fish tale stories to the Internet tale-spinners. Besides, who wants to spoil the Internet fun by suggesting a visit to Not me; that's for sure.

Having said all that I'm a little concerned that some readers may be less than accepting of the news that the Mexican government says local fishermen found two rare conjoined gray whale calves that died shortly after being born. Biologist Benito Bermudez says the whales were found alive in the Ojo de Liebre lagoon in the Baja California Peninsula but lived only a few hours. Bermudez said Wednesday they were linked at the waist, with two full heads and tail fins. Bermudez is a marine biologist with the National Natural Protected Areas Commission, or CONANP. He said scientists are collecting skin, muscle and baleen samples to study the creatures.

Well, I'll leave it at that and let skeptical readers check it out for themselves on the Web…thing is, I've seen photos…so it must be true, right?

Leaving aside the strange doings out there in cyber world, we've been experiencing trick-or-treat weather on the Cape the past couple of weeks. One minute it's a plunging thermometer that's registering below-zero numbers, the next we're basking in a balmy sixty-degree environment. The other day I watched some kids playing on a frozen cranberry bog that looked to have a solid six inches of ice cover up top. The next day the thermometer hit 58 degrees in mid-afternoon…how does an angler make sense of that?

As it stands, most Cape ponds have at least some ice cover right now but those surfaces are pretty treacherous and best avoided until Mother Nature makes up her mind about the weather. In the meantime, those of us who simply must find a way to wet a line are probably better off returning to the salt water locations that we don't bother with during striped bass season. There are flounder and other groundfish lurking around the dock pilings in places like Woods Hole Harbor, the Sandwich Marina, Bass River, Scorton Creek and, of course, the Cape Cod Canal…this time of year mackerel have been known to show up in and around the Canal. And rumors of cod-from-the-beach date back to a time when Hector was a pup.

Which brings us to playoff time in the NFL. And there we see our beloved New England Patriots still hanging on, still persevering. Not only that but they've sprouted a newfound running game and LeGarrett Blount has morphed into the reincarnation of Jim Brown complete with scatback speed, bulldozer power and the ability to return kickoffs and pound out goal-line yardage alike. Only four teams left standing and the Super Bowl waiting right around the corner. What a year, huh?

January 07, 2014

Getting High on Puffers

by Jerry Vovcsko

Okay, so now we hear that you can legally buy marijuana in Colorado and Washington State. Swell! Let the puffing begin. But it seems some of Mother Nature's critters are one step ahead of us already. A recently filmed documentary appears to demonstrate that dolphins can get high on Puffer Fish.

Whereas adventurous humans may get a rush out of flirting with death by eating a piece of puffer fish, dolphins may experience something completely different. Filmmakers at John Downer Productions recorded the dolphins snacking on the puffer fish for the documentary "Dolphins: Spy in the Pod." After eating the puffer fish, the dolphins seemed to enter a trance-like state.

"[They were] hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection," John Downer, executive producer of the documentary, told International Business Times. "It reminded us of that craze a few years ago when people started licking toads to get a buzz."

However not everyone agrees that the dolphins were doing the marine version of a Cheech and Chong ganja-fest. Christie Wilcox, author of Discover's Science Sushi blog and a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, said that while dolphins were curious animals, she found it hard to believe that they were chasing the fish for a high.

"The puffer fish's tetrodotoxin shuts down nerve cells, but it doesn't cross the blood brain barrier," she told ABC News. "It's not like recreational drugs that have some effect on the brain, so I find it hard to believe that it would be pleasurable."

In addition, she said that if the dolphins really wanted to get high, there were other sea critters that would fit the bill. "In many areas of the world, sea bream are known to produce vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, much like tripping on acid," she said. "And of course, people have used them recreationally."

That's certainly reassuring news for those of us troubled by the notion that lovable, old Flipper has been tripping in a cloud of boo-smoke and hanging out in some remote coral patch just one toke over the line.

Meanwhile, leave it to the Australians to take a Shootout-at-the-OK-Corral approach to the problem of shark attacks on bathers. Politicians have launched a series of measures declaring that sharks longer than 3 meters (10 feet) that get near popular beaches in Western Australia will be caught, shot and dumped back into the sea, in an attempt to reduce public anxiety over attacks. Details of the Western Australia government's controversial "shark management" strategy have been recently released, with sharks bigger than 3 meters singled out for shooting and then discarding offshore.

A tender released by the government calls for an "experienced licensed commercial fishing organization" to deploy and maintain up to 72 drum lines off popular beaches in Perth and elsewhere along the south-west coast. The drum lines, containing a hook with bait on them, will catch and, eventually, kill passing sharks that come within 1km of the beach.

Should a live white shark, tiger shark or bull shark longer than 3 meters be found on the drum lines, they will be "humanely destroyed" with a firearm, according to the tender documents. Shark corpses will be then tagged and taken further out to sea and dumped. Other animals caught on the baited hooks will be released alive "where possible".

The drum lines will be patrolled by boats for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, until April. Only contractors' vessels will be allowed within a 50-metre exclusion zone set up around the drum lines. The state government said the tender was a "direct response" to the "unprecedented" number of shark attacks off the Western Australia coast. Surfer Chris Boyd, 35, was killed following a shark attack in November, becoming the sixth swimmer or surfer to die from shark-inflicted injuries in the past two years.

Predictably, scientists and animal welfare groups have labelled the strategy barbaric and even counter-productive. Christopher Neff, who has completed the first PhD on the "politics of shark attacks" at the University of Sydney, told Guardian Australia there was "no evidence" that baited drum lines reduced the risk of a shark bite.

"There is evidence that drum lines draw white sharks in, but I am unclear on how this is meant to reduce the risk to the public," he said. "If the point is to symbolically kill a protected species for political gain then it will be successful, but if the point is to protect the public from sharks this policy will likely be a failure."

Well, I suppose the plan may not be very effective in preventing shark attacks on humans but it may well bring a few extra votes for politicians promoting the idea and that's probably the bottom line. I think it was cowboy-comedian Will Rogers who said "The more I see of politicians, the better I like dogs." Or maybe it was W. C. Fields…point is, it's one of the dumbest ideas to surface lately and here's hoping it fades into oblivion. Along with the politicians that dreamed it up.

That "vortex" of Arctic air swirling down our way from Canada has turned New England into a veritable deep freeze with below-zero windchills and warnings from the weather folk not to step outdoors with any skin exposed lest we become instant victims of the dreaded "frostbite". It's cold, yes, but reasonable care in dressing with layers of warm clothes should make outdoor excursions plenty safe. And that cold snap we're experiencing is also producing ever-thickening depths of ice cover for local ponds. Four inches of hard water is the target anglers seek to make it safe to get out there with tip-ups, shacks and other gear. Another couple days of near-zero temperatures should see local ponds sporting four-or-more surface cover; be aware, however, of creek inflows, subsurface springs and other anomalies that can drop an unwary angler in the drink. An impromptu bath in thirty-six degree water is no fun.

My New England Patriots go up against the Indianapolis Colts and their young prodigy quarterback Andrew Luck this Saturday. The Pats, behind their newfound running game featuring LeGarret Blount and Stevan Ridley, should emerge with a win. And if the Broncos take care of business out in Denver, fans may yet get to see a shootout between the Pats' QB Tom Brady and the Broncos' Peyton Manning. And that might just be one for the ages.
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