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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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April 29, 2014

Dam Comes Down, Herring Come Back

by Jerry Vovcsko

An archaic East Bridgewater dam that has served mostly as an obstacle to the passage of fish in the Satucket River will soon be coming down according to the state's Division of Ecological Restoration, which announced details of the demolition project last week. A recent story in the Boston Globe notes that the Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam was once an economic engine in East Bridgewater, harnessing the power of the Satucket River to run a major factory. After years of neglect, the dam has been slated for destruction, part of a statewide push to restore rivers to their natural state.

There are some 3,000 dams in Massachusetts, a vestige of its milltown past. But just 10 percent serve an active purpose, either for energy or flood control, and many are structurally unsound. Over the past decade, state agencies joined by environmental groups have stepped up efforts to remove the outdated structures, allowing 100 miles of rivers to run free. Removing the East Bridgewater dam, which now blocks a substantial population of river herring from traveling upstream, will open up several hundred acres of spawning habitat.

Built in 1815, the dam ranked among the worst 10 percent in impeding migratory fish, environmental officials say. The privately owned dam was declared unsafe more than a decade ago and the owner, who had not made the necessary repairs, had asked for help in removing the dam, and town officials all agreed. The project will be funded by the state, environmental groups, and the federal government. It will probably cost several hundred thousand dollars, officials said, and will take several years of planning but will give fish such as alewife, American shad, white perch, and brook trout free passage to the river's source, Robbins Pond. It's a worthwhile undertaking, though, as a fully recovered alewife population would approach 200,000 adults a year, one of the largest in the state.

The Satucket River is a five and a half-mile long river in southeastern Massachusetts that lies within the Taunton River Watershed. It flows generally west from Robbins Pond in East Bridgewater, and into the Matfield River draining a watershed of 35 square miles and 700 acres of natural ponds. Rich with iron and the color of tea, the Satucket is generally slow moving water and relatively shallow, no more than 8 feet deep even in its deepest spots. It's fed by the Poor Meadow Brook which joins the Satucket just below Robin's Pond in East Bridgewater. Robin's pond is a 124 acre natural warm water pond with a predominantly sandy bottom and a fairly uniform 6 foot depth.

As a result of the unused Murray Carver Mill dam four and a half miles of the Satucket River up to Robin's pond are unreachable by the once common river herring which used to swim up and spawn. The removal project will make Robins Pond and Monponsett Pond (528 acres) once again accessible to river herring as well as other species of fish. In the past the river was rich with Alewives that would travel upstream to spawn in the slow moving waters. Until the 1950s the Satucket had Alewife runs, but environmental changes led to their eventual disappearance in the Satucket.

In early times the Wampanoag Indians would live off the Alewives as a food source and the river had many fish weirs built to spear fish for this abundant species. Some of these weirs still exist today and are essentially miniature dams made of rocks shaped in a V position that face up stream. The Wampanoag's would wait on the rocks until a fish would swim through. The only opening was at the tip of the V so the fish had to swim through the weir where they were speared.

Since 2004, Massachusetts has removed 28 dams, and similar projects are in the works. Last week, the state announced plans to remove dams in Bellingham, Chilmark, Northampton, Revere, and West Boylston. Because river herring stocks had been seriously depleted, the State shut down the herring runs to any harvests back in 2006. Maybe with restoration of river access these fish will rebuild their stocks to levels that permit taking them again which will be welcome news indeed to anglers who live-lined the herring to catch striped bass. Time will tell.

Water temperatures in Nantucket Sound continue to creep toward the fifty degree mark which is roughly the minimum water temperature for striped bass. Even though those fish are sparse right now, given another week and a half they will have taken up residence all along the Elizabeth Islands and will continue to migrate into local waters as well as points north. I've been greeting these magnificent gamefish for over forty years now and to me they are nothing short of sea-going nobility. They'll be here until the fall and we are fortunate indeed to have them around.

My recipe for catching my first striper of the season? Simple. Launch the skiff at the Woods Hole boat ramp. Run across the channel to Nonamesset Island and set up a drift just below the house that perches on the shore overlooking the Sound. Tie on a battered, old blackback, five and a half inch, sinking Rebel and cast in to the rocks as lose to shore as possible – put it right up on the beach in fact and gently skip it back into the suds. Retrieve briskly and stand by for the hit…it will likely be a striper somewhere between 24 and 26 inches although keeper sized bass will be on hand a little later in the season. I fish with barbs crimped down because most of the fish I take along here in the early season will be released and flattened barbs equals less damage to the stripers.

The 2014 striper season's about to start, folks. See you out there.

April 22, 2014

High Seas Poachers

by Jerry Vovcsko

Recent stories about mislabeled fish on restaurant menus ought to have clued us in to the ethically challenged behavior that occasionally surfaces in the seafood industry. But new studies are pointing to a disturbing trend that's emerging in the importation of illegally caught fish in US markets. As it is, scientists are concerned that the world's oceans can barely sustain legal seafood catches and they say that upwards of eighty-five percent of the world's commercial seafood grounds are fished up to or beyond their biological limits.

So when a new study that looks at illegal and unreported marine harvests brought to the United States from around the globe and concludes that 32 percent of imported wild shrimp, crab, salmon, pollock, tuna, and other catch was poached, I guess it's time to get concerned about what's going on in the seafood industry. Earlier studies have shown that illegal and underreported fishing comprises up to 31 percent of the world's catch, but this study is the first to examine how much of it slips through the better-inspected ports of the United States.

‘‘That was really a surprise to us,'' said Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia who helped author the study, ‘‘Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA,'' published this month in the journal Marine Policy. US inspectors are far more concerned with the freshness of seafood and its potential impact on human health but what gets by inspectors is valued in the study at $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion per year, a sum that only encourages more illegal and unreported fishing, Pitcher said.

The study's authors point out that fishing vessels and seafood processors rely on a high seas shell game to deliver illegal and unreported catches to US ports. Ships fish at different spots, often for months at a time, using ‘‘transition vessels'' to taxi their catches to market while they keep trolling for fish. Documenting where the fish were caught is lax, and many of the fish, crab, shrimp, and other products are rushed to Chinese processing plants, where low-paid workers fillet salmon, clean the guts of tuna, and pull meat from crabs. Illegally caught fish are easily mixed with legally caught fish at those plants and if so much of the overall harvest slips past under the radar, then questions about what happens to the by-catch are at least as troubling.

Add this to concerns about pollution and habitat destruction and the future doesn't look too rosy for the oceans and, subsequently, for the seafood industry.

It was a remarkable sighting last week when for only the second time in recorded history a bowhead whale was seen swimming and feeding with right whales in Cape Cod Bay. According to experts from the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown bowheads just aren't seen so far south in the waters of the Atlantic. The first time a bowhead was spotted in our waters was two years ago, when one was observed by CCS researchers off the Outer Beach in Orleans in August 2012. The bowhead whale that was spotted in 2012 off the coast of Cape Cod has been seen again in Cape Cod Bay — the farthest south that the species has ever been documented — prompting excitement and concern among researchers.

The Cape Cod presence of the bowhead whale, which normally inhabits the Arctic Ocean and far northern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, raises profound questions about how whales are adapting to a changing environment in the world's oceans. Researchers note there is not enough information yet to link the bowhead's 1,000-mile southern sojourn with climate change.

"It's another piece of a puzzle," said Corey Accardo, the flight coordinator for the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Right Whale Research program. "Being so far out of its natural range, and having it here twice leaves a lot of room for a lot more questions."

Been hearing some good things about the numbers of returning herring in the herring runs. That's a big plus and bodes well for the future…I have to think that plentiful herring availability means positive things for striped bass numbers. And with current water temperatures creeping ever closer to the Magic Fifty mark, it won't be long before migrating stripers swarm back into our waters once again. As far as that goes, ambitious anglers can always venture into some of our local backwaters in pursuit of holdover stripers right now. Such places as Scorton Creek in West Barnstable, Great Pond in Falmouth and pretty much all of Bass River serve as home to striper populations the year-round and a few locals make it a point to seek them out over all twelve calendar months.

The trick with early season bass, fish that are just transitioning from a state of slowed metabolic activities, is to "go slow and small". No point in high speed retrieves and three-inch lures will likely achieve better results than a nine-inch jumbo chugging through backwaters. I've had my best luck with soft baits – jig and plastic combos – small swimming plugs, and bucktail-tipped metal slabs such as Kastmasters and Deadly Dicks. Probably the most effective lure for taking a striper this early in the season is a small jig with a fresh seaworm trailing rom the hook. Lob-cast this combo around jetties, pier pilings and other structure and if there are bas around, chances are one will hit. It's as close to a go-to rig as I know. If seaworms aren't available just yet, a strip of squid can be almost as effective.

April 15, 2014

'Tog In the Ditch

by Jerry Vovcsko

Haven't had much of anything to report on the saltwater scene for some time now, maybe even as far back as last fall. But it looks like a little tautog action is beginning to stir in Buzzards Bay and around the Cape Cod Canal. It's still a bit chilly what with water temperatures hovering in the mid-forties, but the numbers have been trending upwards and ‘tog don't especially mind a little cool water. Yep, this is a pretty good time to snatch up some green crabs (heck, any crabs will do…I've caught tautog using fiddler crabs I picked up out of Sippewisset Creek) and get to ‘togging.

Anyhow, the ‘tog are here and they're on the bite and the minimum size is sixteen inches, three fish per angler per day. Boat-equipped anglers can do well around the rocky ledges at Cleveland Light as well as the rocks that line the bottom among the Weepeckett Islands. Otherwise, folks might take a shot in the Canal down near the Merchant Marine Academy or at the Ditch by the Railroad Bridge parking lot. Early reports this spring mentioned some ‘tog caught near the Mussel Bed at the eastern end but these were mostly undersized fish.

Just a reminder, but right around the time that stripers shoe up in numbers along the Elizabeth Islands, the season opens for black sea bass (may 11th). Sea Bass are one of the tastiest of species that inhabit our waters and make for a wonderful addition to a bouillabaisse. In fact, any fish stew that includes scup, black sea bass and tautog is a candidate for culinary greatness so it's not a bad idea to stash some of these fish in the freezer until the relatives gather later in summer. Spring a finfish/shellfish bouillabaisse on them and forever be spoken of in hushed, reverent tones as a true kitchen hero.

Lately we've been hearing that the oceans are, among other reasons, crucial to our well-being because they absorb large amounts of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) thus helping to mitigate the dastardly greenhouse-effect. But, whoops, hold on just a minute….seems a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found the behavior of fish would be "seriously affected" by greater exposure to CO2. Researchers studied the behavior of coral reef fish at naturally occurring CO2 vents in Milne Bay, in eastern Papua New Guinea and found that escalating carbon dioxide emissions will cause fish to lose their fear of predators, potentially damaging the entire marine food chain.

They found that fish living near the vents, where bubbles of CO2 seeped into the water, "were attracted to predator odor, did not distinguish between odors of different habitats, and exhibited bolder behavior than fish from control reefs". Which just means that more of them are picked off by predators than is normally the case, raising potentially worrying possibilities in a scenario of rising carbon emissions.

The study found that fish's nerve stimulation mechanisms were altered, meaning the smell of predators became alluring so that fish become bolder and venture further away from safe shelter, making them more vulnerable to predators. While fish at the vents faced fewer predators than usual, the consequences for fish in the wider ocean could be significant as more CO2 was dissolved in the water. Little fish are generally very nervous and stay close to shelter, but increasing levels of CO2 reverses this, meaning they are more vulnerable and quickly get eaten by predators. The result would be even more rapidly depleted stocks of fish we humans depend on for food. Some days it seems like you just can't win for losing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released their draft management plan for the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge that will manage the refuge for the next 15 years. It includes the annexation of 717 acres of sandy beach that accumulated in recent years on the northeast portion of the island. The refuge boundary would now be located at the new inlet created in a February 2013 storm on the spit of barrier beach extending south from Lighthouse Beach and known as South Beach.

The draft proposal has three alternatives, including one that maintains the status quo. The preferred alternative expands protection of species and habitat but also provides more opportunities for compatible wildlife-dependent recreation like photography, fishing, observation and waterfowl hunting. Shellfishing is big business in Chatham and the proposed plan's preferred alternative prohibits horseshoe crab and mussel harvesting, while allowing scalloping and clamming done by hand.

Dogs would now be prohibited from all areas within the refuge, including Morris Island. While swimming and beachcombing are allowed, beach sports, kite-flying, personal watercraft, and other non-wildlife activities are prohibited. The new plan also proposes an expansion of the headquarters and a move to establish a downtown facility and offsite parking area.

The refuge will hold two public open houses and a public hearing. The open houses will be on April 24 and May 21, 2014 from 3-7 p.m. at the Chatham Community Center at 702 Main Street, Chatham, MA 02633. The public hearing will be on May 29, 2014 from 6-9 p.m. at the Chatham High School at 425 Crowell Road, Chatham, MA 02633.

To get a look at the proposed plan go to: www.fws.gov/refuge/Monomoy/what_we_do/conservation.html

As I watch the Red Sox continue stumble along losing a weekend series to the Yankees and two crucial players to injuries, I am reassured that better days are just around the corner. Yes, folks, in about two weeks we will actually be able to wet a line in local waters and stand an excellent chance of success because the stripers-will-be-here! Life is good.

April 08, 2014

Stolen Oysters and Illegal Sales

by Jerry Vovcsko

It's not all that uncommon to hear about poachers operating on the Cape. Certainly the herring runs have seen their share of nefarious characters plying their crooked trade under cover of darkness and many an angler has heard rumors of ethically-challenged persons taking under sized stripers or more than their two-per-angler allotment. And now it appears that an unlikely pair of individuals has been conspiring to raid Cape Cod Bay oyster beds and resell the stolen shellfish on the open market. As it stands, nearly 25,000 oysters were stolen in the two separate thefts.

According to stories in the Cape Cod Times and Boston Globe, Michael Bryant, 37, was indicted by a Barnstable County grand jury last week on six counts of larceny of property, a shellfish sales violation, shellfishing a contaminated area and a commercial fishing license violation. Bryant will be arraigned "in the upcoming days" in Barnstable Superior Court, according to a statement from Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe.

"He's certainly been arrested many times," Barnstable police Lt. Sean Balcom remarked about Bryant, but back in January Balcom had said that the case was close to being solved, and he predicted that where Bryant sold the oysters was likely to come as a pretty big surprise. He was right about that.

And who bought Bryant's illegal oysters? Joseph Vaudo, a 62-year-old Sandwich businessman who has owned Joe's Lobster Mart on the Cape Cod Canal for more than 35 years, pleaded guilty last week in Barnstable District Court to charges of receiving stolen property, willfully misleading police during an investigation and failure or refusal to file required statistical reports of wholesale and retail dealers.

And that's the real shocker. Because Joe's Fish Market has over the years developed a solid reputation as a purveyor of high quality fresh fish, lobsters, clams and oysters. The notion that the owner would agree to buy stolen shellfish is disappointing in the extreme and the fallout could have a profound - and long-term - negative impact on the business. (Not to mention the heavy fines that this escapade is likely to generate.)

An investigation into stolen oysters began this past summer when oyster growers in Dennis and Barnstable reported the theft of thousands of oysters and plastic cages to police. Police zeroed in on Bryant in late October, when officers observed Bryant raking oysters in a closed area in Yarmouth. After determining that Bryant was not legally licensed, investigators executed a consent search at his home where they seized oysters and harvesting equipment. The case continues under investigation by Barnstable police and Massachusetts Environmental Police.

There aren't many anglers who fish the Canal who don't recognize the name Stan Gibbs. He was a legendary angler and lure maker whose plugs still inhabit the tackle boxes of east coast anglers and beyond. He died in 2004 at the age of 89. But when The Fisherman Fund commissioned a commemorative bronze statue, it chose to name the 10-foot monument simply "The Fisherman," with no mention of Gibbs. The decision was made to commemorate all fishermen — past, present and future — at Buzzards Bay Park rather than just one, but it created controversy with Gibbs' son Bruce, who said his father should be recognized by name.

This past week, according to a story in the Falmouth Enterprise, the Board of Selectmen signed off on a compromise between Gibbs and the Bourne residents who spent the past five years raising $80,000 for the statue. In a 5-0 vote, it approved the less controversial title: "The Fisherman," with lines underneath that will read: "A tribute to past, present and future striped bass fishermen of the great Cape Cod Canal" and "inspired by local fishing legend Stan Gibbs."

The image is iconic, showing a fisherman, rod in hand, with one 40-pound striped bass slung over his shoulder and another hanging at his side. Sculpted by David Lewis of Osterville, the statue is now being bronzed in Arizona. Lewis' other works include statues of John F. Kennedy in front of the Hyannis museum devoted to the former president, Wampanoag Sachem Iyannough at the Hyannis Village Green and Mercy Otis Warren in front of Barnstable Superior Courthouse.

"If you don't know who Stan Gibbs is, you aren't a striped bass fisherman," said Selectman Earl Baldwin, chairman of the board.

Trout is the name of the game this week. Many of the Cape ponds have been stocked recently and these fish are hungry. PowerBait, small artificials, salmon eggs or worms…anglers have been successful with almost anything they care to offer and some of these fish are Large, especially if one of the holdover browns decides to inhale bait or lure. The Brewster ponds in particular have been productive but the Upper Cape has had its moments also, with Peters Pond in Sandwich delivering some fine rainbows to willing anglers.

It's been a while since we had anything positive to offer about the salt water scene, but water temperatures in Nantucket Sound have crept slowly into the low forties and continue trending upward toward the Magic Fifty mark. This time next month we'll be looking for that first striper of the season…and standing a very good chance of landing it. Seemed like the winter would never let up, but it won't be long now.
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