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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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November 30, 2015

The Turkey Or the Eel?

by Jerry Vovcsko

Well, the Thanksgiving Holiday is in the rearview mirror now and Christmas looms on the horizon. And what was on your dinner table? Turkey, or maybe a ham? Mashed potatoes? Stuffing? Or perhaps some mussels, lobsters and eels?

Eels you say? Carving the holiday eel may not a tradition in most households, but chances are it was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving.

According to the Smithsonian, the following items were most likely served instead of turkey and mashed potatoes:

Ducks, geese and passenger pigeons, venison, lobster, clams and other shellfish, pumpkins and squash (but not pumpkin pie), flint corn and beans, chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts.

History also tells us that Squanto taught Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony to fish for eel, and that the fatty, nutritious fish may well have saved them from starvation over the winter. These days eels caught commercially are likely destined for export to Europe or headed for bait shops where striper anglers will put them to good used in the surf.

Oh, and it was 50 years ago, Thanksgiving in 1965, when an 18-year-old folkie with a guitar drove up from Queens, N.Y., to Great Barrington to visit a friend named Alice Brock. While he was there, he did Alice and her husband, Ray, a favor. He took out their garbage. It would change Arlo Guthrie's life. Guthrie and his buddy threw the garbage down a ditch where others often did the same thing.

But the next day, the pair was arrested for littering, and that misdemeanor is what kept him from being drafted into the Vietnam War because he had an arrest record. It also became the narrative for a little ditty he wrote two years later that he called "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." Part song, part storytelling, it became Guthrie's signature and this fall he's taking off on a national tour to celebrate the 50 years since the event.

Arlo played in Boston at the Berklee Performance Center back in October and his final New England stop is at the Guthrie Center in the Berkshires in May, 2016. I always liked "Alice's Restaurant" but who can forget the classic lines: "Flyin' into Los Angeles…bringin' in a couple of keys"?

And anglers who have spent many hours becoming familiar with the bottom contours of the Cape Cod Canal will soon have to revise their virtual charts. Yep, the United States Army Corps of Engineers announced this week that they have awarded the Cape Cod Canal dredging project to an out-of-state company. The $5,899,400 project has been awarded to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company, LLC of Oak Brook, Illinois.

Under the terms of the contract, Great Lakes will perform all maintenance dredging and advance maintenance on the canal. Work on the expansive project is scheduled to begin in January 2016 and take between two and three months to complete.

According to USACE New England District Project Manager Bill Kavanaugh, approximately 182,000 cubic yards of clean sand and gravel will be removed from six authorized areas. The authorized areas are in the 32-foot deep, 500-foot-wide main shipping channel and the 25-foot deep East Mooring Basin.

"Shoaling in the main ship channel consists of large wave formations," Kavanaugh said. "These formations cause draft restrictions, tidal delays and hazardous conditions for deep-draft commercial vessels transiting the Canal."

The Corps has also entered into talks with the Town of Sandwich about acquiring the clean sand from the dredge--and who would pay for it. The Corp said the sand would be re-used on as beach-fill on the 2,500-foot eroded section of Sandwich's Town Neck Beach.

It's a little quiet on the saltwater scene these days. Not that all the stripers have left town. School bass can still found in the estuaries along the Sound-facing side of the Cape. But bait is probably the best chance of hooking up right now and folks using artificials will want to slow-fish plugs or plastics. As the water gets chilly, bass become a bit lethargic and reluctant to expend calories chasing a potential meal.

On the Cape Cod Bay side such places as Scorton Creek and Barnstable Harbor are best bets as the season comes to a close. Scorton is likeliest to hold a few large bass and protection from high winds makes it doubly attractive as a late season destination.

Local ponds continue to produce perch, pickerel, trout and bass (large and smallmouth.) Look for bass in the deeper places and hit the edges of weed beds with metal spoons for pickerel which, by the way, are very delicious grilled with veggies in aluminum foil pouches.

Up until the Monday night game this week, the two biggest questions in the minds of many were: Will the Patriots go 16-0 and is Jon Snow really dead? The Scorched Earth Tour derailed momentarily in Denver but will probably re-commence when the Eagles come to town next Sunday.

As to the apparent demise of the youthful 998th Commander of The Night Watch…we may want to hold off on funeral arrangements for now. The Pats will rise again and I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Jon Snow. Better days are coming, it says on my fortune cookie. We shall see.

November 24, 2015

Waving From the Overpass

by Jerry Vovcsko

A Cape Cod tradition sees locals standing on the overpasses along Route 6 waving "goodbye" to the departing tourists. My own personal version of that tradition is to stand by the Cape Cod Canal near the Maritime Academy and watch as the west bound current carries away the last of the current striped bass season. And that's where I'll be this weekend because water temperatures at NOAA buoy 44020 in Nantucket Sound dipped under 50-degrees for the first time since late last April. So Sayonara, this year's striper season…I'll be looking for you next May.

November 18th marked 164 years since the Great American Novel "Moby-Dick" was published. Herman Melville's classic tale of Ahab's obsession with the white whale of the novel's title is based on the sinking of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by a whale in the Pacific in 1820, and Melville's own experiences on the whaling vessel Acushnet out of New Bedford in 1841.

And on that same day in 1905 five lepers arrived on Penikese Island in Buzzard's Bay, the site of the first and only leprosarium in Massachusetts. A year earlier the state of Massachusetts had bought the island for $25,000 to use as a leprosy hospital to isolate and treat all Massachusetts residents with the disease.

Over the next 16 years, 36 victims of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, lived on the isolated island, along with a handful of caregivers. Dr. Frank Parker and his wife, Marion, went to great lengths to make the patients comfortable, providing good food, fresh air, exercise, entertainment, and nursing, but it was nearly impossible to overcome the stigma and social ostracism associated with leprosy.

Later the island situated just north of Cuttyhunk became home to a private school for troubled youth. It was founded by Woods Hole resident and ex-Marine, George Cadwallader, and provided safe haven for the young people trying to turn their lives around. I wonder if those kids knew they were living smack in the middle of some of the finest striped bass waters in North America?

And for the first time, Americans will be able to dine on a genetically altered animal, after federal regulators last week approved a Massachusetts biotechnology company's bid to modify salmon for human consumption. After years of testing the company's modified fish, regulators said there are no "biologically relevant differences" between the so-called AquAdvantage salmon and other farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

That decision was a big win for AquaBounty, which began seeking approval in the 1990s for its technique of inserting growth hormone genes from Chinook salmon and an eel-like creature called ocean pout into the DNA of Atlantic salmon. The faster the fish grow, the more the company can produce and sell, potentially reducing overfishing of the oceans and developing a new source of food for a growing global population.

Agency officials said their environmental assessment found that the altered salmon would not have a significant environmental impact, because of the multiple and redundant measures being taken to contain the fish and prevent their escape. The agency's approval, however, still bars the company from raising the fish in the United States. The company will be allowed to raise the salmon only in specially designed land-based tanks in Canada and Panama. The results of enabling salmon to grow more quickly, they said, could mean less need to fish depleted wild salmon stocks.

Back in the nineties I wrote for a national commercial fishing magazine when a Scandinavian company tried farming salmon in net pens based near Vancouver Island in British Columbia. That project ended disastrously with escaped famed fish mingling and reputedly breeding with wild salmon, seals being shot by farm workers and antibiotic-laced fish food carried by powerful currents to later be consumed by wild stocks. Disease was rampant in the pens and when a net pen full of farmed salmon died off, divers were called in to vacuum out the dead fish. One diver said hat in his forty years of commercial diving, cleaning out the net pen was the filthiest job he'd ever had to do.

On paper, plans to augment one fishery or another all sound bright and promising but inevitably seem to overlook the Law of Unintended Consequences. I recall a TV commercial some years back for…I think it was butter…that said something like: "It doesn't pay to mess with Mother Nature."

I suppose I'm just Old School enough to think there's a lot of truth in that old homily. Time will tell.

It's not just sea turtles who end up stranded on the Cape's beaches as cold water traps them in Cape Cod Bay. Rescuers raced against the clock Monday afternoon as they tried to reach a minke whale stuck on a mud flat off the shore of Kingston before the sun went down.

The whale, which was identified based on a distinctive white patch on the front pectoral fin, washed up in a remote area of Gray's Beach Park, said New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. As adults, minke whales can reach 25 to 30 feet long but rescuers said this whale was smaller than average, indicating it could be a younger animal. However, LaCasse said, they didn't know whether they'd be able to reach the whale to help it back into deeper waters.

"Given the fact that we have an hour-and-a-half of daylight and an incoming high tide and an animal in an inaccessible area, we're not going to put anyone at risk," he said. "We're going to do our best."

And the whale swam free just after 4:30 p.m. when high tide rolled in and allowed it to reach open water.

Just in case there's anyone who didn't hear about it, the New England Patriots' Scorched Earth Tour continued to roll with a Monday Night Football victory over Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills. But two more Patriots went down with injuries and the pass receiving corps is beginning to resemble the setting of Doctor Feelgood's Infirmary and Patent Medicine Show. Before long, Tom Brady may have to throw a pass, then run out and catch it himself if his receivers continue dropping like flies. And yet, the Pats keep winning. Have another heaping helping of Schadenfreude, Commissioner Goodell.

November 14, 2015

November On the Cape: Turkey Day

by Jerry Vovcsko

A necropsy is sometimes performed on a marine animal to reveal the cause of the animal's death. This week, according to a story on a Cape Cod website, New England Aquarium marine biologists performed a necropsy on a 400-pound leatherback sea turtle and identified three hazards that contributed to its death.

According to a New England Aquarium release, the leatherback was first spotted by the crew of a University of Rhode Island research vessel last week on Cape Cod Bay. On Sunday, its bloated body washed ashore at Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable. Its body was retrieved and transported to the aquarium's sea turtle hospital in Quincy.

Dr. Charles Innes, the aquarium's head veterinarian, and a team of biologists began the necropsy early in the week. They first discovered telltale signs of entanglement--heavy abrasions and and lacerations on the sea turtle's front flippers. Entanglements, typically caused by vertical ropes from fixed fishing gear or lobster pots, often lead to drowning.

Additionally, researchers noted a major deformity on the young male turtle's shell. X-rays revealed extensive fractures to the shell and vertebrae. Dr. Innis believes the turtle was likely struck by a boat in the early summer and managed to not only survive, but thrive, according to the release.

Finally, while examining the organs for evidence of disease, Dr. Innes and his team found three pieces of plastic in the sea turtle's stomach, a 3' x 1' piece of plastic sheeting, a sandwich baggie and a candy wrapper. Although the turtle might have eventually passed the two smaller items, it is likely the sheeting would have remained in its system. As trash on the open water, plastics of this type can resemble undulating sea jellies, a favorite food of leatherback sea turtles.

In the end, the entanglement was determined to be the cause of death. The team that performed the necropsy on the sea turtle had never seen signs of all three human-related hazards in one sea turtle. The ever growing extent of ocean pollution does not bode well for the future of marine animals.

Well, it looks like the few balmy days we've experienced recently have nudged water temperatures upward in Vineyard Sound a tick or two. In fact the numbers sit currently in the low to mid-fifties and climbing again. That could keep stripers around well past Thanksgiving if the trend continues and make T-day real special: roast turkey at mid-day; college and pro football for the afternoon and a trip to the salt water around dusk to dunk a few baits or maybe toss jig-and-plastic combos into the suds. Yessir, it could be a real special day. Or it could snow; we'll see.

For the time being, though, plenty of locals have forsaken the diminished pickings out in the salty environment for better results at one local pond or another. And the action is perking up these days on the freshwater scene. Everything from perch, white and yellow…bass, large and smallmouth…to trout, salmon and pickerel are tearing it up around the Cape. The Brewster ponds have been stocked recently and local anglers continue to target rainbow trout and salmon as they look to fill the freezer before the upcoming winter arrives.

But others are reluctant to quit on the striper population just yet. The Elizabeth Island chain still holds bass in residence, especially down at the western end of the islands around Robinsons Hole, Cuttyhunk and Quicks Hole with live eels taking keeper sized fish and darters and swimming plugs still doing good business among the close-to-shore boulders and rock structure that line the islands from end to end.

The stretch of shoreline south of French Watering Place on down to Robinsons Hole has been particularly productive in the early morning hours and on into the afternoon. Biggest problem has been finding opportunities when the winds lie down enough to make it safe to take a small boat down that way. This time of year it can get frighteningly rough in a real hurry so anybody venturing down the islands wants to be prepared to run for it if a northerly starts to blow.

Over in Buzzards Bay most of the folks I see out there appear to be focused on groundfish with tautog the target of choice for many. Woods Hole, the Weepecket Islands and up around Cleveland Ledge are the consistently productive areas and some of the biggest ‘tog are taken from these locations. Green crab is the preferred bait but don't overlook seaworms…the blackfish treat them as very desirable desserts and two or three seaworms streamed from a 3/0 hook can deliver impressive results. An old fishing buddy of mine employs a chrome-plated jig festooned with a cluster of seaworms and catches consistently large ‘tog on a regular basis.

We're midway into November right now and there's still striped bass hanging around; Thanksgiving's just a couple weeks away and the Patriots are in first place in the AFC and take on the Giants as next step in the 2015 Scorched Earth Tour. Things feel pretty good for New England sports fans at the moment and maybe the new President of Baseball Operations, Dave Dombrowsk, can get the Red Sox back on track for 2015. Yesterday's trade for ace reliever Craig Kimbrel looks to be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, don't put those rods away just yet. Tight lines, everyone.

November 07, 2015

Picking Up the Litter As the Season Winds Down

by Jerry Vovcsko

Apropos of nothing in particular…a recurring phrase keeps running through my mind:
"Man has an inexhaustible capacity to beshit his environment…with politicians well in the lead."

Can't recall where I ran across it…but I've been reading a couple of Jim Harrison's books lately, so maybe that's the source. Sure sounds like him.

Anyhow, it started running around in my head shortly after a visit to the Cape Cod Canal to see if anybody was catching anything. Not much action but plenty of Dunkin Donuts coffee cups, McDonald's French fries packets, a busted up shopping cart, yards and yards of nylon rope, old fish netting, used condoms, pages from last Sunday's newspaper… the usual mess. Wonder if we'll ever learn.

And on a further down note…we're hearing that the rapid warming of the waters off New England has contributed to the historic collapse of the region's cod population and has hampered its ability to rebound. That's according to a new study that for the first time links climate change to the cod's plummeting numbers. The researchers also suggest that federal officials have used faulty models to determine the number of cod in the Gulf of Maine, which the researchers estimate has fallen to as little as 3 percent of what would sustain a healthy population. Those faulty models, they said, led the officials to allow overfishing, enough that the region's cod catch has fallen 90 percent over the past three decades.

"Managers [of the fishery] kept reducing quotas, but the cod population kept declining," said Andrew Pershing, the study's lead author and chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. "It turns out that warming waters were making the Gulf of Maine less hospitable for cod, and the management response was too slow to keep up with the changes."

Between 2004 and 2013, the mean surface temperature of the Gulf of Maine – which extends from Cape Cod to Cape Sable in Nova Scotia – rose 4 degrees, a faster rate of warming than 99 percent of the world's other large bodies of saltwater, according to the study. The authors of the study, which was released Thursday by the journal Science, link the rapid warming to a northward shift in the Gulf Stream and changes to other major currents in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

A number of commercial fishermen sit on the management council and many of them have resisted additional closures and cuts to their cod quotas, which have been fished for centuries in the region, so much so that the massive catch helped lure settlers to North America and financed the American Revolution. Many of them also dispute NOAA's assessment methodology, arguing that the agency is undercounting the population. In fact, many fishermen say they have seen a resurgence of cod in recent years.

This is all eerily similar to the argument that raged between Newfoundland's commercial fishermen and Canadian fishery officials back in the 90s…right up until the cod stocks imploded and that entire fishery was shut down putting boats, nets and fishermen on the beach. Let's hope that we don't see a repeat of that debacle in our waters.

As to the local salt water recreational fishing scene, it's winding down now but there are still plenty of fish around. Seeing, as they say, is believing and customers at Red Top tackle shop in Buzzards Bay got a chance to verify that when Jacob - one of the store employees – landed a 47 pound striper from the Canal. Anglers working jigs down deep during the nocturnal hours continue to pull stripers from The Ditch and will likely continue to do so right into December.

Water temperatures hover in the mid-fifties in Nantucket Sound so anglers will likely continue to see striped bass hanging around for a while yet and may even pick up the odd bluefish or two. Tautog make bottom fishing worthwhile and they won't depart for deeper waters offshore until it gets really, really cold.

Then too, there's always the freshwater scene to turn toward and the action there is buzzing right along these days, especially in those ponds stocked by the environmental folks whose trucks have been busy with late-season pond-stocking efforts. We've been experiencing a run of late season mild weather and that's brought lots of folks out in pursuit of trout, bass and panfish. We're moving into that transitional time between the salt water and freshwater activity, but opportunity awaits in both categories; it's a great time to get out and wet a line before Old Man Winter shuts us down until next spring.

I have to admit it's been fun taunting the Bills, Jets, Dolphins and them about the Patriot's Scorched Earth Revenge Tour, but it's the Washington Redskins' turn to face the New England juggernaut and my heart's not really in it. I mean, those guys have to contend with whack-a-doo owner Dan Snyder's shenanigans on a daily basis and I guess I just don't feel like adding to their misery. Belichick and the lads are saying nice things about the Redskins so let's leave it at that and figure it'll be the Patriots at 8-0 when the weekend's over.
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