Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gators, Crabs, Shrimp and Musings

Written by Ben Williams, former Board member of Riverkeeper

Good morning. And it is morning, shortly after 2 am as I set this down. And no I'm not still up from the night before but rather, as it so often is with us crazy fishermen, already anticipating the days excursion on our St. Johns. Actually today, more accurately only the couple of hours surrounding sunrise, will be spent chasing large lizards.

Now I know a number of you may not approve of this behavior but take from the fact that we are able to engage in it the positive. The positive is that in the not too distant past the American Alligator was listed as a endangered species, yet today, all over the Southeast, not just here in Florida, the alligator has returned. He's returned not only to the point that his important role in the environment is being fully filled but to the point that commercial and recreational hunting of alligators in a number of states is allowed.

And I might add that here in Florida the revenues generated from those hunts fund, fully I am told, the states alligator management programs, programs which would seem to be working, based on the ever increasing numbers, maybe as many as 2 million, certainly over a million. And we're talking a species that breeds almost as quickly as feral cats so they can stand a bit of harvesting.

The obvious positive being that sound environmental policy has allowed the alligator to return. A success, something we who focus on the environment so often miss, that there are successes. It seems the nature of our effort that we focus on what is wrong and seldom on what has been accomplished.

I've attached, for those of you who might be interested in such, a picture or two of the 5th gator we harvested this season. He's not all that big, 10' 5" and a bit over 400 pounds. In fact we've already harvested 2 others of similar size this season. What is different is that this one was caught as the sun came up which gave us the opportunity to take some clear pictures right after he was caught. Also you'll note that the crew on this trip consists of me, the old guy using a block and tackle to bring him over the stern, and one girl. Actually Louann, wife of 27 years and constant companion on the water and in the woods.

Enough about gators, for as with my previous postings the reason I set this stuff down is because I know so many of you, who work so diligently at protecting and improving our St. Johns, get scant opportunity to immerse yourselves in it. I'm more than fortunate in that regard and am always mindful as I recreate on and seek sustenance from our river that without those efforts...........well you know what would happen if we did not work to protect our river.

So what else has been going on of late out there that you've been missing?

In no particular order, and maybe in a somewhat confused recounting, here's some of what we're seeing of late.

Shrimp! Lots of shrimp. And you'll need a map to appreciate this if you're not VERY familiar with the river: shrimp from the south end of Crescent Lake to the south end of Lake George. Atlantic White shrimp (panaeus setiferus), the white shrimp that once they reach maturity and run out into the ocean will constitute the most important part of our commercial catch here in NE Fla.

We're having so far, and will continue to have so long as some ugly tropical event does not drop enough water on us to flush them from the river, a banner year here in our river. In the last few weeks we've been on the river at all hours. Seen a number of sunsets and sunrises, and moon rises and moon sets while chasing gators, and sweltered through more than a afternoon or two chasing the elusive black bass. I say elusive only because our performance in tournaments of late has been less than stellar. Those risings and settings, and that sweltering, has occurred from Julington Creek to the southern ends of George and Crescent.

During the night, at all hours, we've noted docks with nets being tossed off of them onto the shrimp. And during the day, this past Friday and Saturday included, we've passed hundreds of folks tossing nets along the river channel, and at the edges of drops, and in the ends of deep sloughs. And this shrimp fleet, a recreational fleet is what it is, for there is no commercial harvest allowed south of downtown Jax., is a real cross-section of our community.........at least based on the variety of boats, and souls, engaged in it. From pontoon boats to old kicker boats to fancy bass boats to 25+ foot cruisers and sportfishermen, to ski boats ( Here I might add a fisherman's prejudicial remark.....that finally those ski boats are engaged in something unannoying. Now if only we can find such for the PWCs. )............you get the picture.

And the people tossing the nets. They look and sound like America. From the expected southern English of the boys in the bass boats to the Spanish and Korean and Chinese and Tagalog and .......well you get the picture again.

And it's not just the faces and accents that are different but also, if you know what you are seeing, the different ways the nets are tossed. Take a walk along the Old Shands in Green Cove at night and pay close attention. Watch how the nets are folded and readied for throwing. Different methods form different places.

And it's not just the shrimp, and the shrimpers, that are doing well here in the our river. Those who catch crabs for a living are having a good year also. The crabs have been relatively thick, relatively large, and relatively evenly distributed throughout the area. The run has been so good, with so many large males in the mix, that it's actually worked against some of the crabbers, those who peeler fish specifically.

Peelers, crabs that will soon molt and thereby become the most valuable blue crab of all, the soft shell, are specifically sought by some. The standard catch method is to bait a trap with a large live male crab. This baited trap is pulled just as would be a trap baited with fish except in this instance the expected catch is not large mature crabs destined for the steamer but rather juvenile female crabs.

You see, it works like this. The large male crab, sitting in the bait well of that trap, is constantly emitting pheromones. Those pheromones draw the juvenile females to him. Crabs, females at least, generally mate only once in their life at what is referred to as their pubertal molt. This is the molt where the triangular apron on the bottom of the juvenile females shell becomes rounded........and no I'm not going to draw any tacky analogies.......and she becomes sexually mature. It is only immediately after molting, while she is still soft, that she can mate. The male will cradle her, both protecting her while she is in a most vulnerable state and passing along his genetic contribution at the same time.

===== Here I must pause for it's now 4 am and time for the boat to go in the water, more later. ===============

10:05 am, back from the river. Been down south of Palatka looking for gators. Only luck this morning was bad.

Now that's not actually true. We, Scott Campbell, his son Scottie and I, were on the water well before the east started to lighten. We were treated to a spectacular sunrise, over the trees not over the condos. We did see a few gators, actually managed to foul up a good opportunity to harvest one.

Getting back to the crabs:

When the crabber pulls these "peeler pots" as they are called, he dumps out the soon to molt females and feeds the male in the bait well before returning the full but frustrated male and the trap to the water. The females, at least the ones that are far enough along towards the molt, are carried to a shedding house where they are placed in holding tanks. These tanks, protected from the sun and with constantly flowing water, will be their home until they shed, which may be anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Once a crab sheds it is allowed to firm up a bit and then is removed from the water, carefully placed on a tray and covered with wet newspaper or wet straw. They are then refrigerated.

Once out of the water their shell will not harden. On the other hand should a crab be allowed to stay in the tank for to long after shedding its shell will firm up to much and it will be of no value as a soft crab. This fact makes shedding crabs a 24 hour a day occupation. Generally the tanks must be checked every two hours. As many, if not most, of the local shedding operations are mom and pop efforts this means little sound sleep for the family during the peeler runs.

And I could go on about this but you kind of get the picture, so don't complain about the cost of that one soft-shell crab.............

And then there are the mullet. Not a very exciting fish but arguably among the most important because of the gap it bridges in the food web. Being a vegetarian, complete with gizzard, it is one of the great transporters of plant energy on up the food chain. Needless to say the mullet is incorporated, unwillingly, into many other species of fish.

The mullet in our river have been growing like crazy all summer. This years crop is excellent, great numbers all over. In the next few weeks they will start to get antsy about migrating as the first few cool days of fall arrive. They will also start to develop roe. Mullet roe, once a great delicacy along the southeast coast, is today a food in demand by only a few. It's something we're soon to lose as a culture, the love of it. Mind you I don't much care for it but I do care for tradition and a holding on to....oh well regardless it's a passing thing.

And for those of us who've caught them, and who know what we are looking at, the appearance of the schools will change over the next few weeks as they aggregate for the run to the ocean. The scattered schools, often no more than a few fish, will come to gather into schools that will string for hundreds of yards....or more. And they'll travel. It'd take a page or two to describe it.

And it's worth mentioning that a mullet is not just a mullet. Out close to the ocean we've got a mix, black mullet ( Also called striped. ) and silver mullet. The silvers are much smaller, seldom over a pound. The blacks, those are the mullet of our river, the ones that travel all the way south. They are the ones that attain 4 and 5 and more pounds, and produce the once so highly prized roe. And that roe. During this time of year the commercial fishermen will gauge the mullet by the roe. The constant question, because the price paid to the fisherman hinges on it, is what percent are they cutting? This refers to the pounds of roe per hundred weight of female mullet in the round that can be recovered. At times this can be as high as 15 to 17 percent.

The male fish are basically crab bait.................and you can figure out why.

Midges. A.K.A. blind mosquitoes. Last year we had numerous hatches all the way to south Jax. Almost every night of gator season we endured some level of swarm. A few nights it was so bad that we had to rinse off the boat because their accumulated eggs and squashed bodies rendered the boat slippery. They were so prevalent, and its been so long sense we've had significant hatches up this way, that there were news articles written on them.

Why they are gone this year........I'd venture the salt. And in this part of the river the fact that the salt has killed the grass. Why we've not seen significant hatches on Crescent or George or south of Palatka, places where the grass is a gorgeous as I can remember........can't answer that one. When we're gator hunting we don't miss them swarming our lights and crawling in and under and around our persons and belongings, but we do know they, like the mullet, are transporters of energy up the food chain so we wonder.

And there's a lot more but..................time...............

Do let me share this quote. It came from Louann as we drove back across the Shands bridge from a gator effort. She was looking out at our river over the rails of the bridge and noting the groups of boats, both north and south and spread all about. Some, most I'd say, were shrimping, a few were fishing, a couple were sailboats and of course a PWC or two was skimming along.

And Louann said "Look at all those people enjoying the river. That's a good thing."

And it is a good thing. And it's a good thing that can be still happening a hundred years from now. And if it is it will be because of the good thing all of you are doing for our river. That's what I think. I think because of the efforts of a lot of people, people who to infrequently get to enjoy our river, our river will still be a productive and enjoyable place for our grandchildren.


An afterthought.........the gator......he will be used. We use them all. The meat from that one, all of it not just the tail, went to Magnolia Point Golf Club. The hide will end up in the hands of a artisan leather worker, most likely in France or Italy.

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