For 21st Century Media
Throughout the three decades that Iíve penned this weekly outdoors column for the Daily Local News, Iíve occasionally profiled the lives of many of the many critters -- from frogs and turtles to bass and bluegills -- that reside in and around our backyard pond here in Northbrook.
After spending last week at our house in Ocean City, Md., (focusing on flounder fishing, of course) I realized Iíd never written about the saltwater creatures that inhabit our backyard canal where we dock our boat, Open Debate, from April to November. Throughout the summer our canal, along with countless others up and down our mid-Atlantic coast, teems with an untold variety of marine life, much of which goes unnoticed to the undiscriminating eye.
For most fishing folks who live on the water, the canal represents a convenient source of briny baitfish and can be counted on for an almost limitless supply of mud minnows (aka mummichogs or killifish) and shiners.
Iíll most always have a minnow trap baited with dog biscuits hanging in the canal waters. As the schools move in and out with the tides, the minnows funnel into the wire trap where theyíll munch on biscuit crumbs until I transfer them to my trusty minnow bucket or live well. While mud minnows are hardy and survive well under tough conditions, the fragile shiners are almost impossible to keep alive for very long and are most often stored frozen until thawed out for use later.
When pinfish and spot (a preferred baitfish for doormat fluke) move into the canal later in the summer, Iíll also place a baited pinfish trap on the bottom.
These devices work on the same principal as a minnow trap, but instead of a circular funnel, the entrances at each end of the cube-shaped trap are slanted vertical slots. Another method Iíll employ to catch baitfish in the canal is a cast net, though admittedly Iím not very skilled in its use. Ideally, small spot will fall prey to my cast-netting efforts, but more often Iíll haul in peanut bunker (small menhaden) or finger mullet, two species that can also be excellent live baits for fluke and a variety of other game fish.
The most entertaining way to catch spot in the canal is via rod and reel, casting multi-hooked Sabiki rigs baited with small Fishbites Bag OíWorms artificial blood worms. Sometimes Iíll paddle my kayak through the canal and adjacent bay waters while doing so. You never know what kind of small canal-dwelling fish you might catch with this rig, especially at night, and you might find spot, pinfish, croaker, snapper bluefish, or American conger eel at the end of your line. Eels, incidentally, regularly show up in minnow traps and can be used as strip baits for flounder or fished whole and live for striped bass (aka rockfish in Maryland).
Of course, one of the tastiest denizens of our canal is the ubiquitous blue crab. Iíll habitually keep two crab pots baited with bunker leashed to our bulkhead and submerged in the canal. Normally, I can expect to trap at least a half dozen legal crabs (5 inches point to point) for the steamer every day or two. Over the years Iíve also caught small flounder and sea robins in these pots as well as more than a few toothy toadfish.
But some of the most fascinating critters that inhabit the canal donít really qualify as bait or food. At low tide when the canal waters are clear, you can observe slender, translucent pipefish zipping through the water along with the shiners and killifish. Tiny grass shrimp are also abundant, and although not suitable as human table fare, serve as an integral part of the marine food chain. Apparently fond of dog biscuit scraps, grass shrimp often show up in good numbers in minnow traps but really are not suitable for use as bait.
Spider and horseshoe crabs occasionally show up in the canal and we also enjoy frequent visits from terrapin turtles. The canalís soft muddy bottom is home to countless hard clams or quahogs along with a wide variety of other bivalve mollusks.
An increasingly common sight in the canal are jellyfish, specifically the semi-transparent Atlantic Sea Nettle, aka Chrysaora quinquecirrha, found all along our east coast. These creatures have no value as food (except for certain species of turtles like the loggerhead) or bait, and are so carnivorous that theyíll even feed on small minnows. They present some danger to humans since they can impart a painful sting when touched or handled, yet there is something inherently graceful and almost surreal about them as their ghostly, pulsating bodies glide just beneath the surface of the canal waters.
Because the canal is intimately wedded to the Atlantic Ocean, the rich array of creatures that can access it is virtually infinite. Whenever I spend time on the canal, Iíve learned to keep my eyes peeled, never knowing what strange new and unexpected critters might appear.
ARCHERY SHOOTS: The West Caln Sportsmenís Club will be hosting a series of two day 3D Archery Shoots open to both compound and traditional archers. These shoots will take place on July 19-20 and Sept. 6-7. The course will include 35 to 40 targets along with a number of practice targets. Food and drink will be available and free camping will also be offered. Registration will be held from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. each day. Fees: Adults (16 and over) $10 single day, $18 weekend, Youth (12-15) $5 single day, $8 weekend. Vendor and flea market tables are also available. For info call Steve Smith at 610-466-9336, Leon Stewart at 610-857-2340, Tim Swisher at 610-547-0777, or Pete Moffett at 610-273-3366. For directions or camping info check the West Caln Sportsmenís websitewww.wcsportsmen.org.