Will The Shiners Return?

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Even as the sheets of ice covering creeks and bays expanded and thickened again this week, sportsmen can’t help but turn their sights to spring on the horizon.Polar vortexes and March snow be damned, this is New York and the ice and frost will be heading for the door in no time and nature knows it. Need evidence? There’s a school of bunker in Tiana Bay. Saw them with my own eyes. Bam. There you have it. Spring is here.

So talk of spring has to turn to what the coming season will bring. The most common talk by fishermen frozen into their homes during harsh winters like this one is invariably what the cold meant for the supplies of bait in the bays.

Lore has it from the days of the old farmers that cold winters mean bountiful bait species in the spring. Why this is, nobody knows. Colder waters kill off or chase away predators like crabs that would otherwise decimate larval minnows, perhaps? The brutal conditions spur the natural programming of the adults to spawn particularly prolifically, maybe? Who knows.

Probably the most anxiously awaited answer to questions this year will be whether the American silversides, which we usually call “shiners” or “spearing,” will return to Long Island. Traditionally, shiners are the most abundant of the minnow species in the bays and harbors of the East Coast. They are by far the most used bait, primarily by anglers hunting for snappers and fluke but also porgies and even tuna in the canyons.

In 2013, for reasons nobody knows, shiners were almost completely absent from Long Island’s waters. A few showed up very late in the summer and early fall, a solid five months after big schools of them should have been gathering to spawn all over the sand flats and marshes.

The vanishing was most perplexing because by most accounts shiners were the only species that really didn’t show. There were plenty of bunker and squid in the bays, lots of bay anchovies, seemingly fair numbers of killies and mullet and various other baitfish, small and large. There weren’t a ton of sandeels inshore but that might just be because it seemed like every single sandeel on the planet was out at 20 fathoms getting munched on by tuna and striped bass. But no shiners were to be found anywhere north of Cape May.

Many blamed the shiner disappearance on some lingering unseen pollutive aftereffect of Superstorm Sandy that only they detected and took as a sign to stay away. Some tagged the more chronic red tide as the repellent. Others said it was merely an anomalous wrinkle in Mother Nature’s grand scheme.

If the shiners reappear in great numbers this spring, all will be forgotten and written off as anomoly. If they are to return we should be seeing them as soon as the ice clears out. The presence of feeding striped bass in the Peconic River even in this frigid winter would lead one to believe that perhaps the shiners returned in the fall and have been lingering over the winter.

But if they don’t come back, their absence two years in a row will be hard to ignore as anything but a very bad sign that something is deeply wrong. For all the struggles with pollution and overfishing the world is seeing, scientists have said that small fish species like shiners are actually thriving thanks to adaptability and a reduction in their natural predators. If shiners are leaving Long Island, there must be crossed wires somewhere.

So, we wait, with bated breath and un-baited hooks, for the signs of Long Island’s quintessential minnow to scurry by our boots.

Codfishing continues to chug along. There’s good days and bad. Plenty of herring in the bays if you want to do some canning.

Hanapa’a. See you out there.

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