December 27, 2012

Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Top 5 stories of 2012

This year was full of great stories. I’ve gone back through and put together my top five:

This year was full of great stories. I’ve gone back through and put together my top five:

No. 5 – Fishmeister Takes 2nd

Dean Spatholt of Calabash, N.C., and his team aboard Fish Meister claimed second place in the most prestigious king mackerel tournament in the country – the SKA Nationals held annually in November out of Biloxi, Miss.

Spatholt’s crew, including Chris Blanton of Socastee, David Haynes of Ft. Lauderdale and formerly of North Myrtle Beach, and Steve Miller of Philadelphia, caught kings weighing 55.26 and 41.71 pounds, good for an aggregate of 96.97 pounds and second place behind winner Penny-Less of Lake Worth, Fla., with 103.05 pounds.

After winning $25,000, Spatholt was most excited about the epic bite of king mackerel the crew found on an Exxon rig – 85 miles southeast of Biloxi, using blue runners (hardtails) for bait – on the first day of fishing.

“I was excited about [finishing] second, but it was more exciting to be involved in a bite that good,” Spatholt said. “To have the opportunity to experience what we experienced, was satisfying enough in itself.”

No. 4 – Trout Bounce Back

South Carolina’s population of spotted seatrout endured back-to-back much colder than normal winters in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but much to fishermen’s delight bounced back strongly in 2012.

In the aftermath of the back-to-back cold winters, in the spring of 2011, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources released a statement that said “sampling from nine South Carolina estuaries shows a consistent and dramatic decrease in the number of spotted seatrout.”

The agency went on to encourage anglers to not harvest trout through the summer of 2011 to allow them to spawn and begin recovering from the freeze. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries went a step further, banning harvest of spotted seatrout until June 15 of that year.

After a very warm winter in 2011-12, the numbers of trout were very good this fall.

“They are rather plentiful – we’re thankful for that,” said South Carolina DNR biologist Wallace Jenkins. “They spawn when they’re one year old so apparently enough animals made it through the year after the freeze to spawn and we’re seeing the results.”

Another mild winter would provide another boost to the species.

“If we can make it through this winter without a big freeze, a fish kill, we may have one of the best years it’s ever been around here next year for trout fishing,” said Capt. Mike McDonald of Gul-R-Boy Guide Service in Georgetown. “But that’s all assuming we don’t get a freeze and the water doesn’t get below 45 degrees for any length of time.”

No. 3 – Coyotes

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is five years deep into an extensive study on fawn mortality being conducted on the Savannah River Site in Aiken and Barnwell counties.

In the study – named An Assessment of Factors Limiting Fawn Survival – DNR researchers have found strong evidence the presence of coyotes is having a significant impact on South Carolina’s declining deer population.

DNR estimates the state’s deer population is at 725,000, a 25 percent decrease over the last 10 years after the population peaked in the mid to late 1990’s at about 1 million deer.

While other factors such as a prevalence of mature pine stands have contributed to the downturn, the study has revealed some sobering numbers regarding the role coyotes play in fawn mortality.

Data from the study indicates approximately 70 percent of all fawns are dying by the age of 10 weeks with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities.

Coyotes likely first appeared in South Carolina in the late 1970s and have since spread to where they are prevalent in all 46 counties. The non-native opportunistic predators kill fawns from birth until they are about 10 weeks old, when they become too big and fast for coyotes to handle.

“Based on the results, we’re obviously losing a lot more fawns through all causes and more than we could have ever envisioned to coyote predation,” said Charles Ruth, DNR’s Deer and Turkey Program Coordinator. “I caution people not to take the exact results from this one study and apply them everywhere in the state. It’s probably not going on at the same level everywhere.

“But the important message is since we have coyotes everywhere [in the state], [the fawn predation] is going on at some level everywhere. It represents a change from the past. We’re dealing with something different. We’ve got a new player in deer management.”

No. 2 – Mary Lee and Genie

Thanks to the team at Ocearch, led by Chris Fischer, we are quickly learning the migratory habits of great white sharks off the East Coast.

In mid-September during an expedition off Cape Cod, Mass., the Ocearch team tagged Genie and then Mary Lee, a grand accomplishment.

Since, interested observers have watched both female great white sharks ping their way down the East Coast, with an obvious affinity for waters off the South Carolina coast.

Only when the sharks’ dorsal fins break the surface for a prolonged period of time can the tag connect with the satellite in order to provide the shark’s location. When a shark’s tag connects with the satellite, Ocearch researchers call it a ping.

It has long been suspected that great whites, which prefer a water temperature of 55-60 degrees, visit the waters off South Carolina during late fall and winter, but the tagging of Mary Lee and Genie has for the first time provided solid proof.

Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,456-pound specimen named for Fischer’s mother, in particular has a liking finning at the surface. The shark has pinged numerous times from the waters off the North Carolina Outer Banks to north Georgia since Oct. 3, and most recently pinged Dec. 23 due east of Horry County.

Meanwhile, Genie, a younger, smaller shark at 14 feet, 8 inches and 2,292 pounds, has been more mysterious. After being tagged, Genie pinged several times in the Cape Cod vicinity, the last time on Sept. 30. Her location then wasn’t known again until Dec. 9, when she pinged twice that day off the Hilton Head Island-Savannah, Ga., area.

No. 1 – Black sea bass

The saga of the shutdown of black sea bass, arguably the most important reef fish – at least economically – caught off the South Carolina coast, continued in 2012.

Recreational fishermen have had to endure ever shortening fishing seasons for the tasty species over the last three years, culminating with a 2012-13 season that lasted only 96 days from June 1 through Sept. 4.

“For charter and headboats in our area, it’s important to avoid a black sea bass closure that affects the peak business season of June through August,” said Murrells Inlet’s Tom Swatzel, a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which handles fisheries regulations for the region. “The short 90-day recreational season this year just barely got boat operators through August.’’

There is hope a new stock assessment will be completed in the spring of 2013 in time for the fishery council to consider raising the annual catch limit (ACL) on black sea bass, which could possibly make for a longer fishing season for the species.

“Assuming the stock assessment in June reflects the large numbers of black sea bass fishermen are encountering on the water, the ACL could be increased for the 2013-2014 season through an emergency action,” said Swatzel. “The timing will be very tight to get an ACL increase in place before a recreational closure occurs.”

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