Tomcod are back.
Not that this miniature look-alike of the much larger codfish ever left Long Island Sound but they seem available in fishable numbers for the first time since the 1970s or early 1980s. I am old enough to remember catching buckets of tomcod with rod and reel and spotlighting and spearing them with frog gigs along the shore after dark. Many anglers younger than I have never even seen, much less caught one.
Hints of the tomcod's return came in November. The fishing report issued by River's End Bait & Tackle in Old Saybrook noted that some of the fish had been caught near the mouth of the Connecticut River. About a week later, a waterman friend of mine caught a half-dozen tomcod in his eel trap, set in the Hammonasset River in Clinton. A few days ago, when I called to check out tomcod with Rod MacLeod, fisheries biologist at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Marine Fisheries Division, he had more evidence. A mess of big tomcod, including egg-bearing females, had just turned up in a trap set at the division's Old Lyme headquarters.
Seldom more than a foot long and a pound in weight, the tomcod is an inshore species that enters estuaries to breed from late fall to late winter. The colder the water, the better for tomcod, as indicated by its other name, "frostfish." A warmup of the Sound during the 1980s has been suggested as a reason for the tomcod's decline. Predation by species such as the striped bass, much more abundant now than in the heyday of the tomcod, may also be responsible for the tomcod's decline, says MacLeod. He explains that the tomcod lives only three years so major losses to just one year's class can drastically diminish the population. Conversely, a highly successful reproductive year can substantially boost numbers.
Tomcod are as tasty as their larger relatives. However, a report in the journal Science earlier this year suggests caution before gorging on a plate of tomcod. Supported by the federal National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Superfund Research program grants, scientists have documented what amounts to an invasion of tomcod mutants, unlike anything seen before in a living vertebrate.
Ninety-five percent of tomcod inhabiting New York's Hudson River have a single mutation in one gene that enables them to survive massive doses of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), poured into the river by two General Electric plants from 1947 to 1972. The mutation eliminates two amino acids from a protein produced by the gene for metabolizing the PCBs, which poisons and sickens the fish. The missing amino acids throw a monkey wrench into the process, so the the poison is locked up in fat, quarantined, so to speak.
While the mutation saves the mutant tomcod, it bodes ill for creatures like striped bass — and humans — who eat them. The poison passes to them. For Long Island Sound anglers, however, there is a note of comfort in the report. Only about five percent of the fish tested in two small streams on Long Island and in Connecticut are poisonous mutants.
Essentially, the mutation is similar to development by insects of resistance to certain insecticides and of bacteria to antibiotics. "This is really the first demonstration of a mechanism of resistance in any vertebrate population," says Isaac Wirgin of New York University, who led the study. The mutation of tomcod is also remarkable because it represents a form of high-speed evolution never before observed in a vertebrate, taking a mere 50 years for what normally should occur over millennia.
Figuring that tomcod in the Sound remain a safe bet, I am going to fish for them. High tide is best, at depths of less than 30 feet. They can be had in tidal creeks only a few feet deep. Bait must be presented on the bottom, with a sinker large enough to resist current movement. Baits include sea worms, clams, mussels and cut fish. Nightcrawlers also work, as they do for winter flounder. No Connecticut regulations cover tomcod, so they can be taken without regard to size or number. "Take what you need," advises MacLeod, "but use common sense. Don't be greedy."
In the Genes
Speaking of things genetic, a discovery by Susan O'Connor, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, indicates that deep-sea fishing has been in our blood since very ancient times. Excavating a cave once used by prehistoric humans on East Timor, an island nation north of Australia, she found the remains of deep-water fish, such as tuna and sharks. Writing last month in Science, she suggests that the bones are evidence that the cave's inhabits had the technology to catch pelagic species far from shore. The habitation in the cave dates to 42,000 years ago.
Hunting Safer Than Golf
Information compiled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown show that hunting ranks third in safety when compared to 28 other sports. Hunting with firearms had an injury rate of .05 percent, about one per 2,000 participants. Golf's rating was .16 percent. The study also showed that soccer players are 34 times more likely to be injured than hunters. Want a sport safer than hunting? Try billiards.