Volume 13, Issue 30 ~ July 28- August 3, 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Biggest Jellyfish on the Bay
Never say never
A dear friend, the late Joe Brooks, a world-renowned fisherman and writer about fish and fishermen, used those three words not infrequently — especially when some young and brash would-be angling authority tried to impress those gathered around the campfire with his knowledge of piscatorial ways.

Joe was a big, gentle man with snow-white hair who knew more about fishing — from giant Nile perch to small bluegills — than any human I ever met. He was kind and soft-spoken, not one to put anybody down. But in discussions on fishes, a word he didn’t like was never.

I recall a gathering around the campfire at a meeting of the Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock nearly 50 years ago, when a young upstart in the writing game took the floor to rant about this and that in fish behavior. Mixed in frequently in his observations was that naughty word; Joe said not a thing — until. Until the young man attired in heavy Abercrombie & Fitch waders said with authority that a trout would never take a fly once it has seen the fisherman who casts it.

Joe let the audacious angler continue until he paused. Then in his trademark quiet yet authoritative way, suggested the word never had no place in fishing. He said something to the effect that once a fisherman says this or that will never happen, it happens.

The Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock is a group dedicated to teaching kids to fish with a fly, and there were perhaps a dozen boys gathered around the campfire soaking up every word of their elders. Joe wanted them to know that anything, including the unbelievable, can happen when fishing. That’s why the sport is so fascinating. All humans are equal in the eyes of fish.

Since that evening so long ago at Thurmont where Big Hunting Creek flows, when the topic is fishing, I’ve never used the word never. Well, almost never.
Breaking Joe Brooks’ Law
A few weeks ago in The Sun, I read an article by Annie Lanskey on jellyfish putting the sting in midsummer on Chesapeake Bay. She covered pretty thoroughly the jellies moving into the Bay, our mid-July onslaught of stinging sea nettles. Then she introduced the moon jellyfish in the words of Richard A. Lerner, a curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. That caught my attention.

Moons are a later jelly, they come in cooler weather, never at this time of year, so why bring them up now, I thought. After all, swimmers and fish-handlers have enough to be concerned about with the more common jellies that can cause painful stings. I forgot Joe Brooks’ advice. Never say never.

Sunday morning I walked to the community beach up here at Stoney Creek, where a few youngsters were crabbing. One called me over to ask about a curious thing in the water: a hugh sea nettle. Only it wasn’t a sea nettle like the others drifting in the creek. It was round like a pie plate and had very short tentacles at its outer edges. It was a moon jellyfish, the first I’ve ever seen this time of year on the Chesapeake.

My apologies to Lanskey and Lerner. Never say never.
Big as the Moon
This grayish miniature sea monster was a big one, a wavering blob, probably 18 inches across its flattened top. Tell you what, had I been swimming and seen it next to me, I wouldn’t have walked on water, I’d have run atop it. The only other person who has done that, they wrote an all-time best selling book about.

We don’t get to see many moon jellies up this way in Chesapeake Bay, though I have seen perhaps a dozen in my fishing and crabbing junkets the past 50 years, most from the mouth of the Potomac to the south. They’re easy to distinguish because they lack long tentacles.

Previously, I had seen but one up in my neck of Bay country. That was back in 1980, when the Chesapeake was abuzz with tales of sea creatures, primarily Chessie. By coincidence, there was a fair run of moon jellies, something different, and Bay users were keyed in on strange sightings. More than a few recreational crabbers were pulling in an occasional moonie with their collapsible crab pots.

Commercial crab potters weren’t startled; they were familiar with the species. Also, they know the moon jellies were nothing to be concerned about. Though they are the biggest of the Chesapeake’s jellyfishes, their sting is hardly felt by humans. But methinks the psychological impact of coming across one would rank up there with brushing against a Portuguese man o’ war.
That 1980 sighting up this way was at Rock Creek, the next tributary of the Patapsco River to the east of Stoney Creek. I had gone there when Joe Taylor of Pasadena called to tell me of a strange and weird jellyfish that slipped free of his crab pot near the mouth of the creek. It wasn’t Chessie, he said, but it was something of a slimy, watery consistency that didn’t belong in Rock Creek.
It was the first week of November, appropriate for the moonie’s brand of Coelenterata, which includes such other creatures as the man o’ war, sea anemone, lion’s mane and such. Some of these species are only an eighth of an inch or so, but a giant red jellyfish can be as large as eight feet in diameter with nearly a thousand tentacles trailing as far as a couple hundred feet. And we cringe when we see a sea nettle of four or five inches in diameter and a foot or two in length. Thankfully, the reds are of the sea, not the Bay.
Let’s take a closer look at the moon jellyfish shown at the top of the accompanying illustration (the other is our sea nettle). The moon, more common in Delaware Bay, is rather flat, forming a disk, which is referred to as a bell or umbrella. The outer margin of the tawny-shaded bell is divided into eight equal parts, each bearing many small tentacles as opposed to the few long tentacles of our common jellyfishes. By late summer, it displays a distinctive pink shade.
Adult moonies feed on planktonic organisms that become caught on sticky mucous bands of their umbrellas and are then licked off by their combination mouths/arms. I’m way too big for them to consider me a meal, and I’m told I wouldn’t feel their sting. But to me, they’re still a jellyfish, and I want no jam session with any of ’em. Enough said.

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