What part of fishing is most satisfying? Is it seeking out the fish and tricking them into taking a hook? Is it bending the rod and listening to the drag scream? Is it the moment when you put your hand on a fish and claim victory? Maybe it’s just being out on the water and soaking in the whole experience.
Let’s hope it’s those things, anyway — because if your favorite part is slinging fish in the cooler and taking them home for dinner, inshore fishing may be a lot less fun for a while.
People ask me all sorts of fishing questions, but without a doubt the most frequently asked over the past couple months has been when redfish and snook are going to open again. My stock answer has been that we’ll have to wait until FWC makes that call. While that’s still true, now they’ve given us an idea of which way it might go.
The FWC has a research arm called the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). The FWRI has been conducting monthly sampling of many of our local fish populations for years, and that sampling has continued during the recent closure of snook and redfish. Since they’ve been at it for so long, they have a pretty good idea of historical abundance. Here’s what they have to say about redfish, snook and trout:
Adults form large spawning aggregations in coastal habitats near passes in the fall. During previous red tide events, fewer spawning aggregations occurred in impacted areas than typically occur when red tide is not present. Redfish are less resilient to red tide-related impacts than other inshore species.
Juvenile abundance in both Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor was already low prior to this red tide event as a result of two closely spaced years of poor recruitment. It remains below the long-term average in each of these estuaries. Juvenile abundance in Charlotte Harbor is the lowest average abundance on record and shows a four-year declining trend.
These fish live in both rivers and estuaries and migrate to inlets and barrier islands to spawn. Snook can tolerate a wide range of salinities and have been known to take refuge from red tide in low salinity habitats where red tide is less likely to occur. Because of these unique reproductive characteristics and life history traits, snook can be moderately resilient to red tide-related impacts.
Monitoring data from June 2018 through February 2019 indicate that adult snook abundance and juvenile recruitment across the region is higher than or comparable to long-term averages in Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
Impacts from red tide in 2005 reduced the spawning stock of seatrout in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, but those populations rebounded within three to four years. Because of they are relatively short-lived and quick to mature, seatrout are reproductively resilient to red tide-related impacts.
In Charlotte Harbor, data from June 2018 through February 2019 shows the lowest recorded abundance of both adults and juveniles, following three years of poor recruitment.
If you’ve been tuned into our inshore fishing community, none of this should shock you. Redfish numbers have been a major concern for several years, and the trout bite has been lousy since summer’s red tide kills. I know a lot of people were very worried about snook, as there were many dead on the beaches, but the catching has been pretty good.
When these kinds of decisions need to be made, FWC support staff — the behind-the-scenes conservation and management employees — generally present a recommendation. In this case, their suggestion is to keep reds and snook closed for a year via executive order, and also to add trout to that closure. If that’s what the commissioners decide to do (and it is their call, regardless of staff recommendations), the issue would be revisited in early 2020.
Another issue for those who like to eat trout: As a separate issue, the FWC is also considering changes to seatrout rules. For Southwest Florida, the potential plan is to drop the bag limit to three fish, eliminate the provision to keep one over the slot size of 15 to 20 inches, and also drop the bag limit for guides on trips to zero.
None of this would really matter in the short term if trout are to be closed entirely, but it might make a big difference when the season does eventually reopen.
So, if you were on the FWC commission, what would you do? I know what I would want to see. To me, the closure on redfish and trout makes good conservation sense. Most of us can agree that we’re not catching them like we should be. But keeping snook closed makes no sense now that we know they came through the red tide OK and there are enough juveniles around.
I like the idea of guides not keeping trout, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I’d rather see a zero bag for guides on any fish that has a bag limit — no sheepshead, no mackerel, no nuthin’. Why? Because they’re not keeping fish for themselves; they’re keeping fish for clients. It effectively allows some people to go over the bag limit. Worse, when guides are busy and running two trips a day, they often keep double limits (breaking the law) to keep clients happy. Let’s keep them honest.
One final piece I’d like to see: We’re very concerned about monitoring our gamefish, but how closely are we looking at their food supply? I want to see more sampling of the mullet, the pinfish, the whitebait. If there’s a lot of food but few gamefish, we know we’re taking too many big fish. But if the forage populations are shrinking at the same rate as the gamefish, then changing limits and closing seasons doesn’t solve the base problem.
If you’d like to go to the meeting, the public is always welcome to speak to the commission about these issues. It’s a long drive, though. The meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. May 1 and 2 (the above-mentioned items are on the schedule for the first day) at the Florida Public Safety Institute (85 Academy Drive, Havana, Fla.). For the full agenda, go to http://bit.ly/2URoP6w.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.