An old fishermen’s saying explains why the fishing at a particular spot can be great one day but then be lousy the next day in that very same spot: “Fish have tails so they can swim away.” And fish do swim around every day, so they truly can be here today and gone tomorrow.
Some fish move around a lot more than others, and some fish never stop moving. Fish like Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle and some of the sharks just don’t hold still. Other fish such as red grouper stake out a homestead and tend to stay put right there for long periods of time, sometimes for years.
When a large part of the population of some species makes a significant move all at once, we call it a migration. But sometimes the distinction between an actual migration and fish just moving around can get blurry, especially if not all the fish participate.
Some of the most well-known migrations of fish in Southwest Florida waters involve those never-stop mackerel. Huge schools of Spanish mackerel and king mackerel make migratory “runs” along the coast as they head north in the spring towards their summer hangouts in the northern Gulf, then return southbound along our coast in the fall towards waters to our south. But there are some kings and lots of Spanish mackerel that don’t follow this pattern and which stick around our area all summer.
Tarpon are well-known for their seasonal migrations too. Most adult tarpon leave the waters of Florida during the winter and go to — well, we really don’t know where they go. But wherever it is that they go in the winter, most of them find their way back here in the spring.
Except there are a bunch of big tarpon that stay here all winter, mostly in deeper holes well inland in the rivers. They don’t eat much and they don’t roll much, so anglers don’t see or hook them very often. We know they’re there because every decade or two when we have a severe cold snap, a surprising number of cold-killed dead tarpon wind up floating in the river bends.
Snook also migrate, but it’s a different type of migration. Tagging studies show that most snook are hatched and then spend their entire lives in their home estuary. So a Charlotte Harbor snook is unlikely to head up to Sarasota Bay, or vice versa. However, many snook do undertake a relatively short migration inland during the winter and then they move back out nearer to the Gulf during the summer.
But there are plenty of snook which don’t move very far or at all during this migration. And like almost all rules about fish, there are exceptions. At least one tagged snook has been documented as traveling from Florida’s east coast to the west coast, most likely via the Okeechobee Waterway (up the St. Lucie River, across the lake, and down the Caloosahatchee River). This route would entail negotiating five locks along the way, so that was a pretty determined fish.
Redfish change their travel habits as they grow. Juvenile redfish are primarily homebodies which tend to spend the first few years of their lives meandering around in the same estuary in which they were hatched, though many of them they do undertake a seasonal migration that mirrors that of snook.
But as young redfish begin to reach maturity, they change their pattern completely. Once they reach a length in the low to mid 30-inch range, they gather into schools which leave the estuaries altogether and head offshore into the Gulf.
These adult redfish spend the remainder of their lives roaming along the coast in large schools of wide-ranging fish. They may occasionally duck into the estuaries, but they are primarily offshore fish during their adult lives. Adult reds perfectly fit into that here-today-gone-tomorrow characterization.
All patterns of fish movements are subject to disruption by major events such as big storms, severe cold weather, or red tide blooms. Migrating mackerel will swing way offshore along the coast if they get a whiff of red tide-tainted water near the coast. Snook, trout, redfish and other inshore species will try to travel away from localized patches of red tide. During the lengthy red tide in 2018, we saw increased numbers of all three species in upper Charlotte Harbor when that bloom was occurring out along the beaches and in the ICW.
Even those homebody red grouper mentioned above can be moved large distances during major hurricanes. Anglers in the northern Gulf off Panama City reportedly started catching lots of red grouper in areas where they had seldom been encountered after the busy 2004 hurricane season. Those fish had to have come from 100 miles away or more ,and that new fishery lasted for a few years.
So fish do move around, a lot. That should be comforting to know when you can’t find them.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.