For those who love outdoor sports, October is an exciting time of year in Southwest Florida. The weather has broken just a bit, the days aren’t quite so brutally hot and our afternoon rains have stopped being an everyday occurrence. Hunting seasons are opening and fish are on the move as they go into fall mode.
Yep, this is when we get excited about things to come and start planning on how best to take advantage of all the outdoor opportunities are heading this way.
One of the biggest happenings in the local hunting community occurs a week from tomorrow, that’s the day that hunting camps are allowed to be set up at the Webb WMA. For almost three months, the campground at the Webb is a busy, busy place as it’s transformed into a giant hunting camp (the dates are Oct. 26 through Jan. 13 this year). Every imaginable type of camping rig will be there, along with an assortment of custom-built offroad hunting buggies, some of which are simply jaw-dropping. This has been a tradition for many decades at the Webb, and there will be families gathered around campfires where the hunting stories reach back for generations.
The biggest hunting week at the Webb is during general gun season, which is Nov. 3-11 this year. After Nov. 11, the seasons for small game and birds remain open. The Webb is well known for producing deer and hogs, but is also among the most productive public sites in all of Florida for quail, dove and snipe.
There is no fishing equivalent to the big gathering of hunters at the Webb, but anglers throughout the region get just as excited at our fall prospects. But just what are our prospects this year, after endless months of red tide? No one knows for sure, but we can make some guesses and think about some “what-ifs.”
The red tide will probably go away soon. This statement isn’t based on any particular insight nor is it an attempt to paint an overly optimistic picture — it’s just playing the statistics. As of this writing, red tide counts along much of our coast were dropping substantially. Since this outbreak has already lasted longer than most, the statistics are that it is probably nearing an end. (Editor’s note: As of Monday, FWC shows no red tide between New Pass in Sarasota and the Florida Keys.)
If, however, this red tide bloom regenerates and continues to be an issue, there are some scenarios to think about. Our fall mackerel runs — both Spanish and king — are due to get underway soon as schools of these fish travel south along the coast.
They’re like us: They don’t like red tide. If the waters along their normal coastal route are experiencing red tide, these fish will simply swing farther offshore on their way south. This would limit access for anglers with small boats. And if there’s not much bait around, the macks will be traveling south in a hurry, which will further limit our shots at them.
If red tide persists for another month or two, it may have significantly impact our inshore fisheries. So far this summer, red tide has not encroached very far into Charlotte Harbor, mainly due to the rainy season driving heavy freshwater flows out of the rivers. As our dry season comes on, the rivers will subside. It’s possible that red tide could then reach further inland into areas such as Matlacha Pass and the middle reaches of the main Harbor.
None of these are pretty thoughts, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that the current trend of vanishing red tide continues.
Assuming it goes away entirely, what will the fishing be like during the next month or two? That’s also difficult to say for sure, because we don’t yet know the real effects of this summer’s red tide. History shows that fish kills are generally not as far-reaching as they appear at first blush when fish carcasses are piled up on the beach. There always seem to be pockets of unaffected water where fish congregate, then spread out after the event subsides. For example, red tide this summer spared a huge such pocket in Charlotte Harbor, where some 75 square miles of water have experienced no fish kills whatsoever.
There are some things that we do know, however. One is that there are fewer fish now because substantial numbers were killed, and different species have been affected differently. In our area, it appears that snook might have taken a pretty good hit, especially on larger fish, so it’s probably a good thing that the FWC canceled the fall 2018 and spring 2019 open seasons.
There didn’t seem to be as many reports of dead redfish in our immediate area (although there were some large breeder fish reported dead in offshore waters). But redfish stocks were already in questionable shape, so the FWC’s decision to eliminate harvest on redfish until May 2019 was probably also a smart move.
It’s not clear how trout fared. In areas where the estuaries are narrow and very close to the Gulf (from Lemon Bay in Englewood to the north end of Sarasota Bay in Bradenton), trout probably suffered worse than in areas where they could get away from red tide by moving further inland. In Charlotte Harbor, trout fishing has been strong all summer — right on through the worst of the red tide out on the coast.
Same with sheepshead, since most sheepshead spend the summer pretty far into the backcountry and are only now starting to work out towards saltier water as their spawning season approaches. There has been a bumper crop of mangrove snapper in Charlotte Harbor this year, and with snook and redfish seasons closed, that’s probably good news for trout. Fishermen who want fish to eat can easily catch mangrove snapper right now.
Even so, trout will probably get fished pretty hard this winter. Perhaps a reduction in the trout bag limit would make sense while snook and redfish are closed? Just thinking out loud.
It doesn’t appear that large numbers of black drum died, so that traditional winter fishery may be in pretty good shape this year. Other winter fisheries — flounder, pompano, whiting and silver trout — are really a wait-and-see thing.
Fortunately, the offshore bottom fishing has so far been good off Boca Grande, and it appears that (viral videos notwithstanding) most of the bottom beyond 10 or 12 miles offshore has been spared from substantial impacts from red tide. So maybe we’ll see more grouper and snapper fishermen out in the Gulf this winter.
Of course, all of this is speculation. It will probably be a while before we have a better idea of what our fish stocks really look like. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Let’s go fishing!
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. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.