Don’t you get tired of old guys telling stories that begin with “I remember back in the day when …”? You have to be nice, smile, and try not to roll your eyes during some unbelievable tale of long-ago fishing or hunting or whatever.
But I’ve noticed something really odd: I might be getting old myself because I am beginning to have a store of “old days” stories about how much different things used to be.
Or at least I think I do. Many of us are guilty of possessing selective memory. Our recollections of the “good old days” are colored by our tendency to remember good experiences and blot out memories of less-rewarding happenings. The day we caught 30 overslot redfish is more likely to stand out in our memories than those days we caught nothing at all.
But there might be some truth buried amongst some of my unlikely-sounding stories. I do think that things have changed since my introduction to Southwest Florida back in the early 1970s. I know, I know; there are plenty of folks who have been around here far longer than I — but still, in about 45 years, I have seen some changes.
For one thing, when I was introduced to Charlotte County there were about 28,000 people living here. Now it’s more like 175,000, or approximately six times as many.
I think there used to be many more redfish in Charlotte Harbor, but the redfish population has cycled up and down during my time. In the 1970s, I recall there were far more redfish than now. The regulations for harvesting them were very generous for recreational anglers: A 12-inch size limit with no bag limit or closed season.
There would be times during the winter that seawall fishermen working the canals would catch them by the dozens. They’d catch so many fish so quickly that walking up to the seawall behind a line of those guys at a popular hole would involve stepping through a minefield of flopping redfish that they had tossed behind them in the grass.
But in the 1980s, the redfish population dwindled to such a low level that there was even a time that all redfish harvest was closed by the MFC (the Marine Fisheries Commission, which managed fisheries in Florida in those days).
Around the end of the ‘80s redfish fishing was re-opened, but under much stricter harvest regulations for both recreational and commercial fishermen. The current recreational slot limit of 18 to 27 inches was imposed in 1989, I believe, and redfish were probably helped by the 1995 prohibition on gill net fishing in Florida waters too. During the 1990s, the redfish population rebounded in an amazing way.
This is where my redfish stories really start heading into “good old days” mode. There were so many redfish and so few anglers that you could fish along just about any mangrove shoreline and catch reds. We sometimes regarded them as sort of a second-tier target — a fallback fish that we’d go after to save a day if the fishing for snook or tarpon or whatever had been tough.
In the fall during schooling redfish season, I ran many guide trips where we did target redfish. Big redfish. My strategy was to cruise around on the flats in Pine Island Sound or Matlacha Pass until we saw a school of fish, shut the boat down, and try to spend the day working that one school. That’s right: We sometimes spent an entire day catching and releasing fish from a single school, and many of those schools were comprised of hundreds of fish.
I’d pushpole (electric motors were too noisy) up to barely within casting range. Each of the two or three anglers aboard would toss baits near the edge of the school. We’d hook everybody up and I’d ease the boat away from the school while we were fighting the fish. We’d lose or release those hooked fish (almost all were overslot), then re-rig and re-bait. I’d look around to see where the school had moved, then pushpole over to them and do it over again. And again. And again.
If we were quiet and didn’t push the fish too hard, we could catch fish from a school like that for hours. If we were lucky it would last for most of a day, but we might eventually lose them for one reason or another. Sometimes a rising or falling tide would move them into water deep enough that we couldn’t track them. Sometimes I’d get a little too eager and push them a bit too hard and they’d go out of feeding mode, put tails down and depart.
Sometimes a pod of dolphins would decide to attack. As much as I hated it when dolphins would bust a school I was working, it was still amazing to watch the fireworks when the dolphins would scatter those big reds. If there was shallow water nearby, redfish by the dozens would skitter up into mere inches of water trying to escape the dolphins. The dolphins would try to follow, zooming up into half-a foot or so of water themselves to the point where you wondered if they’d end up beached. But redfish could go shallower than dolphins, and many did escape that way.
But — and here’s the part of my story that might sound the most unlikely to today’s anglers — we almost never lost a school of fish because somebody in another boat unknowingly or uncaringly ran over them, or because somebody else saw what we were doing and and boogered us by horning in to fish that same school.
That might seem unbelievable to anglers accustomed to fishing in today’s Southwest Florida — a place where those redfish schools are so much smaller and so much less common, where boaters are zooming around almost everywhere, and where fishing manners have fallen out of fashion — but that’s the way it was.
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.