The times, they are a changing. In many ways not for the better. Skip back five years, I was on the phone with Captain Scott Moore. I told him “Redfish are becoming harder to find up here.” No question: Redfish ten years ago were everywhere. The species was sustained. It was at that time that I discontinued harvesting redfish. I haven’t killed one in over five years. Imagine how much worse it would be if I was contributing to the extinction.
What happens next is up in the air. Redfish are closed. The state, behind and never “for the right reasons” closed them because of Red Tide. Red Tide had nothing to do with it. Scott Moore drove 30 miles of coastline during the algae kill. A census opportunity, how many redfish do you figure he would have seen dead? You would be wrong. He saw one. One fish. That is a bad sign. Their snook: Massacred. Their redfish- you can’t kill what’s not there. Will there be hatchery help??
The entire Tampa Bay fishery is void of redfish. As a guide, on the water almost every day, I would know. Not about just the catching part, I’m looking down in the water. If there’s redfish there, I know how to see them. Many days go by where I don’t see a single redfish. This is in areas where I would spook out 25 to 100 redfish per day. “Tips” I get on schools of redfish usually turn out to be fiction. Sorry, but fishermen lie. It’s not good. The common guy hasn’t figured it out yet. Again: My 280 days a year out there are different than the guy who spends twelve days a year out there.
Do the math. It’s probably our fault. You have 1000 new people moving here every day. So you have X number of new people fishing every day. You have a regulation of one redfish per day “in the slot.” If you have a pod of redfish with a total count of 400 fish (a pretty typical school size in my experiences) and if all the fish are legal size, how long does it take until that school is fished out and gone? The numbers don’t work. We are killing our redfish stocks.
The near future doesn’t look any better. The breeder school swam straight into the algae bloom and died. Those were our adult fish, “broadcast spawners” and they are dead and gone now. A recovery could take decades.
What is more important. The fish dead for one meal? The fish alive and swimming as a resource for entertainment? So many people have followed my example. Let them all go. It hasn’t been enough. Redfish are a great fighter. They make a good picture as well. Eating value: I’d put it lower end anyway. They have to be done specific ways or they are not good. Honestly, there are just so many other better options.
Is it just me? Yesterday I talked to a guy I would classify as an excellent fisherman. We were talking and he said, “What happened to the redfish?” I asked him what he meant. “There aren’t any.” All the redfish I used to catch are gone.” I told him that is reality. As bad as it is, it is what it is. This guy was pretty upset about it: “I’ve caught redfish for almost 40 years. Easily my favorite, I’ve lost my hobby. Redfish being gone is the most depressing thing I’ve experienced in my whole life.”
What are we going to do about it? Scott and I have a plan. On my own I am going to get people to vow to stop keeping them. Want to be part of a solution: Treat redfish as catch-and-release. There are plenty of fish to catch and keep. A snook or a redfish is valuable as a live fish. Let’s treat them that way.
We have to figure something out. Do we want to bring things back to the way they were? Do we want to make tighter restrictions to help promote a better fishery? A new governor: The weeks ahead will determine whether or not we make any progress. I’m on their radar. Just how far will they take it? I’m ready. Scott’s ready. Perhaps we will be a part of fixing some things that are broken and making things more like how they used to be.
Neil is the owner of capmel.com; owner and guide at Strike Three Kayak Fishing.