By Carolee Boyles
Back in the 1950s, big redfish were so common along the west-central Florida coastline that catching them wasn’t even a challenge.
“My grandmother would say to my grandfather, ‘Let’s have redfish for dinner,’ and my grandfather would say to me, ‘Billy, let’s go catch a redfish!’ ” says Bill Halstead, now the research administrator for the redfish program of the Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI), a division of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). “We’d go out in the middle of Sarasota Bay and we’d catch a redfish. There were plenty of fish available.”
“The fishery went well beyond Tampa Bay,” Halstead explains. “The life cycle of these fish involves both Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The fish that are not yet sexually mature stay in the bay until they mature, and then swim off and join very large spawning aggregations.
“The point is,” he concludes, “the Tampa Bay fishery is affected by what happens offshore as well.”
This characteristic of the population was a major factor in the species’ decline in the bay in the last half century. In the mid-1980s, the dish known as “blackened redfish” became popular in culinary circles, prompting commercial demand for the fish to rise dramatically.
“Big boats, with very big nets and aircraft to spot the fish, would harvest huge numbers of fish,” Halstead says. “There are some reports of as many as 200,000 redfish being in one net at one time.”
That level of harvest decimated the spawning population of redfish.
“At that point there wasn’t a lot of recruitment,” Halstead notes. “In other words, there weren’t a lot of young fish coming along.”
Another factor was the general demographics of the human population in Florida. More than 800 people move to the Sunshine State each day, which has led to a huge increase in the population.
“Most people want to live either near or on the water, or just recreate on it,” Halstead points out. “All of that impacts the fishery.”
Along with the increase in population have come changes in fish habitat, such as a loss of mangroves and seagrass beds in the Tampa Bay area.
“Those two types of habitat provide the nursery grounds for many animals, including juvenile red drum,” Halstead notes.
As both commercial and recreational pressure on redfish increased, the fish’s numbers plummeted. In the late 1980s, both the federal government and several state governments along the Gulf of Mexico imposed moratoriums on the commercial harvest of redfish, and eventually outlawed it altogether.
At the same time, precursor organization of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) pushed to have redfish declared a game species and give it protected status. That, of course, happened. By the late 1980s, the redfish was subject to season and bag limits. The fish that were left were able to breed, and the population started to rebound. In keeping with the changing population of the fish, for some years the redfish rules mandated catch-and-release angling only. More recently, regulations have allowed anglers to keep a limited number of reds.
“The larger the fish you release, the better its chance of surviving in the wild,” Halstead says. “It’s bigger, and it’s better able to fend for itself. It’s also more expensive to get to that size. But a slightly larger fish, albeit a more expensive one, may have a higher survival rate than the smaller fish.”
As a result, the larger fish can actually be more economical to raise and release.
One of the criteria for such an experimental project was that it had to be close to the hatchery in order to keep transportation costs down and to minimize the stress on the fish caused by moving them. In addition, and perhaps more important, for more than 12 years the FMRI has conducted a juvenile-fish monitoring program in Tampa Bay. On a regular schedule, juvenile fish are netted and counted at a number of points in the bay. The hatchery looks at the number of species, the abundance of each species, and the year-to-year changes in those numbers.
“We have a very good idea of the number of fish that are out there, and the number that have been out there for the past 10 years,” Halstead maintains. “That tells us where wild red drum are found, which gives us a really good idea of where we should be putting hatchery fish, because that’s the better habitat. And since it’s an ongoing program, we’re in a position to track the hatchery fish from the moment we put them in the water, at minimal additional cost and manpower. This gives us a built-in mechanism that we’ve never had for any other project around the state.”
In March of 2000, the hatchery released the first juvenile redfish into the Alafia River area, with others released into the Little Manatee River. More fish were released in July and in the fall of that year.
“We’re doing the size experiment in the Alafia, because that’s monitored regularly,” Halstead states. “We’re also putting fish into the Little Manatee River to begin having an impact on the overall redfish abundance in Tampa Bay.”
Early indications were that all three sizes of fish being released were doing well.
“The monitoring teams found hatchery fish mixed in with wild fish, which told us that the fish were adapting well to the wild environment,” Halstead says.
The FMRI is up to about 2.4 million fish released in the Tampa Bay area.
“Our very preliminary results show what we expected,” Halstead says. “The largest size is best in terms of percentages of fish surviving. Then it’s the middle
size, which is surviving better than the smallest size. We’re still not ready to declare which size is the best one to release in terms of the economic benefit. We still need some time to know that.”
Eventually the hatchery will be able to focus on one size of fish as the one with enough survival to have an impact on the fishery, at an acceptable cost.
“We want to release the smallest fish we can and let Mother Nature grow it up to acceptable size,” Halstead notes. “It’s not the number of fish that we put out there that’s important. It’s the number of fish that survive.”
Biologists know that some of the first hatchery fish they released have made it to legal size, because some of the fish have been caught.
“We’re getting good cooperation from individual anglers and fishing guides in terms of taking small fin clips from any redfish they catch and sending them to us,” Halstead explains. “Our geneticists can run a DNA analysis on each clip and tell us if it was a hatchery fish, and even what size it was when it was released.”
The FMRI has both volunteer anglers and their own biologists collecting fin clips. One group of scientists from the hatchery goes out to boat docks and bait shops and interviews fishermen about the redfish they’ve caught recently. They look at any fish they find, check them for tags that have been surgically implanted in their cheeks, and take fin clips.
“Last year, these interviewers made more than 15,000 contacts with people in the greater Tampa Bay area,” Halstead says. “They get a lot of information that way.”
The FMRI loves to have local anglers help them collect fin clips. However, Halstead cautions that just cutting off a piece of fin and sticking it in a plastic bag in the freezer isn’t useful.
“We have a little kit that we’ve put together that contains the tools and instructions about how to do it,” he says. “We give them out free at fishing events to any angler who agrees to help us.”
To get a kit without attending an event, call the FMRI fish tag hotline at 1-800-367-4461 and ask to have a redfish fin clip kit sent to you.
“We’ve improved the situation by virtue of better managing development, reducing pollution, and encouraging people to drive their boats in deep water and not dredge up the seagrasses with their props,” Halstead reports.
In addition to these efforts, conservation groups also are making inroads into bringing back seagrasses. In one project, the FMRI supplies local youth groups with grasses that they use to restore beds.
“At the FMRI, we have a manmade salt marsh that filters the water we use in the hatchery before it goes back into Tampa Bay,” Halstead says. “In order to keep the marsh as efficient as possible at removing effluent from the water, we have to remove older plants so new growth can come along behind it.”
Instead of killing the older plants, the FMRI donates them to conservation groups around the bay area, including about sixteen high schools and middle schools that have marine nursery programs. Students from the schools plant the grass in their own marine nurseries, grow more plants, and use them to replant marsh areas around Tampa Bay.
“Activities like these have helped restore some of the critical habitat around the bay,” Halstead says.
Mangrove areas also are protected now.
“People now have to get a permit to trim the trees,” Halstead points out. “We’re managing everything better now, but we’d still like to see more habitat for all the critters that should be there.”
Capt. Leiza Fitzgerald takes out clients for Executive Adventures in Clearwater. She often targets redfishing in Tampa Bay.
“They’re mostly in the shallower water, roving in huge schools, so they’re easy to identify,” she says. “They’re feeding and either have already spawned or are getting ready to spawn. A live shrimp on a popping cork or a live pilchard will score beautiful redfish.”
The majority of the fish are in the current slot-limit size of 18 to 27 inches.
“But the head of the school normally has big bull reds,” she adds. “I’ve been catching them in the 33- to 40-inch range. During a tournament last year in Tampa Bay, my partner and I caught six fish ranging from 27 1/4 inches up to over 34 inches in one school.”
Fitzgerald suggests you look on any of the grass flats and sandbars for schools of fish like these.
“You find them in the Fort DeSoto area, on Rattlesnake Key, and all along the south side of the bay near Cockroach Bay,” she notes. “All of the sandbars and all of the grass flats in front of those areas are good. You won’t find them so much in the back waters, but out on the front flats and bars.”
Particularly look for grass flats that have rocky bottoms and oyster bars.
“That would almost guarantee redfish,” the captain suggests.
When you get into schooling fish, both live baits and artificial lures work well.
“If you’re talking about live bait, shrimp do it on a popping cork,” Capt. Fitzgerald says. “Or free-line shrimp with a very light split shot so you can get distance. The fish are very spooky when they’re in a school like that. Getting out in front of them and allowing them to come to you makes for better fishing. You have to be very stealthy when you see them.”
For artificials, Fitzgerald uses jerkbaits, or soft-plastic baits with a light jighead.
“I like baits with scent injected into them, so it’s almost like fishing with a live bait, because it has a bait smell and a live bait action. The colors I prefer are watermelon seed and baby bream.”
For real excitement, Fitzgerald fishes early in the morning.
“A lot of times the fish are up and pushing, and with the higher tides they’ll be up on the grass flats and feeding,” she says. “Look for an active flat, one that at low tide has lots of birds roaming on it. That means the flat has a lot of bait and crustaceans – a lot of what redfish feed on. When the water comes up on that flat, so will the fish.”
If you happen to be out ear
ly in the morning at low tide and can identify an active grass flat, look for the fish in the deeper troughs and channels around the shallows.
“Then, one of your best bets is to throw a topwater plug,” Fitzgerald suggests.
To book a day of redfishing on Tampa Bay or the surrounding waters, contact Capt. Leiza Fitzgerald at (727) 450-1585.
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