Hurricane Irma devastated many areas in Florida, affecting homes, lives and fishing. However, the fishing is still great despite the damage.
By Ian Nance
On Sept. 1, 2017, Capt. Bobby Woodard, his girlfriend Anna Ford and their pets moved from Auburndale to Key West so Woodard could fulfill his dream of being a fishing guide in the Florida Keys.
After five years of building his own charter business fishing the inshore waters of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, Woodard accepted an offer to work for Capt. Steven Lamp's Dream Catcher Charters (www.dreamcatchercharters.com). Right when his plan was coming together, nature threw the couple — and the rest of Florida — a nasty curve.
"After settling into our apartment, I had to return to our home in Polk County for a brief time to tend to some unfinished business," said Woodard. "On the evening of September 5, I called Anna to see how her first day at work went. She informed me her day was good but came home to a mandatory evacuation notice on the door of our apartment due to the approaching Hurricane Irma."
On Sept. 10, Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. The Category 4 storm then hit Marco Island and Naples before marching up the state over the next two days.
Woodard and Ford rode out the storm back in Auburndale, unsure of what they'd find when they returned to Key West.
"In Auburndale, we had substantial roof damage due to high winds, which caused numerous leaks and water intrusion into the home," Woodard said. "Ironically our apartment in Key West, just a mere 20-some miles southwest of where the eye of Irma made landfall, was just fine. Yes, some of the northern Lower Keys like Big Pine and Cudjoe Keys got hit hard, but Key West was relatively lucky and one of the least affected areas. Approximately two weeks after Irma passed residents and business owners were allowed to return."
Many businesses in Key West cleaned up and reopened way sooner than expected, and the island officially opened for tourists on Oct. 1, and the fishing industry was again underway.
Prior to Irma, the fishing was great, with consistent catches of all the usual summer species, such as permit, bonefish and tarpon, as well as snappers, jacks and sharks.
"Anglers venturing out to the reef and beyond could find yellowtail and mutton snappers, groupers, mahi mahi, and more," said Woodard. "Then came Hurricane Irma and her high winds and rough seas. In the weeks following Irma, boaters needed to exercise extreme caution while navigating due to excessive debris in the water. Those boaters who were looking to find some fish also had a few obstacles to overcome. The main issue was constant onslaught of unseasonably windy weather, which has kept the water murkier than usual."
Despite these trials, Capt. Woodard doesn't believe there will be any long-term impacts on the quality of local fishing, though the lasting economic impact could be troublesome.
"Looking forward, we are expecting the springtime fishing in Key West to return to normal," Woodard said. "Spring backcountry trips tend to target species like pompano, trout, sharks, redfish, bluefish, barracudas, snapper, jacks, ladyfish, tarpon, and cobia. The blue water fisherman who venture past the reef catch sailfish, tuna, wahoo, dolphin, kingfish, Spanish and cero mackerel and bonito."
There is still clean up to do in Key West, with one of the best ways to contribute to the recovery being planning a trip to the area to help the local economy recover.
While Key West might have escaped severe damage, other important Florida fisheries took it on the chin. Marco Island and Naples were battered. The fishing in this region will return to normal by spring, even if some of these communities' fishing infrastructures have not. Jacksonville experienced serious coastal flooding after the storm, which took many by surprise as the storm's eye was well west of there, and the storm had weakened significantly. Still, the waters receded and the fishing forecast should be back to normal by spring.
Of all the bodies of water in Florida, few garnered the concerns Lake Okeechobee faced. With an aging dyke system and an ongoing, politically volatile water discharge issue, Irma could've landed a knock-out punch to the Big O and those living there. Fortunately, the worst-case scenario was unrealized, but months after the storm, water levels remained high as officials debated how to alleviate this situation. Discharged water to either coast to reduce these levels have in recent years led to algae blooms and harsh press clippings.
For the lake though, Andrea Dominquez, FWC resource biologist for Lake Okeechobee, says it experienced change but seemingly nothing that will compromise the springtime fishing.
"We didn't receive any reports of fish kills in the lake after the hurricane and don't expect the fish communities to be negatively affected," Dominquez said. "Habitat changes will force fish to find new spawning and nursery sites, and that means anglers will have to go in search of new fishing spots as well, but there is still plenty of vegetation in the lake for new habitats and new fishing holes."
According to Dominquez, Hurricane Irma directly and indirectly impacted the near-shore marsh of Lake Okeechobee through high winds, extreme wave action, rapid increase of lake stage, increased turbidity in areas and sustained high water conditions. Boat ramps around the lake did not suffer any structural damage, but with high water levels, it was hard to see the ramps.
Furthermore, much of the cattail hardline below the 11-foot contour was uprooted and pushed into the interior marsh, likely the most noticeable change to anglers. The majority of the uprooted submerged aquatic vegetation was deposited near the 12-foot contour of the northwest shoreline of the lake.
"The density of bulrush and knotgrass/Kissimmee grass was reduced due to wave action and high water," Dominquez said. "This emergent vegetation will take significantly lower water levels over an extended period of time for the roots to recover and begin growing again, but we are confident that vegetation will recover in time."
With all of this moving vegetation, it was certain boat paths and channels would be disrupted. Indeed, portions of Lake Okeechobee's primary and secondary boat trail system were blocked by debris. These boat trails are important for the safe passage of small watercraft.
"We have been clearing primary boat trails and restoring passage," said Dominquez. "Many of the trails should be accessible, and as we get reports of blocked areas, we are continuing to work to remove the debris. We will continue to assess changes to Lake Okeechobee and evaluate if we can address any through management actions."
Tips to Improve Your Fishing
As for the waterways that feed Okeechobee are concerned, the storm did the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes regions a favor, according to FWC's Fisheries Biologist Marty Mann.
"We are still assessing the Kissimmee Chain, but in the short term we have had no fish kills, high water conditions, and a lot of littoral zone rehabilitation by deposition of organic material and tussocks in the floodplain in addition to the overall thinning out of rank vegetation through wind and wave action," said Mann. "We also have had some hydrilla elimination through wind and wave action although there is plenty still out there that is beneficial to bass and waterfowl. Bass fishing has actually been pretty good in the aftermath. Overall, these are all very positive outcomes so far."
In the long-term, FWC will have to see how the high water affects the spawn and recruitment of bass, which would most likely be positive, and the final condition of Kissimmee grass.
There has also been some flooding of neighborhoods around Lake Toho, and it is unknown if this has had any effect or not, though there have been some reports of odors, mostly verified as rotting vegetation and organic material that had been deposited in the floodplain.
Overall, Mann believes there will be more benefits from the hurricane than negative effects to the habitat of the lakes in the Kissimmee Chain, which should translate to aquatic life in a positive way.
"We must remember that floods and droughts are Mother Nature's way of cleansing lakes and wetlands," Mann said. "That is why we do drawdowns to mimic a drought. And whenever we get high water coupled with a storm, we get a cleansing of the habitat. This is the way the lakes used to function before we moved in around them and tried to control them."
While fish kills weren't an issue for Okeechobee and KCOL, within a couple weeks of Irma, rumors floated around of a major fish kill in Lake Rousseau, a popular bass fishing destination bordering Citrus, Levy and Marion counties.
"Lake Rousseau has been dealing with some negative effects post-Hurricane Irma," said Ryan Hamm FWC Northeast fisheries administrator. "The Withlacoochee, which feeds into Lake Rousseau, experienced significant flooding and low dissolved oxygen conditions. These low DO conditions were a result of high rainfall amounts flushing organic material from lowland areas and creating a high biological oxygen demand."
The FWC, in cooperation with the South West Florida Water Management District, has been conducting regular water-quality checks to gather information on dissolved oxygen levels, estimating 35 thousand fish were lost as a result.
Naturally, water levels have receded in the Withlacoochee River and the DO has increased in Lake Rousseau. Hamm says it's hard to say for certain how this may affect fishing. However, there were not large-scale impacts to habitat, such as shoreline vegetation and submerged vegetation. Long-term impacts should be minimal.
Few Floridians escaped Irma's fury in September. The natural places took a walloping, too. Fortunately, Florida's environments are as resilient as her people, capable of bouncing back from such a terrible natural disaster.
South Florida Deer Research Project
Understanding how weather patterns affect deer activity has long strained the minds of hunters and biologists. An extreme weather event like Hurricane Irma influences their patterns even further. The ongoing South Florida Deer Research Project was able to record some strange findings in the time surrounding the storm.
One of the main goals of the project is to gain a better understanding of deer ecology in the unique south Florida environment, including how water levels, habitat differences, predation and hunting impact population dynamics. Another goal is to develop a monitoring technique that can provide reliable estimates of deer densities in south Florida.
FWC releases quarterly updates to keep followers abreast of efforts. In the July — September 2017 Update, the report noted that a weather station on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge recorded 51 inches of precipitation. This amount of rainfall is high for southern Florida, and a significant amount fell in 48 hours from Irma, resulting in widespread inundation of the study site.
It further stated no collared deer died during Hurricane Irma. However, GPS data indicated unusual movement patterns during the storm. The research team is analyzing deer movement and habitat use before, during and after the storm in more detail.
How the high waters affect deer populations remains to be seen, though it is not generally viewed as a positive for the herd as they become displaced and exhaust their resources. Extended periods of high water also negatively impacts fawn recruitment.
As for the "unusual movement patterns" recorded during the storm, keep up-to-date with the South Florida Deer Research Project by visiting myfwc.com/hunting/by-species/deer/project.