October 18, 2018
By Polly Dean
We are all aware of the impact a hurricane has on homes, marinas, boats, businesses, and even coastal landscapes. But how do the creatures we seek on land and water respond to these forces of Mother Nature?
Each year, from the month of June through November, the occurrence of hurricanes along our coastlines is a possibility. For the most part, those persons who live in potentially affected areas have adapted their lifestyles accordingly.
But often, no amount of preparation is a match for the sheer strength and devastation one of these storms can cast upon the coastline and many miles inland.
Florida and the Carolinas have already experienced first-hand the impact of two highly destructive hurricanes in recent weeks. Hurricanes Florence and Michael were storms for the record books, but for different reasons in how they impacted human lives and the wildlife that inhabit nearby areas.
As an avid saltwater angler, I seem to experience more than my fair share of arriving at a destination shortly after the area has been visited by a rather unwelcomed guest.
My most recent adventure took place in Wilmington, N.C., less than three weeks after Hurricane Florence's extended visit to the Carolina coast.
North Carolina's coastline took a beating from Florence, with the most damage coming from flooding due to the 9- to 13-foot storm surge and massive amounts of rain from the very slow-moving storm. The areas of Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington were ground zero for the eye of the hurricane and flooding was extensive.
My planned visit and false albacore fishing trip was likely off the table.
Residents and local businesses had a lot to deal with in the aftermath. FEMA and disaster relief personnel would require any available resources such as hotel rooms, food and fuel.
As the date of the trip grew closer, the situation in the Carolinas, especially North Carolina, only worsened. Water levels continued to rise as rains persisted throughout the region. All-time-record flooding presented additional destruction beyond that of the initial impact.
Impact on Fishing
Of my Wilmington-area contacts, Captain Allen Cain of Sightfish NC was the first to say, “Come on!” Room and board were still in question but the impact on saltwater inshore fishing appeared to be minimal. Surprisingly, the Golden Sands Hotel on Carolina Beach had only minor damage and was able to accommodate us.
“Strip, strip, as fast as you can. Pick up. Cast again!” the captain hollered.
The false albacore were once again feeding on the surface as they did prior to the hurricane. But a setback for anglers, which was a direct result of the storm, was the murky water pouring out of the rivers and creeks.
Capt. Allen said that it would take a bit longer to clear – a few weeks instead of a few days. But, he also noted that the redfish where still in their same places, and until the water cleared, bait was a better option than a fly or artificial lure.
Unless their habitat is greatly altered by a storm, the fish seem unaffected. Often in Florida during hurricanes, banks of mangroves are stripped of their leaves along an entire island, and the snook and redfish relocate to somewhere else. For anglers, it becomes a matter of finding them again.
Sometimes, cuts and passes in peninsulas and islands are silted in and new openings are created. Depressions and humps on the ocean floor that once held speckled trout or tarpon may be rearranged and new favorite fishing holes must be found.
Heavy rains and flooding from Hurricane Florence continue to impact the Cape Fear River basin and nearby lakes. Millions of fish have been killed due to added contaminants of human waste, livestock waste, industrial waste, coal ash and other hazardous substances in the river system. The full effect on wildlife is unknown, but we do know that the impact of Mother Nature is generally much more damaging when it involves mankind's influence on our waters and lands.
There was hope that Hurricane Michael that recently struck Florida's Panhandle, would help to break up the toxic red tide that has been lingering for months on Florida's Gulf Coast. But that was not the case. Factors contributing to the problem still outweigh any benefits the storm may have had.
An Unexpected Benefit
As is often the case with Mother Nature, she knows best. The Miami Herald recently ran a storyof how Hurricane Irma which struck a little over a year ago, may have helped to clean out and revitalize the flats of Florida Bay, resulting in some of the best fishing for bonefish and permit in years.
Reporter Steve Waters relays how Captain Richard Stanczyk, who has 41 years of fishing the back country of the Keys noticed the change. The winds of Irma blew out the buildup of dead grass and toxins that had settled on the bottom of the flats over recent decades. Irma churned it all up and left behind beautiful clean flats.
Before Irma, Capt. Stanczyk would not guarantee a bonefish on his trips, but now he is averaging three releases in an afternoon. The captain has seen a greater resurgence in the number of permit, a valued sport fish that had seemed to disappear from the bay. Prior to Irma, Stanczyk had never caught a permit. Since Irma, he has caught 18.
Impact on Hunting
The obvious and short-term impact on wildlife following a hurricane is destruction of habitat. Animals in the wild generally fare quite well when presented with harsh conditions.
Avid outdoorsman, Mike Marsh lives in Wilmington, N.C. The impact on wildlife he noticed from Hurricane Florence was that the animals made their way to higher ground. With the extensive flooding throughout the state, he noticed that deer were more numerous at his food plots planted on higher ground. A variation of just a few feet can make a difference in where deer and other wildlife will be concentrated.
In the long term following a storm, hunting actually improves in many cases.
A Georgia Department of Natural Resources source noted, “The quail will definitely benefit from the open ground in the next few years. Most everything else will eventually too. Early successional forests are good for wildlife. Although hunting in a twisted mess of hurricane blow downs is next to impossible.”
Duck hunters often benefit from the additional rain. Striking in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina actually flooded duck hunter, William Lee Cooksey's hunting location in Arkansas.
“Moist soil; stuff such as rice, red rice, smartweed and coontail went crazy. We held water from then through the season and had a phenomenal year,” Cooksey said.
It may be a while before we learn whether the “fish care or not” at Mexico Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael. The human and physical toll that the storm took on this portion of the Florida Panhandle and beyond, is staggering. No doubt the fish are still in place and willing to bite, but the means to get to them are temporarily displaced. When these coastal fishing communities get on their feet again, we owe it to them to get the word out and go fishing!