THE ANNUAL TRIP to the ICAST sportfishing trade show in Orlando usually offers a bonus opportunity to visit some great coastal Florida fishing destinations. This year’s trips were once again booked out of the Charlotte Harbor area, near Punta Gorda on the southwest gulf side.
I have fished inshore in this area several times over the years, usually having excellent success with big snook and abundant redfish as well as the occasional speckled trout. I knew going in, however, that opportunities would be diminished this year. Southwest Florida suffered a devastating, prolonged red tide event that began in 2017 and continued through the fall of 2018. Countless gamefish, as well as other species including manatees and sea turtles, died. The damage was such that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission declared that all redfish, snook and trout caught in this area must be released as stocks rebuild.
My goal was to work in both nearshore and offshore trips, hopefully catching some big groupers and snappers. But, as my weather luck seems to be going lately, the wind had other ideas. The nearshore trip with Capt. Mike Slattery (palmislandoutfitters.com) last Saturday was scaled back to inshore, while a planned offshore excursion Sunday with Capt. Kaelin Olayer with Flyin’ Hawaiian Charters (captkaefishing.com) was dialed back once we got 9 miles out and realized seas would likely be too rough to fish at 25 to 30 miles out.
While we missed out on the best chances for bigger, deep-water fish, the Flyin’ Hawaiian crew put us on good numbers of smaller lane, mangrove and yellowtail snappers, Key West grunts, plus a handful of undersized red grouper and triggerfish, which quickly went back into the water.
Olayer said one 15.75-inch grunt I caught was a new boat record for that species—it still became sandwich fare.
Our last stop was one that sometimes held bigger grouper. While we may have had a couple grouper bites, juvenile silky sharks were the primary species hitting the baits. Most quickly cut the line with their sharp teeth, but a couple made it to the boat for photos.
Slattery managed expectations on our Saturday trip, noting the diminished numbers of sportfish and pointing out that heavy rains recently silted up the usually clear inshore waters.
We didn’t even try for redfish. My fishing partner Jason Mayhew caught the first snook, a small juvenile. Shortly after, I boated a slightly bigger (little over 20 inches) snook. That was it. The next stop was an abandoned railroad trestle in Boca Grande where we caught about a dozen mangrove snappers.
I brought a few fresh fillets to the nearby Leverocks restaurant where the chef blackened and fried them for my lunch.
Both Slattery and Olayer note that full recovery of inshore fishing in this beautiful, remarkable area likely will take a few years. Needed are a little luck with the weather, meaning minimal storms and a return to average rainfall levels, and human commitment, for human activity is blamed for many of the difficulties facing this fishery.
The Serious Situation
Engineered flood control and water diversion systems that keep natural rivers and lakes from behaving the way nature intends help humans inhabit, farm or otherwise exploit lands that never would have or, perhaps, should have supported such activity. The broader ecological damage and economic loss can be staggering.
For example, yearly losses to Louisiana’s amazing marshes and wetlands, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, average 16.57 square miles per year, or a football field per hour. Most of this loss is attributed to human interference.
In Florida, human activity and decades-long manipulation of natural water flows around massive Lake Okeechobee is resulting in enormous volumes of freshwater, laden with nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants, including cyanobacteria, to be pumped into two main estuaries feeding south Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
Nature never intended it to work that way. Okeechobee’s overflows naturally flowed south, towards the Everglades and Florida Bay. The massive Herbert Hoover dike, however, prevents this natural flow across lands now primarily used for agriculture, including corporate sugar cane farming.
During periods of heavy rain, the Army Corps of Engineers drains billions of gallons of lake water daily, sending freshwater toward salty estuaries. This protects some farm fields, but the cost to sea grasses, oyster beds, fish, manatees and other coastal flora and fauna is dear.
Toxic algae blooms, harmful to humans as well as sea life and underwater habitat, often result. The chemicals and nutrients in the released water are suspected of also increasing the intensity and duration of red tide outbreaks.
Proponents for change to water management practices declare that, besides health issues, toxic waters scare away tourists, diminish real estate values, cripple fishing industries and more.
Florida’s water quality and the state of the Everglades and sea grasses was the focus of a Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership seminar at the recent ICAST show. Water quality was also a centerpiece issue at exhibits by the Coastal Conservation Association and in the roving work of a non-profit group launched by charter fishing captains called Captains for Clean Water.
Congress passed in 2000 the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but an apparent lack of political will stalled progress. Last year’s red tide and toxic algae events fueled the outrage necessary to force action. Within days of taking office last January, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order directing $2.5 billion towards Everglades restoration and protection of water resources. The order also established a “Blue-Green Algae Task Force.”
If, like me, you value the opportunity to fish in Florida and enjoy the beautiful, bountiful waters that have always represented the Sunshine State, you can’t sit on your hands and wait for someone else to do something. Just as the water quality in our own Chesapeake Bay represents a national interest, so does the situation in Florida.
The political heat needs to remain constant, even when dead fish aren’t floating near the beaches.
For more about this issue, including interviews with our charter captains and links to comprehensive analysis on this pressing issue, see Ken Perrotte’s blog at outdoorsrambler.com.