Thursday, February 24, 2011

Everglades, Winter 2011

Well, two weeks ago, the weekend that I'd been looking forward to since last July finally came. My dad and his long time fishing buddy hauled the kayaks down from Pensacola, picked me and my roommate up, and headed down to the Everglades.

The target species was cichlids and peacock bass. I had three stops in mind when we were on our way down. The first, and furthest north, was Alligator Alley (I-75). We arrived Saturday morning and to our dismay, the weather was awful. A cold front had blown through the night before and the temperature was in the low 50's. To make matters worse, the wind was howling about 25mph out of the north. We proceeded to launch off of I-75 and fish.

Had we been fishing further north in the state, I would say that the fishing was fantastic. However, we weren't catching what we'd driven 6 hours for. Nothing but bluegill and stumpknockers. We were actually coming close to catching a little gill every cast. Reports from last years fish kill made it seem like all the cichlids had been wiped out along I-75 and from our experience, I can say that it might be true. Just the sheer number of small bluegill that were being caught tells me that they're having a boom season right after the cichlids got wiped out.

We decided to leave I-75 and proceed further south toward Homestead. We stopped by the Tamiami trail to look at the canals, but couldn't really see much. The weather wasn't getting any better anyways so we drove on down to Homestead to stay the night.

The next morning we got up and went back to the Tamiami. We launched around 9 am and fished for a few hours. The bite was slow, with only a few non-picture worthy bass and bluegill to show for it.

Our next stop was my "if we don't catch cichlids in this canal we aren't gonna catch any anywhere" canal. Upon arriving, I couldn't see any cichlids in the water like I had the summer before. We still launched and proceeded to work our way down the canal. As it got later in the day, the topwater bite picked up and I stopped using my popper/dropper setup and switched to poppers only. I succeeded in catching about 15 very small bass.And ONE eety beety Peacock bass (which at least gave me a boost of confidence).

And with no one else catching much, we put the yaks back up and headed for the motel.

With the freshwater fishing being so terrible, we went to plan B: Fish for Snook and Tarpon around Everglades National Park. I had to be back in Gainesville Monday night because I had a test the following morning, so we fished the park until around mid-day.

As soon as we launched, I went to the spot that I caught my juvenile tarpon and huge snook in years past. The first thing I see when I round the corner is this:

An American Crocodile. I'd never seen a wild one before this. The picture doesn't do it justice since I didn't want to get closer in my little kayak. I've seen BIG gators before that have easily gone 13-14 ft. and this monster dwarfed them. At a distance, it looked like a pile of dirt that a bulldozer had pushed up. I snapped a few pictures and headed out of that pond after casting to rolling tarpon with no success. Later in the week, I took the picture to the FWC office here in Gainesville and confirmed it to be a crocodile.

I paddled back around the launch and started fishing with the fly rod again. The water was VERY clear and I could see down about 10-12 feet. This however, didn't stop the bass from biting and it wasn't long before we started hooking into them. By this time, the weather had finally decided to warm up some and I think that sparked the bite. I ended up with about 8 bass and only one that I deemed picture worthy.

My dad lost a pretty big one on conventional gear and his fishing buddy managed about 10 small ones on the fly. Once noon came around, it was time to go.

Sometimes you just don't hold your mouth right and things don't work out as planned. It's a shame the weather was so bad that weekend as it was beautiful and hot the next weekend (temps in the 80's and sunny). The Peacock bass and cichlids were just too cold from the weather and found a hole somewhere deep to try and stay warm. But...that's how it goes. We still caught fish and I still had a good time. Besides, if it weren't for bad fishing trips, how would we know when we had a good one?

I'm really looking forward to getting back down there when the weather heats up. I've got a score to settle with some Oscars and Mayans on my new 3 wt. Until next time,

Fish on.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's this "sustainable fishing" you speak of?

This blog entry is my submission for the GreenFish and Out
door Blogger Network Writing Prompt Giveaway.

The outdoor blogger network puts up a writing prompt every once in a while and gives away free stuffs for the winners. This writing prompt asks everyone "What does sustainable fishing mean to you?", and this question is asked by Greenfish.

Greenfish is an organization that has 3 main goals:

1) Improve our fisheries and marine environments
2) Promote responsible and sustainable fishing techniques such as catch & release
3) Promote and protect the sport of recreational fishing for future generations to enjoy

Since a large chunk of my college schoolwork focuses on sustainable harvest, I felt as though I might as well put my schooling to use.

What does sustainable fishing mean to me? Well, the simplest answer would have to be: Sustainable fishing is a series of techniques and ethics set by fishermen so that an ecosystem can maintain some sort of harvest amount while keeping the target population numbers high enough to avoid having environmental stochastic events seriously impact the population.

Ok. So maybe I lied. That isn't a simple answer at all. In fact, the question is very complex and extremely situational. So let's break apart my horrible answer one part at a time.

Techniques: This is entirely dependent upon the fisherman. There are many different techniques that are used to help maintain sustainable fishing. The biggest technique is obviously bag and length limits for fish. These are all determined based off of each individual fish's biology. Based off of research, many fish require a slot limit in order to keep it. These are placed so that juvenile fish have a chance to grow up, and mature fish are kept in the population as primary breeders.Above: Chelsea with an over-slot Redfish that was released after a quick picture.

Another technique, that I feel is becoming more and more popular, is catch and release. Many anglers are perfectly satisfied with simply catching a fish, snapping a picture, and letting it go. I find myself doing this more and more often as I feel it helps the overall population of that fish. Also, because I'm entirely too lazy and tired at the end of a trip to clean fish. There's nothing worse than catching a keeper bream on your first cast, throwing him into the cooler, and never catching another fish all day. This, however, does avoid the bizarre phenomena observed when bream proceed to multiply 10 fold in the cooler over the day. A fisherman can finish the day with 25 bream in the cooler and begin cleaning once back at dock. After two and a half hours of cleaning, and 47 fish carcasses later, it appears there's still more than 20 bream in the cooler.Above: Bream caught in Ocala Nat. Forest

Catching and releasing that trophy fish has become even easier over the years too. A measurement of weight, length and girth, along with a simple picture can now be turned into a replica that can hang on your wall, and allow the fish to swim again. This method is a far better alternative to the killing and pickling of the actual trophy.

Ethics: Ethics are like a favorite lure. Every fisherman has one and they're all different. Some fishermen enjoy getting to go out, catch their bag limit, and head home. Others simply enjoy getting to catch the fish and not even keep it. Ethics depend on the fisherman and are also entirely situational. The 5 hunting stages of a person hold true for fishing as well. They are:

The catching stage: "I don't care what I catch...I just want to catch SOMETHING"
The limiting out stage: "I want to catch and keep as many fish as I can"
The trophy stage: "I want to catch the biggest fish out there"
The techniques stage: "I want to purposefully make a difficult task even more difficult...hmm that fly rod looks fun!"
The teaching stage: "I want to teach my son, grandson, friend, wife, etc. how to fish."

Each persons' ethics depend on this stage. My stage, depends on my location, the species, time of year and all other sorts of bizarre situations. I find myself in the first stage after 3 or 4 days of fishless success. At this point during the trip, I would be just as happy with a needlefish as I would with a cobia. This outlook, will obviously sustain fishing. After all, one needs to catch fish for sustainable fishing to even be an issue.Above: An extremely small Largemouth Bass deemed picture worthy thanks to terrible fishing

I find myself in the limiting out stage while fishing for exotics in the Everglades. They're already a detriment to the native fish population down there and there is no bag limit on them. It is actually against the law to release any back into the water after they've been caught. They're good to eat and I find myself filling the cooler as fast as possible all day long. I must say, however, that I am guilty of releasing smaller exotics back into the water. They're a hoot to catch and I like the thought of getting to catch them for years to come. I won't, however, usually keep any native fish while I'm fishing down there. I kinda feel bad for them since they've got so much competition from the invasives.Above: A cooler full of Oscars from south Florida

My trophy stage comes out primarily when I fish for things I've caught a ton of. Trout and redfish are two of the fish I like to target trophies for. However, when I catch a large trout or red, I almost always release it again. This allows the larger, breeding population to live and can help sustain the harvest of the smaller (tastier) fish.Above: The release of about a 30lb Snook caught in the Everglades

I find myself entering the techniques stage more and more. It's a rather sad state of affairs. I now have the overwhelming urge to catch everything with a fly rod. The same techniques of catch and release that I have with conventional fishing still hold true for fly fishing. Since it's slightly harder, I feel as though a good sustained fishery is sometimes required for success when fly fishing.
Above: A Shoal Bass caught in the Chipola River on a fly rod.

Finally, the teaching stage I've only recently found myself participating in. This stage is probably most dependent upon sustainable fishing. In order to have this stage, the fishery must be sustained for future generations to be taught.

Ecosystem: Like I said earlier, sustainable fishing is very situational. What's sustainable in a large river, might not be sustainable in an eight acre lake. What works in the gulf, might not work in the bayou. Is it necessary to sustain fishing for a species as a whole? Or a species within a particular ecosystem?

I think the answer is both. Since many species migrate, sustaining them within one particular ecosystem might not work and it's necessary to maintain the species as a whole. Other species might require sustaining them in a particular ecosystem. For example, Redear Sunfish are categorized as panfish in Florida. Throughout the state, they are on the same bag limit as bluegill. 50 per angler, per day, with no size limit. However, in Meritts' Mill Pond, Redear's cannot be kept if they are under 10 inches in size and you can only keep a certain amount (less than 50, I can't remember the exact number). Obviously, the state felt that in order to sustain the Redear fishing in this pond, these limits needed to be enforced.Above: A huge Redear shocked out of a Gainesville, Fl lake.

Primarily, it's up to the angler to engage in sustainable fishing. Laws are required, but there shouldn't be an overwhelming need for them. Angler's must have an idea of how many/how big of fish they should keep or let go, even when it is legal.

Stochastic Events: Unfortunately, there are plenty of things to ruin a fish population aside from humans. Environmental stochastic events such as hurricanes, hard freezes, etc. have been known to damage fish populations. As anglers, we need to ensure that our fishing techniques don't damage a population to where it can be wiped out by such an event. For instance, last winter's fish kills in south Florida killed thousands of Snook. Above: Dead Snook in the Everglades as a result of freezing temperatures.

Luckily, we managed to maintain a sustainable fishery and the freeze didn't completely wipe out the population. As a result of these kills, FWC proceeded to change the Snook season to ensure that the population could survive both being caught, and other random events.

At the end of the day, sustainable fishing relies on anglers not only following rules and regulations, but also having the necessary ethics to maintain healthy fish populations. With such ethics, one can only hope that we manage to maintain healthy fish populations for generations to come.