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November 12, 2013

Looking Back

Rip Cunningham, Spider Andresen and Barry Gibson accept IGFA Hall of Fame membership on behalf of Frank Woolner. Photo courtesy of IGFA.

Recently, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the annual induction ceremony for the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame. I am ashamed to say that I have not attended many of these and somewhat selfishly attend only those where I personally know one or more of the inductees. All of those considered and ultimately inducted have contributed to the sport that we are so enthusiastic about. Almost all of them have a very strong conservation ethic.

While I did personally know several of those being inducted, I was there to celebrate the induction of Frank Woolner. Frank was the editor of Salt Water Sportsman when I first went to work there in the early 1970’s. As someone who has read the magazine since I was able to read, I saw Frank as a god-like figure. While I remained in awe for quite a while, I soon learned that like the rest of us, he put his pants on one leg at a time. Simply meaning, he was mortal. Frank and Hal Lyman, the publisher, were both well-respected names in the sport fishing world. Hal was inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame a number of years ago.

Much about those early days at the magazine are a blurr, but my first day will remain etched in my brain forever. Frank, with his beret at a jaunty angle and pipe clenched in his teeth, sauntered into the office with cheerful hellos to the office staff. He often brought them chocolates from a local shop. While genuinely generous, he also wanted to keep the people who wrote the paychecks happy. He rounded the corner, looked at me and tossed a large manila envelope on my desk. “Take a look at these rejection letters and you’ll get an idea of how to write them!” he said as he disappeared into Hal Lyman’s office.

The very first rejection letter was to a writer that I happened to know, but whose name I’ll keep to myself. It read, “Dear XXX, This is the worst blankingmanuscript I have ever read. P.S. Sorry to see that your camera got dunked in salt water.” (The photos were horribly blurry and I can assure you that Frank did not say “freaking”.) I just about fell out of my seat laughing.

Frank mentored more up-and-coming outdoor writers than anyone else. He had a great knack for stringing together just the right words and an ability to quietly teach. This was surprising for someone who did not have a high school education. Frank did have a photographic memory. He read constantly and could recite almost any poetry asked of him. I tried it a couple of times by starting poems that he would finish without blinking an eye, while I knew only the first few lines.

Both Frank and Hal were way ahead of the times in the efforts to get anglers to be conscious of the impact they had as users of the resource. They came up with such slogans as “Limit your catch, don’t catch your limit” and “Release today for fishing tomorrow.”  That was back in the 1960’s. Frank also came up with the term for the standard grip and grin photo of the day. It was a “Dead fish, dumb fisherman” photo.

In the Hall of Fame, when you see Frank’s Royal typewriter, his Calcutta surf rod and Penn Squidder reel filled with early braided line, you see how far we have come since those pioneer days. Tackle and techniques have advanced to a point that would be unrecognizable to many of those pioneers, but the one thing that has not changed is the love of the sport. We always need to follow in their footsteps, be cognizant that we do have an impact, and conserve our resources for those who will follow.

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November 8, 2013

Hackles Raised Over Gill Netting in Florida

After an all-out gill net assault on Florida’s mullet population, order has been restored.

My blog last week told how a circuit court judge in Florida’s Panhandle ruled that the state’s constitutional net ban amendment, which has been in effect for more than 18 years, was not, in her opinion, being correctly interpreted and enforced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and therefore netters could once again use gill nets.

At that time, the state attorney general had filed an appeal, which put a stay on the judge’s ruling.  Problems resulted when that judge, Jackie Lee Fulford, rejected the appeal on the basis that she believed the netters who challenged the amendment would win on appeal and would be hurt if the stay on her ruling remained.

Netters wasted no time in pulling their old gill nets out of storage, buying up as many new nets as they could and killing as many mullet as possible, mainly in the Panhandle and Jacksonville area. Several netters posted photos of their nets filled with gilled mullet in their boats on Facebook.

Unfortunately, on Nov. 1, the FWC decided not to enforce the net ban amendment. According to a source with the FWC, the agency was afraid it might get sued if law enforcement officers arrested netters and the judge’s ruling was later upheld.

According to prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney Ali Waldman, the FWC had nothing to worry about.

“They should wait until the ruling has gone through all of the challenges, and all of the appeals, before they stop enforcing the amendment,” she said. “It’s silly.”

The state attorney’s office kept at it, and on the afternoon of Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Fla., reinstated the stay of the judge’s ruling. Col. Calvin Adams Jr. of the FWC quickly sent out a memorandum that said, “Effective immediately, we are resuming enforcement of the net [ban] amendment and all associated statutes and rules.”

Adams went on to say that officers should use discretion in case they come across netters who are not aware of the stay, which will be the defense of every mullet netter they come across from here on out.

In the meantime, the appeals process must play out. Coastal Conservation Association Florida, which played a critical role in getting the net ban amendment passed by 72 percent of Florida’s voters in 1994, has intervened in the appeal.

My belief is that Judge Fulford has been grossly misinformed by the netters who sued the FWC and has no understanding of the issue. In her final judgement, she noted that the net ban prohibits all entangling nets except cast nets, so it is absurd that FWC allows netters to use seine nets, which occasionally entangle fish. She also wrote that it appears FWC is enforcing the net ban only to keep mullet fishermen from fishing.

The thing is, netters caught 12.5 million pounds of mullet in 2011 using seines and cast nets, so it’s not like they can’t catch mullet without a gill net. It’s just harder to catch mullet using those nets compared to gill nets, which catch more mullet with less effort.

Before the net ban, netters were catching upwards of 25 million pounds of mullet a year, which was hurting the mullet population as well as the populations of gamefish that feed on them such as redfish, snook and tarpon.

It certainly would be fitting if, because of the lawsuit and Fulford’s ruling, the FWC decides to outlaw seines. Of course, knowing the lengths to which netters will go to fight the net ban, the FWC might also have to outlaw dip nets because there is a chance that while netting a shrimp or crab, you could entangle a glass minnow.

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November 4, 2013

Everglades National Park Back in Business

Everglades mangrove snapper
With the government shutdown over, fishing guides and their clients have returned to Everglades National Park. Photo by Mac Stone.

The end of the federal government shutdown was especially good news for guides who fish in Everglades National Park.

For the first time in more than two weeks, they were allowed to legally fish in park waters.

“People don’t realize the effects of the shutdown on guides,” said Capt. Jason Sullivan, who lost several trips because of the park closure.

That anglers were not allowed to fish in the park, even though many of them access the waters in Florida Bay and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline by boat, was bureaucratic pettiness at its worst.

It was one thing not to allow anglers to drive their tow vehicles into the park and launch their boats at Flamingo. But what did it matter if guides drove their boats across park boundaries from the Florida Keys?

That was the same spiteful mentality behind the National Park Service putting up barricades at the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., although federal bureaucrats said they had no choice but to close the park.

At least Everglades National Park’s rangers didn’t hassle boaters who ended up in park waters, some of whom didn’t realize they were not allowed in the park and some of whom didn’t care. The rangers told boaters and anglers they could not stop in park waters and sent them on their way without issuing any citations.

Capt. Brian Sanders was one of the lucky ones. He fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest side of the park and typically goes after snook and redfish in park waters along Gulf beaches and islands.

With the park shut down, Sanders headed 30-plus miles into the Gulf so his clients could fish for snapper and grouper. Fortunately, he had good weather that allowed him to make the long run in his 24-foot bay boat. Even better, the fish were biting – so good, in fact, that after park waters reopened, he still made the trek into the Gulf.

Sanders said that some guides still fished in the park during the closure because of economic necessity.

“I talked to a few of them,” he said. “They said, ‘The park’s not going to pay my mortgage for me, and the park’s not going to pay my bills for me,’ so they went fishing. This was not a lot of days, it was a few days. Those days they never saw anybody.”

Sullivan said he, too, was fortunate. He said he lost about four trips. He could have lost more, but he was able to talk his clients into fishing at night for tarpon and snook in Biscayne Bay in Miami.

Guides in the Keys either had to cancel trips for snook, redfish and tarpon in the park or, like Sanders, make a long run into the Gulf of Mexico or fish shallow reefs in the Atlantic Ocean for Spanish mackerel, snapper and grouper.

As soon as they were allowed back in the park, guides out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada reported great fishing for snook and tarpon, according to marina owner Richard Stanczyk.

Stanczyk did note that the timing of the shutdown was good because early October is a slow time of year for business.

“Out of our 24 guides, only six were fishing,” said Stanczyk, who added that all of his marina’s guides obeyed the rules and stayed out of the park. “None of them lost any trips, but there were people who didn’t book trips because of the closure.”

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October 29, 2013

Keys Fishing Has Character

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. From his well-worn, cut-off sun shirt to the way he used his teeth to nip off the heads of the squirming shrimp we were using as bait to his immaculate 18-foot flats boat – Bob Baker was the quintessential Keys boat captain.

When he opened up the throttle on his Maverick we hauled across the water, quickly making headway on the trip from Islamorada’s World Wide Sportsman toward Everglades National Park. Our conversation settled on fish stories as our ears adjusted to the steady buzz of wind across our faces.

Fishing with us that day as part of the TRCP Saltwater Media Summit was Tom Van Horn, a writer and fishing guide from the Orlando, Fla., area. Between two locals we had enough fodder to keep us in fish tales for the entirety of the journey without any trouble.

We have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Photo by Christen Duxbury.

It was impossible to persuade my smile to recede as we navigated shallow runnels, cruised past islands dense with mangroves and flocks of seabirds, and wove around wooden channel markers at what felt like a breakneck speed.

Bob and Tom were at home on the water. As my land-locked legs struggled to keep me upright in the slight chop, I asked these captains endless questions about life on the water. Can you really make a living doing this? How many times have you been hooked? How often do you take your boat out of the water? What if I have to go to the bathroom? What are some of your more memorable clients?

They answered my barrage of questions graciously and with a smile.

Bob’s response to one of my questions struck me. As we were cruising back toward the World Wide Sportsman, I asked him if he had a backup plan. Had he thought about what he would do if bad weather or a catastrophic event were ever to take away his ability to fish? He looked at me and said, “No. I’m just a fisherman. I just want to fish.”

As his answer drifted away in the salty spray coming off the bow, it struck me that we have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Not only is sportfishing essential to the region’s unique culture and quality of life; without it people like Bob and places like the Keys would cease to remain as we know and love them.

To help create a blueprint for healthy Gulf fisheries, the TRCP has released a report outlining recreational anglers’ recommendations for projects and initiatives designed to help the Gulf of Mexico recover from the 2010 oil spill.

“Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability” is the result of a series of workshops the TRCP organized in May with Gulf State anglers, scientists, charter fishermen and guides, state and federal fisheries managers, fishing tackle and boat retailers and representatives of conservation organizations.

Proper management and planning of our Gulf resources is integral if we want to pursue the outdoor pastimes and way of life that make our coastal places, and people like Bob, so unique.

Learn more about the report.

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October 21, 2013

Declining Stocks and Continued Pressure are Accelerating an Already Bad Situation

Things just don’t look good for striped bass right now

 

Man…  Epic fishing the last three days.  There are a ton of sandeels in “that spot” that remained a secret for, I don’t know, maybe 5 minutes before the word got out… and there were lots of bigbass on them.  I don’t think we caught one under 30-inches in the last three days.  Most were in the twenty to thirty pound class.  And it was almost all surface feeding fish, boiling and smashing sandeels for acres…. in the middle of the day!  But get this… there was chatter on the radio about bluefin in 70 to 80’ of water.  So, of course I took the ride, way past the three mile state-water limit, because I’m a full-on tuna addict.  We got to a spot at that water depth.  There were some birds and a bunch of boats set up, including a handful of party boats.  We dropped some tuna jigs down and were on pretty quickly.  Unfortunately, they weren’t tuna.  We released a striper that looked well north of 50lbs at the boat and one around 30.  Probably the largest striper my boat has ever seen.  Because we were in federal waters (EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone), we were not supposed to be landing or even targeting striped bass.  I imagine readers of this column already know this, but in the unlikely case they don’t, fishing for striped bass in the EEZ is prohibited, and it should be as it’s really the last sanctuary they have…. assuming it is effectively enforced.  In some areas it is (see Justice Department press release).  Unfortunately in our area it isn’t.  Never really has been, and it likely never will be.  It’s just not an enforcement priority.

So yes, all those boats out there (and there were a lot) were targeting and keeping striped bass.  In fact I saw a few very large fish come to the gaff in those boats before I left in search of elusive bluefin.  As mentioned, included in the fleet were those party boats who are boldly advertising “limiting out” every day on the various internet forums.  Unfortunately, such fishing in the EEZ is not unique to this year, nor is it unique to this area.  Each year we have a brief but good run of big fish in late April/early May outside of Lower New York Harbor, often in that same 50 to 90’ depth.  Because it’s usually the only game in town every single party boat from central Long Island to Central New Jersey is on them.  And yes, it’s generally well outside of the 3-mile limit, most of the time in the old Ambrose Light Area.  And they are all advertising limiting-out as well.  But let’s not put the entire onus on party boats.  There are lots more private boats out there knocking the crap out of these fish also.  However irritating this is, I don’t want to focus on all the illegal EEZ fishing in this blog, because it’s just a small part of what is a much larger problem.  But the point is, striped bass, which are becoming more and more contracted/concentrated as they decline, and more and more susceptible, have literally no sanctuary anymore.

Moving on, I’m certainly not going to harp on what’s been a precipitous decline of the striped bass population for the last several years.  I’ve done it too many times in other blogs, and I have a feeling readers of this blog already know it all too well, more than likely from experience on the water, rather than from my incessant griping about it.  But I will note again that because of the bouts of good fishing I described above, it’s hard to convince managers that this is indeed a serious situation that requires management action now, rather than when they finally figure out that overfishing is occurring and/or that the stock is overfished.   As I’ve mentioned before, managers don’t have the perspective we have, and most just don’t spend the time on the water we do.

So yes, I’ve had some of the best days of striped bass fishing in my life in the last three years.  Days where I’ve seen more 40s and 50s in the space of a day or two than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  The above described fishing is a good example of that.  But while such concentrations of fish are intense, they are restricted to very specific areas, and they are generally short lived.  And that makes sense given all the good year-classes we had in the nineties and even early two-thousands and the poor to average ones we’ve had during the last 8 years (with the anomalous exception of 2011 of course).   As we fish on these larger older fish, they get fewer and fewer, and show up in fewer places along the coast, but when they show up, boy do they show up.  And herein lies the problem, and why we will likely see an accelerated slide.

Years ago, when such bait concentrations occurred and stripers got on them, it was generally an island-wide event.  In the “good-old-days” in Oct we’d have solid fishing from Montauk to Sandy Hook, NJ.  In other words there was a wide distribution of fish, like there should be when you have a healthy population.  Now, because the stock has contracted (note, this is not anecdotal, a peer-reviewed stock assessment has confirmed a sharp decline since 2006), what we have are exactly these sorts of short but intense slugs of fish showing at very specific areas.  And here’s what really sucks about that.  Because of the internet, smart-phones etc., when such good fishing does occur, the word gets out so quick that every freak’n boat in the region is on them the very next day, if not that afternoon.  And they are all “limiting-out” (I hate that phrase!) every single day, especially the party boats, who often take in excess of 100 fares and run more than one trip a day.  Because we’ve had 8 years of average to below average young-of-the-year indices, we really just don’t have much in the way of schoolies anymore. So when these bodies of fish do show, they are pretty much all keepers, and most people feel entitled to keep their two per person.

Unfortunately, those of us who thrive on releasing most of the stripers we catch are without-a-doubt a minority.  For a long time the catch-and-release thing seemed like it was catching on/growing.  But it stalled once stripers got a bit more difficult to find.  I’d even argue that the catch and release crowd has shrunk during the last few years, for reasons of which I’m not quite sure.  What’s really irritating is that there are plenty of boneheads out there who refer to such anglers as “elitists” for not wanting to kill every darn keeper they catch.  You tell me how having some foresight, or simply wanting these fish to be around so that our kids might be able to catch a few is “elitist”!?

At any rate, the point here is that we are putting an awful hurting on those fish up and down the coast when they do show like this.   If you want to get angry and subsequently depressed, just take a look at any of the online forums/fish reports.  Lots of photos of dead bloodied fish, piles of dead stripers etc.  So many short-sighted folks out there bragging about “limiting out”.  And the party boats are doing their best to advertise such “limiting out”, so they can fill their boats, and take people out again to beat the crap out of these fish before they move on to the next region where they will likely get hammered.  It’s a real bummer.  Makes me want to drink.

I usually try and end these blogs on an upbeat note.  Like there IS something we can do.  But in this case, I’m not sure there is anything.  We now just have to wait and see what the ASMFC does at the meeting later this month (note:  for more information see CCA MD HAS IT RIGHT ON STRIPED BASS blog).   I really do hope that they vote to make a substantial reduction in fishing mortality, although judging by what I’m hearing from some of the managers themselves, I suspect they will “compromise” with something much less than what is required.  I don’t think they will balk and do nothing. I also don’t think we get what this fishery really needs to stem the decline which is somewhere around a 50% reduction in mortality.

For God’s sake please don’t respond to this blog with more talk about gamefish and slot-limits.  This is NOT the solution and was already covered in this blog:  THE STRAIGHT DOPE ON STRIPED BASS.  All we need is for significant number of managers at ASMFC to realize the importance of a significant reduction in mortality, now, before we find ourselves in a really bad situation with these fish.

Striped bass are so darn important to me and a huge constituency of anglers.  For a long time they defined who I was, and to a large extent they still do.  I not only built a business on striped bass, I built a lifestyle.  And over the years, I have developed a profound respect for the animal.  It’s so darn frustrating and infuriating to see managers sit there with their thumbs up their rears, and it’s equally maddening to see all those gaffed fish coming over the rails, all the photos of dead fish, all the bragging, and virtually no acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation.

Regarding this recent slug of fish off of Fire Island, keep in mind that it’s only been going on for a few days.  Assuming these fish stick around, (this may sound funny, but I do hope they move on) this weekend will be an absolute slaughter while these fish are so vulnerable.  And that really stinks.   The reality though is that I don’t blame those folks killing fish, at least those killing fish legally.  They are just doing what managers have allowed.  It’s the weak-spine managers that are really at fault.  How could they not know what the right thing to do is?  It’s become so obvious.

I can’t help but sit here and feel completely helpless about it all.  I would love to be able to say that we’re gonna go in to the next ASMFC meeting, guns blazing, and change things.  But having been involved in the management world, I’m jaded enough to realize that this simply isn’t the way the system works (it certainly doesn’t help that the October meeting is in St. Simons Island, Georgia).  Change can and does come, but it’s a slow process.  It certainly doesn’t happen quickly and managers certainly aren’t swayed by yelling and screaming at public meetings.   But I can say with some confidence, they have indeed gotten the message that a large portion of the recreational fishing community wants precautionary action on striped bass.  And while many, perhaps most, will choose not to represent those concerns, others will.

The striped bass situation will likely get considerably worse before it gets any better.  History has been pretty clear that ASMFC doesn’t take significant action until the situation is quite dire, and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different here. What’s really unfortunate is that managers are probably looking at such fishing reports off of Fire Island and thinking “there are plenty of fish around, the stock is fine”.

Yet, it’s not all gloom and doom.  I don’t think we’re stupid enough to allow another crash like we saw in the early 80’s, and while history does tend to repeat itself, striped bass has developed a constituency of zealous advocates.  Nothing generates more passion from fishermen than striped bass.  When push comes to shove, we will rally.  For that reason alone I have hope.

The ASMFC annual meeting starts Oct 28th.  There is still plenty of time to contact your state Commissioners and let them know how you feel about striped bass.  The stock needs a clear and significant reduction in fishing mortality (Again, for God’s sake don’t mention gamefish or slot limits or it likely won’t get read).   Managers just need to have the balls to push something close to a 50% reduction through.  You can help:  http://www.asmfc.org/about-us/commissionersPlease, take five minutes to write.

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