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December 6, 2023

Capt. Ryan Nitz: Sage of South Florida’s Largest Snook

The charter captain and barefoot bowhunter talks giant snook, just-as-giant snapper, and Everglades restoration efforts in the second wave of our two-part blog

You can’t talk about gigantic snook in South Florida and not talk about Capt. Ryan Nitz. Case in point, that picture of him above got you to read this blog. And how about these shots?

The inshore charter captain has made himself known for finding the biggest snook you can catch, which in Florida means 48 inches. Snook are one of the state’s most popular inshore sportfish, largely due to a reputation for putting up a serious fight. These fish are found around Florida, but Nitz says most are nowhere near the size as those found on the southeast coast of the state, perhaps due to an ample diet of baitfish and shrimp.

Enamored with both catching and filming snook, Nitz spent many years figuring out where and when to go, and what bait and lures to rig up, to regularly get himself on the stripe-sided fish. He started posting snook pictures taken from a GoPro on his head to social media, just for fun, and became an overnight sensation.

“The fish sold themselves really,” he says. They also landed him a business.

A Passion to Protect Snook

Nitz says the snook fishery has suffered heavily compared to just 20 years ago.

“Of course, we would love to go snook fishing year-round and keep our fish year-round,” he says, “but that’s not the world we live in.” 

Snook need protection from more than just overfishing. The fish are greatly affected by the quality, timing, and volume of water flowing from Lake Okeechobee and other areas of the Everglades out to South Florida’s estuaries. Conservation groups continually come together to try and tackle myriad problems caused by infrastructure built decades ago, designed to drain swamplands and reroute water to benefit agriculture and developing coastal communities. Nitz knows it’s not an easy task. Everglades restoration efforts must take a broad approach that considers everything from marine fisheries health to water quality to protecting interior Everglades upland island habitats and communities.

Click here to support Everglades conservation efforts by insisting that lawmakers continue to provide funding for critical infrastructure work.

Finding the Biggest, Baddest Inshore Fish

“They’re one of the meanest fish. They pull way harder than snook, pound for pound.”

Nitz is now voluntarily branching out to focus his charter business on species besides snook – both for sporting success and for conservation benefit – even though snook remain his “bread and butter.” Nitz says he’s recently dialed in on cubera snapper, the largest species of snapper, which can grow up to 125 lbs.

“They’re one of the meanest fish,” he says. “They pull way harder than snook, pound for pound.”

He stumbled into cuberas while snook fishing. He’d often cross paths with tarpon and jack crevalles when angling with live mullet or ladyfish. But something else kept taking his tackle; doing everything it could to get him into submerged rocks. Determined to land whatever was getting the best of him, he bought bigger rods and reels and figured out the best times to target the fish. It turns out what was snatching all his rigs were 30-inch cubera snapper. They’re now becoming one of his clients’ favorites.

In addition to cuberas, he’ll also be targeting more tarpon and permit this year, largely to take the pressure off the snook fishery due to a dwindling local population and overfishing. He says it’s not the first time he’s voluntarily avoided putting clients on overexploited fish, though it’s garnered him criticism and pushback from some captains and potential clients. He adds that besides knowing he’s helping out the resource, the younger crowd often offers him messages of support for taking care of the fishery and environment. 

 

Finding Common Ground Key to Conservation Efforts

South Florida and Everglades conservation efforts are not just about specific species in specific areas, like the snook where Nitz fishes, or cuberas, which he has helped Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists tag for research projects. Though these fish species indeed rely on the necessary water quality and volume, and protection from overfishing, broader Everglades restoration is a vastly complex issue.

Many different government agencies, nonprofits, Tribal nations, and recreation groups are trying to find ways to restore ecosystems and recreation opportunities as much as possible under current constraints. Years of dedicated effort are now beginning to pay off through actions by partnerships formed within groups like the Everglades Coalition.

“All the ideas are already in place, and just need executed,” Nitz says. He explains that’s why it’s important to keep federal, state, and private dollars flowing in to address the enormous scale of Everglades conservation. “We know what needs to be done. We just need to do it.”

Nitz says he would like to see more funding go to infrastructure plans addressing where managers can store or safely move the region’s water over the next two decades, as they face a greatly reduced wetland footprint capable of holding and filtering that water, along with continued residential development pressure. A piece of that puzzle is already in place with construction now begun on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, which will help capture stormwater so it isn’t damaging habitat and can help prevent excessive freshwater discharges on the coast that damage marine fisheries. The project is part of a larger plan to allow more water to be directed southward to ultimately reach Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

“We need to get everyone on the same page and address the biggest problems first.”

Nitz knows how vital it is that the broad range of conservation, preservation, hunting, fishing, and recreation groups find common ground on major Everglades restoration efforts to make sure collective energy is spent on achieving feasible solutions that all can agree on, rather than on fighting over differences.

“Sometimes people are busy pointing fingers, and when that happens nothing gets done,” he says. “We need to get everyone on the same page and address the biggest problems first.”

Forever a Florida Sportsman

Before his success and online notoriety as an expert snook fisherman, Nitz fished around Florida – from freshwater for largemouth bass in the Kissimmee area down to the saltwater in Biscayne Bay for bonefish and tarpon. He also hunted throughout the Everglades and beyond. Back then, all the hunting and fishing he did was for only fun.

Now, it’s just mostly for fun.   

Fishing and hunting remain Nitz’s passions and are central to everything in his life. Besides being a charter captain, he’s also a well-known barefoot hunter who targets Everglades deer, Osceola turkeys, and wild hogs. He even points out that every recent vacation he and his girlfriend have taken is to hunt in another state, just to mix it up. 

“When you’re hunting or fishing, you know how excited you can get about it,” he says. “But if you ask someone who doesn’t hunt or fish, they don’t know any feeling like it.”

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Note: Part 1 of this blog series on Ryan Nitz, which focused on his hunting exploits in the Everglades, can be viewed here.

Click here to support Everglades conservation efforts by insisting that lawmakers continue to provide funding for critical infrastructure work.

Photo credits: All images courtesy of Ryan Nitz

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November 30, 2023

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Credits Wyoming as a Leader in Migration Corridor Conservation

Organization thanks Senators Lummis and Padilla for keeping migration conservation bipartisan

On November 14, TRCP’s director of the center for public lands, Madeleine West, appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife to encourage lawmakers to make strategic investments in migration corridor research and conservation.

“TRCP thanks Senators Padilla and Lummis for their time and attention to the bipartisan issue of wildlife migration corridor conservation,” said West. “This commitment is also evident every day in Wyoming where Governor Gordon has prioritized the conservation of migration corridors for some of our nation’s most impressive big game herds.”

Senator Alex Padilla (D, Cali.) is chairman of the subcommittee and Senator Cynthia Lummis (R, Wyo.) is the ranking member.

TRCP has worked with elected officials and state, Tribal, and federal agencies to support partnerships, policies, and funding that advance the research and conservation of big game migration corridors and crucial seasonal habitats.

“Wyoming is a haven for big game species: bison, elk, moose, pronghorn, mule deer and many others whose habitats vary by season,” said Senator Lummis in her opening statement. “Wildlife migration corridors allow these big game species to move between seasonal ranges, of which there are many in Wyoming. In many cases, a herd’s migration route will encompass a mix of federal, state, Tribal, and private property, which makes their management a challenge that must be addressed with a collaborative spirit.”

Since the inception of Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3362—Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors— in 2018, federal funds have helped support infrastructure and habitat projects across the West. This example of federal dollars helping state agencies has been expanded by the Biden administration to more directly include Tribal governments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which incentivizes voluntary big game corridor conservation on private lands in Wyoming.

“Wyoming is a leader in conserving migration corridors for some of our nation’s most impressive wildlife herds, and their leadership will be critical for future conservation success,” added West.

While this bipartisan support and invaluable on-the-ground work has been a bright-spot in conservation, West cautioned that the discretionary nature of existing federal programs and funding sources established through Secretarial Order 3362 generates uncertainty about the future of wildlife corridor conservation work. West specifically requested help from Congress to provide:

• Clear Congressional direction for federal agency programs that support the research, mapping, and conservation of wildlife corridors.

• Dedicated and consistent funding for research, mapping, and conservation programs.

• Increased coordination between federal, state, and Tribal agencies, as well as private landowners and hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations.

Click here to read more about West’s testimony.

Photo credit: Josh Metten

November 22, 2023

12 Pennsylvania Trout Streams That Deserve a Conservation Status Update

Anglers are campaigning to update the designations of some Pennsylvania waterways to reflect the exceptional status of their wild trout populations and water quality

Four times each year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission proposes streams to be added to the Class A Wild Trout and Wild Trout lists. Right now, there are 12 Wild Trout streams that represent the best of our best waters. Among those eligible for protection during this comment period include Mud Run in Carbon County. Despite its name, this beautiful stream flowing through Hickory Run State Park offers not just an idyllic setting, but the cool, clear, shaded waters necessary for healthy trout and recreational fishing.

Pennsylvania sportsmen and sportswomen have a chance to influence this process and seal the deal for our best trout streams—here’s why you should take action today.

The Economic Power of Trout Waters

With 86,000 miles of streams and about 4,000 inland lakes, Pennsylvania is home to some of the best publicly accessible fishing that the East Coast has to offer, including phenomenal trout and bass fishing. With opportunities like these, it’s no wonder that 1.2 million Pennsylvanians fished their local waterways in 2020, helping contribute to the state’s $58-billion outdoor recreation economy.

Since 2010, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has worked with sportsmen and local universities to distinguish our best waters through the Unassessed Waters Program. Based on the UWP’s evaluation, stream sections that meet a set of criteria are eligible for certain protections. For example, streams that have abundant populations of wild rainbow, brown, and brook trout can be eligible for Wild Trout Stream or Class A Stream designations. Protecting these streams ensures that the outdoor recreation industry continues to thrive and that future generations can enjoy the same (or better) fishing opportunities.

Tackle shops and fishing guides are among the businesses that make up an important part of the robust outdoor recreation industry in Pennsylvania. And giving special consideration to the best wild trout streams supports these small businesses. “When I worked in the local fly shop, the Class A list provided a great reference to point people in the right direction to find trout water,” says Matthew Marran, a flyfishing guide and former fly shop worker in the Delaware River Basin. “As a guide, I depend on Class A waters to put clients on wild trout with consistency and confidence. And I’m seeing more and more people ask when booking to fish exclusively for wild trout.”

Why Does a Designation Matter?

In these cases, what’s in a name really matters: Wild Trout and Class A streams qualify for additional protections from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, including the limitation of activities around these streams that would degrade water quality. The Wild Trout Stream title designates a water as a Coldwater Fishery and protects surrounding wetlands from development. Similarly, streams that qualify for the Class A designation get additional recognition as high-quality waters, which restricts in-stream discharges and guards against habitat degradation.

These designations from the PFBC are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on Pennsylvania’s water resources continue to increase. When you consider that roughly 40 percent of streams across the state are NOT suitable for fishing, swimming, and/or drinking water, according to the DEP, it makes sense to safeguard the exceptional waterways that already meet top standards and support outdoor recreation that drives our economy.

Fortunately, sportsmen and sportswomen understand the importance of this process. A TRCP survey found that 92 percent of Pennsylvania sportsmen and women support designating streams when they meet the right criteria.

What You Can Do to Help

Pennsylvania’s hunters and anglers have an important opportunity to conserve more critical streams. If we don’t speak up, these exceptional waterways could easily be degraded and eventually lost to pollution.

Take action now and tell the PA Fish and Boat Commission that you value these protections for clean water and fish habitat.

This blog was originally posted in November 2019 and has been updated for each quarterly public comment period. The current comment period ends on December 18, 2023. Photos by Derek Eberly.

November 20, 2023

Collaboration for Wildlife Connectivity Continues in Oregon’s Malheur River Canyon

In eastern Oregon, the Burns Paiute Tribe is leading an effort to make roads safer for drivers and deer

Most hunters in Oregon know the Malheur River and surrounding canyons offer great mule deer and chukar hunting. Most are also aware that US Highway 20 cuts right through the heart of prime deer winter range and has become a well-known hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions. Oregon Department of Transportation data shows that every year 3-5% of Oregon’s total recorded deer-vehicle collisions occur in the Malheur River Canyon as wildlife attempts to cross the highway to access seasonal and daily needs. The result is accidents that pose a major threat to human safety, ecosystem connectivity, and wildlife conservation. This level of mortality, particularly occurring in early winter and spring, has significant implications for the sustainability of deer populations that use the area for winter range and fawning grounds.

Thankfully, the Burns Paiute Tribe is leading a multi-year comprehensive effort with TRCP, local landowners, elected officials, and other partners to reduce the habitat fragmentation and deer mortality caused by Highway 20. Healthy populations of mule deer are important to the Tribe, which manages a Wildlife Mitigation Site that is bisected by the highway. In 2020, the Burns Paiute Tribe published a blog in collaboration with TRCP that detailed the problem the highway poses to mule deer and the ongoing research to study the movements of mule deer in the canyon and their patterns on and across the highway.

Since 2020, the Tribe and partners have had several successes to advance connectivity in the canyon and the coalition.

Figure 1-U.S. Highway 20 between Juntura (west) and Harper (east), Oregon. 

New Funding Means Good Work Ahead

The Oregon State Legislature, led by Representative Ken Helm (D, House District 27), passed bills allocating $7 million (2021) and $5 million (2023) for wildlife crossing projects in Oregon. A portion of these funds have been set aside for funding future wildlife crossings design and construction in the canyon.

In 2021, the Burns Paiute Tribe contracted a consulting firm to complete the “Highway 20 Wildlife Connectivity Feasibility Study” to better understand critical issues and the variety of challenges related to wildlife connectivity documented along this corridor. In June 2022, the Tribe hosted a community forum in Juntura, with support from Oregon Solutions, to gauge public perceptions about the issues and to determine if the local community members were interested and ready to collaborate. At a Wildlife Passage Summit in Burns in September 2022, presentations were shared with a broader range of stakeholders and relevant agencies about the current research, data, and information collected to date.

Additionally, in 2023, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in cooperation with the Tribe, used Pittman-Robertson funds and commissioned another report by well-known wildlife crossing expert Dr. Marcel Huijser with the Western Transportation Institute. The report details potential future mitigation measures that would reduce collisions while maintaining permeability for wildlife.

During the winter months, many deer cross the highway regularly. However, some mule deer will winter further south, and these animals may only cross US Hwy 20 twice per year, once during spring migration and once during fall migration. The location data from 10 individual mule deer were used in the report to calculate the diameter of the winter home ranges (Figure 2). Based on the diameter of the home range of mule deer that winter along both sides of the highway, a suitable crossing structure would be needed every 1.04 miles to allow 50% of the mule deer to access at least one suitable structure.

The report also indicates the design specifications for wildlife fences, crossing structures, wildlife jump-outs, measures at fence-ends and access roads, and a spatially explicit configuration of the mitigation measures. It also recommends that to achieve a substantial (>80%) reduction in collisions with mule deer, the entire road section should be fenced and additional designated wildlife crossing structures are needed.

Figure 2-Movements of individual GPS-collared mule deer along US Hwy 20 ( Credit Tom Segal, ODFW).

The combination of funds raised to date, research completed, and the level of community involvement in this effort is encouraging progress, and the TRCP is committed to continue our work with the Tribe and agency partners to see these crossing structures through to completion as soon as possible.

Moving forward, the Tribe, TRCP, and partners look forward to engaging in the 2024 stakeholder engagement process with Oregon Solutions. For over 20 years, Oregon Solutions has helped communities across the state implement hundreds of projects by facilitating an impartial forum that fosters public-private-civic partnerships to address community-based problems and projects that support economic, environmental, and local objectives.

Ultimately this process will develop functional solutions that improve wildlife and habitat connectivity through the development of safe wildlife crossings in the Malheur River Canyon. Those involved in the project are excited to have the support and expertise of the facilitators at Oregon Solutions to craft a locally driven solution to this fixable, and expensive, barrier to migration.

Learn more about the migration and conservation work being done in the Pacific Northwest here.

Photo credit: Nigel Hoult

November 16, 2023

Why Hunters and Anglers Are Stepping Up for Alaska’s Brooks Range

What’s at stake and how you can urge the Bureau of Land Management to prevent the risky Ambler Road project

The Brooks Range of Alaska is the pinnacle of wild country. This largely unbroken chain of mountains buckle into foothills thick with willow and blueberry, as cold creeks fill wetlands and large rivers braid their way through the valleys.

Here, massive sheefish — otherwise known as “the tarpon of the north” — inhale streamers and jerk baits. Tundra swans glide over oxbows, 50-plus-inch Yukon moose wade in the marshes, Dall sheep survey from the shale slopes, and the largest caribou herd in Alaska migrates over the vast landscape to spend their winters in the south.

This is a dream destination for many hunters and anglers. Alaskans and visitors from across the globe revere this wild country for the world-class hunting and fishing it provides, as well as the adventure it promises. But a risky project could permanently alter the bucket-list experiences you can currently enjoy in the Brooks Range. Here are the details and how you can get involved.

Where Risks Outweigh Potential Rewards

In 2020, the U.S. Department of the Interior granted federal permits for a road to connect the Dalton Highway in north-central Alaska to four undeveloped mineral deposits. The proposed Ambler Industrial Road, a 211-mile corridor, would scrape itself across the southern foothills of the Brooks Range to bring foreign-owned mining companies within reach of what could become at least four open pit mines. The economic feasibility of these mineral deposits is still in question.

Due to the vast number of streams, rivers, and wetlands along the proposed corridor, the massive undertaking would require breaking up free-flowing waters with nearly 3,000 culverts and 29 bridges. Industrial vehicles would make an estimated 168 trips per day along the private corridor, diminishing the wilderness character of the area and the quality of hunting and fishing opportunities.

While our nation needs minerals to support our economy and way of life, the risks to habitat, clean water, and this wild landscape far outweigh any potential rewards from the Ambler Road project.

This is why the TRCP has partnered with Hunters and Anglers for the Brooks Range, a coalition of hunters, anglers, conservation organizations, hunt-fish businesses, and Alaskan guides, outfitters, and transporters to make sure our unique voice is heard on this issue. Time and time again throughout the conservation history of this country, the hunt-fish community has proven that we are stronger when we work together.

Now we undertake the challenge to conserve the most wild and remote hunting and fishing grounds in North America.

What You Can Do

The TRCP and Hunters and Anglers for the Brooks Range are urging the Bureau of Land Management to maintain the unique values of this iconic landscape by denying the right-of-way for the proposed Ambler Road. You can lend your support by taking action during a public comment period that ends on December 22, 2023.

Learn more about the hunting and fishing opportunities in the Brooks Range, get the facts on the proposed Ambler Road, and take action on the Hunters and Anglers for the Brooks Range webpage.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

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