Many times, in the mid-morning warmth of the intoxicating sun, customers will relax from their fishing and make inquiry as to, “how is the fishing here now in comparison to when you started ... better or worse?”
What an entree for oratory! I stumble to get the soapbox out.
Response comes in a couple of segments. First and foremost, the single most important was the elimination of gill netting fish in the backwaters and nearshore by the passage of the Net Ban Constitutional Amendment in 1994. Bedeviled by the stonewalling on the issue by the Florida Legislative bodies, the people, aptly led by the effort of the Coastal Conservation Assn. got the issue on the November ballot that year and the people approved the ban overwhelmingly with a 72 percent plurality.
The gill netters left and within three or four months we saw a dramatic difference in the fishing quality throughout Southwest Florida. We saw species that the netters had swept up before and saw more fish of every species.
The other facet we have seen is a change in the attitude of the public regarding the conservation of our environment. Not only care and protection of the waters and beaches but the attitude toward the creatures of the sea in general. That shows up in both the care and handling of released fish but also in the attitude regarding the harvest for take home. For the most part, we’ve gone from an attitude of take everything to “just enough for a family dinner”. That’s the norm but I’m sure there are exceptions to that general principle every day. Takes longer for some to get the message than others.
But our story today happened some years back and gives a critical look at yesteryear to put the time relativity in perspective. It certainly was not a unique event in those days but this one accentuates the worst of what it was like
In 20 years of chartering, you can remember bits and pieces of some and the intimate detail of a few trips. This particular trip will be in the top 10 ... forever.
It was at the tail end of the “season” and these four guys booked a trip nearshore. They made that a specific; if no nearshore opportunity because of weather; no charter. That was the way they delicately put it. All they wanted was Spanish mackerel, which had been thicker than fire ants nearshore for weeks. I should have suspected something then but didn’t.
As their morning dawned the conditions were as perfect for a spring day as you can get. Not cloud in the sky; perfect incoming tide; nice clear water. So it was “game on” nearshore, for the hapless Spanish mackerel; they had no idea as to what was coming their way.
Our crew arrived dockside right on time. They carried an assortment of gear among which was a large cooler hoisted on the shoulder of the lead angler.
“Hi, I’m Tony and this is my Fishing Team”, he nodded toward the other three and we all shook hands and exchanged greetings. From the distinctive accents you know this gang was from somewhere northeast where there are tall buildings and short tempers.
Tony swung the big cooler down and handed it to me. Expecting that it was heavily laden with libation, I braced for the weight saying “Wow, picnic time today, huh ?” with a quick response from Tony “No it’s empty; this is for the filets”; and it was; 72 quarts of empty. If expectations of a fish slaughter were suspect before they were a sure thing now.
On our way out to the first reefs off South Seas questions from the “Fishing Team” we’re all directed at teeing up me along with the fish.
“What’s the bag limit on mackerel, captain?”
“You can harvest 15 mackerel per day (unfortunately) “ was the reply.
Another few minutes on the journey to our “spot”, Tony pipes up with “When you clean the fish, we’d like you to remove the stronger lateral line on the filets; makes them less robust. Can you do that for us?”
“Takes a little longer but be glad to; dependent on the numbers of fish we’re bringing back” was the customer oriented response. Tony smiled.
It really didn’t make any difference where we set up that given morning; the mackerel were crashing the surface everywhere. The terns and gulls were in need of a slug of Prozac; they absolutely couldn’t comprehend the action. They’d dive into the water surface after the tiny white bait and the mackerel would take a swipe at them. Wild!
So we picked a place and set the anchor with the incoming tide; our baits would aim at the incoming tide currents and cuts. Put a small hunk of block chum in the water and away the four of the Fishing Team went ...
Talk about a “turkey shoot” ... they stopped using bait on their jigs but got solid hits milliseconds after getting in the water. Turned into a frantic “Lucy Skit” within minutes with the bottleneck in the action being capturing and extracting the hook on the continuous stream of mackerel suicides.
Soon we had a count of 24 mackerel in the cooler and I tried to slow things down with a suggestion of an self imposed boat size limit of 24.” They didn’t even look up as they swung mackerel after mackerel aboard. Looked like one of those tuna fishing trips they show on TV where the fish are taking bare hooks and being heaved aboard.
Finally. to get their attention I started the engine. They stopped.
“Hold it” was my demand. “This is a slaughter. Way out of control. In addition it will take at least two minutes for me to clean and remove the lateral line on each of these fish; so if you guys go limit I will have two solid hours of work ahead of me once we hit the dock. I’m not doing that. We’ve got to cut back on the take”
Tony piped up, “but we’re getting the fish for the season ending cook out.”
But, faced with the ultimatum, they finally agreed and the harvest cut down dramatically.
Took over an hour of filleting, anyhow, at the end of the trip that thankfully did not fill the 72 quart cooler.
Told Tony on departure to call somebody else next year; or hit the supermarket or the fish market.
Nowadays those events are gone – I hope.
Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.