On The Hook: Fishing’s interface with wildlife

Bill Walsh

Part of the fascination with the Paradise Coast is the “up close and personal” coupling with the best that nature has to offer in this wondrous mangrove basin and it’s fascinating residential sea and sky creatures.

Then it follows that sportfishing in this arena brings an association and hopefully an appreciation for the animals and birds that make this their abode. But just like most interfaces between nature and human intervention there comes times when tending to the sensitivity of that contact demands priority.

File: A young Brown pelican.

We, that fish, are the primary caretakers of that issue. This week we’ll share a current and another memorable contact with nature’s creatures that bears acknowledgement.


This was an accidental encounter with a young pelican that fortunately ended up with a favorable outcome; so to speak.

It’s a late summer morning and we’re finishing up a half day charter in Hurricane Pass just north of Marco. Our crew this blistering hot morning is mom and dad and two teenage boys. It has been a lackluster trip thus far with but three minimum keeper size snapper in the cooler and lots of lost tackle with bottom and tree snags.

Albeit, they have enjoyed the outing with frequent visits from the dolphins searching for food in and among the few fishing boats plying the waters that morning. The dolphins would actually take positions alongside the boats awaiting undersized discards. We would take an effort to damper their effort by tossing the discards well away from the boat and the dolphins.

As we announce “last cast” and begin to ready for the trip back to Marco, the two boys let go a final long cast.

Just then a young pelican, heading back to its perch on a downed tree, just happened to be in the line of fire and ran headlong into the line of one of the casts. The youngster on the other end of the cast was dumbstruck and froze in his cast. Net result: a hooked pelican now thrashing in the water.

We had the youngster just keep slack out of the line as we pulled anchor and moved very slowly to the hooked bird. Just as we neared the point of gentle capture, the frightened bird took flight again; this time heading to Keewaydin Beach with scads of onlookers and advisors/critics.

We backed the boat away from the beach gently with our buddy still in tow and maneuvered him boatside. Dad placed a towel over the pelican’s head and held his beak and we worked at least ten minutes with a writhing bird as we extracted the hook from the bird’s wing feathers.

As soon as we removed the towel the pelican was back in the air like nothing had happened.

It was the event of the trip that day but the most meaningful moment when one of boy’s remarked how amazing it was that all that effort and time was spent in saving wildlife.

They were super impressed with the effort and energy expended to save one member of the wildlife family that are really part of the mystique of our Paradise Coast attraction


Some years back we had a charter and an interface with dolphins that stands as a “one of a kind event” that bears repeating.

It’s a summer morning and again we’re fishing the backwaters; this time in the Capri Pass where we’re targeting pompano and sea trout as we drift back and forth in the tidal current.

As is most always the case, the cavorting dolphins take note of our presence and frequent release of undersized or undesirable fish and take station alongside to feast on the discards.

But on this day, they would find things quite different.

Our crew on that notable day was a family of five that included one little girl, named Emily, who would turn out to be the star of the show.

We were at the early stages of the trip and into our first catches which were undersized trout that we were releasing unharmed back into the water; that is until two or three ravenous dolphins showed up boat side and gulped down a pair of the released fish.

Emily was right on top of that happening and went into overdrive. “They just killed those pretty fish; we can’t let them do that.” Beset with tears and emotion, she got full family attention immediately that temporarily halted the fishing.

She spotted a couple of five-gallon buckets that we had aboard to transport bait and asked if could fill them with seawater and keep the “discards” alive until we moved away from the dolphin and then release them safely.

Now, keeping undersized fish aboard, is a violation of the strict rules of Fish & Game and put you in jeopardy for a fine and revocation of fishing licenses.

I, politely, was explaining that fact to the parents and although Emily’s plan would probably work it was illegal. Just then Emily interrupted ...

“Captain, if the fish police come and see what we’re doing, I will explain that we’re saving the fishes lives. How can that be against the law?”

What followed was a stunned silence. Emily was right. And, although not condoned as generally accepted activity, it was worth the risk in this specific situation.

We filled both buckets with sea water and set up aerating bubblers and went back to our fishing. Emily became the “discard manager” seeing to it that all the “shorts” and undesirables (save catfish) were placed in the bubbling buckets.

And as we frequently moved off to start another drift we would empty the buckets in a dolphin free zone.

And you know what? Emily’s plan worked.

As we stopped tossing discards, the dolphins vacated our area and we were free to release the discards directly into the water safely.

Viva Emily’s plan!

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Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.