Long cold spell takes a toll on area fish

Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:39 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 11:39 a.m.

Even the saltiest old timers can’t remember a longer-lasting stretch of frigid nights — or one that has impacted Florida’s saltwater fishery so harshly.

“It’s the worst I can ever remember in my 19 years here,” said Spek Hayward of the Waccasassa Fishing Club. And the grim evidence is abundant in the Waccasassa River and in Waccasassa Bay.

Monday, Hayward said he tried to count the dead mullet as he passed them in his airboat, but quickly realized this wouldn’t be possible.

“I couldn’t count that fast,” he explained. “There are thousands of mullet … and a lot of snook, too.”

Area anglers rejoiced through recent years at the slow but apparent migration of snook northward from their accepted-for-generations Gulf Coast range. The northern limit of the highly regarded game fish’s range was long considered to be Crystal River. Twenty five years ago, a snook catch very far north of that latitude was surprising. But during the last decade or so, catches of good-sized linesiders 30 miles north of it have become increasingly common. “Global warming,” everyone said in explanation of the shift. The correction, however, was sure to come … and it may have arrived with 2010.

“We saw one dead snook that had to be 40 pounds,” Spek continued. “And we hear that the game wardens arrested people over the weekend with a boat full of snook they had picked up.”

Before my phone visit with Spek ended, he left me with one more disturbing image of my favorite piece of Florida.

“Out of the river, the buzzards are everywhere — at low tide, they’re landing on the sand and shell bars and feasting.”

Waccasassa Bay, of course, isn’t the only Big Bend area that suffered cold-created fish kills. Last Wednesday and Thursday, ahead of the lowest temperatures, Capt. John Wells of Hawthorne encountered “thousands of dead mullet” at the mouth of Dallas Creek, north of the Steinhatchee River.

And that “thousands of mullet” comment has been a standard report from all ports as far south as Homosassa.

Responding to numerous reports of cold-killed fish on the Withlacoochee River, Capt. Joe Richard of Gainesville launched at Yankeetown Marina on Tuesday. He headed out toward the river mouth, and soon came upon a zone with 12 floating snook, three ladyfish and a few catfish. Closer to the mouth, he passed a raft of around a thousand dead or nearly-dead small mullet. Later in the day, Capt. Joe decided to search upriver, in an area with houses and canals. Here, on a muddy bottom in water eight to nine feet deep, were “about a hundred freshly-dead snook — most from eight-to-20 pounds, with the largest maybe 25 pounds.”

The veteran guide noted, while the loss of fish is disturbing, “it’s made life good for the buzzards, cormorants, otters and wild hogs.”

When Suwannee Capt. Jon Farmer eased through the canals in Suwannee town Monday, he was not surprised to find the stacks of dead mullet. He was shocked, however, to see somewhere between 40 and 50 juvenile tarpon.

“Some smaller ones must live here year ’round,” the lifelong guide surmised. “We didn’t know they were there.” He added, “Some were as small as a pound or so, and a few were as large as 25-to-30-pounds.”

Freshwater fish usually fare a bit better during periods of such extreme cold. Only the species that really don’t belong in Florida cannot deal with the chill. Tilapia populations have built up only to meet a cold demise a number of times through the last several years … and another time is at hand.

Late last week, members of the Bassmasters of Gator Country practicing for an upcoming monthly tournament on Lochloosa first noticed sizable tilapia barely alive at the surface. Dale Melms said he was easily able to net the immobilized fish. Later assured the tilapia were good to eat and not protected by state limits, Melms returned Saturday to harvest 31 of the unsuccessful invaders that weighed 88 pounds altogether.

The tournament, by the way, went off as planned in last Sunday’s uninviting chill. Seven club members caught bass, but each of the seven anglers was able to capture just one. Keith Chapman’s single 5-pound 4-ounce bigmouth was the tourney winner in all categories.

There seems to be a rather sudden confusion regarding Florida’s grouper season. The changes and rumors have come so fast, it’s no wonder. As I read it, both red and gag grouper season in Big Bend gulf waters will close from Feb. 1 through March 31. On the Atlantic Coast, the season is closed from Jan. 1 through April 30.

Gary Simpson is a veteran tournament angler who works at The Tackle Box.

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