Floridians and their close neighbors will doubtless remember the severe winter of two (now, three) years ago. It caused massive fish kills over a large part of the state. With the cruelest focus, the freezing temperatures savaged the expansive fish-rich shallows of the Everglades National Park, an area not known for quick access to deeper warmer waters. Without these refuges, “tropical” game fish like snook and tarpon with narrow temperature tolerance ranges were killed in multiples of thousands- they simply had nowhere to go in waters that stayed so very cold for so long a period of time. Correspondingly, species with a more northern distribution and a better tolerance for cold weather-like sea trout, redfish, and black drum fared much better.
As this article is being written in late January 2012, Capt. Richard Stancyzk reports that the recent Swamp Guides Tourney struggled to catch any snook in the Park. Rick’s opinion is that it may take a few years or more for the snook to return to any numbers even resembling their pre-freeze numbers.
With so many dead snook and tarpon in the Park, anglers and guides immediately grappled with what any remaining game fish biomass might look like, given the huge vacuum left by the demise of the top two apex predators. As the seasons unfolded into the Spring and Summer, fishing reports coming out of the Flamingo area began emphasizing some proportionately huge catches of redfish, with many “recruited” from smaller-sized, now-grown spottails.
The theory mill began whirling. Were these claims accurate? One belief was that indeed it was, based on the observation that pre-freeze days targeting redfish solely or primarily did not turn up these catch and release numbers both on the outside flats and in the interior creeks or muddy runs. Other guides and anglers theorized that the large catch and release numbers were based on more folks simply targeting redfish more often, more times, and therefore with greater effectiveness.
Yet another group allowed for the first two theories but insisted that it was unrealistic to ignore the rearrangement of advantage on the competition totem pole- in other words, with more dead tarpon and snook, there would be understandably less competition for existing baitfish and shrimp fodder. In addition, less snook and tarpon simply made life easier for juvenile redfish, or even their fry. Captain Benny Blanco- who spends mostly every day of the year guiding in the Everglades National Park- was one of the proponents of this last theory. Taking all those factors into account was certainly the most reasonable and moderate position and after a great deal of research, this author agrees with him.
I was anxious to spend some time on the water with Benny in further discussion of these trends as well as fishing some actual areas with him. By the time we could both arrange our schedules, it was fall of the following year, and Benny was happy to report that he was getting catches of fifty to sixty redfish a day for the last few trips. He told me that he was fishing in places he’d fished for years, but never was he catching such large numbers of smaller redfish as he was in these post-freeze months.
The Trip, The Results
I asked my friend and guide extraordinaire Captain Ken Collette to join us. Benny also told me he’d be taking his colleague Captain Steven Tejera along as a second hand since we’d be making the trip in a gleaming 24-foot Yellowfin bay boat. He told us that we’d be covering more open waters to sample many fall/winter redfish spots. This would include many deeper holes and rivers to the north of Flamingo, and possibly Lake Ingraham and Whitewater Bay.
Ken and I made a fast trip from north Dade county via the Turnpike to Florida City and met Benny at his accustomed meeting place. All four of piled into his truck and made the fifty-mile jaunt to Flamingo together. With all the ensuing conversation the ride seemed over in no time.
After launching his vessel, Benny eased the Yellowfin towards the edge of an island where we saw some mullet flipping. Steven got into the bow with a cast net. When we got close to the bait, he threw a well-spread cast over the small but bubbly mass of fodder. His first “strike” came up with a half dozen nice finger mullet. After three more throws, another dozen small mullet joined the hundred or so live shrimp ambling about in the briskly circulating livewell.
Benny idled the vessel into the open expanse of Florida Bay. He then pushed down the throttle and the Yellowfin leaped forward and into planing mode ever so quickly. Benny took us on a westward course and then slowly turned northwesterly as we began to parallel the green rustic coastline of the Everglades. As we drove into this wild space, the wind picked up and freshened as the Gulf turned into an emerald tossed soup etched by long white wind lines. I pulled another jacket out of my knapsack. Putting the garment on was like fighting a crazy giant puppet with all that vessels’ great speed.
After a ride of about thirty minutes, Benny slowed down as he piloted the boat away from the coast into a wooded bay. As he continued towards a scooped out portion of mangrove shoreline, Captain Steven grabbed two spinners from the overhead tee-top rod racks. He rigged them with jig heads, baited each up with a big live shrimp, and handed each one to Kenny and myself.
When Benny got within twenty feet of the shoreline, he lowered his Power-Pole and instructed us to cast as far as we could into the shadows of the mangrove canopy. We both complied and within moments were hooked up with two chunky redfish in the four-pound category. When we brought them aboard, we quickly posed the two “pups” in-hand for an image. And, then, in a carbon copy of the first moment, we cast out and were hooked up in a double-header again. A third and fourth double hook-up followed in an angling version of “Groundhog Day.”
This action went on and on, leaving me astonished. I found myself in the strange conflict of being satisfied with all the fish I’d already caught offset with the curiosity of seeing how many more redfish Kenny and I could catch. But I was getting the point. Benny was having action like this for days and we’d already released about thirty redfish. Angling for these young spottails was obviously incredibly productive.
Captains Benny and Steven asked us if we wanted to experience some similar redfish action in another spot not far away. After gazing at Kenny’s reaction, I politely declined and asked if there were any other species we might try for. Benny responded that in this outgoing tide, the fishing for sheepshead and black drum should be excellent at an oyster bar about a mile away. We quickly agreed and Benny had us on this honey hole within ten minutes. He again dropped the Power-Pole in a strategic yet easy-enough casting position. In another magical replay, almost every cast that landed along the edge of the oyster bar was rewarded with sharp taps (yes, drumfish) or pecks (indeed, sheepshead). Since these “takes” were more subtle than the hard pulls of redfish, I was glad we had the sensitivity of braided line. Not surprisingly, we did not convert all these gentler strikes into hooked fish. But we did average about a forty-percent hook-up rate, all of which resulted in about another hundred fish landed and released over the next few hours.
Around noon, I was glad to wash my hands in the green Gulf, dry them with a paper towel, and drive those salty appendages into the cooler for a thick roast beef sandwich and a Diet Coke. Benny said, “ I know a great spot about ten miles from here that’s loaded with nice gag grouper. “ As I munched away, I wondered what the afternoon would have in store….but that would be another story.
Contact info for Benny:
See all the photos from the outing in Jan Maizler’s Photo Gallery on CyberAngler.