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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Oil could spoil the 'salt life' for Florida sportsmen

The sign that welcomes visitors to the little island about an hour and a half south of Miami said it all. Welcome to Islamorada: The Sport Fishing Capital of the World Such a statement must be put to the test. It's 91 degrees with a breeze just hard enough to keep the sweat from beading on your arms and forehead. The crystal-clear aquamarine water stretches from horizon to horizon with hardly a change in hue. The rocky ledges of the coral reefs are clearly visible below the water's surface even though they are 50 feet below.
Handfuls of sand and oats followed by a jig-tipped shrimp go into the water. Soon the yellowtail snapper start to be pulled out as fast as an angler can reel. Soon the grey snappers follow. And then the amberjacks. And then the mahi-mahi. By the time the boat begins its trip back to port, the arms are tired and the shoulders are a little pink. For those of us in Florida who truly love the water, this IS Florida. The Gulf may not be our livelihood, but for many of us, it is our liveliness. And then it hits you. "Will this all be here by this time next year?" Oil still gushes out of a botched drilling job into the Gulf - and oil and water don't mix in any sense of the metaphor. Fish are particularly susceptible to absorbing the hydrocarbons found in crude oil because they have naturally oily body composition and the hydrocarbon compounds dissolve easily into their tissues through contact with the skin and gills. Nobody seems to know what, if any, effect the oil will have on these waters over the next few years. How will it affect marine creatures? Their future generations? The habitat they live and reproduce in? Will living with the oil's destruction just be another part of life in Florida in the future? "Steve Jerve will have your black tide forecast for the weekend, after a word from our sponsors." Even the brightest optimist can't help but wonder if each time you touch the water if it will be the last time for a while. If you consider yourself a true Florida sportsman, here is your guide of activities you should do at least once before the oil reaches our shores: Tarpon fishing 'The Pass' Each year thousands of anglers pile into Boca Grande Pass in search of a common, singular prize - catching a silver king. No place in Florida is more associated with a single activity than Boca Grande and tarpon fishing. The Pass is a small strip of waterway off of Gasparilla Island that connects Charlotte Harbor to the Gulf of Mexico. Several steep underwater ledges, some as deep as 75 feet, pockmark the pass and serve as a cauldron of activity for gigantic marine creatures. And with a decrease in tourist charters, now might be the perfect time to try your luck. "Best fishing in years in Boca Grande," said Professional Tarpon Tournament Series host Joe Mercurio. "No effect (from the oil spill) at all." During the 1950s and '60s, Boca Grande was a major hub for Florida's railroads and a major shipping port for several industries, including the local phosphate mines. The huge shipping vessels that traveled through the pass on a daily basis helped create an underwater channel on the harbor floor that would act as a funnel during the changing "hill" tides, pulling entire schools of baitfish and crustaceans into the pass and down into the deep ledges. The abundance of food and available cover made it an ideal environment for large tarpon, which would crowd into the deep holes by the hundreds. How the ongoing disaster will affect the food that draws the massive fish into the pass is a mystery. "There's a lot of uncertainty and nervousness," Mercurio said. "We're sitting, waiting, hoping all remains well." Scalloping in Homosassa The threat of encroaching oil was enough for Gov. Charlie Crist to issue an executive order to open the season on bay scallops two weeks earlier than usual, so that coastal communities from Aripeka to the Big Bend will have a better opportunity to take advantage of the recreational harvest period. Scalloping on the Nature Coast is a Florida tradition and there really is no wrong way to pluck the tasty mollusks from the shallow grass flats. Whether by boat or kayak, by dip netting or by free diving, scalloping is like an underwater Easter egg hunt - except the scallops taste better in scampi. "Scallop season is a huge social event," charter boat captain Nick Warhurst said. "Homosassa comes alive." Scallops, like all their shelled brethren in the Gulf, are especially susceptible to the effects of the oil since they are filter feeders that ingest sea water along the bottom and extract the particles. Oil, especially when it sinks to the bottom of the sea floor after the application of dispersants, could make the scallop meat inedible. The oil could also have a disastrous effect on areas like the Chassahowitska Refuge and its miles of grass flats that serve as the spawning grounds for the scallops, as well as hundreds of other aquatic species. "Gov. Crist's decision to open scallop season a little early this year will give Florida residents and visitors a chance to enjoy a terrific family experience outdoors," said Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's the right thing to do for these fishing communities and further illustrates that Florida is the fishing capital of the world." For more information, check out Frank Sargeant's recent article on regulations and shucking tips. Bug out in Key West A pilgrimage to the Keys occurs each year on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July as Floridians flock to the southernmost part of Florida to get their share of spiny lobsters. This year's recreational sport season for lobster falls on July 28-29. Despite the state's enhanced efforts at boosting tourism, the usual circus-like atmosphere could be assuaged by visitors' reluctance, which means that there likely will be less competition when chasing your bag limit of six "bugs" per day. Catching your dinner isn't as simple as it may seem. Recreational lobster fishermen are prohibited from using traps, snares or trot lines, so the only way to harvest them is to go find them. Once you've spotted them, you must get them out into the open using a long dowel rod or "tickle stick" where you can grab them with a gloved hand or a bully net. A major perk of this adventure is the ability to see the some of the more than 6,000 coral reefs between Key Biscayne and the Dry Tortugas in their pristine state, before the Gulf Stream carries the crude slick through the Keys and into the Atlantic Ocean. "If any of you want or want your children or grandchildren to see the only coral reef system in North America, you better go this year as it may be gone forever if the oil hits this fragile ecosystem," warned Reel Animals host Billy Nobles. If you go, make sure you have your lodging booked well in advance since this is traditionally one of the busiest periods in the Keys. Lobstering should only be attempted by experienced free divers or certified scuba divers, since the strong ocean currents claim several lives every season.

Offshore grouper hauling Perhaps no other culinary dish exemplifies the Gulf Coast as much as a fried grouper sandwich. And the best way to ensure it is the freshest fish available? Catch it yourself. Offshore grouper fishing is a favorite for a lot of anglers because it represents a test of wills. Gulf grouper have earned the reputation for being voracious eaters and pugnacious fighters once hooked. The grouper was the fish of choice for legendary New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth when he would arrive each year for spring training. He admired the tenacious fight of the fish and the large, rotund and somewhat homely reef inhabitant was said to remind him of himself. And, let's not forget, they are delicious to eat. According to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, commercial and recreational fishermen were allowed to catch 3.4 million pounds of gag grouper this past year. But the oil spill could put additional pressure on a population that has already been depleted by overfishing. Since grouper are a bottom-dwelling fish that live sometimes hundreds of miles offshore, they can be especially vulnerable to oil that has been treated with chemical dispersants that has sunk to the sea floor even if the slick never reaches the shores of the Gulf. Netting for mullet With all the great options for catching and eating fish in this state, it is easy to overlook the lowly mullet. But don't forget it was the state of Florida, with a little help from Alabama, that gave the world the hallowed sport of 'mullet tossing.' And smoked black mullet, although a bit of an acquired taste, has been a Florida staple since the turn of the century.

These oft-maligned fish can reach a few pounds each and can travel in schools of up to a hundred, and since they are vegetarian, the only way to catch them is with a cast net. (Although some contend that you can catch them using tiny hooks and sweet peas or extremely tiny flies.) Using your castnet to corral more than bait can be an enjoyable experience, especially when done on a scenic locale like Cockroach Bay. The act of stalking and catching a school of black mullet is a cross between pheasant hunting and calf roping and provides a nice change from the standard rod and reel method. So, while the mullet isn't the sexiest of catches, it is definitely a Florida phenomenon and chances are you would probably miss them if they were gone. Fishin' the flats Fishing the grass flats is the official pastime for most anglers on the Gulf Coast and should be an automatic inclusion for any sportsman's Gulf "bucket list." By boat or by kayak, or even just wading out, there are infinite possibilities as to how to fish on the flats - and nearly as many options on what to catch. A day on the flats can lead to redfish, snook, trout, pompano, flounder, bluefish, whiting, snapper and much more. How long that lasts is anyone's guess as the oil makes its way further and further toward the Gulf stream with the capability of destroying everything in its wake. "So if you want to go to the Keys lobstering and haven't, or gone up north around Crystal River and Homosassa scalloping and haven't, fished or snorkeled or dove anywhere and haven't, you better go now while it's still here," Nobles said.

Multimedia reporter Scott Butherus can be reached at jbutherus@tbo.com or (813)259-8066.

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