PLANT CITY — Closed for the past two years, Edward Medard Reservoir will open again to boaters and fishermen at the end of the year. The only catch: the fish have to stay.
The reservoir will open Dec. 31 for catch-and-release fishing only, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FFWCC, announced Tuesday night at a community meeting.
The decision was made based on the size of the fish currently in the water, said Bill Pouder, a biologist with the FFWCC Fisheries Division. Most of them were added to the reservoir last fall and spring and need time to mature, he said.
"Our recommendation initially was to wait two years to open up fishing," Pouder said. "But there was a large outcry."
The popular fishing spot was closed two years ago by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, which owns the property, to make repairs on the reclaimed phosphate mine.
Swiftmud also built a new dock and observation tower.
While the water level was lowered, biologists with the FFWCC conducted a study of the types and numbers of fish species in the reservoir. The results showed a large number of exotic species such as tilapia, which can wreak havoc on native fish, Pouder said.
Concerned for the reservoir's future, the FFWCC instituted a fish management area there, which allows biologists to keep a closer eye on fish populations and customize fishing rules for a better fishing experience, Pouder said.
When water levels returned to normal, the FFWCC restocked the reservoir with more than 400,000 fish, including bluegill and largemouth bass. They plan to add more than 200,000 more fish in spring.
For now, the fish in the reservoir remain too young and small to take home, Pouder said.
A community group of about eight residents was formed to discuss the option of keeping fishing closed for two years. Along with members of the FFWCC, the group recommended the catch-and-release rule to be put into place for one year. At the end of the year, officials will look at whether it needs to be extended, Pouder said.
But some fear fishermen will abuse the rule.
"If you're going to open up now and allow catch-and-release, I think that's a waste," said Bill Adams, a Plant City resident who often fishes the reservoir. "I've been going there for many years, and I've never been asked how many fish I caught."
Pouder ensured community members that park officials will monitor fishermen to ensure the release rule is followed.
"It's going to be a challenge," he said. "But we're hoping people will understand the importance of keeping the fish in there."
Robert Beach, of Plant City, understands the reasoning behind the new rule but won't be back on the water again until he can take his catch home.
"Catch-and-release is out there for trophy fishermen," he said. "Until you can catch fish to eat them, I have nothing to go out there for."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.