TAMPA — Dave Walker acted like a kid on Christmas morning.
"I couldn't sleep at all last night," said the 45-year-old fishing guide. "This is all I could think about."
Walker, born and raised in Tampa, fished the waters off MacDill Air Force Base as a boy and young man. But that changed on Sept. 11, 2001. "They basically shut it down," he said. "I've been waiting more than a decade to get back in."
The waters surrounding one of the busiest Air Force bases in the United States are nothing special. Like most areas of Tampa Bay, you will find mangroves, sea grass and the occasional oyster bar. One thing, however, you won't see is people. The fish on these shallow flats seldom encounter watercraft, except for the occasional research vessel or military patrol boat.
"I've talked to guides who have participated in some of the research over the years," Walker said. "When I asked about the fishing, they say it was so good you don't want to know."
But on April 28 and 29, MacDill, which is home to U.S. Central Command's headquarters, opened the restricted area to anglers for two days of fishing. Fishermen had to apply for a special permit, undergo a security check and then pick one day to fish.
Walker selected Saturday and a midafternoon high tide. When he arrived at the fishing area, there was a long line of deeper-draft, bay boats sitting about a mile from land.
But Walker had borrowed a friend's shallow-running skiff. The "technical" flats boat was designed for fly fishermen and could run in less than a foot of water. So he was able to hug the shoreline and actually "sightfish" to individual trout, redfish and snook.
"This is unbelievable," he said after catching an inshore slam (redfish, trout and snook) in less than an hour. "It is like these fish have never seen a hook before."
The fish definitely were not as wary as those in the more traveled areas of the bay. In fact, on several occasions, redfish swam within a few feet of the boat and still hit the live scaled sardines he used as bait.
Limited-entry fishing is nothing new. For decades, operators of private, freshwater trout streams have allowed small numbers of anglers to fish under strict regulations for rainbow, brown and brook trout. But because most saltwater fishing takes place in public, navigable waterways, the concept hasn't worked in the world's bays and oceans.
In June 2004, scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Research Institute in St. Petersburg began a two-year study to compare the distribution and abundance of sport fish in two areas of Tampa Bay, the public waters off Weedon Island and the restricted waters off MacDill Air Force Base.
MacDill's shoreline has been tightly regulated since 1947, but after the coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the area became off limits to recreational boaters and fishermen. Over the years, limited access was granted on special occasions, primarily to guides working with state and federal researchers, but for the most part, the 4-mile stretch of shoreline remained free of fishing pressure.
The state study, which involved "sampling" both red drum and common snook with nets and hook and line, showed the Weedon Island and MacDill areas to be strikingly similar. Weedon Island had "slightly higher abundance" of redfish and snook, but the guides who fished MacDill tended to have a higher "catch-per-unit-effort," which in layman's terms meant they caught more fish.
The scientists concluded what every fisherman who ever waited in line at a boat ramp already knew, "the lack of boat traffic and other fishing pressures within MacDill may actually improve the catchability of sport fish."
The study, which was funded by a cooperative research grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reached other interesting conclusions. For example, the snook caught at Weedon Island tended to be larger than those caught roughly 4 miles away at MacDill. The redfish, however, were the same size.
The researchers tagged 3,000 fish, 200 of which were eventually recaptured. Most of the fish that were caught again were not more than a mile from their original tagging location. Red drum, however, tended to travel farther than snook, with several specimens recaptured more than 25 miles from where they were first encountered.
According to a MacDill spokesman, 85 boats participated in two days of fishing in what the state officials said was essentially a "marine protected area." Base officials said they may hold additional "open fishing" weekends once or twice a year, but no date has been set for the next possible event.
According to a statement from the Air Force media relations department: "This takes a great deal of security planning to make happen and it is very manpower intensive on the day of the event. Operational and mission requirements will frame the decisions as to when to open waters again."