ST. PETERSBURG — Jose Luna has been fishing local waters for most of his life. The charter boat captain has caught everything from tarpon to triggerfish.
But on Memorial Day he hooked a fish that made him stop and wonder.
"There was a lot of boat traffic on the water so we decided to stay close to shore and try to pick up a few pompano," explained Luna, 42. "We picked up a few fish, then we hooked something that we could tell was a little different."
The water was exceptionally clear, almost as transparent as that of the Florida Keys, so he could see the fish — silver with a blue back — that had hit the teaser fly of his pompano jig.
He knew right away that he had hooked a bonefish.
The sport fish, sometimes called the silver ghost of the flats, is famous for lightning-fast runs. But the species is tropical and seldom found outside of the Keys.
"I was shocked," said Luna, of St. Petersburg. "They are not supposed to be in Tampa Bay."
Luna, and his fishing buddy Doug Husenitza said they thought the fish was a fluke, then they caught two more on each successive cast.
"There must have been a whole school of them," Luna said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Luna suspected that perhaps the mild winter or improving water quality brought the fish north. All three were about a foot long. In the Keys, most specimens weigh 3 to 5 pounds. The world record is 19 pounds, set in South Africa in 1962.
Last summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's new regulations making bonefish catch-and-release-only added another layer of protection.
At the same time, officials also eliminated the harvest of tarpon, with the exception of the possession of a single tarpon when in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record. Even then, anglers must purchase a tarpon tag, limited to one per person, per year. Anglers can still photograph the fish as long as it remains in the water.
In regard to bonefish, the tournament exemption permit that allowed tournament anglers with the proper permit to temporarily possess bonefish for transport to a tournament scale was also eliminated.
Luna hopes that bonefish will stick around. Two weeks earlier, Kirby Langelier and Rick Yarrington caught a bonefish off Pinellas Point.
"At first I thought it was a little grouper, but it was too quick for that," said Langelier, a 44-year-old from St. Petersburg. "I had heard rumors of bonefish in the bay but this was a first for me.
Kathy Guindon, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said her office receives reports of bonefish from time to time.
"This is not part of their normal range," she said. "It is rare to see them here."
Guindon said the mild winter may have brought the bonefish north, but she doubts that the fish represent a viable breeding population. But Yarrington disagrees.
"I think they are always here," said the 57-year-old self-professed Florida Cracker. "I have caught them before off Pinellas Point, along with permit. I think they are too small to swim all that way. There must be a local population."