After more than a quarter century covering fisheries management, you would think I could remember bag and size limits of the most popular species off the top of my head. Wrong.
The regulations have changed so many times in recent decades, especially when it comes to reef fish, that I have to go to the source every time I write about the subject, and even then, I'm not always sure I have it right.
Take gag grouper for example. At its Feb. 10 meeting near Tallahassee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved changes to the gag and black grouper minimum size limit and the gag grouper recreational season in Gulf state waters.
Why do they lump gag and black grouper together? The simple answer is most anglers cannot tell the two species apart. Even more confusing, many fishermen refer to gag grouper, a species found in the waters of Tampa Bay, as "black" grouper, even though true black grouper inhabit the deeper, offshore waters.
But putting that fact aside, the new rules would raise the minimum size limit for gag and black grouper to 24 inches in the state waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which extend to 9 miles offshore.
The new rules also set a June 1 through Dec. 31 recreational season for gag grouper in all state waters of the Gulf, except for residents of Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor and Jefferson counties, which have their own season of April 1 through June 30. And if you live in Monroe County, disregard the previous information — you follow the Atlantic state season. The new rules go into effect before June 1 recreational season.
Before these changes, the Gulf gag grouper season was July 1 through Dec. 2 in federal waters and July 1 through Dec. 3 in most state waters. According to state officials, opening the gag season in June will help reduce the number of gag grouper caught and discarded during the recreational red snapper season.
State officials also adopted a draft rule to change the upcoming state red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico. Under the new rules, anglers would be able to fish for snapper on Saturdays and Sundays starting May 7.
But on May 28, the season would open continuously through July 10. But then, the season would only be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in September and October and on Labor Day. This would provide for a 78-day season in Gulf state waters.
But none of this matters if you live in the Tampa Bay area, because local anglers have to travel far offshore, at least 20 or 30 miles into federal waters, to catch red snapper.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the organization that manages red snappere in federal waters, met in Orange Beach, Ala., in late January to discuss numerous issues, including the regional management for recreational red snapper. But after reviewing the proposed rule and hearing from the public, the council postponed further discussion until other options could be evaluated.
Red snapper management has been a constant source of consternation for offshore anglers in recent years. Many question government statistics. But that may soon change. The FWC started a new Gulf Reef Fish Survey. This is a mandatory program and all offshore anglers are required to participate.
Information gathered will be used to better manage gag and red snapper stocks. The process is easy and there is no cost. If you fish for red snapper, gag grouper, greater amberjack, lesser amberjack, banded rudderfish, almaco jack, red grouper, black grouper, vermilion snapper and gray triggerfish, you need to sign up.
You can sign up at local tackle shops and tax collector offices or by calling toll-free 1-888-FISH-FLORIDA (347-4356). When you purchase or renew a fishing license, make sure you let them know that you are a "Gulf Reef Fish Angler" so you can be marked as such.
You can also register online at gooutdoorsflorida.com.