You know the fishing is good when you start complaining about the quality, not the quantity, of the fish you catch.
"Now that one is a little bigger," Tyson Wallerstein said as the guide unhooked a 28-inch redfish. "This is what we are looking for."
Thirty years ago, when I first started fishing bay area waters, I was happy just to catch a redfish. I didn't care how big it was. But in the early 1980s, the reds fishery was in pretty bad shape. The stocks had been overfished, and the state had to step in and close things down. But anglers rallied, and groups such as the Florida Conservation Association (now the Coastal Conservation Association) helped pass sound management measures that helped rebuild the fishery.
Today, even an average angler can catch a half-dozen redfish, keep one for the frying pan and not feel guilty about depleting the stocks. The fish caught inshore are usually still juveniles. Anglers in the South Region, which much of the Tampa Bay area falls in, are allowed to keep one fish per day if it falls in the 18- to 27-inch slot limit, but the big, mature fish usually "escape" the estuary and breed offshore.
Red drum is one of the few species that can be found in both inshore and offshore waters throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to Key West.
Just how big do these fish get? Redfish in Florida can reach nearly 4 feet in length. In 1996, a 52-pound, 5-ounce red was caught near Cocoa. But that pales next to the world-record redfish caught off North Carolina in 1984, which weighed 94 pounds, 2 ounces.
Red drum live a relatively long time as far as fish go. One specimen in Florida was found to be 40 years old, which makes me feel sort of good, thinking that those little ones I threw back in 1983 might still be swimming out there, waiting for me to catch them again.
Spotted seatrout: Armed with a livewell of scaled sardines, even a novice angler has no trouble catching spotted seatrout. But catching big trout, 24 inches or longer, can be a challenge.
This species, once one of the more tightly regulated sport fish in Florida, has made a dramatic comeback in the past 10 years. In bay area waters, trout in the 15- to 20-inch range, which is also the slot limit, are common. But these fish can live for 12 years, and grow to about 3 feet and weigh up to 17 pounds.
Seatrout have historically been managed on a regional basis, with the northern part of the state, which has fewer people, having more liberal regulations. In 2011, state fishery managers decided trout were in good enough shape to do away with the confusing, closed seasons.
On a recent excursion we caught several large spotted seatrout. Anglers are allowed to keep one fish longer than 20 inches as part of the four-fish bag limit in the Southeast and Southwest zones, but we released them all hoping that the more big fish left to breed, the more big fish there will be in the future. A new stock assessment is due next year.
Snook: The season has been closed in the Gulf of Mexico since January 2010 after a series of cold fronts killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving creatures on both coasts.
It was one of the state's worst fish kills in decades, and snook on this coast were hit harder than those in the Atlantic. The season has since reopened on the east coast of Florida — those anglers can keep a snook through May until the regular summer closure kicks in — but anglers on the west coast must wait until Sept. 1, when the season is finally reopened in the Gulf of Mexico.
Catch-and-release of gulf coast snook is still permitted at this time. When snook is open in gulf waters, the bag limit is one fish per person per day, and the slot limit is 28 to 33 inches. The season is closed from Dec. 1 through the end of February and May 1 through Aug. 31.