Even on an afternoon in the middle of the week, the boats were lined up along the mangroves like cars at a drive-in. But that didn't bother Wes Burns.
"They should get started any time now," he said like a movie patron sitting through the previews. "We won't have to wait long."
The red drum had been as predictable as a theater schedule. As soon as the tide turned the fish started feeding.
"The bite has been phenomenal," said Burns, who typically guides out of the Gandy Boat Ramp. "Even with all these boats here, the fish don't seem to mind."
Burns stood on the bow and watched the water for a moment, then walked backed to his livewell and grabbed a handful of bait.
"We'll toss out some chum and see if anybody is home," he said. Fifteen seconds later, a fish boiled beneath a bait. A minute later — hook-up. "Here we go."
The fish, 30 inches plus, was too big to keep. Such is the state of Tampa Bay's red drum fishery: nothing short of terrific. But 30 years ago, the scenario was much different. In 1986, an emergency rule was enacted by the Florida Cabinet that prohibited the harvest of all red drum statewide.
The fishery remained closed on and off until three years later when it was reopened with a prohibition on the sale of native red drum, an 18- to 27-inch slot limit, a March to May closed season, and a bag limit of one fish per day. The closed season was dropped in 1996, but since then regulations have changed little and the stocks have slowly and steadily been rebuilt.
The process has been long but the results are evident. The species is especially long lived — one specimen was documented to be more than 40 years old. Red drum, especially those caught off of Florida's east coast, can weigh up to 50 pounds. In case you're wondering, the largest red drum on record was caught in North Carolina on Nov. 7, 1984, and weighed 94 pounds, 2 ounces.
But most of the fish caught in estuaries such as Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are within the slot limit. These fish are "subadults," usually just 1 or 2 years old. Red drum are perhaps among the most studied fish in the ocean.
The state started tagging fish back in the 1980s. One particular fish, No. 14,401, was captured in Boca Ciega Bay on Oct. 16, 1989, equipped with a tag, and set free. The fish measured 29 inches long and was probably about 3 years old. Fast forward to Oct. 5, 2012, 2 miles west of John's Pass, where biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were netting and releasing red drum as part of the state's decades-long redfish study.
Every year in September, redfish "school up" off local beaches and prepare to spawn. These schools can contain tens of thousands of fish ranging in age from 3 to 35 years old. Biologists aren't certain how old No. 14,401 was when it was recaptured. The only sure way to determine the age of a fish is to kill it and remove the ear bone, which has growth rings like a tree.
This particular fish was measured and released, but judging from its time at large, it was probably at least 25 years old. When captured, the fish measured 39 inches. So it grew less than a foot in its 23 years of freedom. Redfish keep getting longer until they are 5 or 6 years old and then they just get wider and heavier.
It makes sense to release big fish, because these are the ones that make it offshore to reproduce. That's one reason the regulations have not changed much in this part of the state for the past 25 years — because they work.
But at this month's meeting of the FWC in Jupiter, commissioners voted to tighten regulations in the Northwest Florida. For years Panhandle anglers have been able to keep two fish per day. The new limits should, in the long run, improve fishing.