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Fishing gives Tampa Bay residents peace in midst of pandemic

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received nearly 500,000 state fishing license applications since March 1.

Sean Michael Quinn is no stranger to fishing. The 35-year-old St. Petersburg resident has been out on the water since he was 2 years old, learning the craft from his father and grandfather.

But Quinn isn’t the only person who has enjoyed the waters a bit more than usual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Fishing gets him and his family out of the house in a fun and relaxing way.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has noted increased interest in fishing, at least on paper. The commission received 172,788 applications for freshwater fishing and 298,560 applications for saltwater fishing between March 1 and May 5.

Melody Kilborn, the commission’s public information director for the Southwest Region, said the group has noticed an increase in licenses on both the residential and state levels over the past couple of months.

“(That) could very well be due to people not traveling as much right now,” she said.

In the midst of the national pandemic, Quinn and his family have taken time to step outside of their home twice a week for “outdoor dinner days.”

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Quinn, wife Gabrielle and their two children, Danielle (“Ellie”) and Derrick, will pick up dinner from a local restaurant and eat together out of the back of Quinn’s Toyota Tundra, typically at Sunset Park or Fisherman’s Park. After eating, they’ll throw some lines into the water.

If the fish aren’t biting, the kids get a little bored, Quinn said. Derrick, 2, will throw rocks in the water, but Ellie, 4, enjoys fishing with her dad.

On one of their most recent trips, Ellie caught a grouper that snapped her rod in half.

“She was a little scared about that,” Quinn joked. “But we’ve been doing pretty good the past couple of times out.”

Ellie Quinn, 4, reels in a fish with the help of father Sean while fishing off a sea wall on Blind Pass near St. Pete Beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

When Quinn isn’t fishing with his family, he’s out on his kayak in John’s Pass or Fort De Soto around sunset at least once a week.

He likes to fish for his own live bait — preferably greenbacks — before heading out to the platforms around Madeira Beach to catch some snook, mangrove snapper or trout, with the occasional tarpon mixed in.

“It really just depends on what the tides are doing, kind of pick your poison,” he said.

Quinn said he thinks there has definitely been an uptake in traffic out on the water. And he likes seeing so many people out there.

“I like that there’s people getting out, being safe,” he said. “Working remotely when I started this quarantine thing, I didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal, and it’s been a lot more difficult than anticipated just because now you can’t go outside.”

But the increase in traffic — especially uninformed traffic — on the water has brought an onslaught of pollution, too, especially with fishing line, Quinn said.

“It’s stuff you’re going to get hung up on, and it’s going to kill the fish and the sea life,” Quinn said. “I’ll try to carry some gloves and pick it up if need be.”

Veteran fisherman Jason Merenda also has recognized the increase in boat traffic, though he noted it’s not so much people fishing as it is people using their boats and jet skis more for water sports.

Merenda, 47, has been fishing for more than 25 years. He usually ends up around Anna Maria Island or up north near Bayport.

Jason Merenda, of Temple Terrace, holds up his first redfish catch on his new 2020 flats skiff boat from a May 1 fishing trip near Terra Ceia Bay. Merenda, 47, has been fishing for more than 25 years. [ Jason Merenda ]

The Temple Terrace resident doesn’t particularly like the congestion, but he’s found another reason to be happy about the increase in exposure.

“I’m happy to hear that the (freshwater) fishing licenses are going up, because all of that to me is money that goes into conservation,” Merenda said. “That’s a fantastic result of that. Now, we’ve got more stakeholders out there, and there’s going to be more people interested in the environment.”

He purchased a lifetime fishing license for $301.50 a few weeks ago after unknowingly fishing for two months without an active one. His five-year license expired just before the pandemic really kicked in.

The commission has a list of dates on its website when fishing without a license is permitted. The next chance novice fishers can go out on the water without a license is June 13-14.

The commission also has an executive order currently in place that prohibits people from keeping red drum, snook and spotted seatrout when caught. The measures will run through May 31, 2021. At that time, snook will be in the middle of an annual season closure that lasts through Aug. 31, Kilborn wrote in an email.

Taking a fish out of season is considered a second-degree misdemeanor, she said, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or up to $500 in fines.

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When Merenda goes fishing — usually once a week — he leans toward fly fishing, using plastic or artificial bait. He prefers tarpon fishing this time of year. Hence, his 100-pound catch near Anna Maria Island on Sunday morning.

When he’s not going out alone for the day, he’ll take his family out on his new boat, typically twice a month. He upgraded to a 2020 flats skiff boat on April 1.

Debra (“Debbie”) Crisp also has been enjoying time out on the water with her friend, Jay Mastry, who contributes periodic fishing reports to the Tampa Bay Times.

The two typically go out once a week. But with Mastry’s bar in St. Petersburg having to close its doors and Crisp working from home for Duke Energy during the pandemic, they’ve been able to go fishing every weekend.

Crisp, 59, and Mastry, 66, travel together in Mastry’s single-engine 26-foot center console Calcutta. When they’re not tarpon fishing, she prefers kingfishing or bottom fishing.

One thing she’ll never do, however, is freshwater fishing.

“I am definitely afraid of alligators,” Crisp said. “So you’ll never catch me on a freshwater lake.”

Fishing License Options
License Type Cost
Resident Annual Saltwater or Freshwater Fishing License $17
Resident Five-Year Saltwater or Freshwater Fishing License $79
Non-Resident Annual Saltwater or Freshwater Fishing License $47
Non-Resident Three-Day Saltwater or Freshwater Fishing License $17
Annual Resident Saltwater & Freshwater Fishing Combination License $32.50
Lifetime Saltwater or Freshwater Fishing License $301.50

Click here to order your fishing license online.

Contact Sports Trending and Outdoors reporter Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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