I’ve become an avid swimbait fan, convinced that the molded jigs will match live bait in most situations. But when Richard Sullivan was ahead of me on live shrimp five snook to zip, I caved in.
“Okay, hand me the bait bucket,” I whined as Sullivan released number six. I slid the 1/0 circle hook in under the horn of a 3-inch shrimp, tossed it into the black water, and before the shrimp had even hit bottom I had a 24-inch linesider dancing in front of me.
In the next two hours, we caught more than 20 snook, half a dozen redfish, a whopper trout, a flounder, a black drum, a sheepshead and a ladyfish. All while standing on the bank of a little mangrove-lined pond not 50 yards wide and 200 yards long. And the most amazing thing about the spot was that it had been a landlocked sand mine just three years earlier.
“Waterfront. They’re not making any more of it.” Ever heard that?
But it turns out they are.
Work has quietly been under way for the last eight years on a number of restoration projects on Tampa Bay and at other sites around the state, and now those efforts are starting to bear impressive results for anglers, as well as for the environment.
On Tampa Bay, projects created by the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Surface Water Improvement Program (SWIM) and by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) have created hundreds of acres of new estuaries there, and blessedly, there’s not a condo in sight on any of it. This is designer habitat, and it’s sculpted to be ideal for the low-salinity creatures that live there. Typically, shallow, winding creeks are shaped to bring water into the projects. Inside the mangrove screen along the shore, holes and bayous are cut with earthmovers, and lots of fish-attracting points and bays are created. Add a few hard-rubble artificial reefs in the deeper holes—some go down as much as 12 feet—and the heavy lifting is done.
Then, armies of volunteers, rounded up on Tampa Bay by the intergovernmental Tampa Bay Estuary Program and a non-profit conservation group known as Tampa BayWatch, move in to plant thousands of saltmarsh grasses along the gently sloped shores. Sometimes, the number of volunteers is amazing—up to 300 students, conservationists and anglers who want to put something back show up for some of the events, according to BayWatch director Peter Clark. In one case, 280 volunteers planted a remarkable 24,000 plants in two hours!
“We have seen wading birds in these projects the minute they’re opened to the water flow.”
“They own a piece of it when they participate,” says Clark. “It gives them a lifetime commitment to protect and preserve this habitat.”
When all the groundwork is done, the earthmovers come back to break open the dikes that have held back the tides from the open bay, and brackish water pours into the project. Along with it come thousands of tiny shrimp, killifish and assorted fry, crab larvae and all the things that bring life to an estuary.
“We have seen wading birds in these projects the minute they’re opened to the water flow, and sometimes gamefish show up within a week or two,” says Brandt Henningson, the SWFWMD scientist who oversees the design and production of most projects on the bay.
In fact, Henningson and other biologists think that the lack of low salinity estuarine habitat is the “bottleneck” that keeps snook and redfish numbers lower than their historic levels throughout much of Florida today. By putting back these strategic waterways, the environment is likely to get a huge bang for the buck; both snook and redfish juveniles are known to need this type of habitat for the earliest year of their lives. And it’s also great for baby tarpon, among other species. Food sources like tube worms, fiddlers and other crustaceans also thrive.
About 500 acres of salt marsh and mangrove habitat have been added in the last 10 years, and according to Henningson, some 2,000 to 3,000 more acres will be added in the Tampa Bay watershed in the next decade.
In addition to Cockroach Bay Preserve, the Wolf Branch project between the Alafia and Little Manatee rivers on the east shore of the bay is promising for anglers. The effort will cover some 565 acres, and a part of it will include expanded tidal creeks that should be very fishy.
Another winner is the Cargill South Parcel, a set of creeks and islands created at the mouth of the Alafia River in Gibsonton. Just to the south, the Kitchen area at the mouth of Bullfrog Creek is coming on strong, in part due to construction of experimental oyster bars. Cypress Point, at the end of Cypress Street in Tampa near the airport, since restoration has become a favorite spot for snook and reds.
“We have finished or are in planning for over 60 projects on Tampa Bay,” says Henningson. “Sarasota Bay and the Indian River Lagoon also have lots of these efforts, and it’s becoming the path to the future as far as estuarine care around the state is concerned.”
None of these projects is being done as “mitigation” for the destruction of useful habitat elsewhere. The result is a net gain in prime habitat and fishing waters, and it turns out that man can do a job that appears to be just as good, and maybe sometimes better, than nature.
Fishing these projects is usually best in winter—basically from the time bay waters drop below 70 degrees in November until they again exceed 70, typically in late March. And within that period, prime times tend to be around the new and full moons, when the lowest tides of the year usually result, particularly if there are post-coldfront winds out of the northeast pushing them.
“The colder it gets and the lower the water gets, the more fish we catch,” says Richard Sullivan. “Besides, in warm weather, you can’t stand to be back in these areas because they produce no-see-ums and mosquitoes just as well as they produce gamefish.”
At Cockroach Preserve, Sullivan notes that one of the interesting occurrences is the natural progression of salt marsh to mangrove jungle; the saltmarsh grass was put in eight years ago, but in the first year following the planting, mangrove seedlings drifted in and took root. Now, those mangrove trees are 10 feet tall and have largely shaded out the marsh in much of the area.
At Cockroach, Sullivan has high hopes for new marshes and creeks currently in the works. Eventually three landlocked lakes will be reshaped into shallow estuarine habitat, then connected to the saltwater creek, creating a saline gradient that will allow juvenile fish to move from water that’s completely fresh to highly salty over a distance of less than a mile.
“We’re seeing goliath grouper settling into these areas,” says Sullivan. “I had a 20-pounder take a trout I was reeling in last year, and I think in a few years these fish will be five times that size.”
Sullivan and others note that in the Everglades goliaths are known for taking up residence in backcountry holes and staying there all their lives. He’s hopeful the same thing will happen at some of the projects around Tampa Bay where dredged holes and rocky structure provide the right habitat.