Karl Wickstrom has fought and won for Florida’s anglers for five decades.
As an award-winning investigative reporter for the Miami Herald during the 1960s, Karl Wickstrom took on crime and corruption. As a legislative aide in Tallahassee, he helped draft law-enforcement reform legislation. That same crusader mentality and zeal served him well when he decided to challenge the status quo to improve the lot of fishermen in the state of Florida.
Wickstrom spent his early years surrounded by people determined to make a difference. His father was a columnist for a local Illinois newspaper and later bought a weekly paper in Zephyrhills, Florida. While Karl studied journalism at the University of Florida he spent summers learning the newspaper business and refining his writing. It was in Tallahassee in 1967 that Wickstrom got the fishing bug. He also sensed an opportunity, and when the Florida Senate session ended he moved back to Miami and started publishing magazines.
Aloft, the in-flight magazine for National Airlines, was the first product of Wickstrom Publishers. Soon Karl noticed another unfilled niche: statewide saltwater fishing. In 1969, the first issue of Florida and Tropic Sportsman was published and mailed free to 112,000 registered boaters. From the beginning Karl enjoyed every aspect – the writing, designing, photography (including more than 20 covers), even ad sales. Quickly the magazine’s name was shortened to Florida Sportsman and just as quickly it became a success, partly because of the state’s fast-growing population, partly because Karl insisted on good writing (and had people like Vic Dunaway onboard at the outset), and partly because he brought his newspaper journalistic ethics to the magazine.
Florida Sportsman was more than just entertainment. Stories were about fishing, hunting and conservation, and his editorials became powerful vehicles for targeting commercial fishing interests and those exerting improper influence on marine laws and regulations. By the 1980s Florida’s fisheries were in dire shape due to commercial dominance and excessive netting. Wickstrom went directly to the people in the pages of Florida Sportsman.
Karl Wickstrom may be best known for his initiation of Florida’s constitutional net ban amendment of 1995. In his “Openers” column in early 1991 he first suggested a ban on destructive gill nets in coastal waters, and included a coupon readers could return if they agreed. He was overwhelmed–and heartened–by the response and support, and the “Save Our Sealife” campaign was born. Though thousands of individual volunteers and groups devoted countless hours to the initiative, Wickstrom is recognized as the person who did most to achieve the ban.
In November 1994 an overwhelming 72 percent of Florida voters–close to three million–said “yes” to the constitutional amendment, and on July 1, 1995 the gill and entanglement net ban took effect. The net ban not only revitalized inshore fishing for millions of residents and tourists, but it also showed many frustrated with government’s inability to act on abuses that they could “fight city hall” and win. In subsequent years there have been lawsuits and attempts to create enforcement loopholes, yet the mandate of voters–Florida Constitution Article X, Section 16(1): “No gill or entangling nets shall be used in any Florida waters”–has been upheld.
Karl Wickstrom spearheaded other important changes in how we view our sport and manage our fisheries.
—From 2008 induction into IGFA Hall of Fame
How did Florida Sportsman ever get started? Karl’s own words, in the magazine’s November 1984 15th Anniversary Edition: “I think back to an impulsive, chance purchase at a drug store in the ’60s. We were staying at a little beach motel on Longboat Key… in a five-and-dime, I plucked a spinning outfit from the rack and instantly was infected with that obsessive malady called sportfishing. One of the first casts brought a pompano, which a neighbor cooked for lunch… As I left newspaper writing [The Miami Herald] for free-lance work and publishing, it occurred to me that Florida’s anglers might well want their own magazine. Using an ultralight line of credit, we waded into print in ’69.”
Family Level Fishing
“When you do get into hot fishing…why not think in terms of increasing your sport rather than filling your fish box?” –Karl, January 1979 Fish for the fun of it. Don’t waste catches. Florida Sportsman nurtured these now-widespread ethics from the get-go.
Conflicts of Interest
Through the 1980s, Florida Sportsman railed against decisions made by a Marine Fisheries Commission at the beck and call of legislators. On some issues, the MFC was led from the inside by persons with ties to commercial fishing. Meanwhile, the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, an independent authority, demonstrated effective management of largemouth bass, deer, turkey and other non-commercial animals. In 1998, the agencies would merge. At the federal level, conflicts of interest remain a vexing problem and warrant ongoing attention. Fox in the henhouse, as Karl often quipped.
In the fall of 1988, Karl wrote asking one out of every 500 anglers to visit Tallahassee and urge the Governor and Cabinet to approve no-sale status for reds. You listened, and—at long last—officials responded.
In 1981, Texas had accorded gamefish status to redfish. Karl took notice, as did the nascent Florida Conservation Association, organizing in Miami. By the mid 1980s, evidence of redfish decline was apparent in Florida. The magazine’s July, 1986, editorial “Black Days for Gulf Redfish” was a clarion call for change.
“When Raffield Fisheries was caught last November in the Panhandle with some 71,000 pounds of 15- to 20-pound redfish, the seizure touched off the loudest furor ever heard in Florida over a fisheries matter,” began the editorial. Meanwhile, offshore purse-seine fisheries were taking the bulls by the millions of pounds annually, landing them in Louisiana and Alabama to fuel the “blackened redfish” craze. As federal regulators moved to close the beleaguered offshore fishery, Florida approved protecting reds from commercial pressure in state waters.
Formation of the FCA
At Karl’s urging, the Florida Conservation Association hired its first executive director, Ted Forsgren, in 1985. Karl spent the next 15 years speaking to Ted almost daily about fishery advocacy. Using Florida Sportsman as the communication arm of FCA (now CCA Florida), Karl all but guaranteed a successful start for the advocacy group. “Local chapters are planned in key areas of the state,” he wrote in a May ’85 editorial. “If you don’t know of a chapter forming in your area, write for information.”
In countless columns, Karl derided allocation models which granted commercial fishers huge landings while restricting private citizen’s access.
From an editorial he wrote to Smithsonian Magazine, August 1993: “No one has any ‘right’ to take our commonly owned or managed wild animals in great quantities while the next man on the beach is limited to a single fish or two. Moreover, the privilege of marketing these animals is subject to restrictions or prohibition when their populations decline, or when there is a more valuable use to society as a whole.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, federal councils have actually moved toward cementing commercial allocations for certain high-dollar species such as Gulf red snapper: “It’s astounding to see public property given away, without bidding and at no cost, permanently,” Karl wrote in January 2008, commenting about Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).
Florida’s 1995 Net Ban was nothing short of a revolution. Voters approved the amendment to the state constitution by a landslide vote—72 percent in favor— in the fall of 1994. The amendment survived legal challenges and was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 1997. The amendment effort coalesced from editorials by Karl and a massive wave of support by magazine readers. Florida Sportsman had long chronicled declines in gillnet-targeted species such as mackerel, mullet and pompano, as well as bykill of dolphins, turtles, snook and other sealife. “We have our own clear-cutters of the waters, the huge net boats that devastate entire schools of mackerel and other schooling species. There is tremendous waste,” Karl wrote in 1985. By April of 1991, Karl issued the provocative suggestion of a total ban on the nets:
“We’ve been accustomed to life with nets… But now it looks more and more like Florida netters are, in effect, demanding their own demise. They resist all meaningful limits while taking everything they can get their meshes on. “Maybe we should move ahead with a constitutional amendment and really get serious about bringing back fish stocks to high abundance levels.”
Karl asked what readers thought about moving ahead… and received a truckload of letters in favor. The magazine printed many of the comments in the following issue. One Frank Langdon, of Eglin, Florida, probably best summarized the atmosphere: “I’m sure you’ll get all support needed … all we needed was someone to start this,” wrote Mr. Langdon. Three years later, history was made.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Karl began urging public support for a saltwater fishing license. “Sportfishermen simply must provide monetary and political power,” he wrote in January 1990, when the new license finally debuted. “Think of it as an investment that should pay fishy dividends for generations.” License revenues fund habitat enhancement, science and law enforcement—and function as a mulitiplier by qualifying Florida for added federal excise tax monies.
As with the net ban, Karl led a campaign for change. In 1998, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment merging marine management with the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was born. Today, seven Florida citizens, appointed by governors for 5-year terms, meet five times a year to determine fishing seasons, limits, and appropriate gear. They listen to scientists, consider public comment, and forge laws backed by constitutional authority.
Longlines and Fishtraps
Karl’s editorials helped spur action on indiscriminate fishing gear: a 1991 ban on fish traps in South Atlantic waters. Area closure on longlines in critical swordfish nurseries, 2000. Phaseout (better late than never?) of traps in the Gulf by 2007.
“Hopefully, the ugly fishtrap chapter can be a how-not-to lesson in the feds’ long book of failures—and some belated successes,” wrote Karl, in October 1991.
Of all the campaigns Karl has championed, none has endured so long as the fight to save the estuaries. Unlike net bans and calls for unified wildlife management, the solution to Florida’s water woes—while basic as gravity—has proven elusive, mired in politics. Adult redfish are protected from nets, but what of the larval fish? What of their forage? What of the seagrasses that convert sunlight into energy?
From an early editorial chastising the “tinkerings” of the South Florida Water Management District, in 1981:
“And so goes the continuing water-grab game as water managers (who basically represent ag interests) con well-meaning media people into believing that all we need do is tinker further… a new canal here, a levee there and a backpump gadget over yonder. The truth is that water flowing naturally to sea, far from being wasted, is the precious lifeblood of estuarial nurseries. A high percentage of man’s fisheries, commercial as well as sport, are dependent on just such places.”
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Karl had moved from reporting and editorializing on water issues to direct involvement—leading the Rivers Coalition, financing legal intervention. Unfortunately, the path of what was introduced as 2017 Senate Bill 10, with 60,000 acres of storage and treatment marshes, seems to be going the way of similar attempts in Everglades restoration. Penny a Pound amendment. Buying 180,000 acres of Sugarland. CERP, CEPP. The saga drains on.
Karl was an early promoter of hatchery-supported marine fisheries and aquaculture to alleviate pressure on wild stocks. His morning paper, some days: an obscure aquaculture journal. His idea of vacation: a trip to a fish farm.
“There’s just no good reason why Florida can’t match or even exceed Texas in stocking our waters with redfish,” he opined in October 1999, after visiting a hatchery in Corpus Christi.
New media, same mission: As the magazine expanded into digital platforms and television Karl brought his sensibilities into contributions such as the “Just a Conservation Minute” segment on Florida Sportsman TV (2004-2011). Viewers learned of the plight of the bluefin, threats to fishing access, snapper mismanagement, and other vital subjects.
Building on a Legacy
Soon after moving the magazine headquarters from Miami to Stuart, Karl—a longtime advocate of artificial reef development—invested in a 168-foot freighter, with help from the Martin County Anglers Club. The Wickstrom Reef was deployed in 188 feet of water in January 2003.
No single person has done more for Florida’s anglers. Thanks, Karl, for all you’ve done.
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2018