To the dismay of anglers and guides all throughout the country, COVID-19 has stopped the tarpon season in its tracks. From Florida to Nicaragua and everywhere in between, the season was seemingly over before it began—at least that is, from the fishing perspective. Under the water’s surface however, it is a very different story.
The elephant in the room regarding the current crisis and our “new normal” is the ecological and environmental impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Across the world, smog levels, light pollution, and water quality is improving and Florida is no different. Though out-of-state anglers are no longer flocking to the Sunshine State in search of megalops atlanticus and his salty counterparts, believe us, he is still there, and likely—due to the lack of pressures both environmental and angler-related—in rare form.
The economic fallout of the virus and its effect on Florida tourism, namely the 9.2 billion in revenue that saltwater fishing brings to the state each year, cannot be overlooked, but the silver lining, if there is one, has to be that the decreased amount of anglers and angling pressure on the state’s coastline—especially as many state-owned boat ramps are being closed to the public—is going to ultimately have a positive effect on the fishing and the species we hold dear.
I recently spoke at length with Dr. Aaron Adams of Bonefish Tarpon Trust about what this could mean for the future of fishing in Florida and he had this to say:
“I think there are multiple perspectives to look at on this. One is, the impact on the fishery as far as the traffic, i.e., the guides, clients, boats, etc. The other aspect is the fishing pressure, and although the number of clients has definitely declined, it’s not zero—because in some places people are still fishing, and a lot of guides and fisherman are still spending time on the water; fishing on their own. But, that doesn’t make up for the amount of pressure that would normally be on the tarpon fishery right now as we get towards April, a time when you expect for the number or trips for guides to start picking up.
So there’s declining pressure in most areas for sure, and in some areas like Southwest Florida where they got hit hard by red tide last year, there’s probably only a quarter of the guides there now that were there in years prior (before the impacts of Coronavirus). So in areas like that, the pressure was already significantly down. I fished there last June, and the lack of pressure was obvious. The tarpon were not nearly as spooky; much more catchable. So you can see in that short of a timeframe in that particular location what it did to the fishery. From that perspective, I would expect that just from the reduction in boat traffic in Florida this year, that we will probably see a change in the behavior of bonefish, tarpon, and permit in the keys and elsewhere. I expect them to be less spooky and less “educated.” At least for a while until the pressure starts to increase again.”
When asked what the most obvious difference when observing unpressured tarpon may be, Dr. Adams said, “If tarpon are getting pressured and ran over by boats, eventually they will change where they run, probably running more off shore and probably not as shallow. When fish like tarpon are allowed to get comfortable, or they aren’t being pressured or ran over by boats, they tend to swim a bit higher; closer to the water’s surface. It can change the routes that they run. So, with reduced boat traffic and angling pressure, you can expect their mood and behavior to relax a little bit.”
So, the fishery is getting a nice breather and the fish, especially tarpon, are likely growing bolder and less weary with each passing week, but what does that mean for traveling fly anglers still locked out of Florida? Well, for one thing it means that for the initial anglers who do in fact book trips and make the journey to tarpon country when travel bans are lifted, that the fishing is likely to be explosive, especially in areas where population centers are low and there has likely been less local pressure. It also means that there will likely be an all out blitz when restrictions do lift or once we finally see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
For those anglers still hoping to find themselves on the bow of a skiff looking for the silver king in 2020. It may pay dividends to develop close contact with your guides and/or lodges on the Florida coastline or elsewhere, and have a gameplan for when the ban is lifted. See if your guide is willing to accept an open-ended deposit without dates set. Many could use the cash flow, and they will definitely not forget your patronage when it comes time to hit the water. – Seth Fields, Editor