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Florida – especially South Florida – found itself in January in the grips of a massive cold spell that killed many hundreds of thousands of sportfish. Not just snook were affected either. Bonefish, tarpon and even jack crevalle and ladyfish were all hurt to some extent.

Hardest hit were snook of all sizes and juvenile tarpon up to 30 pounds in an area from Cape Canaveral southward to the Keys and up the west coast to at least Tarpon Springs. The snook loss in Everglades National Park alone is estimated to exceed 100,000, and statewide it could be more than twice that.

The trouble started New Year’s day with a strong cold front that swept rapidly down the length of the state, accompanied by a vigorous squall line. For the next two weeks, both high and low temperatures stayed far below normal and water temperatures started to fall accordingly. The shallow waters of Florida Bay and the Everglades fell steadily from the high 70s to the low 60s during the first week, which set the stage for the disaster that followed during the second week.

During the night of January 10, air temperatures over Florida Bay plunged rapidly to 36 F, accompanied by very strong northerly winds. The winds created waves that churned the cold air into the shallow water, a process that lowered the temperature very rapidly. By daybreak on January 11, some stations in Florida were reporting water temperatures as low as 41 F.

David Hallac, Chief of Biological Resources for Everglades National Park, reminds us that snook, tarpon, bonefish, goliath grouper and other tropical species that live in south-Florida waters are at the northern extent of their natural range and therefore find water temperatures below 60 F stressful, while temperatures below the mid-50s are very likely to be fatal. As water temperatures rapidly plunged into the 40s, large numbers of lethargic fish that had become trapped in cold, shallow water could not escape and died.

Best guess by several biologists is that the ratio of dead snook (all sizes) to dead tarpon (mostly small, up to 24 inches with a few up to 48 inches) is around 4 or 5 to 1. Fortunately, the population of adult tarpon (50 pounds or more) appears to have suffered very little. Large numbers of big dead tarpon were not observed anywhere.

As for bonefish, other than a large kill (unofficially reported by anglers to be “in the thousands”) in eastern Florida Bay near Islamorada, the majority of bonefish along the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys seem to have mostly escaped the big chill by moving offshore to deeper (and warmer) water. Redfish and seatrout fared even better, showing almost no negative reaction to the cold spell. Other species found in Florida’s shallow waters were affected, though, including jack crevalle, ladyfish, catfish, snappers and various bait species.

Peacock bass in south Florida’s canals and lakes also took a big hit. Planted many years ago by state biologists, they are far north of their natural range and have no tolerance for temperatures below 60 F. Thousands were observed dead, yet it also seems that there could be a significant number of survivors in the deeper canals and lakes, especially those that are spring-fed. It is too early to say how peacock bass fishing will be affected this coming season.

Sadly, not only fish were affected. Over 100 manatees died of hypothermia state-wide, as well as 70 or more of the already-endangered American crocodiles in Everglades National Park. A few alligators succumbed too, along with an undetermined number of sting rays. On the bright side, the south Florida non-native iguana population, which has threatened of late to get out of hand, also took a big hit, as did the pythons which have established themselves in the area.

So, what does all this mean for the immediate future of fishing in Florida? Take heart, the overall picture looks fairly bright. “Big tarpon,” says University of Miami marine biologist Dr. Jerry Ault, “should start to reappear in south Florida as the water temperatures return to late winter and spring norms.”

Just how abundant big tarpon will be in any given spring and summer is never that predictable in even the best of years. But given the extremely low loss of adult fish in January there is no reason to suspect 2010 will be any different from past years.

As for bonefish, Dr. Ault feels that even though many were killed by the big chill, their overall numbers were not impacted severely. The fact that anglers and guides are already reporting seeing and catching bonefish on the flats in the Keys seems to bear this out.

The immediate future for snook is hardly encouraging, but at this writing a few anglers are already reporting seeing and catching them inside Everglades National Park waters. One angler reported releasing more than over 40 (all sizes, up to 33 inches) just 12 days after the big chill. The consensus among fisheries biologists is that the full extent of the snook population loss will not be apparent until the spring and summer spawning aggregations take place. The general feeling is that snook fishing will probably not return to 2009 levels for at least three to four years.

As for redfish and trout, it is business as usual. Both species are being readily caught by those who know how to target them.

Just to be on the safe side, the State of Florida has closed the season on bonefish and tarpon until April 1, and snook until at least September 1. And it would be reasonable to expect the snook closure could be extended. This does not mean you cannot fish for these species; it just means no possession. No “possession,” by the way, is generally interpreted to mean not bringing a fish into the boat. This includes tarpon, even if you have previously bought a tarpon tag. You should try to release them in or as near the water as possible. Never hang them by the lower jaw, especially large tarpon or snook on a lip gaff (this seriously injures the fish), even for a quick photo. It is best to take any photos as quickly as possible “over the side,” not in the boat.

As bad as it seems now (and it certainly is extremely disheartening to see large rafts of floating dead fish heavily populated with those gamefish species we all hold so dear), all of these species will recover in time. The long-term future is hardly black, but perhaps just a bit gray for some species for the next few years.

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