I am old enough to remember when the legal size for red and gag grouper was almost on par to what snapper needs to be today. It was rare to catch hog fish on rod and reel, and snook were thick as thieves under every dock which had a light shining at night. If you ate grouper fingers off of a lovely brunch buffet, they were most certainly Goliath grouper which would be unheard of today.
As time marches on, so does change in our fisheries. Some good and some which leaves many, including me, at a loss for finding logic in our decision makers. Fisheries management over the last decade has restricted limits on both the recreational and charter anglers at an astonishingly rapid rate. On balance, the commercial sector has also taken a significant hit, maybe even greater than the rest of us. Looking ahead into 2023, gag grouper may not be harvested until September instead of June, and the amberjack fishery will only be open for the month of August. Stricter regulations on red grouper, hogfish, lane snapper and even mangrove snapper are all in discussion.
What’s next you ask? Well, my guess is limits to our new favorite choice in bait, the good ol’ Gulf shrimp. With stricter regulations on the larger fish we used to target during the better part of the year (grouper, snapper and amberjack), anglers have had to turn their sights on the smaller reef fish. Porgies, lanes, bee liners and even the royal majestic white grunt, as we like to call them, are now ending up on our hooks. These species have become the main targets when, in the past, they were just tasty bycatch while we patiently waited for the great tug from a firetruck or freight train gag. This shift in fishing is great news for pinfish and pigfish, but not so much for a shrimp.
Gulf shrimp have become the bait of choice for most charter and recreational anglers. It’s not unheard of for anglers to cast 10, 15 or even 20 dozen or more on a trip. Most everything in our local waters will eat a live shrimp, so it’s a no brainer to use the best bait which yields the best catch. Over the past few months, I have noticed it has become increasingly more difficult to get quality live shrimp in the amount we request. This shift extends beyond the Tampa Bay area, as guides down South have also been forced to use frozen or artificial bait due to a lack of live shrimp.
If this trend continues and Gulf shrimp become more scarce, I would not be surprised if N.M.F.S. steps in to put limits on our most desirable live bait. For anglers and reef fish alike, that would be a cryin’ shame.