By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
Captain Rusty Albury, a guide and fifth generation Conch from Islamorada, said it best, "If you go down to 1st Street and get mugged, how long will it be before you don’t go there anymore?" Albury’s supposition was in response to my question about his thoughts on pole and troll zones. His point was that fish that are constantly run over will eventually leave an area. While Albury is a big fan of an increase in these areas, he is quick to point out that boaters should not be denied access.
Pole and troll zones, also referred to as no motor zones, create marked areas on shallow flats that can only be accessed by anglers (or other users) with trolling motors, push poles or paddles. The intent is to allow schools of fish to establish normal patterns of activity without the constant disruption of internal combustion engines and their spinning props and jet drives. The establishment of these areas would also function to protect sensitive shallow areas from prop scarring. The boundaries of marshes and mangrove edges that rim our saltwater estuaries also support bird and animal life that is affected by the increasing traffic near these fragile margins.
Captain Tad Burke, commodore of the Florida Keys Guides Association, supports this concept and points out another benefit, "People need to be made aware that besides being good for fishing, these zones are also good for the local economy. The better the fishing, the more boats, motors, gas and tackle will be sold. Add to that accommodations, restaurants and supplies and you have a large economic impact."
I have fished the west central coast of Florida near Tampa Bay for over 25 years and have been guilty of running my flats boat over shallow grass flats while looking for fish in these very places. In the early 80s, this is what we did on a regular basis, and to be truthful, it was an effective way to find and target fish. It was possible to spot schools of redfish and snook and then circle back around and catch them after only a short time. Maybe I’m part of the reason that fish are increasingly spooky and hard to approach, but I’ve learned my lesson. Albury feels the same way, remembering the time when he and other anglers ran the edges near Flamingo to find schools of redfish. "We could see them 'hump up' and then fish them when they settled down," he remembers. "Now if you try that, they move."
Captain Diego Rouylle fishes the lower keys and has seen the positive impact of no motor zones there. "They simply make sense," he says. "They allow our wildlife to follow a more natural progression by maintaining a more peaceful and undisturbed environment. As a Florida Keys fishing guide, I have come to understand the importance of our grass flats with respect to fishing and find it extremely important to keep any possible damage to them from occurring. These no motor zones restrain power boaters from entering shallow water and causing possible damage. Healthy bottom and undisturbed waters undoubtedly promote a more productive shallow water ecosystem allowing for greater fish activity."
Guides from around the state see the same trends and realize the need for protecting shallow areas. Captain Scott Moore will celebrate 30 years as a licensed guide in 2008. He began fishing the waters near his home in Bradenton before moving to Charlotte Harbor to avoid the increasing boat traffic near Tampa Bay. Moore fishes both a flats style boat and a tower boat and although he fishes primarily live bait, he guides anglers with artificial gear and fly. Moore, like other seasoned guides, understands the pressure boats are having on fish behavior. "I would have no problem with making shallow grass beds into no motor zones", says Moore, "It would help the fishing." Moore, like the other guides, is adamant about providing access to sensitive areas, and equally adamant that we need to limit internal combustion engines. "I fish Charlotte Harbor, and there are many creeks in places like the back end of Turtle and Bull bays that should never be entered with engines", says Moore. "On some days we need to be able to run from one bay to the next without being exposed to the windy shorelines, but that can be done without running the edges. We need an I-75, a Route 41 and a Route 301 for boaters, just like we have for motorists."
Over the years the number of boats and particularly Jet Skis, shallow draft flats boats and tower boats have increased dramatically, a fact that is readily apparent to fly anglers. In our sport we often take considerable time and effort to find and track game fish in shallow water. It’s a real spoiler to find a school of redfish or bonefish after an exhaustive search, tracking them with push pole, paddle or trolling motor and then have them dispersed far and wide by a boat or Jet Ski powering over the flat.
Captain Rick Grassett has been guiding anglers from Sarasota to Charlotte Harbor since 1990. "I favor pole and troll zones as long as we are left with access lanes to get to and from different areas. I think fish will behave more normally in these areas and with fish being less spooked, fishing should be more productive in these zones. Also, it would help protect sea grasses and other wildlife in these places. The practice of running mangrove shorelines and sand bars for the purpose of locating fish can be destructive to sea grasses and disturb fish, other marine life and birds in the area. I think pole and troll zones would be a win/win situation for both anglers and the environment. It makes sense that being quiet will result in catching more fish and will also be beneficial for marine mammals and birds."
Captain Steve Bailey has been guiding anglers in Pine Island Sound for close to 30 years. He has seen the impact of increased boat traffic. He agrees with the concept of pole and troll zones but points out that we need to be able to enforce the rules. "The fishing would get a lot better and they would be a lot less spooky if there were areas where you couldn’t run," says Bailey. "The problem is that people don’t obey the rules. We need some heavy penalties for violators. Fish would go to those areas because they don’t get run over, and it would be a more peaceful place to fish. The penalties aren’t painful enough. I have had guides I know run close to me, spoil my fishing, (in slow speed manatee zones) and then apologized as if that was the first time they did it. Unfortunately, I know that is not true."
Captain Rodney Smith has fished, guided and raised a family of four children on the Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito River. He appreciates the need to protect the resource for future generations. "We were very proud that the Indian River Guides Association was instrumental in getting pole or troll only zones on the Mosquito Lagoon," says Smith. "We need to mobilize the fly fishing community, fly fishing clubs, and other similar groups around our nation to come together in the name of habitat protection. These are the people using the resources, and they should be the strongest stewards of the habitat. Local fly clubs should take the lead in proposing and advancing the idea of poll and troll zones statewide. With our quickly growing coastal population we need to put more focus on habitat restoration and conservation."
While no one likes to have his angling pursuits legislated, and, I assume, would prefer not to see more signage on our waterways, we need to take a hard look at the options. Are we willing to make some concessions in order to protect our fisheries resources, wetlands, flora and fauna? We all enjoy tying flies, telling fishing stories and spending time with a fly rod or push pole in our hands. I’m afraid if we don’t start making some hard choices, we’ll start to lose some of the time-honored traditions that we treasure. All too often I’m hearing the "give an inch take a mile" complaints that I heard from commercial fishermen before the net ban was proposed. I hope we’ll be smarter and take the appropriate steps to protect our passion.