by Gritter Griffin
Most of the content of this Part 1 comes from Dr. Franklin’s book but it is the message of destruction that is so vitally important. We are rapidly killing off an entire level of the food chain and when a gap like that occurs in a system so perfectly balanced, a widespread ecological disaster will certainly follow.
Recreational and commercial fishermen know menhaden (pogies) are the best bait for almost all carnivores, but their numbers have been in serious decline since the mid-1800s.
You may know menhaden by a different name — “pogies” — or you may have never heard of them at all. Pogies are small, bony, oily fish that many people will never encounter at the grocery store. Pogies are also a keystone species in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard and when they disappear, bad things start to happen: The ocean becomes murky, and algae blooms spread unchecked. Menhaden are filter feeders, the janitors of the Atlantic — they have always been around to clean up the mess.
And now they’re not.
H. Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” notes that - “You won’t see menhaden in the fish market or supermarket seafood section but they are present in the flesh of other fish lying there in the ice.”
“Northern New England was the scene of the largest menhaden fishery. During fall migration menhaden formed a school body with the vanguard reaching Cape Cod when the rear guard had not left Maine, 40 miles wide,” Franklin said.
But today the numbers of adult fish are 13 percent of what they once were. In 1889, utilizing rather primitive methods, Rhode Island harvested 112 million pounds of menhaden. Three years ago the total was 10 million.
Menhaden, Franklin said, are being decimated by a single company; Omega Protein, ground down (reduced) into oil and meal to be processed into hog and chicken feed, linoleum, cosmetics, lubricants, insecticide, paints, soap, and a multitude of other uses.
“None of the uses of menhaden are necessary. The only reason this industry exists is because it’s a little cheaper than the alternatives,” commented Franklin.
Omega Protein, originally the Zapata Corporation, was co-founded in 1953, Franklin noted with relish, by George H.W. Bush.
“They’re converting billions of menhaden into industrial commodities,” Franklin said. “From 1860 to the present catching menhaden has been this nation’s largest fishery. Since the end of the Civil War more menhaden have been caught by weight and by number than all other fin fisheries put together.”
One thousand fish can yield 18 gallons of oil.
They’re fished fish purse seines. Spotter planes locate the school and it is soon surrounded and swallowed.
“Each adult fish is only a pound but there are so many in the net it may now weigh as much as a blue whale,” Franklin said.
Native Americans planted menhaden with corn and taught the colonists to plow them into their fields as fertilizer – which they did - by the millions!
“They made larger scale agriculture possible,” Franklin ventured.
Menhaden are filter feeders, they lack teeth, and churn through clouds of plankton in Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and other estuaries.
“Each adult fish can filter four gallons of water a minute,” noted Franklin. “Turn on any faucet or hose and try to get four gallons a minute out of it - you cannot.”
In the mid 1800′s whaling ports were converted into menhaden ports. More than 100 processing factories were built. Over three hundred vessels were based in Maine alone.
“In 1879 Maine was the first state to ban the menhaden reduction industry from their waters,” Franklin noted. ”“But it was too late. The menhaden were gone.”
Only intermittently have they returned to waters north of Cape Cod, virtually disappearing from 1993-2004. Over time 11 other states followed the ban and the industry migrated down the coast landing in Virginia. People were recognizing their importance as food for bigger edible fish.
“By forcing people to rethink the predator-prey relationship menhaden demanded a revolution in human thought,” Franklin said.
But, after WWII the industry drafted surplus warships into the fight.
“The weapons of war could now be hurled at huge offshore schools that had withstood three generations of efforts,” declared Franklin.
The schools shrank in size as fish were harvested far offshore in their spawning grounds.
“As the menhaden population crashed, smaller companies went bankrupt,” Franklin noted, and soon, it was Omega Protein that was left with their fleet of 61 ships and 31 planes.
As a note of comparison, “By the 1930s the bay’s oyster population was one percent of what it was in the 1890s and today menhaden are headed for the same fate,” Franklin said.
The bay’s catch for menhaden has been capped at 109,000 metric tons but the 2007 haul was just half that.
“That’s a true crash and portends a catastrophe for the whole coast,” Franklin said.
The New Jersey population has since rebounded but the fleet followed them north. Franklin would like to prevent that.
“There is a bill in Congress to shut the menhaden fishery in federal waters,” reported Franklin. “Given a chance this wonderfully fecund fish could come back.”
“The time has come, actually it came in 1882, for our government to get into the act,” he concluded.
More to come, specifically about the Gulf Coast pogey fishery, in Part 2.
by Chris Christian
If there’s an easier place to catch reds in the fall, it would have to be a hatchery.
Every time I launch at Cedar Key during the fall, I expect to see it. I don’t always, but when I do it still amazes me.
Today I found what I was looking for not three miles from the ramp: a river of bronze flowing steadily across a crystalline, 4-foot-deep grassflat. The school of reds was at least 30 feet wide, 100 feet long and they were packed tight together. Sight fishing doesn’t get much easier than that.
What makes scenes like this so common in this corner of Florida? Geography seems to play a big role. Cedar Key differs in this respect from other fishing holes in the Big Bend. It’s basically a huge point jutting from the shallow backwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, not even 2,000 yards separates 15-foot-plus Gulf water from a 2-foot flat. You don’t find that kind of terrain in many areas of the Big Bend, and it’s not much different than a long point on a freshwater lake. That makes it a magnet for a variety of gamefish species much of the year.
October is my favorite time to visit Cedar Key. It’s when redfish gang up in large schools, often within five miles of the ramp. Once those reds settle in, they don’t leave the immediate area. They don’t have to.
The entire Cedar Key area inside Seahorse Key is nothing more than one big grassflat, dotted with a few small keys, and interspersed with deeper holes and a maze of channels. On rising water, reds follow baitfish up onto the flats or to the oyster and spartina grass edges of the keys, but they don’t have to leave when the tide bottoms out. They just drop back to the nearest pothole or channel where they await the next flood tide.
Anglers who time their arrival around the last two hours of the flood and the first two hours of the ebb tide will find reds shallow. They’ll be roaming right up to the grass lines and oyster mounds on many of the smaller keys, with Rattlesnake, Snake (the west side is best) and Deadman’s Keys, as well as the inside of McCrary Cove, being top spots to try.
You don’t normally find large schools on these shorelines—it’s mostly singles and smaller pods—but there can be plenty of them. If it’s early and late in the day (or overcast) a topwater plug is often my first choice. Watching a 30-inch red assault a surface bait is worth the price of admission, and you also have an excellent chance of taking some big trout, which will be right up on the grasslines with the reds.
Plastic-tail jigs are another top choice, with a combo of red/chartreuse being a proven producer. So, too, are the newer saltwater spinnerbaits, particularly ones with a safety-pin gold spinner over a soft-plastic jig. If the water is high and the fish are in the spartina, spinnerbaits are more weedless than a jig, and reds eat them just as well.
A gold Johnson spoon is also effective, but if you’re working around oyster bars you can leave a lot of them on the bottom. A better bet over shell is a 1⁄2-ounce floating gold Rat-L-Trap. Veteran guide Jimmy Keith introduced me to this lure a decade ago and it has become a favorite of mine for reds around shallow oysters. This lure will run about two feet deep on a steady retrieve and has the same redfish-mesmerizing characteristics as the spoon, but it floats at rest. When oysters attack you can just throw some slack in the line and it will float free. Over extremely shallow oyster you can dig it down to just tick the top with a stop and go retrieve, and the reds love it.
Pounding the banks is a good way to spend the top hours of the tide, especially during dim light periods, but you’ll be fishing for smaller groups of fish. If you want to stay up to your belt buckle in reds, you need to find the large roaming schools. The top spot for that is the big grassflat between the east side of Seahorse Key and the west side of Deadman’s Key.
This is a big area, and during the 20 years I’ve been fishing it I seldom see more than a couple of boats out in the middle of it; most anglers stick around the shallows on Deadman or Seahorse Keys. But, that open flat can hold some massive schools of reds.
Finding them can take a bit of time. If you’re running a flats skiff with a poling platform and a trolling motor on the bow, you’ve got the most efficient means to do it, since the trolling motor can cover a lot of water while the angler on the poling platform has excellent visibility. If you don’t see the big bronze flash of a couple hundred reds, then the “push” or the feeding splashes that school will make in shallow water should show.
Once you find a school, you can stay with them for awhile. If you don’t charge into them, they’re going to continue to wander and feed. You can pick fish off the edges, and then go back to the school. If you do spook them, stick around the area, because they usually regroup fairly close to where they spooked.
One of my favorite rigs in this situation is a rattling cork with an 18-inch leader sporting a 1⁄4-ounce plastic-tail jig. I can toss this a long way on a 7-foot spinning rod, lay it right in front of the school, and when they get to it, a couple of twitches virtually guarantees a hookup. If I’m really feeling sporty I’ll trail a 1⁄16-ounce jig behind a topwater plug. They’ll hit one or the other, and sometimes both, which can makes things real interesting.
They’ll also whack jigs, spoons, topwater plugs, jerkbaits or just about anything else you’d care to throw. Reds stacked that tightly are very competitive.
Anglers who opt for a fly rod don’t always have it that easy. If you approach fish cautiously you’ll earn a hookup, but the resulting close-range commotion may spook the school enough that it’ll take a long time for them to regroup.
Veteran guide Jim Dupre found a solution to this problem. As he showed me over a decade ago, you don’t have to bring your angler to the school—you can just pull a pod of redfish off of the school and bring them to your angler.
The procedure was simple: Take a 7-foot spinning rod spooled with light line (6- or 8-pound mono, or an even smaller diameter in
braid), add a 1⁄2-ounce gold spoon without a hook, and toss it from a distance at any school of reds sighted. Reel the spoon at a smooth and steady pace, keeping it within a foot or so of the surface, and you can count on some reds trying to kill it. Since the spoon has no hook, about all they can do is bang at it—but they will follow it.
You might have only three or four fish follow the spoon teaser, or maybe a dozen. Either way, every one of them is trying to kill that spoon and the angler on the “teasing rod” will feel every bump and bang.
Keep the spoon within a foot or so of the surface so you can see the fish clearly. When that pod of fish gets within range of the fly rodder, just drop the rodtip, yank hard, and send the spoon flying over the boat.
The end result is a pod of reds, close to the boat, fired up and looking to crush the first edible-size thing they see.
A surface hair bug or popper is an eminently suitable substitute, although any streamer pattern will do.
Dupre saved his spoons that had been through the wringer so many times that the hooks were shot, but any 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-ounce gold spoon should work if the hook is removed. And, his teasing technique was not limited to those schools he could see. There were times when surface chop made visibility so poor that the tactic du jour was to simply fling the spoon as far as you could in likely areas—and reel it steadily—and when you felt the bangs and taps of the reds you knew you had found a school.
Just how big those fish will be, comes under the heading of “it depends.” On one of my recent trips I was into a school whose members all ran between 26 and 32 inches. They definitely school by size, and if you’re not happy with what you’ve found, go find a different school. There can be several roaming the flats at the same time.
Given that some of the most productive areas are just minutes from the ramp, it’s not hard to see red at Cedar Key during the fall.
Low Tide Works, Too!
The most active reds in Cedar Key will be found on the flood tide, but with only two tides a day you can’t always count on catching it when the opportunity to fish arises. Getting there on a low tide doesn’t mean you can’t catch reds. You just have to shift tactics.
Low water will drop the reds back to deeper holes until the next flood and there are a number of good areas within a mile, or less, of the flats they roam best on high water. The area immediately inside the northeast corner of Seahorse Key is riddled with deeper potholes, and Deadman’s Channel runs along the north side of Deadman’s Key, brushes the southern end of North Key, and extends well outward to the west. Both are right next to where the reds roam on high water and traditionally hold them on the bottom end of the tide.
While lures usually get the nod on the flood tide, many prefer bait (live or cut) during low water, since the fish are not quite as active. Live finger mullet are great if you can find them, but many local experts catch plenty of reds on cut mullet chunks or strips or blue crab chunks.
The Seahorse Key potholes are easy to fish. Pin a finger mullet (or a mullet strip or chunk) on a 1⁄4-ounce jighead and work each hole as you come to it. If it’s holding reds you’ll know fairly quickly.
The channel is a much bigger area and I prefer to ease along it with the trolling motor, watching the depthfinder to stay right on the hardest drop, while dragging a jig/mullet behind me. Once the first red is hooked, I can drop the anchor and soak baits to get into the rest of the school.