The Fish That Turned Me Into a Conservationist
By Todd Staley – Communications Director
A long, long time ago when I was in my early twenties I lived on the west coast of Florida and fished every minute I could. Blue water action was not much of an option.
A 30 mile trip offshore only got you to 90 feet of water, but there were plenty of snook, tarpon and grouper to keep a young man off the streets and out of serious trouble. Around the same time a group of County Commissioners came up with an artificial reef program that was either an extremely misguided effort or a well disguised plan to rid the counties landfills of it’s surplus of old cars, tires, and concrete culverts.
What seemed like an excellent plan for some turned out to be a disaster. It didn’t take long to discover that the lifespan of an old Chevy rusting in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t very long and that hurricanes and tropical storms can separate and scatter well tied together tires for miles across the sea bottom.
For a short time though, they seemed to function as designed. Barnacles started to grow on the junk pile. Baitfish found the structure and moved in. Pelagic fish would stop and feed during their migration routes and snapper and grouper began to call these reefs home.
The exact position of each of these artificial reefs were published in a big publicity push and anyone with navigational device on their boat could easily find them because they were marked with buoys as well. Both fishermen and divers alike began using these reefs regularly. The closet was only 3 miles off the beach and the farthest was only 20 miles out.
Most anglers would camp right over the top of them and have a field day reeling in grunts but every time they hooked a decent fish like a grouper they quickly lost it to the jagged terrain below.
We were smarter than that, we fished with grenades. Not literally of course, but that’s what we called them.
“We would mix sand with cat food and shape them into balls with a rock in the middle so they would sink fast.”
Then we would anchor up current of the structure and drop our grenades to the bottom. Our concoction had a sweet enough smell to draw decent fish away from the cover of the reef. Remember this was long before conservation was in fashion and if you caught more than you could use you could always give it to friends or sell it at the backdoor of a seafood restaurant for some extra beer money. One day our grenade technique was extremely effective. We had a cooler full of 8 to 10 lb grouper and lots of 5 lb mangrove snapper.
Then the monster took my bait and nearly yanked my rod out of my hands. It didn’t take off with burning speed, it was more like being on the losing end of a tug-of-war as line slowly peeled off my reel and there was nothing I could do about it. Then it stopped. I knew it had taken enough line to bury itself well into the reef and I could feel every breath it took as water rushing through its gills vibrated up my line. Then I got an idea.
Earlier I noticed a boat with a dive flag up on the other end of the reef so I raised the observer on the radio and explained I had a giant fish on my line and they would cover over and “shoot the thing,” I would split it with them. He said when the divers surfaced he would ask them. Soon a dive boat was tied up alongside us and a diver was preparing to descend with a triple banded spear gun unlike anything I had seen before. He disappeared below the surface following my line towards the bottom. Twenty minutes passed and nothing. Finally after thirty minutes he surfaced and his eyes were as big as saucers. “ You’re not kidding you’ve got a monster,” he exclaimed. “You have a 400 lb Goliath grouper,” (actually we called them by a different name back them, one that had been used over a hundred years, but the name was changed to Goliath grouper a few years back in the spirit of political correctness) “The stupid fish has swam inside a 61’ Mercury Monterey!” he went on to explain. “ Well just plug him between the eyes,” I said, “ and we will drag him out with the boat.” “What the heck you think I’ve been trying to do for the last half hour,” he answered. “Every time I get close to him he rolls the window up!”
Note: This was the day I learned that a fish was not only something to be used as sport and food, but that every fish has it’s own personality and is something to be used but not abused. It was that day I started thinking about tomorrow and not just living for today. It was that day I became a conservationist.
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