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June 11, 2007

Bountiful Biscayne Bay

Pros share secrets for fishing South Florida's famed lagoon

Redfish - They're Baaack, Sort of ?
Capt. Jimmy Hixon has earned a reputation within the last decade for finding redfish in south Biscayne Bay - a laudable feat considering the sharp decline of bay reds during the last 40 years of commercial and residential development.

"Most redfish are aggressive and will eat artificial lures, but not these fish. This is strictly a bait - live or dead - fishery. Crab, shrimp, even cut mullet or finger mullet are my baits of choice," he says.

Since his first encounter with a Biscayne red in 2000, Hixon has amassed many releases; most fish average about 33 inches. His largest red to date measured 45 inches and weighed 38 pounds, though he has heard of a 53-inch fish recently caught.

Most Biscayne fishermen believe these large redfish resulted from a 10-year stocking program that began in 1989 and was phased out in December 1999. The state released 1.6 million redfish in three size classes - 1 to 1 1/2, 3 to 6, and 6 to 9 inches.

A scientist who participated in the program agrees. "Ultimately, we were able to establish that a small-scale fishery was created in Biscayne Bay with phase III [the largest size] hatchery fish," says Carole Neidig, staff scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

Neidig analyzed tag returns from anglers and found that 95 percent of more than 300 redfish caught by hook and line came from the hatchery. She also tracked acoustically tagged redfish in the bay, which helped her find larger schools. "We placed transmitters in reds of three sizes, and they led us to fish that people said they had no idea existed," Neidig says. "We definitely found schools of wild fish. But they were not in great numbers."

Hixon says he also catches smaller fish that may be descendants of the original stocked fish. Neidig says that's encouraging news and could mean that spawning may be occurring. However, neither she nor state scientists have sampled the bay in recent years to analyze the stock.

Despite hopeful reports about a potential redfish return, Hixon encourages anglers to catch and release. Neidig says she knows of no plans, at this time, for scientists to return to the bay to study or stock redfish.

Full Circle
I was fortunate to have my father take me fishing offshore when I was a youngster. We both continued to fish offshore as we matured. Over time, I spent more days on the shallower waters of Biscayne Bay. My father didn't quite understand the fascination I developed for sight-fishing bones and permit. I think, in part, he was just old-school - we didn't eat those species.

However, I was lucky enough to put him on a trophy 36.4-pound permit before he passed on. He was as proud of that fish as any he had caught. You can bet I won't wait long before I show my baby son, Zachary, that you don't have to head offshore to get the big ones!