I Dream In Bronze And White

By Michael Vatalaro

Photo of a redfish swimming after lurePhoto: Jason Arnold

My first redfish is a distant memory, but my largest redfish, which I tangled with just last summer, remains one of the high points of my angling life. Fishing out of Venice, Louisiana, on our second day we encountered a school of big, bull redfish feeding aggressively on mullet in a large basin. Casting a Gulp minnow under a popping cork into just about any slick resulted in a battle with a big red that lasted 15 minutes or more and left our forearms aching. For two hours, the three of us onboard took turns being dragged around the boat by redfish longer than 35 inches, some pushing into the low 40s. Then, the big one hit.

Five times the fish circled the boat, never nearing the surface for most of that time, our guide joking that I had a tuna or amberjack on the line rather than a redfish. When it finally showed itself, the deep bronze color of its back was a relief to see. Once in the net, the fish taped out at 45 inches long, but a hefty 39 inches in girth. Basically, that fish could have worn my belt. And I would have happily given it to him, as the ambassador of a species that is considered the champion of sportfish in many fishermen's minds.

Few species capture the attention of as many fishermen as the redfish. On the Gulf Coast alone, you can find anglers sight-casting to reds in inches of Florida Bay water, casting popping corks in the backwaters of Louisiana, or drifting live shrimp across an oyster bar in Galveston Bay. Strong, relatively fast-growing, and opportunistic feeders, redfish check many of the "sportfish" boxes: You can find them all over; you can catch them from a boat, wading, or in the surf; and they'll take a variety of lures and baits. Plus, they're tasty, which may have gotten them in trouble in the first place.

In the late '70s, redfish numbers began to decline due to overfishing. Chef Paul Prudhomme and the increasing popularity of his blackened redfish dish probably didn't help. In 1977, the newly formed Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA) launched a "Save The Redfish" campaign. Sounds innocuous enough, but unlike the "Save The Whales" campaign, the commercial fishermen being targeted weren't largely based in foreign lands; these guys shared the waters and sometimes the docks with their recreational counterparts. The sparring over the declining stocks in Texas got so ugly, the bickering was nicknamed "The Redfish Wars." Threats, vandalism, and arson marked the run up to the legislative showdown that became Texas House Bill 1000. Signed into law in 1981, HB1000 made redfish and speckled trout into "game fish," and therefore illegal to sell if harvested from Texas waters. Since then, the GCCA has gone national and is now simply the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). Once Texas passed the law protecting redfish, other Gulf Coast states followed suit. It took more than a decade for the population to rebound, but now redfish stocks support a huge recreational fishing effort.

Photo of a big redfish catchThe decline of this iconic game fish gave birth to the saltwater recreational fishing conservation movement. (Photo: Steve Levi)

"Redfish first became important to me in the early '90s, fishing for them and learning about them in graduate school. They were and are a driving fish in our programs," says Dr. Greg Stunz, chairman of Fisheries and Ocean Health with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. "We're studying redfish as we speak. We don't have catch data to know how well redfish have recovered. Ironically, without commercial fishing, we don't have landing records. But aerial over-flight surveys and recreational angler experience tell us they've fully recovered, though a hard freeze could set them back. Our next challenge is to protect their habitats that are under pressure. Healthy habitats are healthy ecosystems. If you build what the fish need, many species win." 

Executive editor Michael Vatalaro, photo above, fishes from his 24-foot center console every chance he gets.

— Published: April/May 2014

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