FIU launches study of bonefish in Florida Keys

Captain Tim Carlile holds a bonefish estimated at 5 pounds caught by Sue Cocking on the oceanside flats of the Lower Keys.
Captain Tim Carlile holds a bonefish estimated at 5 pounds caught by Sue Cocking on the oceanside flats of the Lower Keys. Miami Herald Staff

Captain Tim Carlile poled his skiff against the early outgoing tide in a wide shallow cove on the ocean side of the Lower Keys, scanning the flats for “nervous” water, tails, or wakes.

“I’ve seen a lot of bonefish on this flat,” the 65-year-old Sugarloaf Key guide said.

It wasn’t long before Carlile’s observation was borne out, as a school of about 100 of the silver speedsters muddied the shallows, then swam calmly toward the boat.

I cast a silver/pink minnow-patterned fly toward the lead fish, saw it tip down to take it but felt neither bump nor tug.

Puzzled, I began to strip in the line when it suddenly went taut, then zeeeee-ed out with a shriek of drag, peeling off all the fly line and going well into the backing.

“He’s on! He’s on!” I yelled happily.

Ten minutes later, Carlile seized the estimated 5-pound bonefish, unhooked it, and put it back into the water.

I released three more that afternoon, including one slightly heavier than the others. It was a glorious day of fly fishing.

That experience earlier this month was very different from what many guides and anglers are finding some 60-plus miles to the north in the Upper Keys — particularly in Florida Bay.

The grass and mud flats in the bay back country that once teemed with bonefish both large and small now are so depleted that many guides in the Islamorada area have stopped targeting them — unless charter customers are willing to make long runs north to Biscayne Bay or south to the Lower Keys. Even in Biscayne Bay, bonefish numbers are way down — as much as 90 percent since the 1950s, according to octogenarian captain Bill Curtis.

Carlile, a Keys native who has guided light-tackle anglers full-time since 1976, said he noticed a big drop in bonefish numbers in the lower and middle Keys following the prolonged statewide cold blast in early 2010 that sent water temperatures plummeting into the 40s in the back country shallows.

“It wasn’t any good for two to three years after that front,” Carlile said. “Bonefish have come back a lot in the last year.”

As evidence, he pointed to results of the Marathon International Bonefish Tournament, held annually in September for 55 years. In the 2010 edition following the deep freeze, the fleet released only a couple dozen bones compared to 100-plus in past tournaments, Carlile said. But this past September, numbers were way up, with captain Albert Ponzoa guiding client Gene Ford to the release of a record 33 fish in a single day.

Like his fellow guides, Carlile is concerned about the overall health of the bonefish stock and hopes Florida Bay’s woes don’t spread south.

“Fish move,” he noted.

Prominent South Florida fisheries scientists are taking the complaints of guides and anglers very seriously. At the fifth Bonefish Tarpon Symposium held Nov. 7-8 in Dania Beach, Jennifer Rehage, associate professor at the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International University, announced the launch of a comprehensive, three-year study to examine in fine detail what’s going on with the Keys bonefish population, particularly in Florida Bay. The study is being funded by the non-profit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

“Catches reported by guides have decreased by half since 1980,” Rehage said.

“We’re going to link what we know about bonefish with things that have happened in the bay.”

Rehage said her FIU team will examine reams of research conducted since the 1960s by the U.S. Geological Survey, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Audubon Florida, Everglades National Park and other institutions on pollutants, sea grass cover, fresh water delivery, prey, climate and rainfall patterns, fishing pressure and other factors. Scientists will interview anglers and guides, examine their log books and photos, and overlay their accounts with the scientific information to see if “there is a match in time and space,” Rehage said.

“There are probably 20 studies that go back to 1962,” she said. “We know the bay is changing. It is not in good health. We want to make the best of the data and put it together.”

A lot is riding on restoring bonefish populations in the Keys. A recent economic study shows the fishery pumps about $427million annually into the local economy.

Rehage said that when the study is completed, “we’ll know what happened and how it happened to bonefish in the bay.”

Related stories from Miami Herald