What makes Florida the Fishing Capital of the World, and us so fortunate to live here? It's that there are so many species of fish to catch here, especially in salt water. No matter the season, tide, wind, waves or moon phase, dozens of species are swimming within range of a modest cast -- and probably closer.
There are easily more than 100 species for anglers catch for fun and/or dinner. One angler I know came to the Keys from New York City to see if he could add more than 50 species to his life list of catches in a single week. He did it with time to spare.
The only issue that such species diversity presents, even for those of us who fish frequently around the state, is how to know if you're staying legal. Regulations often change and vary, due to fluctuations in fish populations and the complex and differing natures of each of these species.
Fortunately, there's an app for that. In fact, the iPhone app called Fish Rules recently saved its creator, Dr. Albrey Arrington, and me from what could have been a mortifying and expensive mistake. The Jupiter-based fisheries biologist, angler, diver and super-dad posted the following on his Facebook Page:
"Anyone want to go offshore. It's going to be ROUGH but I think the dolphin bite will be hot."
Just hanging out with Albrey is like getting a free and entertaining course in fish biology. Plus, he grew up in a local family that's obsessed with fishing and diving. He knows what he's doing offshore. So I messaged him instantly, and we made plans to meet at 7:30 the next morning. We were trolling ballyhoo in 100 feet, through four- to six-foot seas, by 8 a.m. We had two nice dolphin in the box by 10, after jumping off a couple others.
Around noon, we moved inshore to a rip in 75 feet. We were dumbfounded when we pulled the baits past a floating pallot that we figured had to have a bunch of dolphin under it.
"The bite must be over," we thought.
Two hundred yards north, the line snapped out of the starboard flatline clip, and the reel's clicker announced we'd hooked something strong. I saw a brown shape and first thought, "shark." But seeing no large dorsal fin, I realized we had a cobia on. Cobia are one of the most delicious fish in the ocean.
Cobia feed in packs, and two other fish followed the hooked fish to the boat. One was a good 10 pounds heavier than the other two, but when Albrey tried to pitch a bait to it, the smaller fish beat the big cobia to the free meal.
Soon enough, we had both fish boatside.
"What's the minimum size on these," I asked.
"Thirty-something, to the fork I think," Albrey said, and reached for his iPhone. But with a touch of a button, we knew to release them because Albrey's fish was 32 inches to the fork, and mine was visibly smaller.
The app, which provides saltwater fish regulations from North Carolina through Texas and works whether you're in cell phone range or not, showed us that minimum size limit is 33 inches to the fork.
Back inside the Jupiter Inlet, we waved to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officer idling past us, who waved back after a quick appraisal of whether we looked like law-abiding citizens or not. He didn't bother to check us. But thanks to Fish Rules, we wouldn't have had any really embarassing explaining to do anyway.
Science-based regulations are set for most species targeted by anglers in Florida and adjacent federal waters. Those regulations are designed to ensure that there are plenty of fish for tomorrow, and for future generations. By knowing the regulations, or having them literally at your fingertips, you can help to ensure that Florida remains the Fishing Capital of the World. Get the app, and stay legal, my friends.