Back then sport fishing was just coming around. No one ever heard of catch and release, and while there were limits of sorts on freshwater fish, there were no such restrictions on saltwater fish. We fished for meat. We fished to put food on the table for us, our neighbors and anyone else who might want fresh fish.
Fish were plentiful, and we could be selective about what we fished for and what we kept. Redfish were not on the top of our list of keepers. We opted for mangrove snapper, sea trout, gag grouper and jewfish (now politically corrected to goliath grouper). Reds would go in the box only if one was particularly big, or if we could find no other fish that day.
I remember one day as we drifted the deep grass flat to the east of Rocky Channel in Florida Bay, just north of Sandy Key, we hooked up to some very large reds. There were three of us fishing, my Dad, my uncle, and myself. All three of us hooked up at about the same time and the circus began. We were drifting live shrimp under a popping cork and three reds that weighed 25, 26, and 28 pounds each took a bait. I remember how excited we all were until we brought the fish to the boat and realized they were reds. We kept them, of course, but they were the first meat to go to friends and relatives.
Reds have a dark streak of meat down their side right under the lateral line. This meat gives the fish a heavy fishy taste, and someone told me that it was indicative of a high iodine content. Regardless, we preferred other filets.
There were many other days that we simply left a fishing spot to get away from reds. We fished Lake Ingram on the southwest tip of Florida a lot. It is a saltwater lake with man made canals on each end allowing a true tidal influence. Many times we would set up at the mouth of Middle Cape or East Cape canal on an outgoing tide, looking for trout moving with the tide. We floated a live shrimp under a popping cork along the edge of the mangroves and more often than not ended up with a red. The smaller ones, we called them rat reds, would come through in huge schools. We could probably have caught over a hundred except that my Dad would keep lines in the boat until they moved through. He didn't want to waste any bait!
But all of this has changed, both for the worse, and lately for the better. Looking to find a way to revitalize his restaurant business, Chef Paul Prudhomme chose the abundant, relatively little marketed redfish for his now famous blackened redfish recipe. The worse thing that could happen did, as the commercial fishery for redfish made them hard to find for the everyday angler. Thankfully, we have had the foresight in most states to place strict size and creel limits on redfish. I know that Florida, in particular, prohibited any harvest for several years to help bring them back. Florida also enacted a net ban a few years ago which places restrictions on when, where and how the commercial fishing industry can net harvest, not just redfish, but any commercially sought after species.
Redfish are making a comeback. It is relatively easy to catch more than your limit and have a great day of catch and release fishing. But I still have that stigma attached that says they are not worth keeping to eat. Call it a foolish misjudgment, but remember, I got this straight from the best fisherman I ever fished with - my Dad. "Eat a redfish if there isn't another choice, otherwise, just leave them alone", he would say. "They're not worth the effort!"
Are you hooked on redfish. Got a favorite recipe, or fish story? Let me know by sending me an Email.