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MacDill waters offer scientists, anglers unique chance

The 1000-yard security zone around the base has created a 'de facto' fish preserve for native species

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Tech Sgt. Ray Herredia, a tournament bass angler when he is not working at U.S. Central Command, says the freshwater fishing at and around MacDill is very good.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

Aside from a few savvy anglers on base, few realize what a unique aquatic environment surrounds them at MacDill. With a 1,000-yard security buffer zone surrounding the base, the fish and wildlife around MacDill live in what essentially is a preserve, free of boat traffic, fishermen and stress from human intrusion seen in the rest of Tampa Bay and indeed the state.

So what does that mean? If you are an angler, it means you have the opportunity to experience the closest thing to "old Florida" fishing you are likely to find anywhere. The fish are what anglers like to call "happy" and prone to be less afraid when approached or when they see a lure or baited hook. In short, the fishing at MacDill likely is some of the best to be found since the turn of the century.

But anglers on base are not the only ones taking advantage of the ideal conditions at MacDill. State biologists are halfway through a year-long study of the fishing around the base to determine the fish population and catch ratios in what essentially is a closed fishing and boating zone.

"What you have is a defacto fishing preserve due to the security around the base," said Bob Heagey, a marine research associate with the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

For the last six months Mr. Heagey and others have been catching fish in base waters and tagging them for tracking. Some 1,000 fish have been marked with special tags that include phone numbers for anglers to call and report their catch and tag info.

"We need anyone on base who catches one of these fish to follow the instructions on the tag," said Mr. Heagey, noting the information gathered is a great help to biologists. He added that it is better if the fish is released after the tag information is collected so that it might be caught and tracked again, but if kept for food, the angler still should call the toll free number on the tag to help with the research.

The current study is comparing fishing at MacDill with the waters west of the base at Weedon Island on the other side of the Bay. The island has a protected, no-motor zone but is open to public fishing and thus receives heavy fishing pressure, especially compared to MacDill, where only a small number of base anglers fish and those are limited to wading due to the rule against boats in the security zone.

"It's a good way to measure the differences between an area open to fishing and one that essentially is closed," said Josh Collins, a biologist participating in the study. "We are only about halfway through but we already know the fish are less wary at MacDill and are quicker to take a bait."

Mr. Collins said the waters around MacDill are the only place in Tampa Bay he has seen tailing redfish. The habit is exhibited by schooling fish as they grub in the sand for crabs and shrimp, their tails sticking slightly out of the shallow water. Tailing fish are content and acting according to nature and typically are not seen in areas where there is boat traffic or human intrusion.

Mr. Heagey said once all the data from the catch study is done, the information will be used to measure the possible benefits of creating fish preserves or nurseries where fish can be spared the pressure of angling, boating and other human intrusions that may impede their reproduction and growth. Mr. Heagey added the research has no specific goals about creating closed fishing zones at Weedon or anywhere else in the Bay. The study merely is an example of scientists taking the unique opportunity to study in the natural laboratory MacDill's security rules have created.

While it will be a few months before anything conclusive can be gleaned, the preliminary findings may indicate that while the fish population is greater at Weedon Island, the smaller fish population at MacDill appears to be producing a better hook-and-line catch ratio. Mr. Heagey said that may or may not be the ultimate finding, but if it stands up, it could mean what nearly every angler tends to believe about fishing: fish that see less fishing pressure are more prone to take a bait.

"We have a chance to learn a lot from this," said Mr. Collins. "There are some fishermen on base who wade there but the amount of fishing compared to other areas is so low it doesn't really factor in."

And while the biologists are enjoying the advantages, so are anglers like Dave Engle, an avid angler who works in the MacDill marketing office and frequently fishes the productive shallows by wading and casting artificial baits.

"It's like a fish sanctuary and because it doesn't see the pressure other parts of the Bay see, it offers some excellent fishing," Mr. Engle said.

The flats along the east and south end of the base are great redfish waters for waders. Creek mouths and areas where freshwater enters the Bay from canals, ditches and pipes attract snook looking for a free meal to wash into their kill zone, he said.

But despite the opportunities, Engle said there are limitations even for those lucky enough to be on base and have access to the surrounding waters. The area behind the firing range including Coons Creek to past the end of the runway is closed to everyone for safety reasons but prior to closing a few years ago was his favorite casting grounds.

But that's OK, said Mr. Engle, because there is plenty of good fishing that's wide open, including nearly every drainage canal and pond. He notes he was leaving the base gym recently when he noticed tilapia in the retention area there. A prized freshwater food fish, he said they readily take small flies and offer some fine sport.

For those who like freshwater bass fishing, Lewis Lake has a fair population, says Tech Sgt. Ray Herredia, a video teleconferencing tech at U.S. Central Command. He's a sponsored tournament bass angler who travels the state to fish competitively, but says the lake and various ponds on the base can be "little honey holes."

He hasn't fished them all but suspects many of the small ponds may hold good numbers of bass. Bluegill, various shellcracker and sunfish species are common in these ponds, as well.

"Those little ponds you don't think much about will sometimes surprise you," he said. "You never know until you try."

He also notes the lake at the recreation park just off base along the Dale Mabry gate holds a nice bass population. The first time he fished it, he took three bass on his first three casts, throwing a spinnerbait.

Those who want to try their hand at fishing around the base can stock up on supplies and get good advice at the Base Exchange or bait and tackle shops off base. A fishing license for fresh and saltwater is required for every state resident between 16 and 65. State residents above or below those ages may obtain a free certificate. All non-residents must have a license regardless of age.

Once outfitted and licensed, Mr. Engle suggests base anglers wade in. He likes to fish the incoming tides for reds, as they tend to push up on the shallow flats with the rising water. He likes the time when the tide turns -- low or high for snook and focuses on areas where the water is moving well. Trout like to stay over grass bottom, which usually means wading out a good distance to get past the sand flats that surround the base.

Water temperatures remain a bit low as we come out of winter but as they climb with approaching spring, "look out," said Mr. Collins.

"As it starts to warm up we expect to see the schools of reds returning (to MacDill)," said Mr. Collins. "It really is excellent fishing there and the kind of fishing that's hard to find anywhere else these days."




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