Hooked on Redneck Aquaculture

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I don’t live in Alabama. But I can see it from here. Literally. Just a half mile across the water is Ono Island, Alabama. My home is on Perdido Key, Florida. I can (and do) actually swim to Ono, right across the border between the two states. Usually I take the boat.

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Around here, people fish a lot. The Gulf of Mexico is in our backyard, with everything from mullet to mackerel inshore, snapper to grouper midshore and tuna to blue marlin offshore. The back bays are full of trout, redfish, more mullet, tripletail, flounder and the occasional run of tarpon. We can even take the boat far enough upstream to catch bass in freshwater. Basically, it’s a cornucopia of fishing.

One of our most popular fishing quests came about by accident. Some years ago, waterfront homeowners started putting high-powered streetlights on their docks to ward off rascals who liked to steal small outboard engines while they were flounder gigging late at night. Even if the floundering wasn’t too good, the motor gettin’ was always pretty steady.

Then, folks noticed that fish liked to gather around the lights and a few inventive dudes began mounting streetlights about three feet off the water. Now, as I sit on my porch swing—no kidding, I actually have a porch swing—I can count a couple dozen lights on docks at Ono Island. Most are either yellow or blue. My quick estimation is that the yellow light to blue light ratio is about 50/50—probably something to do with Auburn and Alabama fans. I’ve tossed many a DOA shrimp and Clouser minnow into the yellow glow and blue glow and caught fish. There is no color bias in my fishing.

Bottom line: lights work. Case in point: years back, a wealthy doctor from Montgomery bought a sprawling beach house on Ono and decided to hire a guide for some night fishing. He figured $400 was a good investment to buy a little local knowledge. Unfortunately, the fish weren’t biting that night, so the guide, who wanted a happy client, got drastic. “I usually don’t do this,” he told the doctor, “but I feel bad about getting skunked, so I’m going to take you to my favorite honey hole. I always catch fish there.” Sure enough, as they pulled up to a long dock with a bright blue light shining on the water, the fish were hitting the surface and the doctor was getting excited. “This is it? This is your honey hole?” he asked. “Sure is,” the smiling guide replied. “I told you. It’s guaranteed.” The doc looked at the guide and said, “I hate to tell you this, but this is my new house. I just paid you $400 to bring me fishing to my own dock.” True story.

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We night-fishing goblins knew that inevitably someone would come up with waterproof lights that you can sink to the bottom and entice game fish to come investigate. I’m open to trying anything that will make a fish eat.

Above-water lights shine down on top of the fish so you can see their color—the silver and black spots of a speckled trout or the copper flash of a redfish chasing bait. Fish illuminated from below become watery shadows gliding in and out of darkness. Sometimes they seem gigantic when they swim a few feet away from the light, kind of like a hand puppet casting shadows on a distant wall. When a monster, two-foot-long shape chasing your lure turns out to be 10-in. juvenile trout, that’s just wrong.

Regardless of the nuances of blue, yellow, underwater, above-water, etc., the end result is that coastal residents have created what is essentially a bunch of personal aquaculture ponds. In a state known for agriculture, we now have our own version of redneck aquaculture. I’ve seen as many as 100 trout under some lights. That’ll supply a lot of fish fries. In the 20-mile radius of Ono Island, Perdido Bay, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, there are probably several thousand docks with lights making up one long, continuous fish farm. My buddy and neighbor, Skipper, who is unmistakably from Alabama when you hear him speak, calls his “the aquarium.”

Of course, just because we “farm” trout and redfish at the end of our docks doesn’t mean we always catch them. Some argue that this is hardly “sport” fishing and more like shooting ducks in a barrel. However, sometimes, dozens of trout will be mingling under a light in plain sight but won’t bite. I’ve seen trout so finicky that even dropping a live shrimp on their noses won’t interest them. Yet, on most nights, when the tide is running, they will bite.

Urgent update: I just heard a trout splash under Skipper’s light. I’m going in. Stand by.

One hour and four trout later: Okay, so Skipper’s aquarium is fully functional. Please don’t be jealous, because I know how lucky I am to be “working” (as in writing this column) and be able to put my laptop aside, grab my fly rod and slip stealthily into my kayak for an instant fishing experience.

In this case, as I eased toward the light, trout were slapping the water every two or three seconds as they scarfed down glass minnows. My first cast, slam! The trick is to move away from the light as you retrieve the fish because trout under lights are easily spooked. Fishing from a kayak helps. The second fish took two casts. Ho hum. On this night, I decided to catch and release, primarily because I didn’t feel like cleaning fish and there’s no reason to freeze the fillets when I can pretty much catch it fresh anytime. Plus, those four fish will grow and prosper so someone can catch them again. Now are you jealous?

There’s a lot of talk these days about aquaculture in this country because our appetite for fish is increasing, yet we still import more than 80% of the seafood we eat. Inland and coastal ponds have been raising catfish and tilapia successfully for decades. Now, fish farmers are having luck with pompano, cobia and even sturgeon (with the side benefit of caviar). In Gulf Shores, Alabama, multimillion dollar hatchery has recently been completed, which will release millions of fish into the gulf. So, the land of Roll Tide and War Eagle, is doing their part to create sustainability one dock and one streetlight at a time.

By Fred Garth

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