Photo by Tim Pask
The Conservation Captain for the month of December is Biscayne Bay guide Capt. Carl Ball, owner of AWOL Fishing Charters. Capt. Carl has helped BTT on numerous bonefish and permit tagging projects in support of the Florida Keys Initiative as well as Project Permit. Recently, Carl was a featured panelist on the permit panel discussion at the 5th International BTT Symposium.
Click here to visit the AWOL Fishing Charters website.
Where do you guide?
I mainly guide out of Key Biscayne fishing South Biscayne Bay. It has been 17 years since I took my first customer fishing in Biscayne Bay.
How did you become a fishing guide?
I started working on private boats when I was 22 years old working as a fishing mate on sport fishing boats traveling to the Bahamas, Saint Thomas and Cozumel Mexico. After I got my college degree in Economics I returned to working on the big boats once again. That is when I bought my first flats boat, a Hewes Redfisher, and started flats and backcountry fishing in Biscayne Bay, and ENP out of Chokoloskee. After a couple years I realized I just wanted to fish everyday and was tired of yacht maintenance when the owners were not on board. As a licensed captain I figured all I needed was my guide fishing license and to get the word out and I would be on my way. All I could think about was flats and backcountry fishing.
How many days per year do you guide?
I am now guiding over 200 days per year.
What species do most of your clients want to fish for? Why?
I have managed to develop a pretty good customer base that really likes the tarpon fishing. My customers love the tarpon because of the opportunities to sight fish for them and the blind fishing for them is great because the less skilled anglers can can catch a really big tarpon without the challenge of depending on precision angling skills. Permit and bone fishing are the other species my customers enjoy because they like hunting for fish that are a real challenge requiring a proper presentation with both bait and fly.
Tell us about how the fishery used to be, compared to today.
In my years of guiding I think the tarpon fishery has remained relatively consistent over the years. The biggest factor I have found in the number of tarpon I see and catch seem to be due more to the weather we have during the season. In the years were we had early and cold winters I found I have the best tarpon fishing. The freeze of 2010 was the best year for tarpon fishing I have seen so far. During a warm winter I find not as many tarpon make it down to South Florida and they seem to leave sooner. As far as fishing pressure on tarpon, I have seen an increase over the years. However, I don’t think the fishing pressure affects the quantity of tarpon. I think it only affects the quality of tarpon fishing because anglers have to share more of the resource amongst each other. With proper education in fishing etiquette, fish handling and catch and release I think anglers can enjoy the resource for years to come.
Definitely there are less bonefish than when I started fishing Biscayne Bay back in the 90’s. If I had only known then what I know now I would have caught significantly more bonefish. I probably see about 1/3 of the bonefish now compared to in the 90’s and early 2000’s. However, in the last 2 -3 years I have been seeing more of the smaller 2-5 lb bonefish that seem to have replaced the larger 6-8 lb fish that Biscayne Bay averaged in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Around 2010 it seems the average sized bonefish was 5-7 lbs. Unfortunately, fewer anglers are targeting the bonefish due to the decrease in availability in the Keys, which puts additional fishing pressure on the more abundant species. Even though anglers have adopted good catch and release practices with these other species there will most likely be an increase in fish mortality for those species.
Permit fishing has remained pretty good for me however there definitely seem to be fewer fish than before. I still have a good variety in the size of the permit caught, but I don’t see the numbers I once saw. Specifically I don’t find the schools of permit in spots that were once very consistent.
As far as number of anglers on the water, I definitely see more. Flats and backcountry fishing has become very popular over the years. However, I find these anglers to be more educated and more conservation minded. I feel like more anglers are more concerned about how they catch their targeted species than how many they can bring home for the table.
In your opinion, what is the most important conservation issue facing the Keys fishery right now and what can be done to help fix it?
I think that habitat destruction and water quality are our biggest issues today. I think there needs to be more awareness and funding for habitat rehabilitation and development projects also. With the ever increasing population, especially in Florida, habitat destruction due to development should be the biggest concern. However, water quality needs to remain high on the list of concerns.
Despite some of the negative things happening to our fishery, why do you love it so much?
It is because to me it is what is real. It is not man made and it is unpredictable. Every day is a new challenge and it keeps you thinking.
Why do you support Bonefish and Tarpon Trust?
Because BTT provides funding for the research that is needed to understand the science behind how and where bonefish, permit and tarpon live. Weather I make a living from targeting these species or not they will always be my favorite species to target and I would only want to see the fishery become better for everyone to enjoy.
In your opinion, what is the most important work that BTT does and why?
I would have to say that supporting the research and educating the public go hand in hand. Making the public aware of how valuable this resource is and using the science to show what can be done to protect and enhance it.
Why should a fisherman that doesn’t live in Florida or the Caribbean care about BTT?
Especially for people that don’t live in Florida or anywhere that bonefish, tarpon and permit swim it is important to get behind BTT so that when they sacrifice their valuable time and money to fish for these species the fishery is as healthy as possible to provide the best opportunity for a quality fishing experience.
You have the day off. What species are you going to fish for, where are you going to find them, and what are you going to use to catch them?
I am going to fish somewhere in the Florida Keys to try to get a bonefish, tarpon, permit slam on the fly. I like a good challenge!
Tell us one (or two) of your favorite fishing stories.
One of my favorite fishing stories is when a very good customer decided that he wanted to attempt to catch a world record tarpon on a fly rod using 6 lb tippet. So I purchased the tarpon tag and the 6 lb tournament mono to make leaders. Now this wasn’t just about using a 6 lb tippet since his weapon of choice was an old 9 wt bamboo Orvis Battenkill trout rod with a brand new 12 wt Loop Opti reel and a 10 wt fly line. I know! Impossible right! Well, myself and a few of his fishing buddies insisted he could not do it. But at 72 years old this gentleman was determined to try. As luck would have it, it turned out to be one of the best days of tarpon fishing I have ever witnessed. I poled him to six tarpon that were all well above the 82 lb record at the time. He made a great cast and presentation to all six getting each one to take his fly. To his surprise he broke each one off on the hook set. After a good laugh he promptly replaced the leader with one made with 30 lb tippet,which he was accustomed to, and on the very next cast hooked and landed a fish that easily bested 80 lbs. Lesson learned. It’s not always that you catch them, but instead, how you catch them that matters.