Red drum receive a hand from rodeo

Published 10:23 pm Monday, July 20, 2009

As far as Bob Shipp is concerned there’s no reason to let an Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR) transpire without gathering valuable information for the largest and oldest saltwater fishing tournament in the nation.

This year, Shipp, the longtime rodeo judge and head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, took the idea of aiding with a red drum stock assessment to ADSFR officials, who wholeheartedly agreed it would be a perfect fit for the rodeo’s commitment to marine conservation.

“The thing is the government is required to do a stock assessment on redfish,” Shipp said. “It has to happen. The way they tried to do it before was with a purse seine and a huge mass mortality occurred. They just threw their hands up and said this was too destructive.

“We decided, at least for Alabama, that we could contribute to the stock assessment by focusing on the larger red drum that are around Dixey Bar in state waters so we don’t need any kind of exempted permit from the feds or anything to do it. The ultimate purpose is to determine the age structure of the population – how many 20-year-old fish, how many 15-year-old fish, how many 10-year-old fish. That’s the information the (computer) modelers use to do the stock assessment.”

Because of the conservation aspect, rodeo officials decided to have a special category for red drum that is unlike any other of the rodeo’s 30 fish categories.

“We want to make it clear that redfish is not a true category,” said Randy Brooks, president for the 77th annual rodeo, which runs July 17-19 on Dauphin Island. “We did not add a 31st category. It’s one fish over the slot limit from each angler for the entire tournament. The fish will not go to the scales. They turn the fish in and it goes straight to the research crew. We don’t care how much it weighs. We’re only interested in the length.”

This year’s rodeo ticket will have a tear-off stub for the special redfish category. When a desired redfish is brought to the scales at the rodeo site, the stub will be detached and entered into a random drawing for a variety of prizes.

“This year, we’re taking baby steps,” Shipp said. “It has nothing to do with the biggest redfish. We didn’t want it to get out of hand. With 3,000 anglers, we could potentially have too many redfish harvested. We’re hoping to get a couple of hundred fish. That would be a really good start.

“The main point is to inform the fishermen on how this works. When they hear about a redfish category, they automatically think biggest fish. We’re trying to make it real clear that it’s not the biggest one but we want the fish over the slot and their name will go in the hat for some nice prizes.”

Vern Minton, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division, said when the division was approached about the rodeo plan, it was easy to add its blessing to the project, which will be handled by Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

“The sea lab has had difficulty picking up those fish, so we’re allowing the rodeo folks to bring in bull reds and they’ll be taken by the sea lab for its age and growth studies,” Minton said. “We’re trying to get an idea of the stock size out there so we can get a better understanding of what shape the actual stock is in. We haven’t had a decent stock assessment in the last 10 years or so.

“We’re not concerned about the population at this point, but until we get a decent stock assessment we will not be able to do anything concerning bag limits or anything else. And the offshore population outside of state waters will remain closed to fishing. Even though President (George W.) Bush signed off to make red drum a recreational game species; you can’t open up the recreational access until we know what the stock is doing in terms of population and harvest. The other way to do this is a tag and recapture study, and it’s very, very expensive to do that.”

During the mid 1980s, redfish came under intense fishing pressure for a couple of reasons, including the blackened redfish craze started by New Orleans celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme.

“We went from a harvest of a couple of million pounds a year to between 12 and 14 million pounds,” Minton said. “The blackened redfish thing brought it out to the general public, but the actual reason was seafood dealers found a fish fillet they could sell for $2 a pound. When you’re got a nice, flaky filet at $2 per pound, it’s going to move. That’s where the big numbers came from.”

Because of the significant increase in harvest, Alabama went from a 15-fish recreational bag limit with a minimum size of 14 inches to a 5-fish bag limit and a slot limit of 14 inches minimum to a 32-inch maximum size with no retention of any fish over 32 inches. Sale of red drum caught in state waters had been prohibited since 1984. In 1992 the bag was further reduced to three fish and the slot limit changed to a minimum of 16 inches and a maximum of 26 inches. One of the three fish could be under the 16 inches, but Marine Resources officials determined that the undersized fish was too often kept as a part of the bag limit. Therefore, in 1994, the allowance for an undersized fish was eliminated and replaced by an allowance for one fish over the 26-inch maximum.

“Years ago when they did the last stock assessment they found that the main problem, as opposed to the purse seine problem, was the lack of escapement from the inshore fishery to the offshore,” Minton said. “So each state was asked to reduce its bag limit and increase the size limit to maintain a 30 percent escapement rate. Every state has been able to achieve that. I think Louisiana is up to about 70 percent escapement rate and we’re up to over 40 percent.”

Brooks said, as usual, rodeo officials will be sticklers about the rules, which are spelled out in detail in the rodeo brochure.

“There is no leeway on the rules,” Brooks said. “If you break one, you will be disqualified. Specifically about the special redfish category, there is the three-mile limit for state waters. You can’t go catch redfish on Dixey Bar and then go snapper fishing. You can’t have a redfish on board when you’re past the three-mile limit.”

Brooks said those who bring an oversized redfish to the scales will be entered into the drawing for a number of prizes, including an original redfish painting valued at $1,000 by artist Larry Rackley of YellowFin Gallery, as well as a lifetime saltwater fishing license donated by former rodeo president Joe Thompson of Victor Signs.

As for the rest of the rodeo, Brooks said the king mackerel jackpot payout has been adjusted to make sure the second through 10th finishers get a larger share of the pot. Also the rodeo has granted the tarpon anglers a change in the rules that allows someone in the boat other than the angler to grab the leader.

To accommodate the growing numbers of kayak anglers, the rodeo has changed the speckled trout jackpot rules so that the required witness does not have to be in the same boat.

“Witnesses still have to have rodeo tickets, though,” Brooks said. “We’ve also changed the minimum length for amberjack to 32 inches. The federal amberjack limit increased to 30, so we increased ours to 32. We always keep our limits a little higher than anybody else to help with the conservation effort the rodeo has been doing for so long.”

And despite a downturn in the economy, Brooks expects a big crowd for the rodeo.

“The rodeo is alive and well,” he said. “The economy changed the environment. But we’re the biggest and best for a reason. Our awards package is still pushing $400,000.

“If the Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament (held last weekend) is any indication, we’re expecting big numbers. We won’t know for sure until Friday, but we’re going to be pushing record territory for the kids’ rodeo.”