I feel like I should post a trigger warning on this story, as I know I'm going to upset a few people. I've made the decision to go 100% catch and release on Redfish in 2024. I made this decision several months ago, but wanted to go ahead and put it out there for everyone as we enter a new year of fishing. Before we go any further, I'm not telling any other anglers or guides what they should or shouldn't do. I'm also not judging anyone for harvesting any type of fish, as long as they are obeying the law. Right now, you may be saying, "John, why the heck aren't you harvesting any Redfish in 2024?" Well, I guess we need to step back a few years and start there.
I've been chasing Redfish here on the Crystal Coast almost 20 years now. I started my guide service 12 years ago, and I was only doing it part time to start. I loved fly fishing, so I decided to fill that niche as a guide. As my business grew, it stayed focused on sight fishing and fly fishing, although we do blind cast when the situation calls for it. As a guide with mostly fly fishing and sight fishing anglers making up my clientele, we have a few situations going on. One, the majority of my anglers are very conservation minded and catch and release focused to begin with. Two, many of my anglers like to chase fish in the hardest way possible, so we need lots of shots.... lots. Since we need many opportunities, and we aren't worried about filling the cooler, my guide service never really harvested that many Reds in the first place. I'd occasionally get a guy who wanted to take one or two home, but I don't know if we've ever even had a year where we harvested 10 Reds.
Fast forward to September of 2022. We were fishing some shallow water Reds and had one in the boat. Once we snapped a few photos, we watched it swim off and it dawned on me that we had not harvested a single Redfish that whole year. I started thinking back trying to remember the last time I had thrown one on ice for a client. After a while, I remembered us putting one or two in the cooler for an angler in September of the prior year. It had been a whole 12 months since we had kept a Redfish. I thought that was pretty cool. Then something told me that we should try to finish out 2022 with no Redfish. Should be easy enough. Albie season was starting up in a few weeks, then I'd be off the flats until December. I only had about 8 or so Redfish trips left, and we had made it this far, this should be a piece of cake...
I jinxed myself the second I started thinking that. I had a gentlemen call me the following day and request a late September Redfish trip. He was a fly angler and professed to be a really good one. He excitedly told me that he was looking forward to the thrill of stalking a Redfish in shallow water, sight casting a fly to it, working the fly just right to entice a bite, hooking and fighting the worthy opponent, and then frying it up for supper.
I wondered if he had heard the "gulp" in my throat when he told me how excited he was to harvest his catch. My mind was racing to figure out how I was going to respond before the conversation went too far. Part of me said, "John, stick to your guns", and the other part of me said, "John, just run the trip, he might not even catch one anyway."
"Sorry sir, we aren't harvesting any Redfish this year" I quickly said to him.
How dumb of me to think he would just accept that answer. In actuality, this was just the beginning of a somewhat stressful conversation, where I really had to defend my reasoning. He believed that as a license holding angler, he had the right to harvest his 1 Redfish per day. And although I agreed that he absolutely did have that right, I would need him to respect my request, if he was fishing on my boat. I explained to him that I was more than happy to take him any time in 2023 and harvest a fish, but that I was steadfast in goal of not harvesting any Reds in 2022.
He ended up going fishing with another guide. I lost $500, but I kept my moral values by not backing down. I felt like that was a win, but my anxiety began to build as I thought about the rest of my Redfish trips already on the calendar. I immediately contacted the rest of my anglers for the year and explained to them what I was working on. Thankfully every one of my remaining clients was onboard and I was able to finish out 2022 as a full-time guide without harvesting a single Redfish. That felt amazing and meaningful.
As we moved into 2023, I didn't push to do another catch and release only year of Redfish. I figured I would just let it ride out and see what happened.
At some point during the spring, an angler caught a Redfish and asked if he could keep it. I didn't hesitate to say yes. And thus ended a year and a half streak of catch and release. I had one more angler request to keep one later that summer, and we kept that one too. Not to sound like a wimp, but something in my gut bothered me about killing those fish. I'm not against harvesting fish. I love keeping Atlantic Bonito and eating them. I'm happy to let my anglers put a limit of Spanish Mackerel in the cooler. But for some reason, killing those Redfish didn't sit right with me. Perhaps it's because I consider those fish my business partners, and I rely on them being there day after day. Maybe it's because we fish for them in a way that makes us work extra hard to catch them, and I consider them such a worthy opponent. Whatever the reason, it bothered me enough that I decided that I would be going back to zero harvest on Redfish in 2024. Even if that meant losing some charters and income.
Besides having a soft spot in my heart for Redfish...why am I going total catch and release on them?
Well for one, I don't think we have enough of them here in NC. I can hear all the grunts and groans from the audience in response. Look, I don't think our Redfish population is in trouble, I don't even think it's low...but I know it could be better. I hear all the time from anglers that fish for them with bait or even blind cast for them, that we have a good population of fish, that they have no problem catching plenty. There are quite a few people, who even believe we should raise the limit on them. I spend enough time poling up shallow, sight fishing for these fish, both here in North Carolina, and in other states. And what I've seen in other states, tells me that although our fish are doing okay, we definitely have room for improvement.
There is more pressure on these fish than ever. Just drive by any coastal boat ramp and compare the number of trailers now to how many were there 5 or 10 years ago. The number of boats and anglers on the water has exploded. So, although each angler can only keep one fish, there are more anglers than ever keeping fish. Not only that, but there are more boats pushing these fish around and educating them than ever. If you bait fish for Redfish, you may not notice the pressure on these fish as much as I do, but I can see these fish getting smarter and smarter every year. We're a bunch of goofballs chucking feathers at Redfish from 30ft away in less than a foot of water...we need as many opportunities as we can get.
My point is, I know the fishery could be better. If I'm taking fish out of the water, then I don't think I should get to complain about the numbers of fish in the water at the same time. We have a good fishery, and I want to do my part to keep it that way, and maybe, just maybe, see it get even better down the road. I had my most successful year of guiding ever last year. We sustainably harvested fish on about 5% of those trips. And we harvested Redfish on only 1% of those trips. I don't mind losing 1% of my business to do my part to make our fishery better.
I think my biggest concern is offending all of my guide buddies who post the livewell pics, cooler shots and cleaning station photos. Please don't be offended. I'm not belittling anyone who wants to harvest Redfish, nor am I saying anything negative about any guide who harvests Redfish for their clients. We all have different business models. I'm just doing what works for me.
I think my second biggest concern was scaring anglers away. I promise we have a good fishery; I could take you out there right now and show you big schools of Redfish…I’m just doing my part to make sure we still have that down the road. I am fortunate to have some amazing clients that are stoked to go chase Redfish, get challenged, lose some, win some, and watch them swim away afterwards... and I'm so thankful for that. I have to be honest; I was a little nervous to put this post out there into the Universe. Enough of that nonsense, I'm going to be proud to tell people that we're giving them all a second chance in 2024.
If you are an angler or a guide who is going 100% catch and release on Redfish in 2024, I'd love to hear about it.