I DREAM IN BRONZE & WHITE
REDFISH By Michael Vatalaro
Five times the fish circled the boat, never nearing the
surface for most of that time, our guide joking that I had
a tuna or amberjack on the line rather than a redfish.
When it finally showed itself, the deep bronze color of
its back was a relief to see. Once in the net, the fish
taped out at 45 inches long, but a hefty 39 inches in
girth. Basically, that fish could have worn my belt. And
I would have happily given it to him, as the ambassador
of a species that is considered the champion of sportfish
in many fishermen’s minds.
Few species capture the attention of as many fishermen as the redfish. On the Gulf Coast alone, you can
find anglers sight-casting to reds in inches of Florida
Bay water, casting popping corks in the backwaters
of Louisiana, or drifting live shrimp across an oyster
bar in Galveston Bay. Strong, relatively fast-growing,
and opportunistic feeders, redfish check many of the
“sportfish” boxes: You can find them all over; you can
catch them from a boat, wading, or in the surf; and
they’ll take a variety of lures and baits. Plus, they’re
tasty, which may have gotten them in trouble in the
In the late ‘70s, redfish numbers began to decline
due to overfishing. Chef Paul Prudhomme and the
increasing popularity of his blackened redfish dish
probably didn’t help. In 1977, the newly formed Gulf
Coast Conservation Association (GCCA) launched
a “Save The Redfish” campaign. Sounds innocuous
enough, but unlike the “Save The Whales” campaign,
the commercial fishermen being targeted weren’t largely
based in foreign lands; these guys shared the waters
and sometimes the docks with their recreational coun-
terparts. The sparring over the declining stocks in Texas
got so ugly, the bickering was nicknamed “The Redfish
Wars.” Threats, vandalism, and arson marked the run
up to the legislative showdown that became Texas
House Bill 1000. Signed into law in 1981, HB1000
made redfish and speckled trout into “game fish,” and
therefore illegal to sell if harvested from Texas waters.
Since then, the GCCA has gone national and is now
simply the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA).
Once Texas passed the law protecting redfish, other
Gulf Coast states followed suit. It took more than a
decade for the population to rebound, but now redfish
stocks support a huge recreational fishing effort.
“Redfish first became important to me in the
early ‘90s, fishing for them and learning about them
in graduate school.
They were and are
a driving fish in our
programs,” says Dr.
Greg Stunz, chairman of Fisheries and
Ocean Health with
the Harte Research
Institute for Gulf
of Mexico Studies.
“We’re studying redfish as we speak. We
don’t have catch data
to know how well
redfish have recovered. Ironically, without commercial fishing, we don’t
have landing records. But aerial over-flight surveys and
recreational angler experience tell us they’ve fully recovered, though a hard freeze could set them back. Our
next challenge is to protect their habitats that are under
pressure. Healthy habitats are healthy ecosystems. If
you build what the fish need, many species win.”
Executive editor Michael Vatalaro, photo above, fishes from
his 24-foot center console every chance he gets.
MY FIRST REDFISH IS A DISTANT MEMORY, but my largest redfish, which I tangled with just last
summer, remains one of the high points of my angling life. Fishing out of Venice, Louisiana, on
our second day we encountered a school of big, bull redfish feeding aggressively on mullet in a
large basin. Casting a Gulp minnow under a popping cork into just about any slick resulted in a
battle with a big red that lasted 15 minutes or more and left our forearms aching. For two hours,
the three of us onboard took turns being dragged around the boat by redfish longer than 35
inches, some pushing into the low 40s. Then, the big one hit.
the decline of
this iconic game
fish gave birth
to the saltwater
recreational fishing conservation
check out a