Water is trying to tell us that something is wrong

August 15, 2011 

Every time I write about "the good ole days" in the Lowcountry, I get more calls and emails than from any other subject matter I cover. For instance, two or three weeks ago I mentioned that my dad and I never had to go any farther than the rip at the south end of Hilton Head Island to catch hundreds of Spanish mackerel. That was no exaggeration, either.

On just about any hot summer day, the water in that area looked like a giant egg beater was going full tilt, and it was massive schools of mackerel and bluefish that was doing all the churning. For as far as you could see, screaming gulls by the thousands would be hovering just above the water in an absolute frenzy, fighting over the bits of fish as millions of razor sharp teeth slashed through schools of bait. To say it was an awesome site is an understatement. So what has changed?

Spanish mackerel are still around, but not in the numbers I remember when I was younger. Every once in a while, I do see schools of Spanish but it's usually a school here and a school there, and they never seem to stay up on the surface for long. Another observation I have made is the Spanish seem to be much larger than I ever remembered catching back in the good old days. The bait is still here so where did all the mackerel go?

Spanish mackerel seem to prefer small glass minnows over menhaden. Anyone who fishes around here with any regularity knows that there certainly isn't a shortage of menhaden. So maybe it's a lack of glass minnows that has affected the migration patterns of the Spanish mackerel. For those of you who wouldn't know a glass minnow from a menhaden if you saw one, this might help: Menhaden are those fish you see flipping on the surface just outside the surf line when you go swimming at the beach while glass minnows are small slender fish that rarely exceed 2 to 3 inches long. Probably the best opportunity to get up close with glass minnows is when you have a chum bag hanging off your boat and see these small fish schooled up behind the chum bag, eating tidbits of fish that drift out of the bag.

Another fish that has mysteriously disappeared are saltwater catfish. It used to be you couldn't help but catch catfish whenever you went fishing around here. It didn't make any difference if you were surf fishing or fishing back in the creeks, you always -- and I mean always -- caught catfish. But in the past five years or so, I haven't caught one single catfish. Not one! Biologists are so perplexed by their disappearance that they have put them on the list of fish that you can't keep should you catch one. Is it pollution? Nobody seems to know, but one thing stands out in my mind and that is it should be a sign that something is terribly wrong.

King mackerel are also suspiciously absent this year. Usually by this part of the summer, kings are pretty easy to catch. Though I haven't targeted them, I have only caught one king and that was while I was live baiting for Spanish mackerel. I keep pretty close tabs on what is going on out on the water, and many of my charter captain friends are all asking the same question. Where have the kings gone?

I know it is not because of recreational over-fishing, especially since so many diehard king mackerel fishermen stopped targeting kings when the word came out about high mercury contents in these fish. So where have they gone? One theory that Capt. Fuzzy Davis has is this: In Florida especially, commercial fisherman are catching all the king mackerel they can, and you won't believe what they are doing with these great game fish. They chop them up, put them in centrifuges to extract the fish protein. Then that product is used as a flavor enhancer for, of all things, that horrible artificial crabmeat you see in stores.

I am hoping this isn't true because there isn't a faster and sportier game fish around than a big "smoker" king.

I am not trying to be all doom and gloom but I am trying to open your eyes to what is at stake here. Already oyster beds in the May River are closed due to pollutants, as are shellfish beds around all our marinas, and it's only going to get worse unless each and every one of us does our part to keep this area pristine. Pesticides, groundwater run-off, golf course run-off laden with fertilizers, it all adds up.

The water is what brought so many of you here, so don't you think its worth saving? Think before you buy those weed killers and other harmful chemicals because once it's gone, it's gone for good.

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