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Cold hits inshore fish hard

By DAVE MISTRETTA

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


Water temperatures plummeted this week, killing thousands of inshore fish.

The sudden drop has been attributed to the succession of cold fronts that have battered the South for the past month. Once the water temps drop below 55 degrees for more than a few days, fish go into shock, become disoriented (unable to swim) and, inevitably, die.

Jack crevalles, snook and ladyfish are the most common species affected.

Madeira Beach residents reported numerous canals holding large schools of jacks, most of them in shock. Snook also were spotted lying motionless at the water's surface, trying to get warm by the sun.

The morning low tides have allowed me to witness the magnitude of this kill. As I navigated north along the Indian Rocks intracoastal waterway, the grass flats revealed the death toll. It reminded me of the dreaded red tides of the past. Every hundred feet or so a ladyfish or snook was spotted lying dead along the shore. These traumatized fish were trying to warm up in the shallow depths but were trapped by the declining tide.

Vultures are not common along the gulf beaches except when easy offerings like this are laid out for them. Accompanied by pelicans and seagulls, hundreds of these scavengers have been congregating each morning to feed on the carcasses.

Offshore fishing is a different story. Overnight head boats have had banner reports of gag grouper at the middle grounds. Here, water temps are more tolerable, producing a great bite. Schools of grouper have been settling over the monster ledges at this common hot spot. Water depth ranges from 110 to 140 feet. Weather is the biggest factor when venturing this far because the journey is 80 to 100 miles to the northwest.

Think warm. We need a good stretch of weather to get things back to normal for this time of year. Ideally, the temps should read about 60 degrees.

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