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Calusa Backwater Adventures - July, 2009

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On: Tue, Jun 16, 2009 at 8:32AM | By: John Paeno

Hi, everyone. Here is my personal thanks to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for the opportunity they have given me to glimpse the Calusa point of view. I have been going out with a little group of Florida Fish & Wildlife researchers, scientists, and other volunteers visit Florida estuaries on weekly, if not daily, missions to collect vital information about Florida’s waters. These folks don’t get any glory, but their research and data is used by Mote Marine and many other organizations to help determine bag limits and slot sizes. It also warns us if the systems start to break down, and it can help us to restore fish populations. Our day starts early in the morning at Pineland Marina in Pineland on Pine Island (you notice a theme here?). Our Captain, Chuck (marine biologist), plans the day so the tides provide enough water to get deep into the mangrove estuary.

These rarely visited areas give me a great opportunity to feel like the ancients, the Calusa, who once called these waters home. They are still untouched by world of concrete, steel, pesticide, phosphorus and fertilizer, oil, and god knows what else creeps slowly, but ever steadily, upon it. Here the only signs are in numbers and data being collected. We also sample places everybody has access to and compare the differences. Chuck pulls us up to a mangrove island, and I can see ancient Calusa Indian mounds in the background. I think about a time when Indian canoes would be pulled up to the shore, the Calusa in the water with their homemade nets and spears ready for the big and dangerous fish lurking here (The Calusa’s plant fiber nets were very strong, and the net holes made uniform with a net gauge. Today, holes in commercial nets are the same size). Five hundred years later it does not seem to have changed, but I get a quick reality check when I look at our boat and motor. We check the water depth, and if it’s in the right range, two of us jump out and pull out one end of a 600-foot net.

As Chuck moves the boat in an arc, the net unfurls. He pulls into shallow water near the other two team members, and he and I jump out, take the other end of the net, and start walking toward them. We shuffle our feet along the bottom to warn the stingrays of our presence and hope they will get out of our way. On occasion, when we see a shark, we keep a watchful eye. I feel like one of the fierce Calusa portrayed in the paintings and drawings in waist-deep water pulling large nets in. We turn the arc into a loop with a bag in the net’s middle, which the fish will swim into. The teams meet and start to pull the heavy net in. Soon, the fish naval air force goes into action — every mullet in the net starts flying over the floats to freedom (we use a special net for mullet; they are not important today). As the bag nears us we feel some big tugs on the net, the floats go down with some splashing in the water in front of us. We speculate: Snook, Redfish, Shark? (Stingray and Catfish in a net is a very serious situation; we need to free them without hurting them, or us.) We get to the bag, start rolling back the net to contain the catch in the bag so we can put it into a tub of water. The water begins to boil from the fish contained in the small space. This year we have been getting more new hatchlings than last year.

After Charley hit it seemed that the hatch was way down. In this bag we have an unusual catch: Snook, Gag Grouper, juvenile Red and Goliath Groupers, Spanish Mackerel, assorted large bait fish, Catfish and some blue crabs. We usually don’t have that big a variety in one net, not to mention the number of Snook and Grouper. We count each fish, measure a sampling of each species, all the large sport fish are measured, and after we release the fish, we take water readings. Most of the fish will be released, but some will be bagged and tagged for research. Then the net is gathered into the boat by two people in the back of the vessel while a third one helps keep the boat in the correct position. The net is quite heavy, often with sea weed and algae stuck in it, and it takes a lot of strength and energy to clean and gather it. Meanwhile, the Captain finishes the paperwork and gets the vessel ready to go. We start up and retrieve a small buoy that marks the spot where the bag started in the water. We take water readings here also, and then move on to the next spot I can not help but note the desolate look of the dead red mangrove. Charley’s destruction left many of the islands piled with decaying red mangrove. Unlike its relatives, the black and the white (it sounds like a fantasy movie), the red did not recover quickly and is still in very rough condition.

It could be many years before the harbor goes back to the lush green that I remember before Charley’s visit. If they are not destroyed by fire or hurricane, they will form the base for the black and the white mangrove to take hold. The red mangrove is the island starter; its seed pod floats with the tides until it finds an shallow spot. Then it sends long tap roots into the water. It is one of the few trees that thrive in a saltwater environment and can actually filter it. Other pods get caught in the same area and, before you know it an island has started.

The Calusa kept their inhabited areas clear of vegetation and many of the islands that are here today may not have been here five hundred years ago. In fact, there is a theory that they started many of the islands as fish weirs. These gray desolate islands now wait as nature takes it course, and if the reds rot and form a stable base, then the next wave of mangrove will come. The black and white don’t come until the island elevation goes up a little and, unlike the reds, the black and white are recovering. As we motor across the Sound I think about some of the time I have spent with these people collecting data. I remember having guest scientists on board doing specific research. One, in particular, was doing studies on cataracts on Redfish and Snook. When he pointed out that many of the fish we were catching seemed to have them. But that could be some sort of natural occurrence in the animal much like man. Only research will tell. We pull up to the back shoreline of Cayo Costa by Boca Grande Pass and we pull out the small net. With this net we gather small fish and can get a good handle on the year’s bait and sport fish hatchlings. We quickly gather in the net bag and try to get all the sport fish and rare fish documented and back in the water as fast as possible. Sometimes it seems impossible when the bag has a few thousand fish in it.

The information we gather will help regulate fishing without wiping out fish populations that are hard to bring back and, at the same time, make fish more plentiful for more fishing. It also gives us vital information about the fragile ecosystem that we are privileged to live in. As custodians of this paradise, it is our job to keep this beautiful and fragile ecosystem from destruction and try to preserve some of it for the future generations. Until next time … We are endosred and sponsored by RTM Kayaks and Canoes For additional stories about historical Pine Island, contact John Paeno Calusa Ghost Tours at 239-938-5342 or visit us on the web at or or see all our videos at by searching calusajohn If you have pictures or a story or legend of the sound to share, John would love to hear from you.


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