This was not in any way a point the gentleman and I discussed, as I truly just wanted to understand the process of harvesting trout in a commercial manner. What I came away with was much more than that.
There are two well-seen commercial trout fishermen in our area (Ft. Pierce to Vero Beach), and most anglers along the flats shudder when they see those boats in the area. It usually means exactly two things—the trout are indeed on these flats right now, but a great many of them will end up on ice in the fish market.
The gentleman I spoke with—for discussion’s sake lets call him Mr. Oliver, is a 5th generation Floridian—which makes him a certified Florida Cracker. (google Florida Cracker, it’s not a racial term). Mr. Oliver is also at least a 3rd generation commercial trout fisherman, taught the trade by his grandfather at age 11. Mr. Oliver did have a ‘traditional’ job, and is easily at retirement age now, looking to be perhaps 75 or so. It appeared that as he became a young man, he realized the difficulty in providing a good life by only commercial fishing and sought traditional work, only commercial fishing to supplement his family needs.
His beginning into commercial fishing is a charming story and I think worth retelling, as I paraphrase.
“When I was about 10 or 11—couldn’t have been 11 yet, my grandfather told me it was time I started to earn my way. He took me out on the water, along with his 4 brothers, and put me in a little boat with a sack of crab and a bunch of traps and told me it was going to be my job to catch pigfish. Everyone had a small boat, except granddad. He was in the big boat he called ‘the launch’. I knew how to break crab up into 4’s and bait the traps.
He came back in a couple of hours and asked if I had caught any. I was so proud to say “Yessir, I got a bunch”. He didn’t say a word, and just went into my bait tank and began taking out fish one by one and tossing them over the side. I ended up with less than half of the pigfish I thought I had. (laughs).
The next day we did the same thing, but this time granddad tossed me an empty box of camels—you know, the old kind with no filter. He said “All of them need to be this size (length). No longer, no shorter.”
Mr. Oliver said that is still the basic standard he uses today for the size of pigfish he prefers. Over the years, the technique for catching the pigfish has changed. His grandfather, and I can assume generations beyond, would catch jacks or ladyfish and bait crab traps with those. The crabs caught would be the bait for the pigfish, which were obviously in turn the bait for trout. Then after trout fishing, they would be fishing for the ladyfish or jacks to bait the crab traps again. A truly self-sustaining process, but Mr. Oliver chuckles and says that’s just too much work anymore. He uses frozen blocks of whole squid he cuts with a band saw into cubes about half the size of your fist. One block per trap, and he baits 15 traps at a time. Apparently the soak time on a trap will vary from day to day or location to location. About an hour and a half should be enough for any pigfish to find the trap. A ‘honey hole’ can fill up a trap in an hour, as Mr. Oliver smiles and says.
The traps themselves are similar to what we call pinfish traps. Made of galvanized hardware cloth and about a cubic foot in size. They have openings (funnels) on the four sides, but instead of what I am accustomed to seeing as a slotted opening, his funnels are more round or actually oval. The opening is about 2 ½” tall, I suppose to ensure no large baits enter the trap. Mr. Oliver says every once in a while a larger one will ‘gill’ and block the funnel.
Mr. Oliver said he only uses pigfish for bait—no pissywinks. Of course I asked, apparently a pissywink is the family term for pinfish. Mr. Oliver said “You ever notice that when you grab one of those things, they piss all over ya?” Mystery solved.
Mr. Oliver, now being retired from a maintenance position, says he only fishes at night anymore. He’s had several carcinoma removed through the years and is undergoing treatment on several others.
My grandfather was a farmer all his life and battled the affects of the sun on his skin as well.
When asked if fishing at night was any better, Mr. Oliver shrugged and seemed to indicate that he didn’t prefer it.
His traps produced ‘200 head’ this morning and he had them penned up in a secret location ready for his return when the sun set.
Not knowing the actual regulations on commercial seatrout I asked Mr. Oliver what he was allowed to keep. He said 75 is the limit and they had to be between 16 and 24 inches. I ‘think’ the minimum is actually 15 inches, but perhaps he set a standard for himself.
Mr. Oliver seemed very serious about the size of the fish and by his body language and tone it appeared he certainly was not a gentleman to break those rules.
Mr. Oliver’s grandson or wife rides along from time to time, and he was able to keep 150 trout when he had someone else in the boat. “My boat is not really set up for two people, so I am usually alone”.
I asked if what a decent trip for him was and he indicated that 30 or 40 would was pretty average these days. This could certainly be attributed to declining populations, or just an older fella not able to hit it as hard as he once did.
“What’s a trout worth?” I asked.
“2 dollars a head, and I don’t have to do nothin’ to ‘em” Mr. Oliver replied.
A quick calculation with 40 fish weighing 2 pounds each, brings me to 80 bucks a day for having to deal with all that baiting, trapping, fishing, ice, fuel. It’s pretty easy to see that this is not a game of make-it-rich.
I assume Mr. Oliver could see the wheels turning in my head—and they were. He quickly stated—before I could even ask, “I thought about that guiding business, but eh….”. I would have suggested that very thing. I had just spent only 5 hours on the water, and made $300 with my clients.
I could see in those seasoned eyes, that his part in this industry was certainly not for love of money, or even the ‘beer money’, but absolutely about the tradition passed on to him from his forefathers. I totally respect this in a place in my soul that every angler has.
To elaborate a little more on the actual ‘catching’ process, Mr. Oliver uses 2 techniques. One, I am frustrated to say I cannot remember the colorful term he used for it, utilizes a 15’ cane pole with 60 pound monofilament and his terminal gear on the end. Mr. Oliver says proudly he has his fathers cane rod on display at his home, and “that one will never get near the water again.” Another testament of his pride in the family traditions.
The other is a more traditional technique using a spinning rod.
On his spinning gear, this is probably a 6000 series reel on a rod that I would easily use for kingfish or big snook, he has spooled 20 pound test mono with a pinned popping cork above probably a 200 pound black swivel. To the swivel he uses what looked to be about 18” of 40 pound mono leader and a #6 Khale hook. He was very specific about the terminal gear, as I assumed this was the traditional gear he grew up with.
We completed our conversation with pleasant well-wishes and bidding each other the traditional anglers good luck. I left the conversation feeling quite enlightened and educated. Not only was I now in possession of volumes of knowledge about this niche of commercial fishing, I also had the most precious and rare opportunity to peak into the history of Florida angling and a chapter in the life of one of the families that helped make this state a most excellent place to fish.
My stand on game fish status for trout is not changed. But for those like Mr. Oliver, who fish to purely continue their family traditions, I am hopeful their stories don’t fade away. I will plan to visit with him again if given the opportunity. I have a strong feeling he has many stories he could share.