We ran the skiff only 30 minutes away from the boat ramp before Rami hopped on the poling platform and began pushing us through the labyrinth of spartina marsh creeks. Evan, posted on the front deck, fly rod in hand, scanned the grass flats for any sign of the targeted species, Sciaenops ocellatus, aka redfish. This was no regular day fishing the creeks, though, but an unusually early flood tide for the season, and I was sharing a boat with two of the most dialed fishermen from the area.
Evan Tucker and Rami Ashouri of Cowford Conservation are two local anglers on the frontline fighting for conservation and representation of our local waterways. Jacksonville fishing is in a pickle for both recreation anglers and commercial guides who earn a living on the water. The St. Johns River has been on the brink of environmental catastrophe with countless issues contributing to a tumultuous outlook for the future health of the waterway.
“There’s really no organization in Northeast Florida that we feel adequately represents the interest of hunters and anglers of this area. We represent outdoors people in Northeast Florida as it relates to conservation, ” explained Ashouri.
Cowford Conservation is stewarding and responsibly taking care of our natural resources for the benefit of hunters and anglers in Northeast Florida, while still preserving Old Florida’s outdoor heritage. Currently, their top priority is the removal of the Ocklawaha Dam, but their long-term focus is on issues like irresponsible development of the St. Johns River and industrial expansion.
Part of the issue surrounding the health of local fisheries has to do with the popularity of fishing in Jacksonville. Some believe overfishing and irresponsible fishing practices to be the major negative contributing factor, but it’s quite the opposite. Localism and “protecting” a favorite fishing spot has made it so only a few can regularly access sensitive areas. This lack of access makes conservation attempts feel futile as there’s minimal support drawn from the relatively small, outdoorsmen community locally. Cowford Conservation believes increasing fishing traffic and helping curate the idea of Jacksonville being a destination fishery could have major impacts on conservation attempts in the future.
“I think it’s important to have people coming here to fish regardless of what the situation is. If there’s not enough interest in having the resource available, then there’s not going to be enough interest in protecting the resource. And it’s a catch-22, of course, because nobody wants to have more pressure in their favorite fishing spots,” Ashouri explained. “On the flip side, the more people use it, the more people there are to voice their concerns when there is an outside threat. I think with the way things are going in our state, and in our area, we’re gonna need additional voices and whether that brings more pressure to your spot is becoming less relevant.”
As advocates for local sportsmen and waterways, Cowford Conservation has been making waves nationally through the Cowford Redfish Tournament, an annual event highlighting the resources and beauty of the area. Plus, proceeds from the tournament are donated to local nonprofits like St. Johns Riverkeeper. October will be the third installation of the tournament which has not only brought anglers from places as far as Colorado to the area, but also caught the attention of major players in the fishing industry. The tournament focuses on bringing attention to the area’s flood tide fishing, and that’s exactly what we set out for: a true flood tide experience.
In Florida, flood tides are unique to Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Due to the way tides are funneled along the Atlantic Bight, Northeast Florida experiences extremely large tidal ranges, at least in comparison to the rest of Florida. For example, the Gulfcoast’s average tidal range is one to two feet whereas Jacksonville averages around four feet or more. Other states along the eastern seaboard experience flood tides, but nowhere else in Florida boasts the ability to float your boat where it shouldn’t be: deep in the usually dry spartina grass flats. During these flood tides, water “floods” shallow creeks covering the grass flats that fragment the water freely flowing through the marsh. The extra couple inches of water blanketing the spartina allows water-bound predators, like redfish and sheepshead, to slither their bodies into the flat to hunt crustaceans like fiddler crabs and snails.
Flood tides create a food buffet for game fish while also creating a unique opportunity for anglers to catch these fish. When these fish push onto the flats to feed, oftentimes the only indicator of their presence is sighting a red tail poking out of the water. These fish have mouths on the bottoms of their head, so when they’re feeding they’re forced to lift their tails out of the shallow water in order to get their mouths down into the mud and grass. As Tucker claims, “Flood tide fishing is as close as you’ll get to hunting while on the water.”
We ran Evan’s boat this evening, an Orvis and Hell’s Bay collaboration that produced one of the most capable skiffs I’ve ever stepped foot on: a perfectly dry ride (my camera says thanks) and the ability to float in mere inches of water despite a giant outboard mounted on the transom (it cruises over 40mph with a solo sailor). As luck would have it, Evan won the $50,000 boat on a $50 raffle ticket. (I’m truly honored to have actually met someone who won one of those raffles.)
With Rami on the poling platform and Evan on the bow, we worked our way through the seemingly homogenous waterway, but these guys knew exactly where the fish would be. The first flat we pulled up on was one that neither had fished before, but Evan found the spot while surveying the area via airplane. Rami perfectly nestled the bow into the spartina grass, and Evan was quick to point out our first tailing fish of the evening, which ended up being the only one that made it to the boat.
“Somebody that might have lived two generations prior to us goes out this spot, there were 1,000 fish there, right? And they could only catch 20 of them or whatever. So 20 fish was a fantastic day. And then the next generations, there might only be 800 fish or 700 fish or 600 fish, but they can still only catch 20… And it’s not until that next generation, that way down the road, all of a sudden, they’re not catching 20 fish, because there’s not 20 fish there to catch. And all of a sudden, now they notice it, but it’s been in decline for five generations,” said Ashouri. “The next generation thinks that [catching] 10 fish is a great day, and the next generation thinks that five fish is a great day. And so I think that’s what we’re seeing here. You know, there’s plenty of people that say, ‘Well, I still had an awesome day. I mean, I caught 15 red fish today.’ Well, your grandfather might have said, well, I used to catch 50 in that same spot. And so it’s hard to see it all the time, because you got spots, and you see plenty of bait. But is that the same situation as what was in the past? Is that the canary in the coal mine?”