Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
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The more we understand about the habitats that gamefish live in, the better anglers we can become. Knowing something about a fish’s life cycle and behavior patterns, for example, will give you a better idea of when and where you’re most likely to find fish. After all, on any given day, 80% or more of the water doesn’t hold any gamefish. The challenge is to figure out which is the fishiest 20%, and that's what the Fisherman's Coast approach is all about. Can you imagine having the fly fishing gear of today 100 years ago, when there WERE fish in 80% of the water?
But the site is not all about the science of fishing. There are also trip reports, essays, photos, and more.
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I used to have a basic bio here, but then I was reminded that Phil Monohan did a great job on profiling me for American Angler magazine. So I now post that piece instead. Phil found out more about me than I knew.
Over the last decade, the organization has grown into a many-tentacled nonprofit organization called Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT). The group provides funding for research, supports conservation efforts, educates sport fishermen, works with regulatory authorities and legislators, and serves as “a repository of information and knowledge related to the life cycle, behavior, and well being of the species.” Such an effort requires a leader who understands the scientific concepts and the many different perspectives involved in any debate about the future of marine habitats. Since 2006, that man has been Dr. Aaron Adams, whose impeccable “street cred”—as a scientist, author, and avid fly angler—have helped recreational anglers make the connection between BTT’s research and what’s happening on the water.
Birth of an Obsession
Although he came to fly fishing relatively late in life, some formative childhood experiences laid the groundwork for Adams’s lifelong love of fishing and his powerful conservation ethic. Raised in the Baltimore area, he fished with his dad and uncle for bluegills and bass in the tannin-stained creeks of Maryland’s eastern shore, and he remembers being immediately fascinated by the aquatic world—an interest that would never wane. As he got older, he branched out to cast his line into Chesapeake Bay and the surf along the Atlantic coast.
But Adams’s angling education also coincided with the discovery of massive dead zones in Chesapeake Bay and the crash of the striper population. When he was in middle school, his father took him to one of the first public meetings—hosted by Congressman Sarbanes and Senator Mikulski—about the creation of the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Program. For a kid who loved fishing, hearing about the impending disaster in the bay drove home the importance of fish habitat and the need for strict conservation measures.
Dr. Adams (far left) leads a netting effort for juvenile bonefish (below) on Turneffe Atoll, where his research efforts have helped persuade the Belizean government to institute catch-and-release-only regulations for bonefish, permit, and tarpon.
Adams’s aptitude for science was apparent even in middle school, and by the time he graduated from high school, he knew that he wanted to study fish biology. By the time he graduated from St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland, he’d become fascinated by the saltwater marine world, and he headed to the Pacific to teach outdoor education on Catalina Island, off the coast of California.
For the next couple of years, his life revolved around the ocean. He spent time as a commercial diver in Santa Cruz, cleaning boat hulls and changing props. Next, he went to work for the California Department of Fish and Game, sampling rockfish catches at ports.
“That’s where I learned the ins and outs of scientist–angler interactions,” Adams says. “I had to make friends with the boat captains to get the data I needed.”
He returned east in 1990 to get a master’s degree from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary. It was during this time that he started borrowing a friend’s 6-weight fly rod to cast for bass on a lake near his house. He had always considered fly fishing to be elitist, something you did when casting at your exclusive trout club, but those solitary hours casting made him a convert. He bought himself a Cortland 8-weight combo and has never looked back.
After graduate school, Adams took a job as a fish biologist for the government of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Aside from offering a chance to live in a tropical paradise, his new position required Adams to explore the marine ecosystem from a variety of perspectives. He performed SCUBA fish censuses, sampled commercial catches, administered recreational fishing surveys, and analyzed data. He created a data-feedback program that allowed commercial fishermen to see the results of the data they provided and created offshore buoy fish attractors to take pressure off the reef.
At the same time, Adams got serious about fly fishing and took up tying, as well (see “Dr. Adam’s Flats Favorites”). He figured out fly patterns by deconstructing flies he’d bought, and once he had the basics down, he bought Lefty Kreh’s book Saltwater Flies. Although there were few places to get shots at bonefish, tarpon, or permit, there were plenty of other species available—bar jacks, barracudas, and small snappers. At first, he always carried a spinning rod and a fly rod on his outings, but the better he got, the less he used the spinning rod until he didn’t need it at all. He’s rarely picked one up since.
St. Croix was an important stop in Adams’s career as a conservationist. St. Croix had once been a bonefish paradise—baseball star and angler Ted Williams said that the island in the 1960s featured the best bonefishing he’d ever seen—but by the time Adams arrived in 1993, finding catchable fish was tough. In the late 1960s, a giant mangrove lagoon had been filled in to build an oil refinery and the locals began setting inshore nets. The bonefish population crashed and has never recovered. (To catch his first bonefish on a fly, Adams took an island-hopper flight to nearby St. John.) Although he did eventually catch all three “grand slam” species on St. Croix, Adams had seen how the destruction of vital spawning and rearing habitat could adversely affect fish populations.
After four years in the tropics, it was time to go back to school. Since Adams’s wife, Maria, had been accepted into the veterinary program at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Adams decided to pursue his PhD at UMass–Boston. He continued the research of reef fish he’d begun in St. Croix, and his love of sight-fishing led to him spend time chasing stripers on the flats of Cape Cod. In 2001, he completed his dissertation on juvenile coral-reef fish and received his doctorate. He and Maria moved to Florida, where he became Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Lab’s Charlotte Harbor field station.
It was also in 2001 that Adams began writing an eight-part series of articles for Saltwater Fly Fishing magazine called “Science for Fly Fishers: Examining the Warmwater World.” Instead of the standard how-to fare—tie on this fly, cast here, and so on—Adams explored the ecology and conservation of warm-temperate and tropical coastal habitats. It was a remarkable debut by an unknown writer whose impressive understanding of the marine environment and fly fishing offered readers an eye-opening glimpse of the world beneath the water. Adams eventually developed these articles into his first book, The Fisherman’s Coast (Stackpole).
A Life’s Work
At Mote, Adams’s research has focused on snook, trying to understand the causes of a long, slow decline in populations along Florida’s Gulf coast. He currently has two projects in the works. One study looks at the patterns of habitat use by adult snook during spawning season as a way to determine the effects of disturbances such as red tide or beach degradation on snook spawning (and thus future generations of snook). The other examines how juvenile snook use mangrove creek nursery areas—their diets, survival rates, and movement patterns—as a way to determine how habitat changes (due to coastal development) impact the ability of juvenile snook to grow and survive. The research findings of both studies have implications for habitat and fisheries management.
“I try to involve graduate students and interns in all of my studies,” Adams says. “It’s a great way to spread education. I also incorporate my research into the presentations I give at fishing clubs because the better educated an angler is, the better angler he or she will be … and the better conservationist.”
Within BTT, Adams is largely responsible for oversight of the entire research program, but he’s also directly involved in bonefish research. One of the astonishing things that the original BTT researchers discovered was how little is actually known about bonefish, tarpon, and permit. Although the species support a huge recreational-fishing industry, they were never part of commercial fisheries and were therefore not the subject of much scientific study. Biologists still don’t know where bonefish spawn, and since the organization was launched, scientists have discovered that what everyone assumes was a single species of Atlantic bonefish is actually three species.
In 2003, Adams started looking for juvenile bonefish habitat, where fish less than six inches long live. Biologists had already done a lot of work along sandy beaches in the Keys, and Adams added to the data by sampling many different kinds of habitat in the Keys, Belize, and southwestern Florida. The data revealed something that stunned the scientists: The juveniles and adults sampled were of different species. The vast majority of adult bonefish were Albula vulpes, but the vast majority of juvenile fish were Albula garcia. Since 90 percent of the adult fish in the Caribbean are A. vulpes, where the heck are all the juveniles? And where are the adult A. garcia?
These are still mysteries yet to be solved, although BTT scientists have some theories. It’s important to answer these questions because it will tell us which kinds of habitat must be protected to ensure the survival of bonefish. Otherwise, we risk population collapses like the one suffered by St. Croix.
According to his friends and colleagues, those qualities that make Adams such a good scientist are the same ones that make him a lethal fly fisherman.
“He’s a diehard, a purist, and very stubborn,” says his graduate school pal Bob Miller. “And as a scientist, he is uncompromising.”
To emphasize his point, Miller points to the story of Adams’s dissertation defense. He was scheduled to give a hour-long talk about his research on the ecology of juvenile coral-reef fish, followed by questions from the audience and his advisory committee. The night before this stressful and harrowing exam, Adams got severe food poisoning from some seafood. He was up most of the night vomiting, but refused to cancel his defense. Maria drove him, so Adams could hurl out the window. Looking very pale, he gave his talk with a bowl ready on the podium, just in case. According to Miller, despite being in obvious pain, Adams made the research sound exciting, and you could see him perk up when he talked about the conservation implications of his work.
He brings this same intensity to his fishing, says Doug Hedges, and some folks refuse to fish on foot with Adams because of his punishing pace and stamina. If there are birds working bait a mile down the beach, he has been known to sprint the whole way, leaving his companions in the dust, or he hikes them for miles across flats and through mangroves. It’s also not unusual for him to spend all night in bug-infested backwaters, sampling snook nets, only to jump into his kayak at dawn and chase tailing redfish.
“With his background in fisheries ecology and his knowledge of habitat, he’s just on a different level than your typical fly rodder,” Hedges says, “but he also has a patient and calm way about him that makes him an excellent teacher.” He does a little guiding—he earned his captain’s license in 2003—but his research schedule is so demanding that he rarely guides more than a dozen days a year.
“The line between fishing and research was blurred a long time ago,” Adams admits, and that’s perfectly all right with him.
His role at BTT puts Adams at the forefront of the battle to save the fish species that he loves to cast to. Aside from overseeing research, his duties include giving educational talks, training employees at lodges throughout the Caribbean and in the Bahamas to tag bonefish and tarpon, and meeting with fisheries managers. The knowledge that comes from the BTT’s various projects will help us understand the life cycles and habits of these fish, and allow us, as a society, to make better-informed decisions about future development and conservation. If we want to stop the long, slow decline of our inshore game fish—or, even worse, a St. Croix–like crash—we need scientist-anglers such as Adams leading the charge.
Philip Monahan is a former editor of American Angle
Dr. Adams's Favorite Flats Flies
Hook: Mustad 34007, sizes 2 and 4.
Thread: Pink Danville Flat Waxed Nylon.
Tail: Tan craft fur, barred with black permanent marker.
Body: Rootbeer Cactus Chenille.
Weight: Medium barbells for deep water, or medium bead chain for shallow water
Wing: Tan craft fur.
Doctor’s Note: This fly imitates mantis shrimp, and perhaps ghost shrimp, which can be abundant on flats frequented by bonefish. If I see mantis shrimp holes, this is my go-to fly for bonefish. This fly also performs well for permit. Mantis shrimp are able to change color when they molt, so match the fly color to the bottom.
Hook: Mustad 34007, sizes 1 through 4.
Thread: Pink Danville Flat Waxed Nylon.
Tail: Tan marabou.
Body: Tan Puglisi EP fibers tied in Merkin style.
Legs: Sand (with orange fleck) or pink Sililegs.
Doctor’s Note: This is basically just a Merkin with a few small changes. I adapted and simplified this pattern from a very effective pattern by Greg Vincent, of Pelican Bay Bonefishing on Grand Bahama Island, thus the name. One reason I like this fly is that it doesn’t have to be stripped, because the legs and marabou provide plenty of action in a falling or resting fly. This pattern is also been very effective for bonefish.
Hook: Owner SSW, 5315-121, size 2/0.
Thread: Black Danville Flat Waxed Nylon.
Tail: Two plumes of purple marabou.
Body: Purple Puglisi EP fibers, tied in as for a Merkin.
Doctor’s Note: There has not yet been any research on tarpon vision, but my guess is they can see well in the blue-violet end of the spectrum. They certainly like purple, at least in southwest Florida and in Central America.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.