Inshore fishing keeps Florida anglers’ business afloat

Pensacola, Fla. (AP) – Big boats, deep water and red
snapper.

Those three things have been a magic combination for generations
of Gulf Coast charter fishermen, who made their living putting
tourists on fish out where the emerald waters fade to blue.

But the rough seas of recession, gas prices and regulations have
sent many charter operators scrambling for a way to weather the
storm.

Many have shifted their focus to inshore waters, where they can
run smaller boats and shorter trips at a fraction of the cost.

As the recession deepens, they may have found a way to keep
their heads above water.

“There’s a better future in inshore guiding,” said Chris
Phillips, co-owner of Hot Spots Bait and Tackle in Gulf Breeze.

Back in the late 1990s, Joe Madden, 64, would spend 170 days a
year running deep-sea fishing trips in his 65-foot custom boat.

“It had twin diesels, and all the amenities: air conditioning,
hot water, a full galley. It slept 14 people downstairs and 10 to
12 upstairs,” said Madden, a 33-year veteran of the charter
industry.

But in 2002, he jumped ship.

“I saw the handwriting on the wall, and I decided to sell by
boat, my business, everything,” Madden said.

Madden said he was devastated by increasing fuel costs, which
add up quickly on a boat that consumes 1,300 gallons of diesel
every five days. New regulations further compounded the problem,
increasing the cost of permits, lowering bag limits and shortening
red snapper seasons.

Last year, citing concerns of overfishing, the National Marine
Fisheries Service shortened the offshore red snapper season to two
months in federal waters.

“The price of everything went up, and the number of fish you
could catch went down,” Madden said.

Trips along inshore bayous and bays are helping many captains
pay the bills.

Inshore guides generally carry up to four clients at a time on
smaller, 20-25 foot bay boats, said Paul Redman, president of the
Pensacola Charter Boat Association.

The smaller groups bring in less money per trip – $400 to $500,
compared to $1,500 to $3,000 for an deep-sea trip – but the
expenses are lower.

Redman said inshore charter fishermen now outnumber offshore
operators 3-to-1 in northwest Florida.

“It’s exploded,” Redman said.

Inshore charter fisherman Wes Rozier, 47, said he usually spends
less than $20 per trip on fuel, and he avoids slip fees by storing
the boat on a trailer in his garage and towing it to meet customers
for fishing trips.

By fishing for several species of fish – including speckled
trout, Spanish mackerel, flounder and pompano – inshore fishermen
can run trips year-round, Rozier said.

“The only two days I don’t fish are Easter and Christmas,”
Rozier said.

Rozier said he has noticed the increase of inshore guides in
recent years. In the 1990s, he said, about six inshore guides
shared the water between Pensacola and Navarre, but now there are
more than 35.

Phillips of Hot Spots Bait and Tackle said another benefit of
inshore fishing is less expensive prices for customers, who are
also feeling the effects of the economy.

Hot Spots only offers inshore charter trips, and Phillips said
that when potential customers call to compare his services to
offshore trips, he gives it to them straight.

“I don’t try to veer them one way or the other,” Phillips said.
“I just explain what offshore is and what inshore is. Then you tell
them it’s $400 versus $1,400, and they become very interested in
inshore.”

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