Long-time Mosquito Lagoon guide, Billy Rotne recently found himself faced with a choice of moral and financial significance: Continue adding pressure to a system in peril, risking shared responsibility for its fast-increasing decline, or walk away from a cherished location and dependable source of income in favor of protecting and advocating for its future. Rotne has dedicated his career to navigating all corners of the lagoon, putting clients of all levels of expertise on giants as they snake across the shallow water flats. That effort has earned him the pleasure of knowing the fragile ecosystem as few people do. More recently its given him a front row seat to its undeniable deterioration. Rotne describes the situation unfolding before his own eyes and his difficult decision to leave.
By Billy Rotne, owner of Tail Hunter Charters, full time fishing guide, aquarist, conservationist, and defender of the lagoon
I’ve spent my entire adult life working hard to be the best Mosquito Lagoon guide I could possibly be. I’ve put thousands of clients on reds over 30lbs and gator trout, with some truly incredible catches and memorable days on the water. I know(knew) every square inch of the lagoon, every sand spot, every island, every bar, every slough, and every flat. There isn’t a single place out there where I haven’t spent significant amounts of time. I knew the fish that lived there, why and when they were there, and how to catch them even in the worst weather, especially the lagoons bull reds....They are so special to me. I handle them like no one else by using a sling, I put so much care into their well being. The fish always come first.
Many of us have seen this beautiful lagoon go from a world class fishery to a sickening place that now causes us anxiety, anger, and depression in such a short amount of time that it’s hard to comprehend or accept.
It’s no secret that the fishing is nothing short of bad these days, and what else should we expect? The grass was the keystone species of the lagoon, and without that habitat, the ecosystem has declined to the point that it no longer can support the populations of fish the lagoon was famous for. I stress so much before charters, not only about whether I will be successful that day, but whether or not I even should be successful given the circumstances. I know where the last remaining tiny concentrations of fish are, and I’m forced to fish them over and over to have any chance at putting fish in the boat, along with the other remaining guides. They get fished so hard almost every day, as if the lagoons remaining fish can take that right now. We all race to our first spot so we have any chance of pleasing the clients, and then wonder where we will go next that will either have fish or won’t already have another boat on them. I remember a time when I was excited to fish or to run a charter, excited to share my favorite place with others, teaching them why it’s so important to respect the fish we catch. I would literally get shaky with excitement pulling up the ramp on a glassy morning and seeing no one there before me. Taking clients to a spot with so many tailing and crawling fish that they would get sensory overload and I’d have to tell them to just pick one to cast at. Choosing between several schools of bull reds simply based upon wind direction. Those days are long gone now, possibly forever unless we make progress soon.
I’ve had a serious back and forth in my own mind, asking myself “Am I too good at catching the remaining fish? Is it right to use my skill sets in a dying lagoon, putting more pressure on the fish than the average angler ever could, even with all the precautions I take?” The conclusion I’ve come to is yes, I am putting too much pressure on the last remaining fish, which are maybe 10% of the numbers we had so few years ago. When I’m not pressuring the few remaining groups of fish that I know of, I’m poling barren flats looking for the past, seemingly wasting clients time. I am not ok with either of those things, putting too much pressure on what little remains, or offering anything less than what I consider to be a charter worth the money I charge. Neither the lagoon or myself can take that stress.
Because of this, I’ve decided to stop running charters in the lagoon until, and even if we ever see some type of recovery. I will maintain my permit status and I will run the charters I already have booked with clients who already have rooms rented, vacations planned, etc., but all future charters I book will be for the areas adjacent to the lagoon. I cannot accept the dichotomy between the effort I put into saving this place and the effort I put into pressuring the last remnants of the ecosystem. This is simultaneously one of the hardest and easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I’m walking away from something I put everything I had into for so long, but I’m doing what I feel is right.
Make no mistake, I am not giving up or turning my back on the lagoon. My efforts to save this place are derived from my personal passion for it, and monetary gain is not the priority. I will still fish the lagoon myself, but with fly rods only and mainly just to keep a close eye on what’s happening out there. I knew this day would come from the first time I saw the algae bloom in 2011, but it’s hard to accept this as reality.
It’s critical that we all do everything we can to minimize our impact on this ecosystem we all so deeply cherish. Please practice catch and release, especially for clients if you’re still guiding out there. Their money doesn’t mean they deserve to keep what little fish remain. Please have foresight and think about what’s happened and what’s going to happen in the future at the rate of decline we are still in. Hope is the only thing we have left now, everything else is gone.
Thank you to my clients who I enjoyed so many years of great fishing with, and thank you to everyone who is fighting to save this place with me.
All photos contributed by Billy Rotne