- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2007

Talk about a love-hate relationship when you think of the famed Louisiana Cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme. He’s a very large man who made our collective mouths water with a succulent blackened redfish dish that was created in his renowned K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the 1980s.

Its popularity spread like wildfire up and down the Gulf Coast states, even crept into Atlantic coastal states wherever redfish were found (including Maryland and Virginia), and before you knew it, the redfish — aka red drum, channel bass, and names not suited for tender ears when it breaks a fishing rod or rips off a $5 lure — almost ended up on the threatened species list. Prudhomme felt so bad, he appeared on television asking people to use any firm-fleshed fish to prepare blackened dishes. Heck, he even pushed a blackened prime rib that is to die for, it’s so good. Anything to stop folks from going after the spot-tailed redfish, Prudhomme hoped.

The recent lack of red drum couldn’t be blamed on the mid-Atlantic’s commercial fishermen because the redfish is not (yet) an economically worthwhile catch for local netters. There simply aren’t enough of them. But watermen in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and other Southern redfish hangouts nearly did in the fish. It was a matter of demand, unceasingly followed by supply.

Meager rod-and-reel sporting catches of the redfish became the norm from Texas to Louisiana and across to Florida; complaints were heard in Georgia and South Carolina, and even erstwhile reliable channel bass producers such as the Outer Banks’ Portsmouth Island in North Carolina saw drops in sport catches.

Louisiana’s recreational saltwater anglers banded together and formed a state chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. They lobbied the state legislature, protested against the never-ending gill netting of redfish and eventually were heard by the politicians. The redfish began to get protection, especially the large adult red drum that had almost disappeared in the Gulf’s offshore waters.

In the mid-1980s, Florida’s sport fishermen, under the leadership of the Florida CCA, waged a mighty battle to protect the state’s natural resources. Eventually, the redfish was granted a “no-sale” classification, which in effect put a few commercial netters out of business because other species, such as the snook, also found protection.

More states pitched in and provided protective seasons and off-limits areas for commercial fishermen. Bingo! The redfish soon began to rebound.

Ask Maryland Freshwater Fisheries Chief Bob Lunsford, who nowadays follows a regular winter vacation routine as he and his wife, Pam, travel to Georgia to catch — what else? — redfish. They’re not interested in bringing home a cooler filled with red drum fillets; no, they want to experience the thrill of battling with one of the strongest gamefish there is and even the little ones can make your arm muscles hurt.

When the Lunsfords arrive in the Savannah, Ga., area, they get together with professional guide Scott Wagner, who prefers chasing redfish in winter because that’s when the water is clearest. He finds plenty of action in the tidal canals of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

“We’ve fished with Scott twice now and all I can say is that you lose count of the number of redfish [and spotted sea trout] you’ll catch in a half day trip. The reds run from 4 pounds to the low double digits,” Lunsford said.

Then there’s 31-year-old Arlington resident Michael Lee who recently went after redfish in Florida’s portion of the Gulf of Mexico, where not too long ago the noble creatures were in very short supply. “I fished near Fort Myers with Tracey Futch, of Shallow Water Charters,” Lee said, “and I plan on fishing again with him. It was great.”

Best of all, the local charter fishing captain “Walleye” Pete Dahlberg, a light-tackle specialist if ever there was one, finds red drum action in the lower Maryland parts of the Chesapeake Bay during late summer and early fall on a fairly consistent basis, plus his “reds” often are adult fish of more than 15 pounds.

Things sure weren’t always this good.

By whatever name we know them, may their tribe increase.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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