Imagine poling across a wide flat in the Florida Keys and seeing hundreds of bonefish—cruising and tailing, in big schools and singles and doubles. To those anglers who have experienced the tough, technically demanding fishing in the Keys in recent years, such a vision sounds like a fairy tale; everyone knows you have to travel to the Bahamas to see bonefish numbers like that. But according to the old-timers lucky enough to have fished the southern tip of Florida in the 1950s and ’60s, things were every bit as good as they are on North Andros today.
So what happened? What could have caused bonefish numbers to plummet as much as 85 percent in less than 50 years? There’s no commercial fishery, and surely sport fishing wasn’t the culprit. In 1998, concerned scientists, guides, and anglers formed Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited to study the problems plaguing Keys bonefish and tarpon populations. Although the group’s founding members included a who’s who of saltwater-fly-fishing legends—Stu Apte, Chico Fernandez, Lefty Kreh, Sandy Moret, Billy Pate, and Rick Ruoff among them—its focus was on research and hard science. Marine biologists, such as University of Miami’s Dr. Jerry Ault, would be doing the heavy lifting. What anglers could provide was raw data, and among the first research tools employed were tagging programs for both bonefish and tarpon.
Over the last decade, the organization, now called Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, has grown into a many tentacled beast—providing funding for research, supporting conservation efforts, educating sport fishermen, working with regulatory authorities and legislators, and serving 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, and author, and 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.
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. He figured out fly patterns by deconstructing flies he’d bought, and once he had the basics down, he bout 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, barracuda, 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. (Editor’s note: Adams left Mote in 2013 to join the Research Associate Faculty at Florida Institute of Technology.)
It was also in 2001 that Adams began writing an eight-part series of articles for Saltwater Fly Fishing 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 now sadly out-of-print Fisherman’s Coast. (You can still find collectible editions on Amazon.com.
A Life’s Work
At Mote, Adams’s research has focused on snook. He is working to follow up on a study of adult snook on spawning grounds, which was the first to show that individual snook return to the same locations to spawn each year. The next step is to figure out how a fish finds a location in the first place, and then what makes that fish go back to the same location each spawning season. His graduate student is still working on juvenile snook in mangrove nursery habitats, making great progress at figuring out what makes these habitats effective for juvenile snook, and how changes to these habitats from coastal development will impact the ability of juvenile snook to grown and survive. The eventual goal is to join the research on juvenile and adult snook so that all aspects of the snook life cycle are known well enough that conservation efforts can be effective.
“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 responsible for oversight of the entire research program, as well as the organization’s staff and overall direction. He also keeps involved in research, such as bonefish tagging studies to identify bonefish spawning locations (colleagues figured out bonefish spawning patterns a couple of years ago) and to identify and protect fishing grounds. He’s also involved in Project Permit, a project sponsored by Costa to tag permit to figure out their movement patterns (believe it or not, that’s never been done before) in Florida, Mexico, and Belize.
He is also working with colleagues and fishing groups to implement a new juvenile snook and tarpon habitat restoration program to return some damaged habitats to productive status.
Adams has passed the torch on the search for juvenile bonefish to a graduate student who is working with a colleague at University of Massachusetts. The student is conducting research in The Bahamas to finally figure out what habitats are critical to the survival of juvenile bonefish.
There remain many mysteries yet to be solved, and solving them is the mission of BTT. 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, tarpon, and permit. 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 flyrodder,” 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 alright 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.
Sidebar: What about tarpon?
Bonefish aren’t the only inshore game fish at risk. Tarpon have also been disappearing across the Caribbean. “Look at Port Aransas, Texas,” Adams says. “It used to be tarpon capital of the world, and now it makes the newspaper when someone actually lands a tarpon there.” The reason that problem doesn’t strike many anglers as acute, he says, is that there’s a “sliding historical baseline”—each generation has only limited knowledge of the past, so they don’t have much to compare the present situation to. Since very little data on the species has been collected by scientists, we have to rely on anecdotal information, which further clouds the issues.
One of BTT’s main goals is to gain federal game fish status for tarpon. Right now, there are no regulations on tarpon outside of state waters. Since tarpon spend a fair amount of time in federal waters – this is where they spawn, they are often offshore during their seasonal migrations – making tarpon a federal gamefish makes sense. Federal game-fish status would also give BTT more leverage to work with other countries—especially Mexico—to change their regulations. Belize, which clearly understands the financial benefit to a healthy recreational fishery, has already established catch-and-release regulations for all tarpon, permit, and bonefish.
For more information on Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, visit the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust website, which is full of information about the organization’s work, its goals, and how anglers can help.