Empty Coolers

This past summer and fall the tackle shops in my hometown were experiencing a ballyhoo shortage and at times they were even completely out of stock for weeks at a time. How could this happen? – John Kostun


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Ballyhoo landings are made by harvesters using large lampara nets. Photo: DOUGHERTYPHOTOS.COM

The struggle is real and it’s an unfortunate story we’ve heard from countless anglers across the state. You once scoured tackle shop chest freezers for vacuum-sealed packs of ballyhoo with clear eyes, white bellies and zero discoloration, but now you’ll take whatever is available even at the risk of freezer burn and catastrophic washout. It’s always unfortunate when bait is in short supply, but you’ll be happy to know ballyhoo populations are healthy and in no way overfished thanks to sound conservation methods put in place by the commercial harvesters themselves.

Mark Pumo of Baitmasters tells us there are two distinct stocks of ballyhoo that move down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as temperatures cool to the north. Over 95% of the state’s commercial ballyhoo landings are made by harvesters in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, where these beaked baitfish gather over shallow patch reefs by the thousands and are captured with surface skimming lampara nets. While there has indeed been a noted shortage in tackle shops nationwide, there are several unrelated factors that have contributed to the inadequate supply.

We also reached out to Pat Lynch of Bionic Bait, which is one of the largest distributors of frozen baitfish in the marine industry. Additionally, Pat is the president of the Florida Ballyhoo Producers Association and helped write the rule on commercial ballyhoo fishing regulations. What we learned is that there’s not a ballyhoo shortage in the wild, rather like many other migrating species, it is the severity and consistency of winter cold fronts that dictate their need to visit more temperate waters. Basically, when baitfish are comfortable there’s no need for them to go anywhere.

In the Florida Keys, ballyhoo are commonly encountered along the shallow patch reefs of Hawk’s Channel. In typical years ballyhoo that move down the Gulf Coast enter Florida Bay and pass through the numerous channels and cuts to reach the fertile waters of the Atlantic Ocean. When warmer than average winters persist ballyhoo have no reason to leave Florida Bay, of which most is protected and closed to the commercial harvest of ballyhoo.

So the fact of the matter is that the ballyhoo are there, though they’re simply unreachable and last year’s haul featured unseasonably low numbers. Fast forward eight months and we are now seeing the results. Additionally, commercial ballyhoo season closes every year during August, so this is traditionally a time when there’s a shortage. This year was coupled with another poor harvest, and placed anglers in even more of a pinch. While the biomass appears to be healthy, their accessibility is the real issue.

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