by Carlton Ward Jr. | September 12, 2018

Florida Wild: Back to School

Photography by Carlton Ward Jr.

I often use the phrase “hidden in plain sight” to describe wild Florida, especially the overlooked forests, swamps, ranches and wildlife corridors that make up our state’s interior. While our coastlines have much higher billing in Florida’s identity, our coastal nature can be hidden in plain sight too. Such is the case with the thousands of red drum that begin to spawn late each summer near the mouth of Tampa Bay, just a mile offshore.

I had the privilege of experiencing this phenomenon with biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who teamed up with commercial fishermen from Cortez using purse seine nets to catch, measure and release more than a thousand large reds in a single day. The commission tagged some of the fish with transmitters, and several were caught wearing transmitters from the previous summer. The tags help scientists discover where the red drum migrate.

I grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Clearwater, where pursuing red drum with spinning and fly rods became an early passion. Casting lines was my way to connect with nature. I later traded fishing rods for cameras as my passport to adventure, but I never lost my love for the Gulf and the wildlife beneath its surface. This photo shoot awakened the young angler in me. The first day, I flew over the netting operation in a helicopter and witnessed the enormous schools of golden scales flashing near the surface, with sharks lurking below and birds flocking above.

A day after my helicopter flight above the spawning grounds, I went back, this time on a boat. I split my time between standing on the boat’s deck and kayaking while deploying a camera on a pole underwater. I captured this photo from the deck, looking over into the net as it was pulled toward the surface. I was drawn to the concentration of life, color and form, knowing that school extended with that same density for another 20 feet below. Each fish was measured, sampled and released. For some released fish, the schooling instinct was so strong that they gathered outside the net as if they were waiting for their friends.


 — habitat—
Gulf of Mexico
 — season —
 — time of day—
1:00 p.m.
 — subject—
Red drum research conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission