Sandy and I had no intention of delivering two
thousand dead fish to Jim Tucker, but we did. He
wanted them bad...so, he got them bad. We may be
forever known as "fish killers." Maybe we shouldn't
dwell on the dead ones but those we were able to get
to him alive. There were about 6000 of them. But,
will anyone remember us for that?
This episode in my "after Saudi" life started a long
time ago - before Saudi. About the time I was leaving
in '95, Tucker and a biologist named Dennis Peters were
cooking up a plan to raise and release redfish into the
wild. I watched this go on back here on visits and in
Bill Campbell's writings and always wanted to be a part
Redfish are a type of "Drum" that live in the Gulf and
roam the bays here. They grow up to 50 pounds or so.
They have a distinctive spot on their side near the tail
and a pink/beige/gold color. They are a sport fish only,
now recovering, as the famous "blackened redfish" craze
of New Orleans nearly wiped them out - along with over-fishing,
declining habitat and spreading pollution.
They are not fished commercially now. They can't be sold
anymore. Sport fishermen are limited to a couple a day
and then only between something like 18 to 28 inches.
The rules change every year but they grow fast and
right now are on the increase, especially in the
larger sizes. Tucker and Dennis have helped that
a bit and will do more. I recently watched one
cruise by me while standing in knee-deep water
fly-casting. It was so big I got my #13-pound
leader out of the way so I would not lose the fly.
While I was in Saudi the two fish farmers, in the
only private citizen program we know of in Florida,
raised, tagged and released 1500 six-inch redfish.
There is little known about most pelagic fish raising
and almost nothing past the fry stage, especially the
redfish. Gulf Power releases millions of little fish
but does not get them past the mortality rates associated
with the two inch to adult stages of life. Gulf Power
raises and releases fish because the nuc plants kill
millions of fish in the cooling turbines associated
with their operations.
Tucker's excuse for this passion is that he has eaten
an estimated 25,000 fish in his 63 years and he wants
to repay nature. I am sure Gulf Power does it out of
the same sort of conscience too. Actually Jim loves
any animal and especially babies. He gets more bang
for the buck with this scale of project than rescuing
some litter of kittens or motherless hatch of ducklings
(these he does regularly, along with saving anything
that crawls which is hurting). This action come from
a retired Army Ranger of fearsome reputation as a
trained killer. He also has a boat marina with space
to keep the fish pens...giving up four large boat slips
to support the pens he built.
Dennis has a passion also and a history of raising fish.
Ichthyologist is his label and energy his tools. He
works for a local contractor now (the State before,
until they decided not to have a biologist on our bay)
in doing environmental studies, I think for keeping the
US government within the EPA laws. This side effort
goes beyond just maintaining what is left of nature
and into rebuilding it. He, like Tucker, donates all
that goes into this.
The rest of us are bit players and help when we can.
Sandy Zevin got drawn into this at the last moment
because he has a big trailer and truck to pull it.
The 8000 fish, due to delays, had grown to a size
that they and their support system reached two tons
in weight. And the season for starting an effort
like this was waning. Sandy and I might have eaten
a bunch of fish in our years judging by our girths.
Sandy did say he would do most anything to help
I just happened into this out of interest and offering
to keep Dennis entertained on the fish hauling trip
to and from Crystal River. Besides, my mom would
approve of this action. She lives in California but
cares about all things living and most things I do.
I have no special talents to add to this program but
have always wanted to be involved with helping mother
nature. My fly-fishing could also be affected in a
Every time Dennis set up a run a hurricane came along
to delay it. The first batch was one inch long,
perfect for a pickup with some coolers to carry them,
when "Earl" caused the hatchery to release them before
flooding over into the fresh water ditches. The second
batch was that size when "Georges" started its' binge
of damage. They grew to two and half inches in the
two weeks it took to get a third trip plan together
and the water here in the bay to get back down.
In the end, Dennis could not get free from work leaving
Sandy and I to the trip. He did set up the truckload
and the tanks (borrowed from local seafood sellers)
with support systems. Gulf Seafood and American
Seafood were very interested and supportive in this effort.
This could only help them on the long run.
Sandy and I took off at 0300. It was to be about six
hours each way. The drive down was pleasant. Sandy
had to be coaxed into sharing many of his life's flying
stories but I got some out of him. His truck is very
comfortable and well appointed. He is a long distant
boat-hauler, among other things, in his "after fighter
pilot" life. He claims electrical gadgets flummox him,
but there are few he has not attained and put on the
truck. He has fifteen gears out of two transmissions
and no less than five different ways to select each gear.
That explanation took the better part of the run to
Tallahassee. I was not trusted to drive after dozing
off during an intricate 12th to 13th gear discussion.
Arrival at the hatchery was on time and we got a tour
of the place from the guys running it. I went with the
catching crew and helped gather our riders. The pools
were about one-acre four-foot deep ponds. The guys
coaxed the fish to the corner with food and surrounded
them with a big net. I'd hate to see what pool of
ten pound fish were like during feeding. These were
not hard to attract with terrible smelling food pellets.
The fish were scooped into five gallon buckets that were
half full and pre-weighed, re-weighed and put into the
tanks on the trailer until we figured, by average weight
estimating, that there were 4000 in each tank. It took
about two hours including the setting up of the support
system. The little guys were anti-biotic protected and
then doped to slow down their activity level so they
would not use too much oxygen.
The "system" was why I was there since Dennis chickened
out. In the rear tank was a sensor that detected
milligrams of oxygen per liter. I had a meter in
the front seat to read that. There was not sensor
in the front tank and that would have to be estimated.
In each tank was an "oxygen defusing rock" connected
to individual tanks in the back seat of the truck.
The two tubes and one wire were lashed together and
ran about 30 feet along the trailer up through the
fifth-wheel hitch and into the back window behind me.
All I had to do was keep the two tanks at a perfect
breathing level for the fish. This jury-rigged
system and my limited capabilities would be the
problems that would caused us to be the "killers"
of many of Tucker's babies.
By eleven AM we were on the road headed home. We
thought our only problem might be getting through
the agriculture inspection station since we had paper
saying the fish were disease free but not the permit
to have game fish in possession in amounts greater
than daily limits or in sizes outside of "keepers."
At a $500 fine for each, we could see a minor problem.
When we passed that hurdle (the guy at the station
was sleeping) success seemed assured. Not so fast
Sandy soon noted a loose tube flapping in the breeze
while checking the load in the mirrors. It had been
about 15+ minutes since I had last unhooked and checked
the tanks in the back. I could only monitor the rear
tank while sitting in the seat. A quick stop confirmed
the hose to the front tank had come apart at a
connection that was not clamped properly. The
O2 tank for that lead tank had run to zero. When
I had asked the hatchery guys how long the fish
would live without the O2, they said, "not long."
"Not long" might have already run out.
We re-hooked the connection but had to get O2
flowing back to the front tank fast. We did not
know what it took to kill that fish but 4000 of
the little suckers in about 200 gallons sucked
it down quickly. I noted the back tank's solution
was at about 8 mg/l and changed the connection to
the front tank and upped the flow. Sandy raced
towards the next town of Perry while contacting
the guys at the hatchery by car phone. I watched
the back tank deplete while guessing the status
in the front one.
The guys said 3 mg/l was the minimum for survival
in the monitored tank but too much could be fatal
also. Keep it below 10. Great, how would we know
if the front were killed from too little of too much?
They might already be dead so we were going to make
sure the back tank made it though this.
Sandy, on the car phone, found a new source of gas
for our depleted supply at a welding supply shop in
Perry, Florida. Of course, communication between
humans and the normal screw ups in that came into
play. The guy got it in his mind we were coming
from the North and gave us backward directions
delaying us some. That was not too bad in the Comm
arena as Sandy started out with the 411 operator
asking for "emergency oxygen" and not mentioning
it was for some stupid fish. When he said something
about 4000 victims she was starting into high dither.
For a bit I expected to have to explain the "over
limit" problem to some guys with lights on the tops
of their cars.
I was getting into a pattern and figuring out a
switching time of about 16 minutes when we got to
the shop. Before arriving we finally found Dennis
on the phone and let him know what the emergency
plan was...and also thanked him "very much" for
the chance to serve. He was in approval of our plan,
sort of, and said he would be by the phone this time.
Perry welding supply shops are well stocked and
steadfastly run, at least this one was. They are
not ready for two fat yelling maniacs with 4000
gasping fish to show up at lunchtime on a slow
Thursday morning. I am sure we left them with
the "story of the day" for the corner café by
the time we left.
The rest of the trip seemed almost boring compared
to that hour of panic. I got the back tank flow
steady at 8 mg/l and switched that bottle to the
front tank and then re-calibrated the other bottle.
Of course the two bottles were not the same type
of regulator set up, but eventually all was in balance.
We cruised the way home with a quick stop for food,
one for honey buying and any number of stops for
Sandy to "check the trailer." He did this from the
bushes beside the road most of the time.
Arrival was at 530PM to a crowd of waiting onlookers,
ages from two to seventy two. The youngest was Hampton
Tucker to the oldest Sidney Rosenbaum. Sandy and I
looked on as the back tank was opened and found to
have no casualties. The babies were so excited to
be there that they were leaping over the side. Hampton
and his sister were scrambling around catching the
little guys and putting them in the netted pens in
the sound. The kids and the fish were about the same
Opening the front tank brought a gloom to the party.
There were about 25 floaters…not too bad considering
the events of the trip. When I scooped into the bottom
the whole scoop was full of lifeless little bodies.
They looked so bad mouth-to-mouth CPR was too late.
I would have done it. I felt sick. The attention
was on the rear tank but the bubbles were still left
on the front tank.
The rear tank was emptied 50 fish at a time into a
bucket then into the pens. Nobody would look me in
the eye; I felt that way at least. The trailer got
unhooked. Sandy and I left feeling a little low,
as the work was still ongoing. It was a good effort
on our part but we just did not get the job done.
I went to bed feeling like a mass murderer. It
did take only seven seconds to get to sleep though.
At least guilt does not slow that down when really
Good news found me in the morning. The Daily News
had an article. The front tank was found to have
had some survivors after all. Perhaps they got too
much O2 and came out of a stupor after we left. The
paper showed a picture of Dennis scooping a net into
a tank and told of Tucker's passion and the project.
There were 6000 alive and swimming in the pens. Thank
God they did not mention the loss of the 2000 and the
names of the guilty. You can save 6000 fish but let
a little gas and you will be known as "stinky."
Perhaps our deeds will stay in the background.
Sandy called later to give me the news of the lessening
of our crime and then Tucker told me later that once
all the live ones were recovered from the front tank
they left the dead ones and some water sit over night.
In the morning he found one little fish alive and
swimming among his dead siblings. Jim picked him
and caressed the poor little guy. He was carefully
placed in with the live ones with "medal of honor"
status for the horror he survived. The genes of
that one needed to be saved.
Next spring, hopefully, 6000 eleven to fifteen inch
fish will join our bay and estuaries. There will be
more losses, there are always some, but even with the
25% up front loss they may beat Mother Nature. That
is part of what tagging and tracking this batch is
hoping to find out.
There will be more fish transporting and we will have
learned from this fiasco. My bet is we will do better
next time...and I bet Sandy and I will not do it alone
Happy fishing! Try the "catch and release" method so
Jim doesn't need to do this so often and you don't
feel guilty for eating too many in your life. ~ Capt Scud Yates