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How climate change affects hunting and fishing

February 18, 2017

Anyone who cannot see how our climate is changing must be locked up in a small room and have no contact with the natural world. I have observed this natural world since I was a kid, and that was more than 70 years ago. In that time, I have seen the Canada goose population in Delaware rise to unprecedented levels and then fall off only to be replaced by snow geese. The excellent flounder fishing we had at Indian River Bay has disappeared, and currently these fish are holding in the deep water out in the ocean. These are only two of the changes I have observed over the past 70 years.

When I began goose hunting in the late 1970s, we never saw a snow goose. My last year hunting on Snow Farm in Smyrna was 1989, and we saw exactly four Canadas while the snow geese covered up every available space at Bombay Hook and flew over our pit headed to Maryland.

While climate change was not the only reason the snows replaced the Canadas, it certainly played a part. Warmer weather allowed for better reproduction of snow geese and they were able to compete with the Canadas for food. The fact that we had knocked the dickens out of Canada geese for the better part of 20 years was another contributing factor. Today, the snows pose a serious problem, denuding vegetation on mud flats and pulling up winter wheat by the roots to the extent that we now have a special season with a 25-bird bag limit and rules that would make an old market gunner cry with joy. Unfortunately, snow geese are still difficult to decoy no matter how loud the electronic calls or how may hundred decoys you put out.

In a recent conversation with Capt. John Nedelka on the Karen Sue out of Indian River Marina, he told me the water temperature in the ocean is 8 degrees warmer than it was last winter. This is good news for him since it means the tog will be snapping, but if the trend continues into the summer, we may have to go out to the 30-Fathom Line to find flounder.

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I could count on catching flounder within a half mile from our camper at Bay Shore in Ocean View. I would go out around sunrise and have my self-imposed limit of 10 fish before the rest of the family was awake. Last year, the reports from Indian River Bay were so bad I never gave it a try. All my flounder fishing was done at the Old Grounds 15 miles off the beach.

Even when flounder fishing at Indian River Bay was good, the largest fish were caught in the spring and fall when water temperatures were cool. By summer, the water was too warm for the big fish, but there were plenty of smaller ones. Now even the smaller fish are out in the ocean.

As with the geese, there is more than one reason why the flounder fishing is so bad. We have had six years of very poor production, so the overall population of flounder is way down. Is it possible that the reason for the drop in reproduction is because the water in the Inland Bays is even too warm for the juvenile fish?

Up until 10 or 12 years ago, you could catch all the sea bass you wanted at the Old Grounds, and the area was covered up with flags marking the commercial sea bass pots. Flounder were a bycatch. Today, the best sea bass action is beyond the 20-Fathom Line, and commercial fishermen make more money on lobster than fish.

Then we have the new species. Spadefish, triggerfish and sheepshead have been caught in increasing numbers for the past 10 years. If Delaware anglers would learn how to catch these fish, I am sure we would see even more of them landed. Cobia are another warm-water fish that has become, if not common, at least more numerous than at any time in my memory.

If we could point to global warming as the sole cause of all these changes in our fishing, that would be great. Unfortunately, as with all things in nature, there are other contributing factors.

Flounder in Delaware Bay have taken up residence on the artificial reefs and are no longer found on open bottom. Is this because the bottom has been destroyed by conch dredging? Even these reefs don’t hold as many big flounder as they once did.

The bottom line is, climate change is here to stay at least for a while. Anglers and hunters need to keep abreast of the changes if they hope to have success. 

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at Eburnle@aol.com.

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