Orlando Sentinel -- Friday, September 28, 2001
By: Don Wilson, Sentinel Columnist
Dana Packard of Melbourne pulled off one of the rarest feats in Mosquito Lagoon flats fishing, with a little help from Tropical Storm Gabrielle.
She caught a Mosquito Lagoon redfish with 150 spots -- the second-highest number ever on a Florida redfish -- and 45 minutes later caught what was probably its sibling.
According to one marine expert, the odds of equaling her feat may be as high as 2.5 million to one.
Packard was fishing on the north end of Mosquito Lagoon with flats guide Capt. Scott MacCalla when she caught the unusual fish.
Blake said heavy rain from Tropical Storm Gabrielle raised water levels in an area of Mosquito Lagoon normally difficult to reach in a flats boat.
"We were fishing in about two feet of water. The water is up so high [in Mosquito Lagoon] that it's a blessing," Blake said. "Normally this area would have had less than a foot of water."
When the fish first swallowed the live shrimp she was using for bait, Packard had no idea it would be any different from the 13 others she'd caught and released from the same school that morning.
Packard, 35, was born in Rockledge and "grew up fishing."
Packard tries to go flats fishing every weekend on Mosquito Lagoon. In several years fishing for redfish, she has caught hundreds of fish -- but never one like this.
Near the end of the 10-minute struggle, when she got a good look at the fish, Packard blinked, amazed.
"I've caught a lot of them with multiple spots. I never counted -- probably 15 or 20 spots at most -- but nowhere near the number on this one," she said.
Her next thought was she'd lose the fish and nobody would believe her.
"When I pulled it up to the surface, it flashed and I yelled "Did you see the spots on that fish?" I was hoping it wouldn't break off, because he [Blake] wouldn't believe how many spots were on that fish," Packard said.
She was using light spinning tackle with 10-pound test line, and in the next second her heart sank.
"When he saw the boat and took off and went down into the thick grass, I was sure it would break off and no one would see how many spots this thing had," Packard said.
Blake was standing on the elevated poling platform at the stern of his flats boat and could not see the spots on the fish.
"She saw the fish before I did and got quite excited," he said. "I had no idea there were that many spots until I climbed down and landed the fish."
Blake's first thought was of the fishing tournaments -- such as The Hunt for Reds in October to be held Oct. 6, 2001 on Mosquito Lagoon -- with big prizes for the redfish with the most spots.
"But even if that fish was caught in a tournament, it was too big to keep -- about 36 inches," Blake said. "I tagged him with one of my tags and released him."
Any redfish longer than 27 inches must be released immediately.
Packard continued fishing, catching another redfish with only a few spots.
Then, 45 minutes later, both Packard and Blake were stunned when she caught a fish with 63 spots.
"Usually, you get some with three spots on each side, and occasionally a 20-spotter," Blake said. "But to catch two fish with a total of 213 spots, that's unbelievable." The national record was a redfish with more than 500 spots caught in the Everglades National Park in 1996. The 7-pound, 26-inch fish had a spot on each of its scales and spots on it dorsal fin, something that's unheard of with the species.
Mike Tringali, a genetics expert at the Florida Marine Research Institute, said that redfish was a one-in-a-million offspring of two parents with the same recessive gene.
Tringali said a redfish with 200 spots was documented in Texas in the 1950s, but Packard's fish has the second-highest number of spots ever found on a Florida redfish.
Her catching the second fish was even more intriguing. Tringali said his best guess at the probability of her catching both fish in the same day "is likely to be between 1-in-500,000 and 1-in-2.5 million."
Chances are that the two fish had more than their spots in common. "It might be that the fish were related, were siblings," he said. "But we'd have to do DNA testing to confirm that."
He said although the two fish had to be released, clipping off a small part of a fin from each would have allowed the testing -- and would have been legal.
Blake had been fishing the school of a hundred redfish on Mosquito Lagoon for several days but had no idea it contained the two rare specimens.
The redfish that held the 11-year record in the now defunct Trader Bay Redfish Classic at Titusville was one with just 50 spots.
Tringali said he has heard of fish with 60 spots, but none that equaled Packard's other than the Everglades fish.
Biologists believe redfish develop the black spots, usually one on each side near the tail, as camouflage -- trying to make a predator think its tail is really its head. A fish can spare a chunk of tail, but can't get along with a piece of its head missing. Normally, the fish absorb the pigmentation, losing the spot, by the time they become adult breeders at 10 pounds or so.
Retaining them too long could be dangerous.
"Those spots are essentially melanoma -- skin cancer -- not a very good trait to retain on fish that live to be 30 or 40 years old," Tringali said.
Capt. Scott MacCalla
Mosquito Lagoon Fishing Guide