Sophomore Derek Sheldon, who was raised in Plano, Texas, where bass fishing is popular, has been hooked on fishing ever since he was a child.
“It’s just a large part of the culture in Texas,” he said. “I can’t even remember the first time I went fishing, but that probably is because I was so young.”
Now at the University of Miami, Sheldon casts his fishing reel into Lake Osceola as a way to relieve stress once or twice a week.
Sustainability and safety
The time of day, tides and position of where he’s fishing in the lake all play a role in how many fish Sheldon catches. Out of habit, Sheldon typically fishes early in the mornings or in the evenings.
“That’s when people say the fish bite,” he said. “Lake Osceola has four tides a day, just like the ocean does. I haven’t quite learned how to fish with the tides here, but it’s definitely a game of timing.”
There was a span of two weeks where he’d catch up to six fish a day, Sheldon said. On the other hand, when the net that keeps the manatees out of the campus waterways is secured properly, there are fewer fish, he said.
When he does catch fish, Sheldon chooses to release them. But Jerald Ault, professor of marine biology and fisheries, said that eating the catch of the day once in a while can be OK, too.
“I don’t think there’s any big deal with eating a few fish out of there, but the downside of that is that, in South Florida, there’s a high mercury content that’s been detected in fishes,” Ault said.
Mercury can interfere with a person’s brain and nervous system. While Ault is not certain of the mercury levels in the lake, he said that it could be a potential concern.
However, students still want to consider the laws regarding limits on the size of fish that they catch, as well as whether they would need a shoreline fishing license, according to Ault. (Sheldon has his license).
Still, every third outing or so, a student will come up to Sheldon and tell him he shouldn’t be fishing. It’s a common misconception that fishing from Lake Osceola is not allowed, but this is not necessarily the case.
While the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook does prohibit students from swimming in Lake Osceola and the surrounding waterways, there are no university rules that restrict students from fishing, according to Tony Lake, the associate dean of students.
Nevertheless, UMPD officers said that they have asked people to stop fishing on campus. Coral Gables has a city ordinance against fishing on public property, but the waterways on campus are private property. People not affiliated with the university are not supposed to be fishing from the lake.
Sheldon has been testing the waters since he arrived in Miami last year, but it wasn’t until last month that he decided to create a social media community for anglers at UM.
The Twitter account – @u_fishing – increased in student traffic after Sheldon was featured in a recent Humans of UM post, but it is still currently most popular with commercial fishermen, fishing and tackle companies, and wildlife conservation organizations.
Sheldon ultimately hopes to create a network of fishermen and spark students’ interest on campus. Then, they can share photos of their successful catches with the rest of the online community.
“It’s having people not only brag about what they caught, but to be able to tie in how they caught them, when they caught them, where they caught them, so they can be more successful,” he said.
Sheldon, an ecosystem science and policy major, said that he drew inspiration from the way UM keeps a catalog of tree species on campus, with varieties labeled at the arboretum.
“I wanted people to post pictures and eventually try to catalog the majority of fish in the lake,” he said. “You’d be able to see the variety of fish and the type of ecosystem it is.”
Sheldon keeps eight fishing rods in his dorm room – six that he brought from home and two purchased in Miami – along with six tackle boxes and other gear, including pliers, line cutters and hook sharpeners.
Using these tools, Sheldon has caught an assortment of fish in Lake Osceola: snook, jack crevalle, mangrove snapper and even barracudas. He said he’s also spotted lots of Mayan cichlids, a striped fish species that comes from South America, by the labyrinth between Hecht and Stanford residential colleges.
“Every once in a while you’ll see the tarpon roll in, but I don’t really have the right equipment for that,” he said.
Ault said that the diversity of fish that can be found in the lake depends on the sources of water.
“It’s connected on the seaward side by canals that run out to the bay, so that means it’s going to be a lower salinity environment in there,” Ault said. “It’s not freshwater and it’s not the ocean, so it’s somewhere in between.”
Therefore, Lake Osceola features a mix of freshwater and marine species: largemouth bass, bluegill, mudfish, garfish, tilapia and more. The fish that students often see jumping in the lake are probably silver or black mullet, according to Ault.
Ault started paying attention to the fish in the lake when he was a graduate student at UM in the 1980s. Now, he still looks over the bridge and tries to see what fish are in the water when he’s walking to class.
“The water is turbid; it’s colored; there’s a lot of tannic acid from the barks of trees … which means most of the time you can’t really see that far in the water, but there are other days when it’s calm and you can see in further,” he said.
The key is to keep the lake environment sustainable by treating it well and fishing responsibly, according to Ault.
“The water’s clean. It looks natural. You see a lot of things – birds and fish, all the things that suggest people have treated the lake pretty fairly. The fact that you’re still getting fish out of it, that’s a good thing, and you want to keep it sustainable,” he said.