Slowly, paradise was being degraded. And the pace was quickening.
In many circles, Mosquito Lagoon has been referred to as the “Redfish Capital of the World.” Numerous line-test world records for redfish, as well as for spotted seatrout, have been established in the lagoon’s pristine waters. There is no residential development along the shoreline. No businesses, either. No agricultural runoff to poison the water. No causeways across the relatively narrow lagoon separating the mainland from the barrier island. The lagoon is unlike any other on the east coast of Florida. For 20 miles, lush seagrasses cover flats where depths average less than three feet. In many areas, the water is only inches deep. Redfish and spotted seatrout grow to legendary size. Paradise!
For years, anglers have flocked to the lagoon like waterfowl in fall. Boat manufacturers made boats capable of running in the skinny water so that previously inaccessible areas could be reached. Who needed fishfinders or stalking skills when all you had to do was run around on the flats until a school of fish “bumped” with a tell-tale wake? And so what if there was an angler in the vicinity who had quietly poled within casting distance of the fish that had just spooked? The fish would relocate and both anglers could move in on them when they settled down. At least until a third and possibly a fourth angler did the same thing. Then the school might get up and leave the flat. As fishing pressure increased, so did the tension between anglers. The fish felt the pressure as well, often changing when and where they fed.
Prop scars, shallow troughs dredged by propellers uprooting grass, cut across the flats and pointed the way to the best fishing areas. Seagrasses are the key ingredient to the lagoon’s success, filtering out sediment and providing shelter for shrimp, crabs and other small crustaceans. Grassflats are the feeding grounds for redfish and seatrout. As angler pressure continued to increase, so did the scarring. Aerial surveys showed the damage to seagrasses had become severe in many areas of the lagoon. Such scarring takes up to seven years to heal and the damage was increasing on a daily basis. It was time for action.
Most of Mosquito Lagoon, about 21,000 acres, is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Administration of the refuge is carried out by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A preliminary review by the agency concluded that use of Mosquito Lagoon had expanded more rapidly than other areas and changes were needed to minimize habitat impacts and improve fishing.
Authorities listened to concerns and proposals from recreational anglers, fishing guides, commercial fishermen and other citizens. Dorn Whitmore, manager of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, was actively involved in the scoping process. I spoke with Whitmore and he observed, “For any of the proposed solutions to be successful, public support was necessary. They needed to buy into and support it, as well as do some self-regulation.”
In the end, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to create two clearly marked “pole and troll” zones where the most severe prop-scarring had occurred. The two zones cover 3,143 acres of the lagoon’s 21,000 total acres. Buoys, some white and others yellow, mark the boundaries of these areas. Boats drawing more than 12 inches at rest are prohibited from entering either of these areas. Boaters aboard vessels drawing less than 12 inches must shut off combustion engines inside the zones, except in posted channels. From here, you can use electric trolling motors and non-motorized means of propulsion, such as pushpoles, paddles and drifting.
The first and by far largest pole and troll area is along the eastern shoreline at the north end of the lagoon. Beginning at the refuge’s northern boundary which runs perpendicular to Marker 19 on the Intracoastal Waterway (about a quarter of a mile south of George’s Bar and Parking Lot No. 5 in Canaveral National Seashore), a series of buoys runs south along the eastern shoreline for about five miles. The buoys have been placed where the shallow water susceptible to prop scarring falls off into the deeper lagoon. The line of buoys runs along a contour where water depths are about 18 inches. This zone completely encompasses a heavily fished area known as Tiger Shoals. As a concession to make the large area inside this zone more accessible, a running lane through deeper water has been marked with red and green day markers so that anglers may motor across the shoals and back toward easternmost areas.
The second pole and troll zone is along the western shoreline in front of the WSEG Boat Ramp about 3.7 miles north of Haulover Canal and directly across from Tiger Shoals. While the entire area west of the Intracoastal at Mosquito Lagoon is a slow speed zone, severe prop-scarring from the area of the ramp and leading toward the shoals signaled the need for additional restrictions. Again, a line of buoys running north and south for about a mile marks the boundary of this second zone. After launching at the ramp, boats must be moved beyond boundaries of the zone before combustion engines may be started.
“Adaptive management” is how Whitmore describes the approach to managing Mosquito Lagoon.
“We must be prepared to respond to changing conditions and information we obtain as a result of research and monitoring,” he said.
At this point, the new regulations have been in place only a few months but angler reaction has been very positive. A check with the East Central Florida Fishing Reports section of the Florida Sportsman On-Line Forum revealed several discussions of the new pole and troll zones on Mosquito Lagoon. Almost to a person, anglers believe the new regulations will improve the fishery, seagrasses and angler etiquette.
Captain John Turcot guides on Mosquito Lagoon about 200 days a year and has been doing so for more than 15 years. “The new zones have already proven to be beneficial to the area and fishing,” he notes. “Lazy anglers are not using the area as frequently and seem to be fishing elsewhere. Fish are definitely crawling up on the shallows with more regularity and seem to be much happier.”
He went on: “It’s nice knowing I can go to the ‘zone’ on any given day and the fish won’t be half as frightened as they once were. I also don’t have to explain to my clients why the flat is so chewed up with prop scars.”
I usually fish Mosquito Lagoon about twice a week and have already noticed several changes. Overall, fewer anglers are fishing the pole and troll zones. Those that are doing so willingly comply with
the new regulations. Anglers fishing from kayaks and canoes are becoming much more commonplace and many are even getting out to wade-fish. I am also finding more fish in the zones and they are more often than not in a feeding mood.F
Go Light in the Pole and Troll Zones
>Lighten up by eliminating excess tackle and gear you carry aboard your boat. If you are not going to use it, don’t bring it. If you have not done so, purchase a graphite pole instead of using a fiberglass pole. Make sure
trolling motor batteries are fully charged.
>Consider purchasing a canoe or kayak. They are relatively inexpensive, very light, and quite a few anglers are having a good deal of success using these small craft. Launch sites are quite close to the zones. Another tactic is to use your present boat as a mothership to haul a kayak or two to the vicinity of where you will be fishing. Then stake out the boat and make your final approach in the kayak.
>Learn to use the wind to your advantage. With very little tidal flow in the lagoon, the wind can assist moving you in the direction you want to go. Also, be sure to bring a rain jacket. Afternoon squalls come up quickly and moving out of the zones might take longer than you have come to expect.
Lagoon Fishing Regulations
All Florida fishing regulations apply, even though Mosquito Lagoon belongs to the U.S. government.
The following special regulations apply to anglers fishing Mosquito Lagoon:
Anglers must possess a current signed Refuge Sports Fishing Permit at all times while fishing in refuge portions of Mosquito Lagoon. (For practical purposes, if you are south of George’s Bar, you are in the refuge.) The permit is self-issuing and assures you have read and understand Merritt Island NWR fishing regulations.
You may fish at night from a boat in Mosquito Lagoon but you may not wade or fish from the bank after dark.
You may launch a boat at night from the following boat ramps within the refuge: Bairs Cove, Bio Lab and Beacon 42. All other refuge boat ramps are closed to night launching.
You may not use air thrust boats, hovercraft or personal watercraft in Mosquito Lagoon.
Anglers must attend their lines.
Commercial fishermen and fishing guides are required to obtain an annual Special Use Permit.
Camping and/or overnight parking, firearms and open fires are prohibited. Pets must remain on a leash or in your vessel.
To improve fishing and protect grassflats, two pole and troll zones have been established in Mosquito Lagoon. The zones are delineated with buoys. Within the zones, internal combustion engines must be shut off (except in posted channels) and vessels drafting more than 12 inches at rest must not enter. Vessels may be propelled by a non-motorized power source such as drifting, push poles or paddles. Electric trolling may be used through the zones. Boats may operate internal combustion engines only in the posted channels within the pole and troll zones.
For several days in advance of space shuttle launches, certain waters normally open to sportfishing may be closed. Questions regarding these temporary closures should be addressed to the Refuge Headquarters between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday (between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends), at telephone (321) 861-0667. Individuals found in Restricted Areas are subject to arrest.
Additional information may be obtained by contacting Refuge Headquarters on SR 402; (321) 861-0667, P.O. Box 6504, Titusville, FL 32782. See also: www.fws.gov/merrittisland
Late Summer on the Lagoon
Early morning, try topwater plugs for big trout around schools of mullet and near deeper water (two to three feet). When the trout bites slows (about 9 a.m.), the sun is high enough to see well into the water. At that time, switch to soft-plastics rigged weedless (floating grass in the summer) and target redfish.
Look for redfish to be spread throughout the pole-and-troll zones in multiple pods. In years past, the late summer “word” was that the pods would be made up of “onesies and twosies,” because the schools had been busted up over and over again throughout the day. This year we should find bigger pods of fish, from a dozen to as many as 50 fish, now that they are not getting run over and chased all day long. Approach them cautiously and from a distance, and try to pluck fish off the edges of the school. If they hump up and move off, don’t chase them—if you do, they’ll keep running. Sit still, right where you were when you spooked them, and they will likely come back in short order.
Most pods are made up of redfish in the 25- to 28-inch (6 to 8 pounds.) However, there are a couple of pods of reds that go 20 or 30 pounds. Should you be so fortunate to locate one of these pods (likely along the edge of the zone near the deeper water), try a piece of cut mullet on a circle hook. Cast ahead of their general direction of movement and wait for them to move over the bait.
About mid-afternoon, the bite slows and most anglers leave. In late summer, onshore convection currents bring warm, moist air over the lagoon that usually results in unsettled weather. Be mindful of sudden storms.
After the weather passes (early evening) the reds return to shallow water and feed aggressively, followed by trout as darkness approaches. Very few anglers are out at this time, but the fishing can be awesome.
Originally published in Florida Sportsman magazine, August 2006.