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Trout, Out and About

The disappearance of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon hasn’t meant a disappearance of fish, for now, at least.

Grass coverage has dwindled sharply in northern sectors of the Indian River complex, especially the Banana River, here. But anglers continue to catch good fish.

One plug, one cast, three giant trout on. First there is a battling seatrout. Then there’s two trout on there. Then there’s only one trout again. Then there’s two. Then back to one trout.

After his pals tried to help him, the original gator trout comes in alone. Sometimes a piece of floating plastic doesn’t stand a chance in Mosquito Lagoon. That’s how Jack found out there’s been something finny going on out there. The spring after the frightful water-darkening algae bloom was the best flat-out trout fishing we’d ever had. After decades of trying to figure out how to catch them on the flats, it didn’t matter. We needed only to know how to wade out there and cast. They had come to us.

Despite the fun fishing we were enjoying, the Indian River and associated Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River have been in a sad state of affairs for a while. Three or four years ago, this slender, 150-mile long waterway on Florida’s east coast was full of rich seagrass. But starting in 2010, the grass began dying off in unusual patterns, preceded and followed by algae blooms locals had never seen before.

There were alarming instances of pelicans, manatees and dolphins dying, thought to be connected to the algae.

The Indian River has always been familiar for its relatively clear water. Not so much, these days. In the past couple years I’ve seen it pouring out under the Melbourne relief bridges as tannic as the upper Suwannee. Dark water like this, over long periods, kills seagrass.

One shining ray in this murky world was that fishing held up pretty good. Many anglers experienced days like Jack and I did. “Where are the regular size trout?” Jack pondered aloud. “I think it’s pretty obvious,” I said matter-of-factly. “These ones here ate ‘em.”

Jack had been raving about the trout fishing for a couple months. He’d show up before dawn with topwater tackle, wade out and then hook trout exclusively between 22 and 30 inches. I’d just as consistently dismiss these reports as a steadily lengthening string of freak incidents.

Finally, I gave in. My boy Ely and his pal Jacob joined me. We slipped in under the radar, and for once I experienced exactly the fishing I’d been hearing about.

We strolled out there casting with no explosions at first. Then Jacob ventured out a little farther and we heard the first of many robust busts resulting in a bent rod and a 22-inch or longer trout.

Times I’ve fished here in the past, thick mats of floating grass out there eliminate topwater plug as a choice. This visit, it was only thinly scattered, so I stowed the weedless jerkbait and swapped in my Yo-Zuri Banana Boat. On my first three casts something hit behind the plug. On the fourth cast the buster pursued and finally nailed it. It was 18 inches.

When all was done and said, I had managed the only trout under 22 inches, all others landing between 22 and 25. The water was swarming with them. “You know,” Jacob postulated, “trout have a scarier mouth than piranhas. If they decide to turn man-eater…” “Yep, probably have to start wearing waders.”

Weedless-rigged soft baits like the one that duped this were the lure of choice back when the grass was heavy. They still produce fish.

Scarier than that, of course—and very serious—are the menacing algae blooms which have visited this waterway in recent years. Various algae species naturally reside in small numbers and like cancer, make themselves known when they multiply out of control. The more it gets going, the more it prospers as it thrives in the low-light conditions it creates.

An opinion commonly stated by exuberant young fishermen who lack the perspective to notice change, and the time invested to develop affection for a place: “Hey—the fishing’s still great out there!”

Mosquito Lagoon fishing guide Mark Benson, for whom the Indian River is an indispensable part of life, has painfully watched what was, become what is. He believes a major cause of the problem is the meddling of engineers, a profession pretty much batting 1.000 in Florida for regrettable projects.

Mosquito-control impoundments built decades ago by isolating wetlands are officially recognized as disastrous for the ecosystem. The dismantling of these impoundments has been authorized but implementation has been slow.

Benson points out that no redfish have been outright killed, but the loss of half the grass beds dooms much of their progeny, from this, a rare closed system of unique redfish.

“People are still out there keeping redfish like nothing’s wrong,” he says. He believes a moratorium must be placed on killing redfish until we learn more. If the FWC doesn’t enact a rule, then every fisherman should.

Working out of the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, the Gobler Group from New York has been studying the Indian River algae bloom to shed light on a bloom in the similar Great South Bay of Long Island.

Off Long Island, 1985 to ’87, algae bloomed and darkness crept along the sound bottom, devastating seagrass beds, which had nurtured scallops, larval fish and other species. The algae also hurt clams in Great South Bay, formerly the most valuable fishery in New York. This is a valuable warning about the future of the Indian River if we can utilize it.

Team member Florian Koch points to the impinging human population with its cesspools as a cause of the New York bloom, along with poor water circulation and removal of the bay’s clams. What we have in Florida that they don’t have in Great South Bay is fish kills. We also have pelicans, manatees and dolphins dying. Canaries in the coal mine?

Rodney Smith, longtime guide and passionate conservationist, weighed in on his view of the situation. “This is not new. It’s happened in the Long Island Sound, in Texas and now the brown algae is here. Of all the lagoons on the continent, ours is the most diverse. But it’s following the others into morphing from a seagrass-based lagoon to an algae-based one. As the grass goes, so goes this vast nursery for both the lagoon and the ocean. Right now we can catch 20 different types of fish in one day. That won’t be happening anymore unless we do something to turn this around.”

Jayson Arman with a pair of trout from Fort Pierce. These fish were taken on topwater Rapala Skitterwalks.

I asked Smith what he thought about regional impacts to his beloved lagoon. “The lagoon is dying from a thousand cuts,” he answered. “To name a couple, we have septic tanks and people growing non-native St. Augustine lawns that must be fertilized; nutrients from these sources eventually drain into the lagoon.”

Tom Van Horn is a fishing guide and close friend of Smith. “There is no one pollution point source in the north lagoon, but the south has the St. Lucie River which due to water flow manipulation has been disastrous.”

Van Horn echoed the exceptional trout-fishing reports Jack had been delivering to me, but suggested the fishery may have reached a tipping point. “Trout were great last year, this year way down,” he said.

Leo Hiles, Edgewater guide and fishing guru, has been on the northern Mosquito Lagoon since he was 14 years old—63 years ago. Hiles said he first noticed the brown algae in 2010. He suspects that nutrients—chiefly nitrogen—have been lying on the bottom for years, building up.

“Algae feeds on the nitrogen, kills the grass, no place for shrimp to lay their eggs,” Hiles lamented.

“Now they go outside to lay eggs, some larvae drift in but there’s no grass for them. Meanwhile manatees are running out of food so they’re getting sick eating this algae-toxified grass. It’s a mess.”

I asked Hiles if he had any suggestions for fixing the lagoon. He mentioned cutting ditches through low points along the barrier islands, to help circulate tidal water, but acknowledged the impracticality.

“They have to flush out the whole system and that can’t be done by man,” he replied. “Maybe a hurricane. But then the algae would come back anyway.”

As to the fish: “They’re in and out,” said Hiles. On behalf of the scientific community, Lori J. Morris, Environmental Scientist at the St. Johns Water Management District, expressed cautious optimism.

“The lagoon is not doomed. It is a resilient system having a tough time right now,” she said. “The seagrass beds in the northern lagoon are hanging on because the brown algae lets some light in and it’s shallow. The Laguna Madre in Texas went bad and seven years later it had come right back.

“These things go in big cycles. Sebastian is starting to come back. “Mosquito Lagoon grasses haven’t been devastated like the Banana River where two months of the more light-blocking green algae wiped out everything. This algae never reached the Indian River or Mosquito Lagoon although the Indian River is being checked for it.

“You can’t isolate one single human factor that could cause this. I think it is a natural cycle. In the northern lagoon the nutrients are mostly caused by decay of resident life. For example, from 2005 to 2010 the grass was going gangbusters. When that dies, it adds nutrients and helps create ideal conditions for an algae bloom. The south end, with its greater population, is more human input of algae food. Also the years of drought raised the salinity, which this algae likes. It will take years of rain to lower the salinity of Mosquito Lagoon, because it lacks tributaries to add large bursts of fresh water.”

Whether the terrific topwater trout action will continue this fall is anyone’s guess. If past years are any indication, it should. Schools of finger mullet arriving from northern waters typically keep these important east coast lagoons full of ideal trout forage until the first freeze. Local populations of the larger striped mullet will also be congregating in vulnerable areas. Seatrout commonly lurk near these mullet schools, where the swish-swish of a surface plug will attract their attention.

Jack and I will take every chance we can get to go after those trout, all the while keeping a hopeful lookout for signs of seagrass renewal. FS

ICE THE TROUT

Jayson Arman, who runs Thats R Man guided wading trips out of Port St.Lucie, offered some for cold-water seatrout action. His backyard is the Indian River Lagoon, but his pointers are useful anywhere spotted seatrout range in Florida:

- Slow your presentations during the winter.
- Add sound to soft baits, such as the XCalibur or D.O.A. glass rattle.
- Add scent—either a lure in which the scent is built in, or an applicant such as Pro-Cure.
- Downsize leader: Arman commonly uses 40-pound-test in summer, when big snook are likely. In winter, he drops to 25-pound-test.
- Downsize your fishing line, or make whatever adjustments you can to make longer casts in the clear water.
- Find shorelines with deep holes or trenches, where trout hole up regardless of tide.
- Schooling trout: Arman says he’s seeing fewer big schools. He thinks the decline in seagrass coverage may be causing trout to become more scattered. “In the past, we’d catch a trout in winter and know we’d found the school,” Arman said. “Nowadays, we’re walking more and more.”

Wading Access

Wading is a great, easy way to fish for seatrout along the Indian River and other shallow stretches of the Intracoastal Waterway. Wear some old sneakers or wading shoes, to protect your feet. Later in November, chest waders may be in order. For walking long distances, avoid bridges as the nearby bottom tends to soft.

Breathable waders and soft-sided tackle bags give anglers more mobility and by some reports they'll need it, to track down scattered fish.

Bring a 7- or 7 ½-foot light to medium spinning outfit rigged up with 8- or 10-pound-test monofilament, or equivalent braided line. Add a few feet of 20- or 30-pound-test monofilament leader. As noted in the main story, surface plugs are excellent for making long casts and working the flats to find fish. Also bring soft-plastic flukes or jerkbaits in the 4- to 5-inch range, along with 4/0 or 5/0 offset worm hooks—these limber, slender lures are great imitators of needlefish, mullet and ballyhoo, all key prey for larger seatrout.

For optimum action, be there before the sun arrives or just before it leaves, preferably with your back to it.

Biolab Rd. – In the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge east of Titusville. The road is crateredso drive slowly and pull over when you find your spot. Bottom is sometimes soft initially but hardens farther out.

Ulamy Park - Near the Ulamay Wildlife Sanctuary, Merritt Island. A little hidden gem. Wade to the dropoff.

Turnbull Creek – North Mosquito Lagoon between Oak Hill and Scottsmoor. Wade the vast flats spreading out from the creek and wade up into the creek. Sometimes trout and reds abound.

Eddy Creek – Go to Playalinda, the natural beach east of Titusville and drive down to the canoe launch at Eddy Creek. This is a deep hole great on cold mornings. Many people like to wade the perimeter.

Max Brewer Causeway (Titusville) – It has been called the Redneck Riviera. To hang out with the family and wade-fish too, pull over, unload your cooler and chairs, make everybody comfortable, then go fishing. You also can wade mangroves in the wildlife refuge.

Long Point Park near Sebastian Inlet– Walk the mangrove line wherever you find it or stroll out from the end of the road into a wide open space often chock full of just about everything. Try jigs and small spoons on the bottom.

Canaveral Seashore – Last parking lot down from New Smyrna side. There be redfish. There also is a nice sandbar out from Turtle Mound. The lagoon is beautiful around there.

Vero Beach – Wade the east shore just south of the north bridge, or the flats at the end of Oslo Road.

Fort Pierce to Jensen Beach – Many good access points along A1A south of Fort Pierce Inlet. Park along the roadside where safe to do so, or in designated lots at Bear Point or Vitolo Preserves

First Published Florida Sportsman November 2013