Camp out on the best mixed-bag fishing in Florida.
By Jerry McBride
Hey Dad, you want a picture of this one? And Jen got a snook.”
Third time I’d heard this routine in 20 minutes. It was a flounder this time.
We’d beached the kayaks on the Indian River Lagoon spoil island half an hour earlier. We agreed—at least I agreed—that the kids would set up the tent while I built a fire and got lunch started. Mike and a fishing rod disappeared the second I went searching for firewood. Jenny struggled on with the 5-man tent, but when it rolled over in the 25-knot breeze, she headed off to either beat on her little brother for deserting her or just to stay competitive in the fish count. Probably a little of each—Jenny enjoys both sports equally.
You can’t yell at kids for going fishing. I mixed up a key lime pie and put it on ice while the fire burned down to cooking height. The pot of beans slowly simmered off to the side while the potatoes and onions began to sizzle over the coals. I popped a pair of plump pompano fillets into a bag of marinade, grabbed a rod and headed in the direction of kids catching fish. The tent could wait. A guy’s gotta have priorities.
The Intracoastal Waterway was expanded along the Atlantic seaboard in the 1950s to 125 feet wide and 12 feet deep, resulting in millions of cubic yards of coarse, dredged spoil material. In southeast Florida, it was expeditiously dumped in a north/south string of lumps adjacent to the channel the length of the Indian River Lagoon. Mangroves gradually took root along the rocky shorelines, and—voilà—a new fish habitat emerged to supplement lush seagrass and oyster beds. Over time, many of these islands succumbed to waves and boat wakes; submerged spoil humps shadow the channel from Stuart north, prime real estate for spotted seatrout, snook, sheepshead and pompano. But the vast majority of actual islands—camping on the above-water version is considerably more pleasant—survive from Fort Pierce northward through Brevard County.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) now manage those islands for a variety of interests, including conservation, education and recreation. Thanks to a joint effort of state agencies and volunteers such as the Spoil Island Work Group, dedicated picnic/campsites dot a growing list of the islands designated for recreational use. Even many of the unimproved islands provide white sand beaches and shade trees ideal for a quick shore lunch.
Our island adventures, of course, center on fishing. There is no area in the state of Florida—maybe anywhere—that approaches the inshore diversity of the Indian River Lagoon. None offers bigger trout and snook. We’d already captured and released our inshore slam before coming ashore—a number of trout from 18-inch schoolies to 30-inch gators, Mike’s first good snook and the trickiest catch of the day, a 25-inch redfish, the smaller of a pair I’d spotted through intermittent rain and wind-whipped whitecaps while perched precariously on the bow of our tandem kayak. The 5-pound pompano about to hit the grill? It ate a jig off one of these islands two days earlier.
We added another pompano, flounder, gag and goliath grouper, mutton and mangrove snapper, sheepshead, jacks and ladyfish to the list before we packed up the next day. There’s no need to lug heavy castnets or livewells along; our fish were all caught on plastic shrimp or 3-inch soft-plastic shadtails on light jigheads. Adjacent vast grassflats are perfect if you like twitching topwater plugs.
That 12-foot-deep ICW channel becomes a handy fish refuge during the hottest and coldest weather extremes. Additionally, tidal currents sweep most of these islands, often gouging out a deep channel just off the sand. Incoming water scrapes one side, the outgoing brushes the opposite. Target the side with the most current. Snook, trout and other predators pile up on island points to intercept bait drifting by in the flow. The exception to this may come when water temperatures fall in the winter; snook especially avoid the current to seek out warm, calm water on the sunny side of the islands.
The fish cooperate all year, but northerly breezes, lower temps and humidity, less rain—and most importantly, fewer bugs—make camping in South Florida more practical autumn through early spring.
Find Your Island
Click on Interactive Maps at www.spoilislandproject.org for a list of islands in St. Lucie (SL), Indian River (IR) and Brevard (BC) counties, and their assigned designations—conservation, education or recreation (active or passive). The islands are numbered by county. The maps will also aid you in finding the easiest access launch sites.
Be aware that even “improved” islands feature primitive camping—no restrooms or drinking water sources. Pack it in and pack it out. Fortunately, many of the islands are close enough to improved boat ramps to take advantage of restrooms and even showers.
Hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 put a hurting on picnic sites and walking trails on some of the islands. Winds toppled Australian pines onto campsites, some of which remain buried. And Brazilian peppers and other exotics have regained a hold on some islands earlier cleared. According to Dana Moller, former estuarine biologist with the DEP’s Southeast Florida Aquatic Preserves, “Most of the picnic tables and fire pits survived on SL 2, 3, 6, 7, 8 and 13. They still appear suitable for camping. One or two of the fire pits on SL13 are in need of repair.”
Just like Florida’s roadways, these islands are available for “adoption” by groups or individuals who agree to a minimum of four cleanups per year. Some take it a step further, actively whacking at the exotic vegetation that never gives up its quest to retake the islands. Information is available at the mentioned Web site.
Spoil Island Work Group (SIWG) volunteers assemble the third Saturday of each month from September through May. DEP boats transport members and material out to the islands to bag litter, remove and replace exotic vegetation with native plants, and chop out walking paths that connect picnic sites featuring plank tables and metal fire pits. By utilizing SIWG’s free labor, state agencies accomplish island rejuvenation despite ever-tightening budgets. A large island a mile south of Vero Beach, IR 36, is the most recent recipient of their attention. To help out, check the above Web site for schedules, or contact East Central Coordinator Jeanene Bengoa, Jeanene.Bengoa@dep.state.fl.us or Southeast Coordinator Mark McGee, Mark.McGee@dep.state.fl.us.
Don’t confuse island camping with pulling up to a Disney campsite in the family SUV containing all the comforts of home—especially if you arrive by kayak. Space is limited, so stick to the essentials. The most important item is your checklist of absolute necessities. That and big, fluffy marshmallows.
Insect spray and a ThermaCELL, www.thermacell.com or two keep any bugs at bay. Right behind marshmallows on the list.
Modern tents and inflatable sleeping pads and pillows are comfortable and take up little space. They’re very manageable in a small boat or if you spread the load among two or more kayaks. Pack gear in garbage bags to keep it dry—saltwater-soaked items don’t dry very well.
Hurricane-downed trees provide a ready source of firewood on many IRL islands. A bow saw is an efficient tool for whittling it to proper proportions, although my kids seem more drawn to axe-wielding mayhem. Lighter fluid or charcoal speeds the combustion process, especially if there have been recent rains. A small propane camp stove is a sound investment in case firewood is too damp. It lacks the ambiance of glowing campfire embers, but you won’t go hungry. Moisture-impervious commercial firelogs make a quick, pretty fire, but don’t cook over them. Their fumes are not intended for human consumption.
Keep cookware light. Heavy cast-iron pots and pans crank out incredible meals, but nesting, ultralight nonstick cookware like that from Bugaboo (www.gsioutdoors.com) takes up little space and weighs virtually nothing. Meals won’t suffer, and the easy cleanup leaves more time for trout and redfish.
Unless you have an urge to live off the land, make a list of what you plan to prepare for each meal, along with the ingredients needed. Cook everything possible, such as soups or sauces, ahead of time and store it in heavy-duty plastic bags or sealed plastic containers. This reduces substantially the volume of individual ingredients you’ll have to cart on and off the island and tremendously simplifies meal preparation.
Depending on the length of your camping trip and the level of “roughing it” you desire, here’s a list of potential items worth considering: marshmallows; bug repellent; ThermaCELL; sun screen; water; flashlights, extra batteries; lighter fluid or charcoal; waterproof matches and/or lighter; lantern; toilet paper; rain gear; tent; sleeping bags; sleeping pads; pillows; cooking grate; cookware; forks, spoons; saw, axe; stove; propane fuel canisters; spatula; paper towels; oven mitts; plastic mixing bowl; cooking oil; fillet knife; aluminum foil; garbage bags; plastic food bags; and ice. FS
Pick a Park
Here are five family-oriented parks scattered around Florida:
Cayo Costa State Park, Boca Grande, (941) 964-0375
Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring, (863) 386-6094
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, (904) 249-4700
Sebastian Inlet State Park, Sebastian, (321) 984-4852
St. Andrews State Park, Panama City,(850) 233-5140