Paddle, pedal or pole your way to monster drum in the Banana River No Motor Zone.
Waiting for the park gates to open at six in the morning can be agonizing, as the anticipation of chasing big fish runs through your head. You pay your $5 per vessel charge to enter and it’s off to the launch.
The launch at KARS Park is an all-grass lot that leads down into shallow water, an easy place to slip in a non-motorized vessel. There is ample parking. On a calm, clear morning, you might pause here and look out over the water as if in a trance. The distant shoreline may be the only thing separating the sky from the water.
This is East Central Florida’s fabled No Motor Zone, 10,600 acres of water nestled in the Banana River, east of the Indian River Lagoon. It was established in 1990 to protect the manatee population. Merritt Island forms the west bank of the N.M.Z.; the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is the barrier from the Atlantic Ocean.
This is a big reach of water. Whether you choose to pursue fish north, up the west bank, or make the open water crossing to the east side, none will disappoint. The west bank is a straight shoreline all the way up to Buck Creek. The flats tend to be shallow with minimal depth changes. The east bank is much different, though. Flats on this side tend to have ledges, dropoffs and sandbars for fish to congregate on. You can also fish the islands along the east side. There is a restricted area along the east side, though, which is marked with buoys. Make sure to stay out of there.
What kind of fish lurk on these flats? Big spotted seatrout. Black drum. And some unique redfish which grow big, spawn and by all evidence never leave these waters.
Captain Alex Gorichky, of Local Lines Guide Service, was born and raised in nearby Cocoa Beach and has fished the No Motor Zone his whole life. As I’ve been exploring the area, I’ve sought out guys like Alex, to get some perspective on the fishery.
“Everything north of the NASA Causeway has been closed and protected from boat traffic for as long I can remember, and I think the fish know that,” said Alex. “The concentration of breeder-size redfish in the Banana River is outstanding. These fish stay inshore to breed unlike other places, where they venture out the inlets, to the ocean.“
The manatee grass and other grasses of the No Motor Zone are thick, especially through the summer and early fall. This vegetation can result in snags for plug fishermen. Weedless soft plastics are an essential part of the puzzle when fishing here. Not only do they keep the grass off, but they also land lightly to prevent spooking shallow water fish. Schools of milling redfish in the shallows are common, either pushing wakes or exposing their tails when feeding. These fish are usually rooting up crabs and shrimp, so plastic imitations work well. Weedless-rigged shad tails are also a favorite for sight fishing. Casting these lures in front of a cruising drum can lead to them waking on your bait and an aggressive eat. Fly fishing, as you might expect, is also very effective. Crab-profile patterns such as the Kwan or Merkin derivatives will usually do the trick. When the drum are spooky and have been pressured, don’t hesitate to down size the fly, and change to a dark natural color. Resorting to bonefish flies is not a bad option. Super slow strips, dragging the fly along bottom, can be the ticket.
The No Motor Zone is strictly for non-motorized vessels. Unlike designated pole-and-troll areas, such as found in parts of Mosquito Lagoon, the No Motor Zone means what its name implies—motors may not be on the boat, period. That goes for internal combustion engines as well as electrics. Kayaks and canoes are popular among anglers fishing here. They can get shallow, are very quiet and can be paddled (or, in the case of Hobie and Native propulsion systems) pedaled wherever you’d like to go. Standup paddleboards are another great way to fish the shallows of the Banana River. Being able to stand at all times and survey the water is a huge advantage to the fisherman. Certain styles of ultralight poling skiffs—again, without power—are a delight to fish in here. These boats are light, stable and pole like a dream. Custom skiffs, as well as Gheenoes and American Eagle Canoe’s flatback canoe, are just a few used in this fishery. Fishing a poling skiff allows for one angler to fish comfortably as the other poles the boat. This can really open opportunity for sight fishing thanks to the height off of the water. Getting to the spot, some anglers rig these vessels with oar locks, which will allow paddling these boats when not fishing. Depending on the configuration of the vessel, some anglers even opt to sail to their destination, letting the wind do the work, if there is any.
The undeveloped shorelines and woods beyond are home to many different animals. Don’t be surprised to see 10 or more species of birds, including ospreys and bald eagles. There is one animal you do not want to run into while fishing the No Motor Zone, the alligator. Although the river (technically a lagoon) is salt water, the freshwater tributaries to the west have led the gators into the No Motor Zone. I’ve seen as many as five in one day, so be on the lookout for these Florida natives. Make sure to distance yourself from them a good ways, as they tend to move fast underwater, when you can’t see them.
When planning this trip, keep an eye on the weather, making sure beforehand you are in the clear. Fishing these waters might entail a 10- to 12-mile paddle round trip. If a storm rolls in while at your farthest distance from the ramp, things can get ugly, quick. Within minutes the open water can go from a glassy shimmer to ocean-grade white caps. Another key thing to remember is to bring water, and lots of it. When you think you have enough water for the day, double it, especially when fishing in the summer heat.
The redfishing in the N.M.Z. is spectacular, as is the black drum fishing. Seatrout are also abundant. Fishing the deeper grassflats and potholes, trout of all sizes can be caught. These fish can brighten up the day if the redfish aren’t cooperating. When casting at a waking fish you assume is a red, don’t be surprised to be greeted by a gator trout boatside. The big trout love to get shallow and soak up the sun’s rays, especially in the winter. I’ve seen trout sit with their tails out, like they were trying to mimic their drum cousins. These fish will eat anything the redfish will, but I have noticed they aggressively take a weedless rigged shad tail, like a D.O.A. CAL, well.
One great way to fish this area is wading. When getting on schools of tailing fish, there is not a stealthier approach. Wading cuts out the hull slap from your vessel. Staking out or anchoring and getting out are usually your best methods of attack. Another is pulling the kayak behind you. Tie 10 to 15 feet of rope from the front of the vessel, then tie a quick overhand knot to your belt loop. This keeps your boat far enough away from you that it is not obstructing your cast and spooking fish, but close enough to access tackle, drinks and more.
The No Motor Zone offers great fishing year-round, but as the water cools with the approach of winter, the fishing heats up. Shallows warmed by the midday sun may become filled with baitfish and active predators. Also, water clarity improves with the winter dry season. There is one issue with fishing this gin clear water: fish seeing you. When looking for fish you want to be as elevated as possible, but once fish are spotted things change. Stay low when casting at these fish, eliminating chances of blowing out the school. Crouching and even coming off the platforms can be necessary to keep your stealth. Many of the times, when you can see a fish, they can see you.
The Banana River is unique in many aspects, one being tide fluctuation. When most people think tides, they think full moons and strong current. That doesn’t apply to this fishery. Any water movement is solely due to wind. Alex Gorichky helped explain this detail to me. “In wintertime when we get most of our west winds, the water gets sucked out into the ocean,” he said. “When this water is low, our sight fishing peaks, and opportunities at tailing bull reds are very common.”
Hoping to target one of those jumbo-size reds, one January day, my friend Albert Winter and I launched at 6:15 a.m. We had a west wind, which is desirable, and we enjoyed watching the sunrise on our paddle to the desired spot. Once we located schools of redfish, we approached them at different angles, Albert wading and me poling my kayak. Catching a few sub-slot fish blind casting, our plan wasn’t going like we wanted. To top things off, a storm was brewing in the distance and moving our way fast. We tucked up into the mangroves and waited.
Rain poured on us for 15 minutes, then let up to a drizzle. I looked out across the water and almost couldn’t believe my eyes: Pods of reds were milling throughout the flats. It was like a flip of a switch. We ended up chasing schools consisting of 15 to 30 redfish for the rest of the day. I was able to catch my biggest redfish to date, 42 inches, tailing away in the grass. This big breeder fell for a D.O.A. Cal Shad Tail rigged weedless. Fishing a 2000 size reel and 10-pound braid, I knew I was in for a battle. After 15 minutes of back and forth with this fish, she was landed, a memory that will be with me for a lifetime. We finished the day with a mess of fish, on spinning tackle and fly.
Whether you’re chasing a mob of reds on slicked-out water after a squall, or sight casting to a big single with the sun at your back and the water clear as a natural spring, it’s easy to love this fishery. FS
There are two ways to access the No Motor Zone, KARS Park and the 401 Causeway. Open to the public in 2007, on the west bank, KARS Park (Kennedy Athletic, Recreation and Social Park) is the only direct access into the No Motor Zone. The 401 Causeway is another launch point, but will add 2 miles to your trip, so most opt to pay the $5 to access the park. KARS opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Call the KARS Country Store, 321-867-7967, for more information. You can purchase drinks, food, ice and more at the store. IMPORTANT: You must possess a current, signed Refuge Sport Fishing Permit at all times while fishing here. It’s free and may be printed at www.fws.gov/MerrittIsland
First published Florida Sportsman October 2014