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Coastal River Ramble

Quick trip on the Loxahatchee River.

Novelist Tom Levine, at ease in paradise—or as he might say, what's left of it.

Imagine a time-traveling Indian trying to reconcile his senses on the present Loxahatchee River in Palm Beach County. Girding his loins for a fishing trip, he lets the silent brown water carry him slowly downstream surrounded by towering cypress and ferns, amid the growing, alien hum of the unseen Interstate 95.

That scene played out in my mind as I paddled downstream from Riverbend Park. One of Florida's two official Wild and Scenic Rivers (the Wekiva River is the other), the Loxahatchee is hemmed in on all sides by development, struggling for its integrity like a lizard held loosely in the jaws of your housecat.

It's a short, supremely fishable river that locals like Capt. Butch Constable, of Jupiter, say is being degraded at both ends. At its headwaters, the freshwater supply is choked. The lower river suffers from manmade changes to the coastline.

And yet, our fictional Indian might well feel at home on the main flow.

No doubt he'd wonder about the weirs (built mid-1900s) interrupting the river. Then again, he'd quickly recognize the fishing potential. I couldn't resist dropping tiny jigs for bluegills below the second one. When I caught up with a buddy of mine, farther downstream, he was standing shin-deep battling a jumping bass. “Try one of these 4-inch worms,” he recommended with an underhand toss. “They love ‘em in here.”

Unlike some tannic streams, which look more fishy than they are, the Loxahatchee produced nice bluegills at every bend, sandbar, weedy point and overhanging tree limb, along with the occasional cichlid.

It's a little stream, about 8 miles altogether, barely navigable at points where fallen trees create more fish havens. I drifted down enthralled by the changing flora lighted by irregular shafts of sun. Two big spots flashed from the wings of a pileated woodpecker joining another on a tall snag. The cypress trees seemed mighty enough to have been planted by Adam.

At each bend my ears told my eyes to expect I-95, but I was spared the sight by the cypress fortress. At the point where it sounded like I was under the roaring highway, the primitive Indian would have been standing in his dugout, spear in hand, arm cocked, poised for whatever harrowing spectacle awaits him. I simply turned back, as it was getting late.

On my return upstream I encountered a guy and gal fishing from their johnboat. “You've got to use a Beetle Spin in here,” he instructed. “I've been fishing here 25 years and a little white grub tail is the best. You'll get a strike on every cast.”

He said snook pile up below the weirs but are awfully hard to catch. And if you forge upstream from the park instead of down, you'll get into big bass. Above the first weir, I paddled up into the bassiest looking backwater imaginable. I started hooking fish around two pounds everywhere it looked like I ought to.

At the canoe rental I asked the proprietor how the snook get upstream of the weirs. He said in high water they're able to swim over. He also believes there is a resident snook population that never ventures downstream. And he said sometimes the place fills up with tarpon. - FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Dec. 2010

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