May 16, 2011
By Max Branyon
Anglers try to make the best of fall fishing despite security closures around Cape Canaveral.
By Max Branyon
Waters north of Buoy No. 10. out to 3 miles from shore, remain closed.
(Click for Map)
Florida anglers are an adaptable sort, used to working around changes in seasons, fish-ery laws and the wild economics of boating and coastal living. But for sportfishermen in the Cape Canaveral area, the years following September 11, 2001, have brought manmade changes that in many ways are overwhelming. Many traditional fishing areas around the Cape were closed, and remain closed, in the name of national security, ostensibly to protect the Kennedy Space Center and Port Canaveral from terrorist attacks.
Some local anglers say they've adapted to the closures by fishing other areas, with mixed results. Others have stuck close to favorite fishing holes, trying as best as they can to work within the framework of often confusing laws. Still others have opted to avoid the area altogether.
All agreed that it's high time the government lightened up on public access to these world-class fishing waters.
Recently, I joined fishing guides Jim Ross and Russ Rivers for a half-day of fishing outside Port Canaveral. Ross grew up in Rockledge and began fishing the Cape Canaveral area with his grandfather when he was 5 years old.
As we exited the port, steering into a spectacular East Coast sunrise, Ross pointed to the north: “See that area from here to the False Cape? All that is closed off, extending out three miles offshore. As a result, I've lost 70 percent of my fall fishing since the closure. The Cape is unique because it offers protection from northerly winds that predominate in fall and early winter. It forms a lee that attracts bait and gamefish such as tarpon, snook, redfish and cobia.”
River added his plight to the conversation: “I don't even come up here anymore to fish the fall mullet run. It's too long a drive from Melbourne,” he said. “Before they closed it off, the fishing was unbelievable. I had 100-fish days. I just knew I was going to catch snook every time I came up.”
“What makes the area just north of Port Canaveral so unique?” I asked.
Ross explained that the troughs and bottom structure are much better up there, where fish ambush croakers, pinfish and mullet. During the summer, jack crevalle, tarpon and tripletail school in that area. But it's during the fall when the area really comes alive. September through December are peak months for snook, tarpon, mackerel, reds, trout and just about every kind of gamefish that feeds on mullet.
“When they dredge the port,” Ross added, “they dump the sediment south of the port, where it washes up along the beaches and then back out into the ocean. There's nothing but sand and sediment south of the port. Up north, where the baitfish hang out, the bottom is harder, crustier and firmer.”
I thought about the security closure. What concerned me most was the lack of signs, warnings and directions. I could see how an unsuspecting angler might stray into the restricted area. Going out and returning to port that day, I did not see any warnings about the restricted area. However, Ross repeated them to me from memory as I wrote them down.
Concerned, I asked an acquaintance who was going to Canaveral a couple of days later to give me his take on the situation. Keith Kalbfleisch is an active member of Central Florida Offshore Anglers in Orlando, and a licensed fishing captain. Like many, he has also been forced to fit his recreational and charter fishing schedule around the closures.
What he found was only one small, lighted sign well inside the port that warned boaters to avoid the 3-mile restricted zone or face a $50,000 fine and/or five years in jail. He saw nothing outside the port that warned boaters to stay out of the restricted area to the north. He said a fisherman could easily miss seeing the sign inside the port and that he saw no signs at the boat ramp either.
Inside the port, however, he found, as I did, numerous large signs, which read: “SECURE AREAS, NO TRESPASSING BY ORDER OF CANAVERAL PORT AUTHORITY. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. BOATERS MUST STAY 15' FROM ALL DOCKS, 100' FROM BERTHED SHIP AND 200' FROM NAVAL BERTH.”
Obeying these rules inside the port does not necessarily mean that you will not be hassled by authorities, according to numerous fishermen who've found this to be a problem. The fisherman who probably holds the record for being harassed the most inside the port is Capt. Bryan Pahmeier of Titusville, who guides anglers for nighttime snook fishing inside the port at least three times per week. And three times a week he gets checked.
“If you go inside the port in a boat at night you're going to be boarded,” he said. By “boarded” he means that officers in patrol boats will pull up and check out his captain's license and his safety equipment.
The big problem, according to Bryan, is that officers from different law enforcement agencies are patrolling inside the port. One night he might be checked out by the Brevard County Sheriff's Office patrol boat and the next night it may be a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat. In addition, security officers from two agencies are patrolling from shore nightly.
Pahmeier, who began fishing the docks inside Port Canaveral in a Gheenoe when he was 12 years old, is well aware of the rules and complies with them. However, that doesn't keep him out of the woods.
For example: “One night I was fishing 25 feet from a dock when a patrol boat pulled up and the officer boarded me,” he said. After he checked him out and started to leave, Bryan asked him, “Am I okay where I'm anchored for fishing?”
“You're fine,” the officer told him as he pulled away.
Shortly after the patrol boat left, a security guard appeared along the shore and told Bryan to move out farther from the dock. Pahmeier tried to explain to the guard that the officer in the patrol boat had told him that his location was okay. That didn't satisfy the security guard who kept motioning for him to move farther out, to the point that he couldn't cast to the docks that held the snook they were targeting. Next, the guard got on the radio and reported Bryan to the same patrol boat that had told him he was okay in that position—25 feet from the dock.
According to Bryan, as he pulled farther away from the dock, the
patrol boat crew confronted him and told him that the guard had reported him for arguing and raising his voice. He was afraid that he was about to get written up, or worse.
What got him off the hook, he thinks, was his client's backing him up and telling the officer that Bryan was not yelling.
Bryan said he understands the need for security inside the port. He just wants some consistency in the patrolling.
Other Central Florida anglers voice similar complaints. Ben Beckner of Orlando, an offshore specialist with Bass Pro Shop's Outdoor World, said many anglers have come into his store complaining about being hassled inside the port by authorities.
“Many have said that they've stopped fishing there because of the harassment,” he said.
Security closures also continue to impede access to the fabled No Motor Zone, a section of the Banana River just to the north of where the port connects to the Banana River. This stretch has been a designated manatee sanctuary for many years and a popular site for canoe and kayak anglers. However, after 9/11, the whole eastern side of the river was shut down to fishing. I asked Ross if he still fished that area.
“Not anymore. In fact, I gave my canoe away because it's too tough now with all the closures.”
Andy Anson, of Orlando, voiced similar feelings about access to the No Motor Zone (NMZ). Like Ross, Anson spent many of his childhood days fishing this area with his grandfather. Over the years he recalls many mornings paddling up the river with good friends before daylight. He has caught big seatrout and lots of redfish, including one bull that weighed 38 pounds.
“Since they closed the eastern side of the No Motor Zone, it's really hard to justify the paddle,” he said. “From State Route 528, it's at least a 1 1/ 2-mile paddle just to reach the entrance of the NMZ.
“I grew up fishing the Banana River, but the combination of closures and manatee protection zones [idle speed] have substantially reduced my interest in the area.”
Federal employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) retain special access rights to the western side of the NMZ, via the Kennedy Athletic Recreation and Social Park. There's a boat launch at the site, which allows NASA employees and guests to skip the long paddle otherwise required to access the best fishing areas. Before the 9/11 closure of the eastern shore, most public NMZ anglers launched from several convenient sites near the east shore, which is a much shorter paddle than launching on the western side.
“I have nothing against those who have access to KARS Park, but it does appear that they are receiving preferential treatment relative to the general public,” said Anson. “In my opinion, KARS should consider issuing a limited number of passes to the general public on a daily basis.”
Anglers will find other restricted zones (usually well-marked) inside Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore, including Playalinda Beach near Titusville and Apollo Beach near New Smyrna.
On a positive note, many restrictions have been lifted since 9/11 and, hopefully, others will follow. Some closed areas re-opened: the southern end of Mosquito Lagoon; the Black Point area of the Indian River north of the Titusville Railroad Bridge; and the first four parking lots and crossovers to the beach at Playalinda Beach near Titusville. At present, the closures that seem to concern most anglers are the eastern half of the Banana River and the 60-square-mile area between Port Canaveral and the False Cape.
Dorn Whitmore, who oversees management of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, noted that his agency has lifted some of its restrictions. So has Canaveral National Seashore. Maybe other agencies will follow suit, especially as Whitmore put it: “as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory.”
“I believe in security and I don't want to be greedy,” Jim Ross said, “but I wish they would give us back just a small piece of the area north of Port Canaveral for fishing.”
Keith Kalbfleisch has the same wish. “It's our version of North Carolina's Outer Banks.”
All Andy Anson said he wants is a section of the eastern side of the Banana River No Motor Zone reopened. Or, access to KARS Park on the western shore.
“And all I want is for them to quit harassing me inside Port Canaveral while I'm fishing and obeying the law,” Bryan Pahmeier said.
Kennedy Space Center Security Zone, North of Port Canaveral
Recent copies of NOAA Nautical Chart No. 11484 show the closed area.
According to the Code of Federal Reg-ulations, Title 33 Part 165, the northern boundary of the closed area begins at latitude 28 degrees, 44 minutes and 42 seconds, and extends from the beach to a point in the Atlantic Ocean 3 miles offshore at 28-44.42'N, 80-37.51'W. There's a can buoy here marked ‘A.' From this point, you must remain at least 3 miles from shore, southward around the tip of Cape Canaveral. This includes Playalinda Beach and False Cape. Buoys B, C, D and WR6 mark this line. From Wreck Buoy WR6, the line proceeds to Port Canaveral Lighted Buoy 10, then west along the northern edge of the Port Canaveral Channel.
Monitor VHF Channel 16 or call Coast Guard Station Port Canaveral, (321) 868-4200, or Kennedy Space Center, (321) 867-5000, for updates.
Inside Port Canaveral
Obey signs marking restricted areas—which includes cargo areas on the north and south sides of the port. Otherwise, stay at least 25 feet from all docks; 100 feet from any berthed ship and 200 feet from naval berth.
Banana River No-Motor Zone
The waters east of the channel markers inside the Banana River Manatee Sanctuary remain closed. Canoeists who were launching from the eastern side of the river are now launching from the Barge Canal area on the western shoreline. Look for signs where the zone begins north of Higway 528 and stay to the west side of the channel.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
1) Free refuge sportfishing permit required. Pick one up at the Visitor Center on S.R. 402, five miles east of U.S. 1 near Titusville on the road to Playalinda Beach.
2) Closed for nighttime launching are two ramps located on Mosquito Lagoon, WSEG Ramp and Eddy Creek Ramp. The only boat ramps open for night launching are Bairs Cove Ramp at Haulover Canal, Beacon 42 Ramp and Bio Lab Road Ramp. All three are just off S.R. 3 and have signs leading to the ramp.
3) You may not launch boats, canoes or kayaks from Black Point Wildlife Drive or any side road connected to Black Point Wildlife Drive except L Pond Road.
4) All closed roads inside the refuge are well-marked. You can obtain additional information by calling Refuge Headquarters at (321) 861-0667 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. M-F.
Canaveral National Seashore: Playalinda Beach, Apollo Beach
Most of the parking lots at both beaches that were closed after 9/11 have been reopened for fishing.