October 10, 2014
By Jerry McBride
There's always a way to duck the wind and catch fish in this east coast town.
Mike Hakala's approaching truck lights accentuated the utter emptiness of the Edgewater boat ramp parking lot. Obviously, we were the only two people dumb enough to fish in this weather. Twenty-five-knot winds and 48 degrees have that effect on typically balmy Florida fishing, especially when it involves classic sight fishing for redfish on Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River grassflats.
With stoic resolve, we loaded the boat. Hakala hit the gas, my body temperature plunged, and I began rethinking a previous conviction that South Dakota might be a good place to live someday when Florida is one big condo.
Hakala's truck and boat trailer remained the solitary occupants in the parking lot when we returned four hours later, which might indicate we were pushing the envelope a bit. No brains, no headaches, I guess. But in between, Mike telepathically wove his new 18-foot flats boat on its maiden voyage through lower unit-crunching oyster mazes and narrow creeks like Snapper Cut, whose mangrove shorelines offered occasional refuge from the northwest blast.
“This isn't where I'd normally choose to fish this time of year,” explained Hakala, making sure my expectations were reasonably low. “I come here in the winter, when the fish look for protected, deeper water.”
Hakala is a big believer in pushpole propulsion, but he didn't even offer to climb onto the platform in the wind. His bow-mounted trolling motor eased us along lee shorelines, and Mike remotely lowered the Power-Pole to anchor us within casting range of points, oyster bar dropoffs and bisecting creekmouths. I suspect those stops were as much about thawing out as they were fishing. On the downwind drifts, we blew by fishy-looking oyster clumps and indentations in the mangroves so fast we couldn't cast at all of them.
Not used to angling around oysters, I had to mentally restrain myself from setting the hook each time the sensitive 6-pound braided line indicated a bump. One subtle thump moved about three feet to the right, so I snapped the hook home with a bit of overkill, considering it turned out to be a redfish the size of a nice croaker. Capt. Mike's new hammered spoon model in the corner of its mouth, the 16-incher put a surprisingly impressive bend in the rod for about 15 seconds. We followed up with jacks, blues, ladyfish and trout. Considering the conditions, not a bad morning.
“On a day like this, you take what you can get,” lamented Hakala.
I had made our reservations months in advance, gambling that the weather would cooperate. We spent the entire 4-day vacation adjusting to its nasty whims, but the geography of the Mosquito Lagoon and northern Indian River lends itself to switching gears.
Based on Hakala's recommendation, my original goal was to spend three days kayaking south into the “Pole and Troll” zone set up the previous year.
“I had given up fishing the grassflats in that area,” Hakala had said. “The reds had been fished and run over to the point they wouldn't eat anymore. Even when I poled in, did everything right and set up on a school, a boat would blast by and put them down. But I gave it another shot after boat traffic was restricted, and the fish had totally changed their attitudes. And the big trout have made a great comeback. You can actually target big trout again.”
Unfortunately, gale-force north winds greeted Donna Thomson and me at the dirt boat ramp at the far end of A1A at Canaveral National Seashores, so that plan went out the window. Three islands, half a mile to the west, looked like they might give us shelter. We pushed through a shallow cut, emerging onto a 20-yard-wide transition zone that partitioned dense, waving seagrass in eight inches of water and mud bottom in three feet. The good news: I spotted seven slot or larger redfish among the sandy potholes. The bad news: I was in such a hurry to fish, the drift chutes and anchors got left in the truck. The wind blew me by the fish so fast I never got a shot at them before they spooked, and the bottom here was too soft to wade.
The water here is so far from an inlet that tide isn't much of a factor. However, wind-driven waves create tide-imitating currents that sweep island points, and mullet, pinfish and glass minnows push through with it, attracting predators. Mosquito Lagoon features lots of such points, many of them lined with concrete-hard clamshell that provides solid footing. We grounded the boats and went wading, sharing the shoreline with pairs of increasingly rare horseshoe crabs. When they mate, the little armored tank tandems drive like snowbirds, running right into you—very slowly. Apparently sex makes even arthropods careless.
One schoolie trout after another pounced on my plastic shrimp and 1/8-ounce soft-plastic jigs. After releasing half a dozen, I decided that information might interest Donna, who was flailing away fruitlessly around a bend. No one has yet explained to my satisfaction why, on the way home, the one big trout and one dinky flounder she caught and released trumped all my little trout, a pair of redfish, plus numerous jacks and ladyfish.
Lousy weather may force a change in plans, but that doesn't mean you have to give up fishing in this area. With easterly winds, scenic areas south of the Canaveral boat ramp feature vast, pristine grassflats for wading, as long as you stay near shore or stick to the firm-bottom white sand holes. Areas nearer downtown NSB (Florida Sportsman, June 2005), or across the river adjacent to the Edgewater boat ramp on Riverside Drive a couple miles south, offer endless narrow, winding protected waters for kayakers and flats boats. With north or south winds, try Spruce Creek (FS, May 2007) north of New Smyrna. It offers incredible scenery and everything from flounder to freshwater bass.
Westerly winds open miles of beaches for surf fishing. Kick in five bucks, and you can partake in one of the few remaining beach-driving bastions on the hard-packed, white sand that put Daytona Beach, 10 miles north, on the map. From the main beach ramp at the east end of Flagler Avenue, you can drive about 21/2 miles in either direction, north toward Ponce Inlet or south toward Canaveral National Seashore. However, beaches along this stretch feature few dropoffs and are better suited to swimming and surfing. For the best beach fishing, hit the highway.
“The beach right across from the boat ramp, just inside Canaveral National Seasho
re, is excellent,” Mike Hakala told me. “There's a good, deep trough, lots of whiting, pompano, even trout occasionally.” There's a $3 per person park entry fee. Restrooms are available at each access point within the park.
Other windproof options include bridge fishing on both causeways and pier fishing near the city marina (Washington St. and Riverside Dr.). From the layer of crushed oyster shells coating the planks, chumming for sheepshead is obviously a popular pier diversion, but snook, trout and black drum also come over the railings.
Things to Avoid
If you're in a hurry, avoid breakfast at the Longboard. You'll want to stay awhile. I'm not one to linger over food when there are fish to catch, but Dee Green's freshly baked scones, gingerbread, cranberry bread and a bread recipe liberated from somebody named Mrs. Doolittle really cut into my fishing.
When you don't finish breakfast until 10 a.m., there's no point in trying to go fishing at that point, because Maloney's on Canal Street is open for lunch. For fans of the seafood chowder tradition formerly located in Stuart, Florida, they're in New Smyrna disguised as Maloney's. Mahoney's, Maloney's, the soup's still great. Another good place to skip if you value your fishing time.
If a sedate getaway is your goal, avoid Daytona Bike Week (scheduled for Feb. 29-March 9). Half a million noisemakers overwhelm New Smyrna's small town ambiance day and night, clogging the majority of your senses along with lodging, streets and restaurants.
Places to Stay
Longboard Bed & Breakfast owner John Green met us at the door, traditional bottle of wine—a big bottle—in hand, chumming us along for a tour of our quarters. We dutifully followed along to his other bed and breakfast, the recently renovated Nuns & Roses and outdoor wedding pavilion half a block down Washington Street.
As richly warm and secular as the 1896 mansion is now, the idea of staying in a former nunnery conjured up some spooky possibilities. By the time we finished the tour, flying nuns didn't worry me at all. Then again, by the end of the tour, I would have been content with an afternoon nap on the porch swing. But if afternoon naps and Sister Mary Elizabeth riding your ceiling fan at midnight aren't on your vacation agenda, NSB offers plenty of bed and breakfast options.
LongBoard Inn www.longboardinn.com
Night Swan www.nightswan.com
Nuns & Roses www.nunsandroses.com
Riverview Hotel www.riverviewhotel.com
Short-term rental houses also dot A1A along the NSB oceanfront. For information on accommodations, restaurants, fishing charters and attractions, contact the local Chamber of Commerce at www.sevchamber.com
, (386) 428-2449. Capt. Mike Hakala can be reached through his Web site, www.floridaysfishing.com
Things to Do
Bicycle lanes, wide sidewalks and a slow pace of traffic along NSB's quiet, tree-shaded streets are conducive to peddling your way to parks and restaurants along both the North (Flagler Ave.) and South (Hwy. 44) causeways and A1A, as well as trendy art and antique shops on Canal Street and Flagler Avenue. Biking to Lil' Neal's Barbecue, on Business 44 (Canal St.), ain't a bad idea either. Serving sizes guarantee you'll have calories to burn on the way home. We were the only out-of-towners there. When the locals stand in line, it must be good. Call ahead (386-428-2864) and eat on the patio.
Another food/exercise combo leaves the dock half a dozen times a day at the Marine Discovery Center (162 N. Causeway, 866-257-4828). Take your bike aboard the NSB Water Taxi (schedules at www.nsbtaxi.com
) for a scenic cruise north, with stops at restaurants near the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Have dinner and go for a bike tour of the historic area while you wait for the boat's return trip.
If you'd rather expand your mind than your waist, visit the Museum of History (386-478-0052) on Sam's Avenue. The local viewpoint, hotly debated in St. Augustine, holds that New Smyrna Beach (originally Coronado Beach, until 1946) dates back earlier than America's officially oldest city. Early Spanish conquistador logbooks, it is argued, list latitudes and longitudes that match the local inlet rather than St. Augustine. Whenever they arrived, the Spanish were undoubtedly not a welcome sight for the Timucuan Indian lookouts posted on top of nearby Turtle Mound. Fifty feet high and 600 feet long, the mountain of shellfish was obviously constructed before concerns arose about the dangers of eating raw oysters. FS