September 24, 2015
Paddle, pole or troll your way to world-class flats fishing.
The redfish were shallow, very shallow. Waving tails reflected the morning's low light as the fish rooted in the lush seagrass, feeding on small crustaceans. There was only 10 inches of water in the back of a bay on the east side of Mosquito Lagoon and it was not enough to fully cover their bronze backs.
Kayak angler scans the surface for one last tailer before sunset.
Pete Elkins and I had launched a pair of kayaks just before sunrise. Now, within casting distance of tailing fish, Pete stepped out of his kayak to finish rigging his fly, a No. 2 Borski slider. Ahead, we could see several more tails above the water. The fish were unaware that we had quietly moved in on their shallow-water breakfast buffet. Pete's first cast landed behind the red, but the fish turned and grabbed his fly. After releasing his fish, he moved around me while I fought mine. Then he was soon hooked up again.
It was a picture-perfect start to a day on the Lagoon, and a reminder that stealth and success go hand-in-hand when approaching shallow-water fish. Had we rumbled on to that flat under power, no doubt those fish would've fled the scene. Poling a skiff would've been the next best bet. Too often these days, though, it seems Mosquito Lagoon anglers are in a hurry, unaware of how their fishing practices may limit the action—not only for themselves, but for other fishermen in the area.
Mosquito Lagoon is located in East Central Florida at the north end of the Indian River Lagoon system. That system, consisting of the Indian River, the Banana River and Mosquito Lagoon, is often referred to as the nation's most diverse estuary and Mosquito Lagoon, in my opinion, is the brightest of the three gems in this magnificent setting. The Lagoon is a special place with arguably the finest fishery for redfish and gator-size seatrout anywhere in the country, high praise for a relatively small body of water (20 nautical miles north-to-south, about 2 miles east-west). Clean, shallow water and vibrant seagrass beds offer perfect habitat for these inshore gamefish, a sight-fisherman's dream come true. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing and the Lagoon's long-term status is by no means certain.
Because of Mosquito Lagoon's proximity to Orlando and easy access from Interstate 95, the number of anglers on its waters has significantly increased as word of the fabulous flats fishery has spread. In addition, numerous inshore fishing tournaments are now being held there and boat ramps are usually full by 8 a.m. on most weekends. Some anglers are starting to wonder if the lagoon can maintain its quality fishery in the face of ever-increasing usage.
“There are more fish than in recent years,” noted Capt. Scott Tripp, who's been fishing here for 15 years, “but the pressure has definitely increased. There are more anglers and boats and this is making the fish very spooky—they have a harder time getting settled so that they will readily feed.”
Captain Brian Clancy, a 40-year veteran of these waters, agrees. “At times, the fish can be quite skittish—comparable to bonefish—because of the pressure.”
I consider Mosquito Lagoon to be my home waters and want to see it flourish forever. In talking with “regulars” like Tripp and Clancy, and thinking back on my own days on the water, I'm convinced we need to take a lighter approach if we want to continue enjoying the Lagoon's bounty of accessible flats and accessible fish.
Kayaks and canoes have proven their merits, and a lot of anglers—many of whom also own larger boats—have become fans of paddle power here, especially for sneaking into the real skinny stuff. Many powerboats simply cannot get back into the depths favored by reds and trout on the Lagoon. Anglers unfamiliar with the area may inadvertently leave telltale propeller scars, damaging grassbeds. Even if your skiff can run the shallows on a plane, getting out after shutting down may be an entirely different proposition.
When I'm not strictly paddling, I do a lot of fishing out of a square-back canoe, with an 8-hp motor on the stern. That's a nice compromise: roomier and more stable than a pure paddle boat. On a recent trip—again with my friend Pete Elkins—we covered ground by motoring along the Intracoastal Waterway channel, on the western side of the Lagoon. This is the only marked channel in the area, and it runs from the north end of the Lagoon to Haulover Canal at about the Lagoon's midpoint. (It's marked well on Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart No. 04, and others.) If you're a boater unfamiliar with the adjacent shallows, it's best to stick to this channel until you're near the area you want to fish. At that point, you can follow someone with local knowledge of the depths or proceed slowly with caution so as not to damage the seagrass beds.
Once we reached our destination, Tiger Shoals, we raised our little motor and began to paddle eastward. As we moved across the wide grassflat, we startled a couple of seatrout. The water eventually became too shallow to effectively paddle, so I used a makeshift pushpole and moved slowly so as to not create a wake. It's amazing how even the slightest ripple on the water can alert fish on the flats here. Soon we saw what we were there for: Tailing redfish, bunched up in the back of a bay where no one was fishing.
Sight casting in skinny water.
As we neared casting distance, I took a seat to cast a lower profile and exchanged the pushpole for a paddle. Slowly, I turned the canoe broadside to the fish so we could both make a presentation. I softly set the blade of the paddle on a life jacket, muffling any sound, and picked up my spinning rod, rigged with a 5-inch soft jerkbait on an offset worm hook.
“Don't rock the boat when you cast,” I cautioned, opening the bail on the reel. My partner had been ready for some time but had waited until I was ready.
Simultaneously, we made our casts, his to the edge of the school nearest the bow of the canoe and mine to the edge nearest the stern. In a matter of seconds, we both had hooked fish. His fish zigged while mine zagged and the canoe turned like a blender with a rock in the pitcher, not sure which way or how fast it was supposed to spin.
Contrast an approach like this with the guy who buzzes the flats looking to “bump up” some fish that he will then pursue. That's a technique that—thankfully—is fast falling out of favor. More than a few not-so-friendly conversations have been had between an angler who had been quietly fishing a flat and the boater who ran well onto that flat before stopping, spooking fish he had been stalking in the process. I've seen a few instances of “water rage” that makes what happens between motorists on Interstate 4 seem subdued. There's harmony when fishermen come and go quietly and slowly, and more anglers can effectively fish a given area at the same time.
On a larger boat, a trolling motor works well when the water is deep enough, but often the water just gets too shallow. Keep in mind that electrics also broadcast sound and vibrations that can alarm fish. A pushpole is better by far, at least if you're stalking fish in tailing depths. In deeper water, drifting and fan-casting can be an effective strategy.
The lighter approach has other advantages. Parking is seldom an issue if you're hauling a little boat on top of or inside your vehicle. In fact, you can drive close to where you will be fishing and launch from the shoreline, not needing to bother with a paved ramp. At first, you might find paddling to be slow and tedious, but you'll soon realize the benefits of fishing quietly and thoroughly.
Re-examining our approach to Mosquito Lagoon has implications that stretch beyond the prospects for a productive, stress-free day of fishing. State and federal authorities are currently studying Mosquito Lagoon, documenting seagrass beds, oyster reefs and other ecological features—and running numbers related to recreational usage. It's entirely possible that at some point in the near future, we'll see plans laid to close certain parts of the Lagoon, not only to skiffs and paddle craft, but to all fishing.
That would be a shame.
Self-regulation by conscientious anglers—something we're seeing already these days—would largely preclude the need for that kind of bureaucratic tampering.
“The fishery is much better than it was before the net ban ,” points out Capt. Mike Hakala, who has 25 years of experience on Mosquito Lagoon. “With good fisheries management—protecting the grasses, limits on fish kept—things might stay the same. If not, the Lagoon has seen its best days.”
A complicated mesh of state and federal authorities calls the shots for Mosquito Lagoon, but if you like to fish here, it pays to know who's in charge of what—and what kinds of decisions they may face in the near future.
The federal government, through the Department of Interior and in turn, the National Park Service, has authority to make rules pertaining to the use of land and water at Canaveral National Seashore, which includes the north end of Mosquito Lagoon. A new 20-year General Management Plan (GMP) for the Seashore was due to be finalized in 2004, but the superintendent retired and the plan was all but scrapped. Look for the GMP to be a top priority when a new superintendent is selected in 2005. The plan will again involve public comment—and may include restrictions on access to the Lagoon. We'll watch this one closely.
A redfish lounges in the shallows.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife (MINWR) Refuge is an overlay of Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding lands and was created as a buffer for space center activities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the lands and waters of the refuge, including much of Mosquito Lagoon. The Service prepares a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) every 15 years and a new CCP for MINWR is nearing completion.
The use of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the southern portion of Mosquito Lagoon are subject to NASA activities. Much of this southern portion of the lagoon is closed when a shuttle is on Pad B; call (321) 861-4636 for information.
Both federal and state environmental protection agencies monitor water quality on Mosquito Lagoon, as well as endangered and threatened species, including manatees.
As mentioned, Mosquito Lagoon is part of the Indian River Lagoon system. Not to be outdone by other federal and state agencies, an Indian River Lagoon Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Plan was developed by staff from the St. Johns River and the South Florida water management districts, in conjunction with the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program (NEP) staff. The plan notes that seagrass is the measuring stick for the health of the Lagoon and notes that physical disturbance (boat propellers and anchors) is a factor affecting seagrass growth and health.
Paddlers' Access to Mosquito Lagoon
There are three sites on the east side of Mosquito Lagoon and two on the west side from which to launch a canoe or kayak. From the east side of the lagoon, JB's Fish Camp is located about a mile north of the Canaveral National Seashore entrance. The fish camp has a good ramp and offers the last chance to buy live bait or get a bite to eat.
Continuing south on A1A, there is a gravel ramp to the right of parking lot No. 5, six miles after you enter Canaveral National Seashore. The open lagoon is to your south and marsh is to your north. George's Bar separates the two and is directly in front of the launch site.
Lastly, Eddy Creek Boat Ramp can be reached by going east on SR 406/402 out of Titusville to the seashore and then north along Playlinda Beach. The dirt boat ramp is across from parking lot No. 12.From the west side of the lagoon, canoeists and kayakers can get to the Lagoon from Old Beacon 42 Camp Boat Ramp. The dirt ramp is about a mile and a half north of Haulover Canal off SR 3 on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. About two miles south of Haulover Canal, there is another dirt ramp off SR 3. Turn at the sign for the NASA Atmospheric Sciences Research Station and follow the dike road running down the southwest shoreline.