March 13, 2015
Drive-in fishing on Amelia Island produces flounder, trout and bluefish.
While America was casting ballots, we were casting pyramid sinkers. It was the week of the Presidential election, the final showdown. The whole world was on the edge...of something. Two friends and I voted early, then sought asylum in the coastal borderlands of northeastern Florida.
We figured we could jam enough gear into my Suburban and Mark's Jeep to survive indefinitely. Our inventory: one canoe, one 12-foot johnboat, two tents, innummerable rods, three mountain bikes, three surf boards, one propane stove and not a single functioning radio or television set.
Mark Holley, an earnest Republican from Jacksonville, confessed he'd brought a windup toy radio, but tragically, it sputtered and died within minutes. We agreed not to turn on the car radios. Cell phones were out, too.
The Atlantic Ocean would provide for our needs, physical as well as mental.
Minutes from our oak-shaded campsite, we thumped across a long, lonesome boardwalk to discover five miles of squeaky sand, not a condo or lifeguard stand in sight. Off on the horizon, a shrimpboat morphed into a Spanish galleon in my mind's eye.
You aren't allowed to drive a car on the beaches of Little Talbot Island, but you can sure enough ride a bike or pull a wheeled surf-fishing cart on the hard-packed sand. Little Tal is home for bruiser bull redfish. Hoping to tangle with one, early in the week we doused our campfire for a midnight surf-fishing expedition. Night access is a privilege campers enjoy over day-trippers here.
It was thrilling to wade into the breakers and heave half a pound of mullet into the darkness—real chest-beating action, masculine and dangerous. The only bites we got that night were from mosquitoes, but the episode washed us clean of mental toxins.
Daybreak was a little road trip north, crossing the Nassau Sound Bridge onto Amelia Island. Just north of the bridge, you find the proverbial end of the road at Amelia Island State Park. Pavement evaporates into sand. A sign reminds you to shift into 4-wheel-drive. “Why can't Florida have more signs like that?” Mark asked rhetorically.
This is one of those fishing spots where you are happy to meet someone. There's plenty of elbow room; it's low-key, non-competitive. We talked to a handful of anglers, including an elderly couple who'd recently moved down from Indiana. They'd reached the age where age is just a mathematic triviality, and smiled as they talked about fishing together as often as possible.
“We'd built a house up there we planned to spend the rest of our lives in,” the man said. “But we kept coming to Florida, and one year said the heck with it.”
They were staked out behind a spiffy new four-door pickup, spinning rods in sand spikes, not a care in the world.
Just up the line, a wade-fisherman and I teamed up on a good trout bite along the wave-scoured boulders of a little jetty. I'd walk out, catch a fish, then pass the man on the way to shore. When I returned, he'd be walking back to his truck with a fish of his own. I was using a 7-foot spinning outfit with 30-pound mono leader, a 1/4-ounce jighead and a live finger mullet hooked through the lips. He had a light plugger with a sliding egg-sinker rig, also baited with mullet.
Each time we passed, we delivered the single-finger salute fishermen seem to fumble so often these days: a thumbs-up.
Sprawled behind the Jeep, Mark and Jim Nichols monitored our 12-foot surf spinners from aluminum folding chairs. The rods were spooled with 17-pound mono, terminating in a basic fishfinder rig: 4-ounce pyramid sinker clipped to a plastic sinker slide, followed by a small swivel, 18 inches of 30-pound mono leader and a longshank 4/0 hook.
We were amply supplied with bait, as was most everyone we ran into. Next to the George Crady Memorial Bridge—a shore-fishing hotspot in its own right—I'd had no trouble cast-netting a dozen finger mullet. We kept them alive in a 5-gallon bucket, adding new water every 15 minutes or so. We also bought some frozen bait at the Nassau Sound Bait and Tackle shop, if for no other reason than to chat up Jim Johnson, a cheery local guide who runs the shop part time.
“Right before sundown—don't miss it—by those rocks at the mouth of Sawpit Creek, you guys throw topwaters. Trout'll be bustin' all over! Or, bring your little boat over and fish that dock up there,” he enthused, gesturing up the Sound a ways. “You'll catch dozens on these white grubtails.” When I asked, he said the marsh creeks were always worth checking for reds and flounder. The beach was good, too, especially by the jetties.
Myrtle Creek, behind the campground, is one of many inviting creeks in the area.
I marveled at the intel received in exchange for buying a two-dollar bag of mullet, a 75-cent soda and a handful of swivels.
Bluefish dominated our surfside catch, par for the course on the Atlantic coast. We added a few trout and a flounder which I jigged up on the light spinning rod. The hoped-for reds eluded us, but one angler I spoke with said a guy had landed a 28-incher down around the corner. By the time we got arou
nd the corner, slip-sliding along a peninsula of sand, we may as well have been rolling across the Gobi Desert, lost in our daydreams.
The heck with it.
We never made it to Sawpit to confirm Johnson's report, but we did devote some time to the creeks closer to home. In the lee of the barrier islands, fractal curls and whirls of saltmarsh beg for exploration. Myrtle and Simpson creeks, behind Little Tal, feed the Fort George River. Simpson is unusual in that it's a two-way street of sorts, also flowing into Nassau Sound, to the north. The river and sound are big water, but the little creeks—narrow enough to cast across, even jump across in places—are just right for paddle craft and skiffs. There are lots of surpises back there.
Mark's 12-foot cartopper was barely able to contain our enthusiasm, and one morning on Simpson Creek we nearly capsized when a pair of kayaking mermaids stroked past. One of them had altered her attire in such a way as to—how can I say this delicately—ensure no tan lines. She smiled as if nothing were out of the ordinary. I didn't have my camera, which was fortunate, because I would have dropped it in the water.
Later, Mark and Jim fiddled with the stubborn 4-horse kicker (which seemed to have contracted the same illness as Mark's lately departed windup radio) while I paddled the canoe solo down Myrtle Creek.
At high tide, the stream had been a brown, languid serpent snoozing in a bed of spartina grass. As minutes drifted past, the water came to life, and curtains lifted on little dramas.
Jetties at the mouth of Nassau Sound attract trout, flounder and other surf species.
There is a 5-foot tidal range in this part of the state, and the arterial estuaries change character quickly. Where there was unbroken grass there were suddenly oyster bars and little runouts feeding the main flow. Baitfish materialized out of nowhere. The creek was receding, skinnier and shallower. Near the intersection with Simpson, a south wind perfectly offset the outgoing current. I sat stationary in the canoe and cast up- and across-stream with a light plug outfit and a red-and-white topwater. The sunlight was fast declining and mullet were rippling past the points. A steep, muddy shoreline marked a dropoff, where a feeder joins Myrtle. On my second cast, a frothy boil turned into a 15-inch seatrout. Two casts later, a 20-incher. With a swish of the paddle, I moved back upstream toward camp, finding more seatrout around every bend. No trophies, but in this miniature waterway, they all seemed like it. At one horseshoe-shaped bay, I got the topwater redfish I'd been looking for, except it barely measured 14 inches.
Back near the ramp, I heard Mark shouting something about flounder. In the twilight I could barely see my two friends standing on the pier, swatting bugs.
“You got a flounder?” I yelled.
“Yeah, right there.”
Mark's flounder turned out to be a 6-pound doormat that barely fit into his cooler. He caught it slowly bumping a 1/4-ounce curlytail jig along the bottom.
“Eatin' good tonight, guys,” I said.
We fried the trout and flounder in vegetable oil over my double-burner propane stove. We dredged the fillets in flour and corn meal, then dropped them sizzling into the pan. The next night, we ate bluefish and more trout and flounder, this time brushed with oil, sprinkled with Everglades Seasoning and grilled over oak charcoal, next to a can of green beans.
This couple had it pretty well wired, fishing off the back of their pickup.
The fallout from the election would be ultimately as anticlimactic as Y2K, but somehow, huddled around the fire, we felt we'd escaped something.
We didn't talk much politics, and gradually, as often happens on truly good fishing trips, even fishing ceased to be a subject of conversation. We laughed about the kayakers, laughed about our college days, and laughed—a lot—at Mark's zany attempts to cling to civilization.
“Why drive to town for dinner, Mark, when we have a 2-gallon can of beans?” Jim inquired, casting his vote to stay with demonstrative sound effects.
Shifting Sands of Time
The southern end of Little Talbot Island—as well as nearby Huguenot Park—are actually recent arrivals to Florida maps. According to Park Service Specialist Elizabeth Pavlinsky, these areas were formed by the accretion of sand north of the mouth of the St. Johns River, building up in the years since jetties were built in 1853.
Little Talbot and Beyond
Little Talbot Island State Park, on Heckscher Drive (A1A), is a fine day-access point for surf-casters. If you're lucky, you'll get a Patriotic Slam: redfish, whiting and bluefish. Admission is $4 per vehicle. There's ample parking, three bath houses and an outdoor shower. The park is open 365 days a year. The hours—8 a.m. to sundown—are a bit of a bummer for hardcore anglers. Overnighting at one of the park's 40 campsites, for $19 per day, gives you all-hours access. The very fishy Myrtle Creek (reds, trout, flounder) touches a small pier and an unimproved boat ramp behind the camping area. Bring your fat-tire mountain bike—you can cover lots of ground at the beach.
Kayak and canoe rentals are available at Long Island, on the south side of A1A on Heckscher Drive between Little Talbot and Talbot Island.
Amelia Island State Park, just north of Nassau Sound, is one of Florida's last vestiges of multi-use vehicular beach access: Jeeps and horses share the “road.” The beach is open 24 hours, but you can only drive during daylight hours. Excellent surf fishing, particularly near the jetties.
Trailer boats can launch at the Talbot Island State Park ramp, on the north end of the island on Sawpit Creek. Fee is $3.
The George Crady Memorial Bridge, arching over Nassau Sound, is a popular spot for pier fishers. Nassau Sound Bait and Tackle, on the Amelia Island side, offers live shrimp, frozen mullet, snacks, tackle, rod rentals and enough advice to ensure no one goes home without fish. FS