May 01, 1999
Fort Pierce and Sebastian inlets up the ante for record-size seatrout, doormat flounder, smoker kings and more.
I first discovered Fort Pierce Inlet by accident. I ran out St. Lucie Inlet on a morning when I shouldn't have gone, with a flag-snapper blowing out of the northeast, and the inlet rolly but not out of control on an incoming tide. When I came back, the full-moon outgoing tide was standing 8-foot seas on their ends as it met the incoming wind. The winding channel and rocky bars made the place a boater's bad dream, and several 40-footers simply backed off and hove to, waiting for the current to slow.
In a 22-foot open boat, the idea wasn't appealing, especially considering that one of the crew-persons was getting distinctly green around the gills—and, to tell the truth, I was getting just a bit chartreuse myself. A quick check of the chart told me that there was a reasonable option—Fort Pierce, a deep, straight, fully jettied inlet, was just 20 miles up the coast. And, heck, we might see something to fish for on the way—so we went.
It wasn't a fun ride, but Fort Pierce was a pussycat compared to St. Lucie, rolling but not breaking. And once on the inside, we discovered that the flats and channels of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) offer a lot to like about this area. It was the first of many visits to follow.
The town of Fort Pierce around U.S. 1 is sort of the industrial stepsister of Stuart, and nearby Sebastian is the sleepy country cousin of both. Punch around the waterfront in both towns, though, and you find some neat historical buildings, antique shops and groggeries well worth visiting—and waterfront motels where you can stay without floating a second mortgage. Both areas have been passed over by the tourist hordes so far, to the good fortune of the locals and the misfortune of the realtors, but if word of the fishing gets out, that could soon come to an end.
The inshore waters have a unique attraction for the east coast; here for the first time north of Miami, the flats begin to spread their wings, offering the trout, reds and snook some real habitat other than seawalls, docks and bridge pilings. The Indian River is one to two miles wide over much of this stretch, and all of that width except the dredged Intracoastal is covered with turtlegrass, oyster shell or clam bars.
The length of the ICW between the two inlets is dotted with spoil bars, and these attract finger mullet and other baitfish, which in turn attract the big Indian River-strain seatrout that once made the area famous. Thanks to tight harvest rules and the end to gill netting, the big trout are making a comeback, and on any morning you may connect with a 5-pound-and-up yellowmouth. The days of the frequent 10-pounders have not returned yet, but if the fishery regulators hold their course, that time is only two to three years away. As it is, the area holds five of the current line-class records for the species, including the all-tackle, 17-pound, 7-ounce monster caught by Craig Carson in May of 1995.
Local pros say the best tactic for the big trout is to get out of the boat at least a hundred yards from the bars, wade into maximum casting range, and deliver a big topwater like the Spook, Top Dog or SP5 Bang-O-Lure to the shallows. The D.O.A. Baitbuster, a soft plastic that's a good imitation of the baby mullet, also works well. For those who can throw a long line, this is also flyfishing country, with big mullet-like streamers the ticket. This is a dawn bite, usually, but with an overcast they may bite later, and if there's a slow drizzle you might be in fish all day long.
You'll sometimes find snook mixed with the trout on the spoil islands, but they're more common under the residential docks on rising water and in the boat cuts and basins on low. Check out the holes at Faber Cove on the south side of the inlet, and at Tucker Cove, Jim Island and Fort Pierce Cut on the north side, particularly in chilly weather.
The best areas for snook, though, are the inlets themselves, May through September, and both produce lunkers in excess of 30 pounds each year. In fact, catching a fish under the new 34-inch maximum can be a problem at times, if the season's open and you're looking for one to eat.
A favorite tactic is to drift a jumbo shrimp or a sardine (also known as pilchard locally) deep on incoming tides; you may hook up with a tarpon as well as a big snook. In calm weather on clear incoming tides, you can sometimes spot schools of snook stacked up along the jetties; a freelined sardine means a sure bite on these pods. After sundown, 1/2- to 1-ounce bucktails do a lot of business as do big crankbaits like the Bomber Long A and the MirrOlure 102, tossed far upcurrent and cranked back down.
The last hurrah for snooking is the mullet migration, usually around the strong moon periods in late October or early November, which turns on snook both in the inlets and along the beaches.
You don't necessarily need a boat. At Sebastian, there's good fishing off the north jetty and off the catwalks under the A1A bridge, for those who don't have boats, as well as from the bridge over the Sebastian River, on the mainland side. Jetty action is also excellent at Fort Pierce, though there's no bridge over that inlet.
Sebastian marks the southern limit of the serious run of southern flounder, the big “doormats” that head to Florida from the Carolinas each fall. In October and November, these hunks, 5 to 15 pounds, scuttle along the bottom of the inlet ready to gulp down any finger mullet or other baitfish that comes near.
Most locals anchor and still-fish mullet or killifish on bottom west of the bridge, but a tactic I've done well with is drifting with the tide, with the bait lip-hooked and with enough weight to keep the rig ticking bottom now and then. Using a live killifish on a yellow bucktail also does the job. The flatfish don't move around a lot, but they keep their eyes out for baitfish moving in and out with the tide. If you slide your bait across their nose, they'll nail it every time. Sometimes the inlet gets too crowded for this tactic, though, because a lot of anglers know about the flounder run, and if you're trying to drift when everybody else is anchored, it can cause problems. Drifting is best the first and last hour of the tidal flows; you go too fast during peak flows.
Running Sebastian, by the way, can be a bit tricky, with strong currents and a dogleg to the south, plus plenty of bars on the inside of the bridge. It's no sweat for most fishing size boats to 25 feet, but if you own a big inboard sportfish you'll need to be careful, even after you're well inside the bridge, because there's shoaling in the middle and on both sides of the channel.
Pass through either inlet and you're in cobia land in May, as the brown bombers follow the manta rays and the baitfish pods in the northward migration. The trick to finding them is to wait for a west wind and a high sun. Anglers with tower boats have the advantage when it comes to spotting the moving shadows that mark the rays or the baitfish, though sometimes the rays come right up on top and make themselves as obvious as an island. Cobia from 30 to 80 pounds trail them like puppy dogs. Best lures are a noisy topwater or a 1-ounce bucktail trimmed with a long, black plastic worm. (Make sure you don't hook the 2,000-pound manta, not even if you brought your lunch.) Cobia also attack all kinds of baitfish—add a big popping cork about three feet above the bait and pop it hard to make sure they look your way.
The offshore waters here are also noted for producing some of the largest dolphin taken anywhere in the state, with 50-pounders caught each spring. The usual tactic of working east until you see the color change is a good start; it's usually somewhere between the 80- and 200-foot contours. Work on out to 400 feet if the inshore weedlines are crowded. Trolling rigged baits is the quick way to find the prettiest flotsam, but once you get in what looks like dolphin territory it's a good idea to shut down and drift live sardines or threads. Chances are good for a sailfish now and then, and you might even land a big wahoo if you go to a short length of wire rather than mono leader. It's not impossible to connect with a blue marlin on his way toward Hatteras. Drift a 3-pound live bonito on a 10/0 if you're an optimist.
Another interesting bite here in spring is the blackfin action around the shrimp boats, which usually anchor northeast of Sebastian in about 150 feet of water after a night of pulling their trawls. As they cull, they chum up the tuna, which range from 15 to 25 pounds. (They also chum up thousands of bonito; the challenge is getting your bait through the boneheads to the blackfins.) Chunks of cut fish are the natural attractant, but you can sometimes get them by towing a big diving plug behind the shrimpers, too.
This action usually ends by 9 a.m., but by then you might have your week's supply of tuna steaks in the cooler.
Want smoker kings? There are plenty of them around the outflows of both inlets on an outgoing tide. A few years back I watched an angler standing on the jetty at Sebastian deck a 37-pounder by drifting out half a ladyfish under a balloon on an outgoing tide. He used an 8/0 rig, and needed every muscle to handle the fish while standing in one spot on the rocks. From a boat, it's easier; fish the falling-tide color break, where the black inshore water meets the green offshore water, with big livies like footlong ladyfish, bluefish or mullet. The pros usually put out chumbags and menhaden oil drips, too.
For numbers of kings, troll the offshore reefs in 30 to 80 feet of water; some of the best-known areas are Bethel Shoal, southeast of Sebastian, Capron Shoal, east southeast of Fort Pierce Inlet, Pierce Shoal, due south of Capron, and St. Lucie Shoal, about halfway between Fort Pierce and St. Lucie inlets. All but Pierce have buoys on their perimeter, making them easy to find once you get in the vicinity via chart and GPS. There's also a mile-long artificial reef just north of Fort Pierce Inlet, and a scatter of shoals spreading over about 5 miles just off Vero Beach. A 5-inch chrome spoon on a No. 2 or 3 planer or downrigger is the sure way to connect on any of these areas, particularly when bait and birds indicate fish below.
Pompano are another good target, though May is a little late for them. The best action is November through late March, with the water temperature below 70 degrees. They're found in the deep troughs along the beach, and the water between Sebastian and Fort Pierce has some of the best of this contour on the east coast; the rocky area around Wabasso is a noted pompano hole. Ideal pompano weather is a light wind out of the west, calm surf and clear water; you can catch them on small jigs including the hairless and strange-looking Doc's Goofy Jig as well as on sand fleas and clams fished on bottom. When the water is rough, the naturals do better, and you may need 3 to 6 ounces of weight to hold bottom, so a big surf rig may be needed for casting.
In short, whether you discover Fort Pierce and Sebastian inlets on purpose or by accident, you'll be glad you did.