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A Nice Kettle of Fish

This is an installment in an ongoing series featuring Florida's passes and inlets.

The south jetty at Jupiter provides easy access from Jupiter Beach Park.

These great fishing spots are notable for their variety. A change of seasons or a change of tides can bring exciting new possibilities. Whether you’re casting from shore, fishing the inside flats, or bound for the blue water, you’ll want to join us each month for an inside look at these waterways.

I was standing in fish chowder, the heavy scent oozing around me like warm oil on the slow breeze off the gentle surf. It was not unpleasant. The fish were alive, an inch long, and transparent as glass.


There were billions of them, as far as I could see, in the inch-deep water where the sea met the sand. And along the deeper water of the trough, Spanish mackerel were doing headstands over them, snook were turning them into popcorn from below, jacks and bluefish were chasing them out on the beach and pelicans were gulping them up by the bucketbill.


Throw a two-inch chrome spoon into the surf, reel in a mackerel. Throw it again, reel in (not as easily) a snook. Throw it once more and a tarpon takes it away from you and heads for West End.

Ho hum, just another morning at St. Lucie Inlet. If the glass minnows aren’t running, the silver mullet are. When either is scarce, the pilchards, ballyhoo and thread herring rule. It’s a moving feast that changes with the seasons, but the gamefish are the near constant. Because of the unique location of St. Lucie and Jupiter, her sister inlet just a few miles south, the fishing here is maybe the best inshore-offshore combination Florida has to offer. Both sit just north of the state’s “elbow” into the west arm of the Gulf Stream, and benefit from the back eddies of this massive, year-round flow of clear, warm water.




On the inside, it’s mostly about snook. These inlets get stiff with lunkers during the summer spawn. Biologist Ron Taylor of the Florida Marine Research Institute says that the snook here, like the seatrout, grow faster and fatter than their cousins on the west coast due to the abundant bait and always-warm water. In fact, the fish average so large that many guides complain they have a tough time finding fish under the new 34-inch maximum for their customers who want a snook to eat! (All guides should have such problems).


A trip I made to St. Lucie last July with veteran snooker and lure inventor Mark Nichols was typical. We drifted the “Hole In the Wall” area on the south side of the main pass on an outgoing tide, dragging soft plastic mullet along bottom in about 8 to 10 feet of water. It’s a sand bottom littered with tree snags. On every drift, one of us stuck a snook over 10 pounds, and some of the fish went well up into the teens. Some might have been bigger—we’ll never know, because we couldn’t hold them out of the sunken logs with our “spindly” 20-pound tackle.

“It’s like this from late May through September,” Nichols told me. “Move around until you find where the schools are stacked and it’s instant snook, for as long as you care to fish.” In fact, finding the fish can be a gimme in the inlets on incoming tide, when the clear water makes it perfectly obvious where the fish have gathered. They usually hang around some sort of structure that partially blocks the current—outcrops in the jetties, sandbars, etc. (The sandbar off the south jetty is a famed snooking spot.) Fishing the clear water usually requires live sardines (pilchards), which are used both as live chum and as freelined or lightly weighted offerings on 1/0 livebait hooks. However, you can also catch the fish during murky-water periods and at dawn, dusk and after dark on artificials, including flies; this is the haunt of many tippet-class record chasers.

You don’t even need a boat to score here. The flats of the Indian River to the north of St. Lucie are fabled spots for big snook and trout, with the snook most often found under the docks and in the boat channels, the trout more frequently over the grass and around the bars. In fact, this is one area where a skilled wader can fully expect to connect with a trout of 5 pounds, daily, and that 10-pounder is again a possibility. The fish tend to congregate around the ankle-deep bars, where they lie among the leaping mullet, and the bite is usually best at dawn, dusk or after sundown. (Wading here after dark is a special challenge because of the mantis shrimp, which are inclined to jab you in the ankle if you step too close to their turf. It hurts, and worse, you usually think it’s a stingray hit at first.

You can also fish the outer inlet by walking down the beach from either the north or the south side. In both cases, it’s a long walk because there’s no parking area close to the inlet. However, if you make the trip in October, chances are good that you’ll find plenty of fishing to entertain you on the walk, and it may be so good you never make it all the way to the inlet.

For boating flats anglers, best place to launch is probably the ramp on the Stuart Causeway/Ocean Drive. If you’re headed for the inlet itself or offshore, the ramps at Sandsprit Park in Stuart off St. Lucie Boulevard also are handy; they’re within sight of the jetties. (The bar at the tip of the park is another good spot for waders, too.)

JUPITER INLET

With its lighthouse-capped hill on the north side, the inlet at Jupiter is one of Florida’s most picturesque. The red brick structure is over 100 years old and still in daily operation. (Call (561) 747-6639 for tour info.) But it’s the lights down on the docks of the marinas and restaurants on the south side that attract the attention of anglers. At the Jupiter Seaport Marina, I stood on the dock on a morning this spring and looked down into a wall of snook six feet deep and 30 feet across, every one of them over the minimum 26-inch size limit. Eagle rays finned past, a pair of tarpon cruised through, and sargasso weed made up the flotsam. (You can’t fish off the docks here, but you can pull up late at night in your boat, anchor and drift a pilchard in under the deck. Hang on!)

The sargasso coming through an inlet gives a hint of how close the blue water is here; sometimes it comes nearly to the beach, bringing with it sails, dolphin and even the occasional white marlin. It’s more dependably out at the 80-foot break and beyond, however, which is itself only minutes from the inlet.

Jupiter is the creation of the Loxahatchee River, an abrupt stream that rises only a few miles into the savannahs to the west, but which is fed by canals ent ering its south arm, carrying with it the tadpoles, catfish and snapping turtles all the way from J.W. Corbett Wildlife Preserve, which stretches almost to the banks of Okeechobee. The main Loxahatchee doglegs to the northeast into Jonathan Dickinson State Park, and the much narrower North Fork wanders off toward Hobe Sound. The dark waters of all three forks attract migrating snook in winter, with the dam outflow on the South Fork a favorite after heavy rains. The main fork has lots of 12-foot-deep holes around the bends where it narrows down, and these are good spots to pull a sinking plug in winter for snook. The lower river sometimes gets a run of big blues and jacks in from the inlet in fall and early winter, as well.

Jupiter Sound, just inside the barrier island, is a different kettle of fish, with lots of grassflats and docks; it’s a better choice in spring, summer and fall. (If you’re a night prowler, check out the S.R. 707 bridge at Tequesta, but take your big guns.) A public ramp at Burt Reynolds Park, just south of the U.S. 1 bridge in Jupiter, is the best place to launch either to head out the inlet or into the sound.

Jupiter offers excellent action for jetty anglers at Jupiter Beach Park, reached by following A1A to Jupiter Beach Road on the south side of the inlet. Use a sabiki rig around the rocks on the inside to get your bait, then walk it out on the jetty and you may tangle with anything from snook to smoker kingfish.

The rock formations at Blowing Rocks Preserve north of Tequesta and at the House of Refuge north of St. Lucie Inlet are a rarity along beaches anywhere in the southeast. And they provide feeding stations for all of the migrators in September and October as the baitfish hurry south. In calm weather, you can work these fish from a flats boat on a trolling motor, easing near the surf to put your bait among the breaks.

OFFSHORE

When you head offshore, you’ll find the first dropoff about six miles off St. Lucie Marker 2, and a mile or so closer out of Jupiter, where depths increase rapidly from 80 to 130 feet. This is the trolling alley where sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, blackfins and a bit of everything else in the ocean shows up. In winter, there’s some of the world’s best sailfishing between St. Lucie and Palm Beach inlets, with releases of five to 10 fish per day a distinct possibility December through February, particularly after cold fronts roll through. Most dependable tactic is to drift or kite-fish live goggle-eyes or other baitfish. (Put an extra bait down about 60 feet on a downrigger and you’ll probably be grilling wahoo or a smoker king for supper.)

If you’re into grouper and snapper, there are at least 20 wrecks within easy running distance from the two inlets; a book like “Coastal Loran & GPS Coordinates” (813-884-1810) will give you more spots to fish than you can visit in a year, as will any of the charts you buy at local tackle shops. Big jigs, six ounces and up, tipped with fresh-cut fish or even live sand perch, will do the damage.

Those are the good things about these lovely and fertile inlets. The bad thing about both of them is that they are nasty in a blow. St. Lucie is a sort of obstacle course, with one “detached” jetty right in the middle of the inlet. In big swells and poor light, it can be hard to see until you’re almost on top of it. Jupiter has moving shoals at the mouth that migrate with every big blow. Picking a smooth path through can be problematic when the northeast winds howl in winter.

So you pick your days to go outside here, and you don’t try either when strong winds and tides oppose each other. But in the usually benign weather of summer, both are likely to be peaceable enough. And if they’re not, you’ll have to resign yourself to staying inside and tangling with trophy snook and jumbo trout.

FS

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