Go West, young man, Go West–Horace Greeley
Westward Ho! I am heading to Colorado for the summer, making tracks from the Everglades
to the Rockies to beat the heat and the rainy season. You know when it’s time to leave Florida when you step outside and your eyelids start sweating!! I’ve packed up my mobile fish camp and will be on the road for two weeks, taking the northern route this year through Georgia and Tennessee then west. I’ll be doing some piscatorial research along the way as sampling local cuisine and culture in two states I haven’t had the pleasure of driving the back roads.
My first stop will be Cape Canaveral and the Banana River Lagoon, near my old stomping grounds where I lived for
the past 6 years before moving to the Everglades in May. I’ll be revisiting some of my old favorite angling spots in honor of my good friend and best fishing buddy, Tris Miles, who passed away last year after a tough battle with lung cancer. We spent many good days together kayak fishing the Banana River No-Motor-Zone flanking the Kennedy Space Center.
The five-hour drive up from the Everglades goes smoothly, and I get set up quickly in a retro RV park called Carver’s Cove. Despite being in the heart of bustling Cape Canaveral, it has dirt roads and big old shade trees, not to mention some frontage on the Banana River. Then with some trepidation I walk down the narrow road to the dock to check the water conditions. I’ve been reading about the algae blooms, growing pollution, and intracoastal waterway fish kills here in the Banana and Indian Rivers. The water isn’t as clear as usual–more like a watery pea soup–but on my third cast I get a jolting strike….and after a brief tussle reel in a nice baby tarpon!! What a surprise. Before the sun sets, I have caught a few small sea trout, everything on a red jig head with a root beer-colored grub with a chartreuse curly tail that seems to glow in the cloudy water. It seems to be the ticket! So, with visions dancing in my head of high-jumping snook shaking their booty and voluptuous sea trout, I head back to an early lights out. The alarm is going off at 4:00 a.m!! I’m on the water at first light to beat the heat and any other early-bird anglers. The no-motor-zone is special…no motors allowed so it’s a refuge in a growing area just north of bustling Port Canaveral with it’s giant cruise ships–quiet, pristine. Everything that most of this part of Florida isn’t these days. Access is either through Kars Park on the west side or an informal, primitive launch site on the east just before the entry gate to the Canaveral Air Force Base. I load up quickly and then pedal steadily for twenty minutes north to a spot where Tris and I used to lure some big sea trout. The water here is cloudy like at the RV park, so I use the same root beer curly tail….and don’t get as much as a nibble for 15 minutes. Oh how fickle these fish can be.
I switch to a surface lure–a Zara Spook, hoping to imitate the schools of mullet that seem to be everywhere…a good sign. I throw a long cast and start cranking the Spook which churns the water and darts side-to-side like an injured bait fish. Rock and roll. It reminds me of my swivel hips on the dance floor (Don’t laugh till you have seen the spectacle!). Then WHAM! The water under Spook explodes, and I am on to a good head-shaking sea trout. It goes 17 inches–not a big one for these waters, but not a bad start. I can feel Tris smiling.
That’s the last look I have at the Spook, so I switch to the venerable white curly tail, which is my go-to lure in the Everglades, and it immediately produces a high-jumping ladyfish, then a trout, then another ladyfish. It proves to be the ticket for the rest of the day, nary a fish coming to the boat on any other lure despite a lot of experimentation. I continue up the shoreline, picking up an occasional ladyfish and several decent trout among the little guys. Nothing spectacular, but it’s enjoyable with a nice breeze from the southwest and some puffy clouds shielding me from the hot sun. Then I hear a big splash, and hoping it’s a big redfish, wheel the kayak around to see a couple of dolphin feasting on the sea trout I was hoping to catch. These are not Disney’s Flipper, but real voracious hunters as you can see in the video. Great to see the wilds in juxtaposition to the launch pads that ring the no-motor-zone.
I continue pedaling north and start thinking about lunch as I hit a point where Tris and I often scored big.
The water is shallow here, only knee deep, so I hop out of the kayak and start wading carefully. I toss the jig into a jumble of downed mangroves, and something smacks the lure hard! It’s a hefty 20″ sea trout, the kind I am used to seeing in these waters, Next cast another jolt, and a nice baby snook comes in reluctantly. Next cast a hard hit, and a big sea trout erupts to the surface, shaking its head. After a good battle, I release the hefty 24-incher, my biggest of the year. The next half hour it’s lights out as a dozen good trout, three snook, and even a little redfish succumb to the allure of the pulsating curly tail. It’s barely noon, and I have scored a Banana River slam….and a grand slam if you count the tarpon I caught yesterday: Snook, trout, redfish, and tarpon. I am not a religious man, but have to think Tris put in a good word for me with the fishing gods! Can it get any better?
I continue wading the shoreline in the next cove and spot trout and black drum working the shallows. I catch a nice trout, but the drum like real bait so insouciantly fin by my offerings, noses turned up. Then I feel that somebody or something is watching me. I turn slowly and see a couple of beady little eyes looking me over–a gator! Fortunately, he’s a little guy, so I
decide to have a little sport with him. But when he disappears beneath the surface, I hightail it back to the kayak….it’s not nice to tempt even the little ones.
The wind has quieted down, and at the next point, I am able to spot some big sea trout basking on the flats. They don’t see me as I float by only a few feet away, so I wheel the kayak around and toss a cast past them and begin to retrieve. The rod is nearly yanked from my hands and my jaw drops as I watch a hefty snook explode into the air. The trout scatter as I bail out of the kayak and give chase. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of mangrove roots for the fish to flee into–there are no tides in the Banana River and the water is too shallow to reach them. After a strong battle, the snook relents–she’s a muscular 28 inches, one of the biggest I have caught in the Banana River!
As the sun gets higher in the sky and the clouds clear, the fish seem to hibernate. Both snook and trout have sensitive eyes and usually avoid bright sun. I catch some good trout here and there in deeper spots, then get treated to a momma manatee and her wee baby swimming around in a hidden bay that few people know about. The baby is curious and gives me a good-looking over before rejoining his mom. It’s 4 p.m. by now and time to head back to the put-in. It’ll be a good two hours of pedaling especially since the wind has shifted and is blowing from the southeast into my face. I make it back to my lunch hot spot, and take a rest, hopping out of the kayak to stretch my legs. I see a shadow slowly moving away in the cloudy water and toss the lure a few feet in front of it. The shadow darts forward and pins the lure to the bottom…redfish! And a good one. Like white guys, redfish can’t jump much, but bore away like a big bull!! He strips line off my reel, then rolls and reverses course. On my light tackle, it takes me five minutes to bring him in–a fat 26-inch fish! Talk about icing on the cake! Now that’s a real slam–24″ trout, 26″ red, and 28″ snook!
I tip my hat to the Banana River, which here seems to have survived the onslaughts of pollution, at least for now. And a big salute to Mr. Miles. He was a rare friend. Unfailingly kind, honest and true-blue loyal–and he even let me outfish him from time-to-time. Damn I miss him!!