Fishing in Central Florida's Saltwater Wilderness
It is often said that fishing is as much about the places we fish as it is about the fish themselves. One of those extraordinary places to fish is Central Florida's Banana River watershed. This brackish river borders a wilderness habitat on its western shoreline that has been virtually untouched since the time of Spanish exploration. Across the river on the opposite bank is NASA's Kennedy Space Center, a landscape of launching platforms where technology took its giant leap for mankind with spaceflight to the moon.
It is not incidental that the bond of this special place is in the water that lies between these shorelines. Capt. Don Perchalski has invited me to spend a day fishing the no-motor zone in the northern end of the Banana River. This is a 10,000-acre federal manatee protection area and part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. No motors of any type are allowed in or on vessels. It is a compromise conservation plan. Instead of banning all entry into the sensitive habitat, those who make a considerable investment of time and effort are rewarded with access to the pristine estuary. Because the fish are unmolested by outboard-motor noise, and food for them here is so plentiful, the giant redfish and black drum feed easily along the grass banks of the Banana River and some grow to world record sizes.
We begin our day at 4:30 a.m. From the banks of the river we look into a spectacular nighttime sky; it is not difficult to see where the rocket scientists on the eastern shoreline have drawn their inspiration. The vessel we will launch this day is new to me. It is a locally made Gheenoe (say"gey-new") and for lack of a better description, it is a flat-bottomed canoe. We will paddle and pole for miles into the remote area of the no-motor zone. We hope to find snook still on their nocturnal feed. There may be a few tarpon around, some ladyfish, bluefish, seatrout and of course, the redfish and black drum.
As we paddle into the darkness, the water glows as if it is radioactive. Bioluminescence caused by single-celled marine organisms known as dinoflagellates illuminate each paddle stroke with a brilliant chemical display. This biological reaction triggered by turbulence is their self-defense mechanism. Suddenly turbulence and self-defense becomes an understatement. A school of black mullet numbering into the hundreds erupts on all sides of the Gheenoe. Something big below is trying to eat them. Each fleeing mullet leaves a bioluminescent contrail in the water before bursting to the surface and becoming airborne. I have to wonder if the aerodynamic experts on the other side of the river have ever witnessed velocity and trajectory at this level. I ask Capt. Don if he has ever been smacked by a flying mullet.
"That's nothing compared to what will happen if we paddle onto the back of a sleeping manatee," he says. Manatees can weigh up to 3,000 pounds."The entire Gheenoe will become airborne if that happens."
It is a long paddle into the river. Daybreak reveals the infrastructure of the Cape Canaveral Air Station and Kennedy Space Center. It was just over 50 years ago that the United States launched a modified German V2 rocket called Bumper 8 out of this estuary. It blazed a trail skyward for robots, chimps, and ultimately men and women to a new frontier of exploration and years of triumph and tragedy. I turn my gaze to the west side of the river and there is a vision of another world."String up your fly rod here," Capt. Don says."There are some big fish moving that bait." I had almost forgotten for a minute that we were fishing. That's okay with Capt. Don. He is a guide who is confident in his presentation of a balanced day. There will be fish; that is a given, but there will be other values at play here, too. There is the living history of the Space Center, the stunning display of wildlife in the refuge, and of course, the inevitable surprises that are always a component of every fishing trip. The river is swarming with baitfish and they are nervous. There are three varieties of mullet here. Black mullet, which were the staple food of the indigenous Florida Crackers for a hundred years until commercial netters decimated their stocks for the Japanese fish roe market. There are silver mullet, which are used by meat fishermen as cut bait and readily available frozen in most bait and tackle stores. And then there are the thumb-sized finger mullet that are like candy bars to the redfish, tarpon and snook."There is so much bait here and so little pressure," Don says,"that the fish never have to leave the no-motor zone." I cast into a pod of jittery finger mullet and my fly line comes instantly tight. Then, bursting to the surface, there is an oversize ladyfish tail-walking in the sunrise. I forget that I have to bow to these jumps. With a cartwheeling flip the ladyfish spits the fly and falls back into the school of terrorized mullet. Don has given me an outrageous fly to use called a Gurgler. It is a popper with hot yellow Ethafoam lips. Looking at this fly is like listening to a belly laugh. It is contagiously funny. The ladyfish don't think it's funny, they think it's protein and they wallop it repeatedly. Fly-fishing for ladyfish is a hoot. It is exciting and gratifying, and it is hard to stop casting. A swirl in the water the size of a garbage can lid does, however, give me pause."You see that?" I ask Don. He is quick to answer."Yeah, but like Lefty says, 'You can't eat a swirl,' so cast to it!" I throw the Gurgler and a big, dark shape nearly five feet long rises to the surface behind it. There is another swirl and a snap, and the Gurgler with its happy yellow lips is now stuck between the teeth of…an alligator. I have lived in Florida my entire life and I have never before hooked an alligator."Hey Cap," I ask,"Is it politically incorrect to catch an alligator? This is not like fishing for a porpoise, is it?" Don shrugs a non-committal answer, and then he seems relieved when I assure him I am not interested in fabricating a new pair of shoes with this catch. The alligator comes quickly-maybe a little too quickly-to the boat side. I hold the leader in my left hand."How are you going to release him?" I ask. Don gives me a hard look."A better question is: How are you going to release him?" he answers."My suggestion," he says,"is to get into the water, put one leg over his back, and grab him behind the head. Really!""Because," he adds with emphasis,"you are not going to bring him into the Gheenoe." The gator, meanwhile, has other ideas. With a coiled strike that begins from its tail, the reptile lunges toward me. I pull back with a little too much adrenaline on the leader and the tippet snaps. I would like to have said that I was disappointed that this happened but the termination of this event is a relief, I am sure, to all three of us. For a moment the alligator stays on the surface of the water a few feet away from the gunwale of the Gheenoe. It stares balefully at me. Then, it moves its tongue around its teeth as if to relieve the irritation of a popcorn husk. With a spit and a hiss, the gator gargles out the barbless Gurgler, and then slowly submerges into the Banana River. This distraction has diverted my attention from the pageantry being played out elsewhere at daybreak in the refuge. A curtain of birds has gathered along the shoreline. There are great egrets and snowy egrets, herons, ibis, and blacknecked stilts. Rare species of birds have been observed here, too, including the endangered peregrine falcon, wood stork and snail kite. We are treated to a magnificent feeding display of roseate spoonbills at close range. They make a grunting"unk-unk" sound as they shovel small crustaceans out of the marsh. The color of their plumage is radiant. It is ironic that for millions of people visiting Central Florida, their first choice in recreation is often Disney World, or Sea World or Gatorland, when in the same neighborhood there is the natural attraction of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Don is poling the Gheenoe into deeper water now, clearly on a mission to find bigger fish. The double-digit redfish and big black drum (considered by many anglers to be the permit of backwater estuary fishing) are most prevalent in the winter months when water here can sometime become as clear as in the Florida Keys."We see big pods of the giant reds in the winter," Don says,"and they are not getting bounced around by boat traffic like they are in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon." These are fish that bend a 9- or 10-weight fly rod into the butt section. They are redfish that can easily weigh 50 pounds. I get a quick shot at a fish considerably smaller. Its color glows like a fat koi in a goldfish pond. As I strip a Prince of Tides fly past its head, the redfish snatches it without hesitation. A lively tug-of-war ends abruptly when the fish burrows into a weed patch. The hook pulls and the fly, wrapped with eelgrass and mud, boomerangs back into my face. I am sure I hear a chortle from the back of the Gheenoe, but when I turn to look at our stoic captain he is stone-faced and searching for more fish. We see a giant redfish next, pushing a wake that is visible from 200 yards."This is what we have been waiting for," Don says quietly. Something has caused the fish to move, but it is still an easy head-on shot. Simply put, this is a lay up."All you have to do," Don says,"is get the fly in front of the fish and he'll eat it." That's all I have to do. Yet, after 25 years of hard fly-fishing in saltwater, I am overwhelmed by a fascinating and uncharacteristic emotion. I have the jitters, big-time jitters. I know I can easily make this shot. I can make it left-handed. But for some reason, I am shaking like a leaf. I can make this shot with my eyes closed, but my heart is pounding so hard I cannot even see straight. My vision is good enough, however, to see that the fast approaching fish is larger than any redfish I have ever seen-many times larger."You'd better cast now," Don says with just a touch of urgency. Still, I am rooted to the deck, a deer in the headlights. Jeeze 'O Pete, that's a big redfish! When I finally cast, the head-on shot is now a 90-degree right angle. It does not matter anyway because I am way off target. I have dropped the ball on a fish of a lifetime. And, then I realize that it's okay. This is a good thing. A fish that can generate so much emotion in me after all these years of fishing is a testament to the pure joy of this sport. The giant redfish steams across the river in the direction of the Space Center. This has been a day of superlatives. Capt. Don Perchalski begins his long paddle out of the no-motor zone. I sit quietly in the bow and watch as another mullet jumps, its pectoral fins open to add lift and trim. I gaze to the shoreline toward the NASA runway and try to imagine what it must look like to see the space shuttle descending over this estuary on a final approach from outer space. In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, I wonder if that will ever happen again. A shudder passes through me when I think that it was here, along the banks of the Banana River, in this estuary and on these shorelines thriving with life, that those seven astronauts had their final physical contact with our blue planet. Travel notes: Capt Don Perchalski specializes in fishing the no-motor access zone of the Banana River. He can be reached at 305-544-6653 or [email protected].