Every July, anglers and vendors converge on Orlando for ICAST, the largest fishing convention in the world. Corporate execs and media reps fly in from London, Tokyo, and all points around and between to see the newest gizmos and gadgets. After they talk shop, old friends reconnect and shoot the breeze on the many management and environmental issues affecting the world’s fisheries.
This year, with Florida’s algal blooms looming large in the news at that time, the topic of conversation was Florida’s waterways.
As an out-of-towner visiting solely for the show, every native Floridian felt compelled to tell me what living with algae was really like.
“My brother has asthma now from breathing in the putrid air.”
“I can’t paddle a kayak through the guck that covers the water, sometimes several inches thick.”
“My family doesn’t go in the water, and we don’t eat what comes out of it.”
Tough words from residents of the state that regularly hosts the biggest sportfishing expo in the world. Florida not only brings anglers to ICAST every July, it also issues roughly one third of all the fishing licenses sold annually in the U.S. Suffice it to say, when Floridians have a fishing problem, fishing has a problem.
The great thing about ICAST is that it’s a trade show, not a typical expo or convention. The show has a couple media days before the main event, but the meat of ICAST runs Wednesday through Friday, not Friday through Sunday as other shows do. What that meant for me was a long weekend in Florida with no need to be back in South Carolina before Monday. You can only look at so much fishing-related paraphernalia before it becomes absolutely necessary to try it out yourself, so by the show’s close on Friday I was ready to hit the water.
But did I really want to fish in Florida? Was it worth the effort . . . or the possible exposure? After all, “Algae gave my brother asthma.”
As a non-resident, I still can’t speak for much of the state on issues of algal health, but I can say for certain that some areas of Florida are still very beautiful, very healthy, and very productive for anglers. I know because I found it just a bit north of Orlando proper.
Friday evening found me in the town of Lake Mary after having spent quite a bit of time fighting the juggernaut that is Orlando traffic. The next morning I met Capt. Tom Van Horn of Mosquito Coast Fishing Charters for a morning of fishing on the legendary St. Johns River. The waterway runs 310 miles (the longest in the state) from its headwaters in the St. John Marsh north to the Atlantic Coast outside Jacksonville, and has become one of the most popular fishing destinations in Florida—no small feat for a state with so many good options to choose from. The river only sees 30 feet of elevation change in its entire length; as a result, tidal changes affect nearly one half of the river’s water . . . as we found out.
We put in early the next morning just below Lake Harney along Highway 46. A couple quick turns brought us into the lake itself, where we intended to fish along the southern shore. No sooner had we settled out of the plane and began casting than we had reds on the surface all around us. Casting live bait, we were in and around them but just couldn’t get their attention.
That’s when the aforementioned tides came. The water began rising, and though we could still make out some of the reds knifing along through the water, they were soon scattered to the four corners of the lake as the water deepened.
With the July heat already beginning to rise and the odds of finding fish across the open lake iffy, we turned south—upriver—and headed for the mouth of the Econlockhatchee River on the right ascending bank. The river feeds into the St. Johns, with its headwaters winding away to the southeast. There we’d make a play for some of the largemouth bass that hang out in the shade of the overhanging palmettos.
We wove our way past the grassy fields that stretched along either side of the river. Dotted with curious cows, Tom explained that this area was held in a conservancy from time immemorial, though its future is uncertain. When/if developed, this tract would rival Orlando and provide the next big boom in Florida’s real estate market, but for now the ground simply provides graze for cattle and keeps the soil from washing away.
Recent rains allowed us to get farther back into the “jungle,” as Tom called it, and we saw some of the raised platforms some adventurous souls use as shelters when staying in the area overnight. Sadly, the heat was already waiting for us. The fishing wasn’t spectacular, but I did manage to catch a small bass in a weird way.
D.O.A. had just introduced a new lure at ICAST called the D.O.A. Snake Coil. You can probably guess what it does: It’s essentially a soft plastic that, instead of being shaped like a worm, looks like a snake; when it hits the water and sinks to the bottom, it automatically coils up, giving it that life-like action that lures always strive for but so seldom attain.
That’s not quite how I fished it, though, at least not on this particular cast. We had been hitting likely spots along both banks when I mistakenly threw into and over a low-hanging tree branch. I instantly began reeling in, but almost as soon as the lure reached the surface to head skyward, a not-much-more-than-a-fingerling bass took hold. All told, it may have weighed a pound, but it looked awfully odd hanging there above the water as we both realized what had happened.
We lowered the fish just enough to put it back into the water, then moved over to make the release. I think the bass was grateful for the brief reprieve from the hot water, but I can’t be sure. With that, my day on the St. Johns was pretty much over.
The next morning found me a few miles northeast in New Smryna Beach fishing with Capt. Bill Fisher of Fisher’s Lagoon Charters. We headed out even earlier in the a.m. to beat the heat, but sunup found us already sweating in the back channels of the Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve. The high water had hurt us the day before, but this time it filled the weed beds till the tops of the grass blades were nearly underwater. The reds were there, cutting the surface as they hunted about, but we couldn’t get their attention.
The trout, on the other hand, had no problem taking our live bait. Anchoring to the leeward of a small island, we cast to the grass on its right. A tug so small it almost didn’t register with me was the first of a succession of fish, each one progressively bigger. The first one to the boat was barely a pound, but each subsequent fish added weight until I finally landed one that Bill put at a good six to seven pounds.
We finally brought eight fish to the net, taking advantage of every second of high tide that we could. Eventually the water began its downward trend, exposing rock beds and sending the trout off to deeper areas. We headed back to the ramp to avoid being stranded in the preserve for many hours, but with so many islands to choose from, we could have practically walked back to the dock if necessary. It’s that wild and remote of a place, with nary a sight of civilization once you get into the depths of its range.
Sunday afternoon found me off the water but with too little time left in the day to start back for home. What to do with a free night?
To Google I went.
Results for nearby Cape Canaveral came up, which didn’t seem particularly attractive because I assumed the visitor’s center would be closed by the time I got there. Lo and behold, there was a SpaceX flight scheduled for 1 a.m. the next morning. Being 26 and still able to operate on a minimal amount of sleep, I grabbed dinner and headed south for the launch.
The only way it could have been a more exciting time is if I had been out on the water between Canaveral and Titusville. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky until minutes before the launch took place, and the moon made the still water glow on either side of the NASA Causeway. A bank of cirrus clouds blew in right before T-Minus Zero, which only succeeded in reflecting the shuttle’s exhaust and making the launch light up the entire sky.
It wasn’t quite an Apollo launch, but Elon Musk did manage to get this shuttle off the ground. Well worth the late night and early morning required to see it lift off, and the perfect cap to a weekend on Florida’s still-pristine water.
If You Want To Go
Mosquito Coast Fishing Charters and Fishing Lagoon Charters are some of the finest guiding operations in the state. Whether you’re after fresh or saltwater species, these two companies can get you where you need to be to catch Florida’s best. Stay in either Lake Mary or New Smryna Beach to enjoy the finest accommodations in between days on the water.