Photo Caption: Banana River snook- During the summer, snook like this are available all through the lagoons.
You get a special thrill when you go exploring and discover something good in a place where you’ve never been. Florida’s Space Coast offers many such opportunities. You might think that after fishing in the same area for over 30 years that this feeling might be hard to come by. But there is so much water here, and so many different ways to approach it, that several times every year I still feel the thrill of discovery sending chills up my spine.
Where Are We?
The Space Coast lies an hour’s drive east of Disney World. The waters here include the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon system, with three major parts- the Indian River Lagoon, the Mosquito Lagoon, and the Banana River Lagoon. Since the ocean is typically too rough for small craft during the winter, let’s take a closer look at the lagoons.
The Indian River Lagoon (IRL)
The IRL stretches for 156 miles behind a series of barrier islands along Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast. Averaging only three feet deep, the IRL is the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. For an angler, that means there are lots of different species to target, fishing that’s available 365 days a year.
Around the Space Center those species include redfish and seatrout all year round, and black drum in the winter months. Tarpon, snook, snapper, pompano, bluefish, and other species will sometimes find their way onto the angler’s line.
The stretch of the Lagoon that we’re interested in here lies between Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center, extending off to the north for about 10 miles and to the south as far as you would care to go.
The Mosquito Lagoon
The Mosquito Lagoon lies on the north side of the Space Center. Like the IRL it has extensive areas of shallow flats. At the north end a maze of islands, channels, flats, and ponds offers a superb area for those in hand powered boats to explore and fish, even on windy days.
Like the IRL, seatrout and redfish are the principal year-round targets. Black drum and sometimes bluefish appear in the winter.
The Banana River Lagoon
The Banana River Lagoon is a long arm of the IRL that extends up into the south side of the Space Center. The northernmost section of this water body is a no motor zone. No boats with motors are allowed in there. This makes it an excellent playground for those in canoes and kayaks.
It offers fishing for redfish and black drum (as well as snook, tarpon, seatrout, and jacks in season) for those willing to invest sweat equity. The black drum up here can exceed 50 pounds and are the largest tailing fish to which you will ever cast. If you decide to visit here expect to do lots of paddling.
Along the Space Coast there are only two inlets letting water into the lagoons. To the north is Ponce de Leon Inlet and to the south is Sebastian Inlet. If you are within five miles of these inlets, you’ll observe tidal flow. Once you’re farther away than that there is essentially no flow at all. The water level stays about the same all day.
Tackle and Flies
Most fly-fishers consider an eight-weight the standard saltwater outfit. That works, of course, but you can increase your sport with lighter tackle, as small as a four-weight in the winter. The more delicate presentation helps with spooky fish.
Think of sight fishing as your primary technique. A small selection of sinking flies is all you need, although a popping bug does prove useful sometimes. Redfish and seatrout, our principal targets, feed mostly on shrimp, crabs, and other fish. Hooks on flies should run from #2 on the large end to #6 and the small end.
When faced with dirty water, or cloudy skies, cast blindly. Blind casting can be effective if you’re lucky enough to pick the right spot.
In order to sight fish effectively you must first find some fish and then make an effective presentation. Finding fish can be unbelievably easy, or impossible. This is fishing, after all.
Conduct the search from a skiff, from a canoe, a kayak, or on foot. All these methods work, and on any given day any one of them can be more effective than the others. With a skiff you can easily cover a lot of water. But when the fish are really skittish they won’t let you get near them.
Wading is slow, and with the muddy bottom in a lot of places it’s laborious. But you simply can’t beat wading for a stealthy approach.
If you intend to wade during the winter months waders are a must. You’ll need flats booties rather than felt soled wading shoes.
Two hazards present themselves to the wader. Stingrays frequent the flats on all but the coldest days. If you don’t see rays you won’t see much else, either. Waders must drag their feet to avoid stepping on one.
During the warmer months, alligators will be seen in all these waters. I’ve never been bothered by one, but I think any large carnivorous reptile deserves my utmost respect. When I’m in the water and see a big one paying a little too much attention to me, I get out of the water and go somewhere else.
What to Look For
Fish transmit their whereabouts to the savvy angler in a wide variety of ways. Most are subtle, but sometimes Ray Charles could see them.
Tailers- redfish, black drum, sheepshead, and even catfish all tail.
Mullet schools- certain times of the year, especially during the fall, the numbers of mullet simply boggle the mind. Predators of all kinds shadow mullet schools.
Waking Fish- These fish are pushing a wave as they swim through shallow water. They could be singles, or in schools with hundreds of individuals. Redfish and jacks are most frequently seen doing this, but other kinds of fish push wakes too.
Backing Fish- These are waking redfish, but the water is so shallow that their backs are exposed. This is only seen during the winter.
Finned Out Fish- Schooled up redfish will fin out when the water surface is slick. They aren’t tailing, they are lying at the surface sunning themselves. Rare to see.
Wading Birds- when you see several herons or egrets in the same area, stop and investigate. Bait is attracting the birds, and fish will often be in the same area.
Diving Birds- When in the lagoons ignore the pelicans and cormorants. Gulls are marginal indicators, appearing most frequently over ladyfish. Terns on the other hand, almost always dive over real fish- jacks, trout, mackerel, or bluefish.
Showering Bait- Mullet jump very casually most of the time. When they’re being pursued their demeanor changes. Hundreds of them will leap out of the water in unison, obviously trying desperately to vacate the area. This one is a no-brainer.
Space Coast fish see a lot of fishermen, and they frequently demand perfection from the angler. Even when there are lots of fish around, most days fishing here remains challenging. Our discussion centers on redfish. Everything discussed here remains applicable to the other species.
While sight fishing, try to anticipate where the fish is going and put your fly there. This means you have to lead the fish by two or three feet. Then allow the fish to encounter your lure. What the fish perceives is that it’s encountered a prey item that’s trying to escape. It will usually take.
If you fish here very long you will encounter a school of fish. While the initial urge is to throw into the middle of them, this is a mistake. Whether you face a single or a school, throw it to where they’re going and wait for them to get there.
When to Go
Folks always ask, “When is fishing best?” The easy answer, and really the only answer, to this question is “When they’re eating good!”
Many times I’ve seen the fishing be complete crap one day and on fire the next, or vice versa. On any given day, at any time of year, you can have a career day or get completely skunked.
For example, I fished a fellow by the name of Anthony Martino one day. We searched all over the Mosquito Lagoon with very little to show for it. Late in the day he caught two small trout over mudding rays, and that was it. I wasn’t very optimistic about the prospects for the next day.
I met John Campbell at the ramp the following morning, expecting another tough day. There were fish everywhere and John got 11 redfish in a half day. Thinking of Anthony’s experience, I kept telling him, “You shouldn’t have been here yesterday!”
On the Space Coast, as in most other places where I’ve fished, the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, and the best time to catch fish is when they’re biting. The only sure thing in fishing is that if don’t go you won’t catch any!
All the preceding concerns the lagoon system. We haven’t even mentioned the many fishing opportunities in the Atlantic here. The Space Coast offers enough angling opportunities, enough thrill of discovery, to keep one coming back for a lifetime.