YAK FISHING WITH MANATEES

November 10, 2015.  The following article (with pictures not included) appeared in the November / December issue of the Southern Kayak Fishing Magazine, located on the www.sokayakfishing.com website.

Located about 80 miles north of Tampa along what is commonly referred to as Florida’s Nature Coast, Citrus County offers outstanding, but often overlooked, kayak fishing for both fresh and saltwater species.  On its north and east sides, the Withlacoochee River and Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes frequently yield largemouth bass in the 10+ pound class.  Yakers simply need to keep an eye out for those pesky gators as they paddle through the lily pads in pursuit of them.

On the county’s salty west side, gators are few and far between.  There is no need to fear our manatee unless, of course, one decides to surface from under your yak, which happened to me one time, providing me with an opportunity to experience what rodeo bull riders must go through.  Or, unless, you happen to paddle between a female and her calf, which also happened to me once, resulting in momma giving me her best imitation of Shamu, leaving me soaked.  Almost always, however, these docile creatures simply nose up to my yak, occasionally allowing me to pat them on the head, and then swim off looking for a bit of sea grass to eat.  On occasion, one follows me around for 20 – 30 minutes; I’m not sure if they’re looking for a handout or think my yak may be a member of the opposite sex.

Since publication of an excellent article on our endangered manatee in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine, the towns of Crystal River and Homosassa have attracted thousands of tourists annually from all over the world to observe them, and, also, to get in the water and swim with them (the only place they’re allowed to do so).  Many visitors to the Orlando amusement parks now plan day trips to Citrus County to broaden their Florida experience.  Few choose to stay and explore the kayak fishing opportunities available in the nearby flats, bays, rivers and backcountry, leaving lots of room for us locals.

State parks, aquatic preserves and wildlife refuges bordering the Gulf of Mexico within and adjacent to the county create a 60-mile contiguous stretch of near-pristine salt marsh, offering extraordinary fish and wildlife habitat.  Countless miles of mangrove shorelines, numerous acres of sea grass beds and extensive oyster bars and hard bottom substrates provide nursery areas for a wide variety of fish and other marine life.  Excellent fishing is available within short paddles of several launch sites.  Spotting tailing redfish or snook in inches of water, placing perfect casts just beyond them, “walking the dog” past their locations, and watching them rush to inhale a topwater lure is an awesome experience.  Frequent encounters with dolphins, sea turtles, rays a host of shorebirds and other marine life, often with no other human in site, makes for quality outings even on slow fishing days.  Other more popular kayak angling destinations may offer larger fish and more frequent hook-ups, but few provide the remote solitude, beauty and uncrowded “Old Florida” feel of the Nature Coast.

I’ve enjoyed many years of kayak fishing since retiring here, and was looking for a way to give something back to the community I’ve come to call home.  It seemed natural, therefore, to develop a mechanism for broadening communications among kayak anglers in the area (Nature Coast Kayak Fishers; http://fishingkayaks.us), and share the Nature Coast experience with visitors and new residents alike, thereby helping to promote and diversify the eco-tourism experience in the area.  As a retired biologist, I also wanted an avenue to advocate on behalf of watershed protection and restoration in the area, so that future generations might enjoy the same quality experience on our waters that I do.

The Nature Coast Kayak Fishers website provides a comprehensive listing of available launch sites, including detailed descriptions, Google Earth views and photos of each, along with suggested fishing routes (not including my secret ones, of course), to help paddlers get started.  Numerous photos depicting the coastal environment and fishery are included.  Suggestions are offered for enhancing the kayak fishing experience in the county through the creation of new and improvement of existing launch sites, the creation of a no-motor zone and other measures for attracting the fast growing segment of society pursuing this activity.  The usual links to weather reports, fishing reports, tidal conditions, etc. are included along with some time tested tips for having a safe and productive time on the water.  An email address is provided to obtain further information.

So if y’all are planning to c’mon down to swim with manatees, snorkel for scallops, take an airboat ride through the backcountry, arrange an inshore or offshore trip with one of our many fishing guides, do some birding or just relax, you might want to bring your yak along and experience some extraordinary fishing along our Nature Coast.

Gary Rankel