New Nature Coast Preserve

The following article was published in the March / April issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative

Gary Rankel

An exciting new Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative (HB 1061) has been introduced into the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate by Representative Ralph Massullo and Senator Ben Albritton, respectively.  It’s a rather rare piece of proposed legislation in that it benefits fish and wildlife resources, sport and commercial fisheries, the environment, outdoor recreation, tourism, cultural resources, job creation and local economies along the Nature Coast, all at the same time.  More than 100 business owners in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, including scores of fishing captains, boat dealers, tackle shop owners, tourism operators, restaurant owners and marine supply dealers have joined in signing a letter of support for this bill.

The bill was filed at the urging of constituents who recognize the rich biodiversity of the region’s coastal wetlands, their value in protecting water quality, their effectiveness as a buffer from storms and rising sea levels, and the biological and aesthetic value of preserving associated salt marshes, seagrasses, mangroves and other inshore habitats in a relatively pristine condition.  It has been referred to the appropriate committees for consideration during the 2020 Florida Legislative session. 

The proposed area, located between Yankeetown and Anclote, would be added to the 41 existing preserves encompassing about 2.2 million acres established under the Florida Aquatic Preserve Act of 1975.  It would circumvent the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve near Crystal River, and close the gap between the existing Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve to the north and the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve to the south, thereby extending protection to a 60 mile contiguous stretch of outstanding submerged lands and unspoiled habitats along the Nature Coast for future generations to enjoy.

The bill would greatly limit dredging, filling and other alterations of physical conditions in the submerged area, while ensuring that all lawful, traditional public uses such as fishing and boating would be allowed.  It authorizes the Board of Trustees created by the Act to conduct restoration and enhancement activities within the preserve and its tributaries, and stabilize shorelines which may be contributing to turbidity by planting natural vegetation, in conjunction with the neighboring counties and State Department of Environmental Protection.  

This area comprises countless numbers and acres of near pristine salt marsh, mangroves, oyster bars, hard bottom substrates, sea grass meadows and canopied creeks, supporting important bird rookeries and nursery areas for a wide variety of marine life, including endangered species, while providing outstanding fishing, paddling, boating and other water related activities so critical to the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike.  Nearby communities depend on a healthy, unspoiled coastal ecosystem along the Nature Coast to sustain viable economies.  

Tourists from all over the world visit the Nature Coast to observe and swim with manatees in the winter.  In the summer, the area fills up with snorkelers looking to experience the area’s underwater version of an Easter egg hunt for scallops.  Bookings for guided fishing trips, including those targeting the renowned tarpon and shallow water grouper, fill up far in advance of season openings.  Paddling and eco-tourism clubs springing up all over central Florida, including many in growing retirement communities, frequent the area hoping for close encounters with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, rays, wading birds, shore birds and other marine life in gorgeous, secluded settings.  Returning home with fresh fish for dinner is a bonus.   

In other parts of the state, years of water mismanagement and nutrient rich runoff have impacted aquatic and marine resources.  Toxic, guacamole-like summer slime events have become the new normal.  Recurring and increasingly persistent red tide blooms have exacerbated the problem.  Reports of dead zones, fish kills and even human health alerts are not uncommon.  In some cases, people are being told to stay off the water to avoid noxious odors and fumes in the surrounding air that can cause nausea and dizziness.  Bait shops, tackle stores and other coastal businesses have closed their doors.  Key sport fisheries have been closed to harvest to facilitate the recovery of depleted stocks. 

Boaters and anglers in some of the state’s larger metropolitan areas hoping to escape the rat race and spend relaxing weekends on neighboring waterways are increasingly being met with traffic jams, not only on the highways, but at boat ramps and on the water as well.  Finding spots of their own to float their boats and wet a line have become a challenge.  Ditto for sight fishing as they’re often lucky to see bottom in two feet of water.     

Waterways along the lightly populated Nature Coast haven’t escaped the effects of nutrient overloading and reduced spring flows, however, they haven’t experienced the widespread pollution, recurrent algae blooms, health alerts and resultant die offs of marine resources seen in other areas.  Thanks to the efforts of various volunteer and action groups, conservation lands have been set aside and measures are being taken to restore bays and rivers to their former condition.  Fish stocks seem to be doing fine and water quality is improving.  Even the manatees in Kings Bay seem to be happier munching on their new found salad bar created through a successful sea grass replanting program. 

For all the reasons mentioned above, I sense that communities along the Nature Coast may be in for an impending influx of folks seeking new places to live, work and play.  The Suncoast Parkway extension, now underway, will make some of those towns more desirable bedroom communities and visitor destinations.  Passage of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative will go a long way toward maintaining the biological diversity and aesthetic values of this coastal region, and provide for enduring tourism oriented, nature based economies. 

Representative Massullo and Senator Albritton deserve our gratitude for championing this legislation.

Try Kayak Fishing in 2020

The following article was published in the February 2020 Villager Newspaper

Why you Should Try Kayak Fishing in 2020

Gary Rankel aka The PackerYaker

Why, you ask?  First and foremost, because you live in Citrus County, surrounded by an awesome array of aquatic habitats and fisheries.  Be it along our remote cypress covered shorelines in search of bigmouth bass, or scanning our mangroves and sea grass meadows for rod bending redfish, snook and seatrout, there’s few places offering a more rewarding combination of paddles and battles.  It’s a piscatorial paddling paradise with an Old Florida feel. 

Kayaks are way more affordable, virtually maintenance free and can easily be stored in out-of-the-way places.  Spend hundreds on a portable, easily transportable, eco-friendly kayak or tens of thousands for a gas guzzling boat, motor and trailer, not to mention a vehicle large enough to pull it and associated high insurance premiums. 

Avoid the hassle of registering, licensing, trailering, storing and maintaining large vessels and the frustration of waiting to launch in long lines behind growing numbers of knuckleheads who treat public ramps as campsites. 

No more worries about dead batteries and water in the gas tank; just how many snacks and bottles of water to pack to keep your human motor running.

Go where power boats dare not venture with no fear of running aground, damaging your lower unit or tearing up our precious sea grass. 

Experience the quiet and serenity of the backcountry, a closer connection with nature, and a back to basics / less is more lifestyle, while getting great exercise.  Paddling silently as the sun rises can be a therapeutic and near religious experience.  

Great fishing is often found a short paddle away.  Stealthy, low profile kayaks allow you to sneak up on fish.  If watching explosive topwater strikes while standing in your boat turns you on, wait till you see one seated inches above water level. 

Close encounters with manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, rays, shorebirds and other wildlife in secluded settings make for quality outings even on slow fishing days.  Do, however, keep an eye out for those pesky gators; they’re generally interested in more manageable bite-size morsels.   

Treating family and friends to fresh fish dinners is a bonus.  Constant 72 degree discharges from numerous springs into our bays and rivers provide great fishing even during our coldest months.   

Modern fishing kayaks are not like the wobbly, confining, rock n roll models you capsized in as a kid.  Scores of wider, roomier, stable and fishable sit-on-top, sit inside, pedal, inflatable and hybrid models made for anglers are now available to choose from.  Many allow for stand-up sight fishing.  Angler friendly paddle boards are also gaining in popularity.   

Most plastic watercraft are relatively light (in the 50 – 90 pound range) and easily customized to meet personal needs.  They generally include rod holders, hatches, tank wells and other features designed for storing fishing gear and accessories.  Many can accommodate a small motor and second person, and allow for easy exits and re-entries if you’re into wading.  As you would before buying a new vehicle, take them for a spin before deciding.   

Paddling and kayak fishing clubs are springing up all over, providing numerous opportunities for outings with like minded individuals.

I may have missed a few reasons why you should consider taking up this fast growing sport, but you get the picture

Notwithstanding all of the above, kayak fishing is not for everyone.  If you’re afflicted with some of the burdensome B’s so prevalent among us Baby Boomers (bad back, big butt, burgeoning belly and befuddled balance), you may prefer a power boat.  If you’re not sure this sport is for you, you can rent a kayak for a day or hook up with a local kayak fishing guide who can show you the ropes. 

If you’re up to the challenge and would like more how-to, where-to-go and safety-related info, check out my website.  The Jan / Feb issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine also features an in-depth article on kayak fishing in Citrus County.   

Hope to see some of you former power boaters paddling your shiny new plastic fishing machines in the backcountry soon.

Peaceful Paddles, Bracing Battles and Happy Landings

Nature Coast Kayak Fishers (http://fishingkayaks.us)

Tackle tips – rods & reels

The following was included in the January issue of The Citrus County Villager Paper

Tackle Tips – Rods and Reels

Gary Rankel, The PackerYaker    

Hope y’all had a Cool Yule and Festive First.  Here’s to Plenty in Twenty, both on and off the water.  

A few of you have emailed me requesting info on the fishing gear I use.  I can’t begin to cover the overwhelming array of rods, reels, lines, lures and assorted gizmos and gadgets available to achieve the perfect presentation, so I’ll break the discussion down into segments, beginning with a look at my preferred delivery system: spinning rods and reels.  

Achieving the proper balance between your fishing rod (length, power and action), reel (size and weight), line (type and test) and lure (type and weight) to maximize casting distance and performance is critical to experiencing an enjoyable and productive day on the water.   To be clear, I am not affiliated with any tackle company or product manufacturer, and have tested far too few of the many available rods and reels to recommend best models and values.  I’ll simply reference those products that have worked for me over the years.  

First off, if you fish out of a kayak like me, don’t believe the “experts” who recommend using shorter fishing rods.  You’ll want to cast as far as possible to avoid spooking fish in our clear, skinny water, and longer rods cast farther.   Fishing rod blanks are generally constructed of graphite, fiberglass or carbon fiber to achieve desired combinations of strength, durability and sensitivity, with corresponding power and action properties.  Power (light to heavy) refers to a blank’s stiffness or resistance to flexing.  Action (the degree of blank flexibility when casting and setting the hook) ranges from extra fast, where only the tip section flexes, to slow, where the entire rod bends.            

I normally fish with 7 to 8 foot medium power, fast action spinning rods equipped with 2500 or 3000 reels loaded with 8 to 10 pound braided line, and generally designed to cast lures in the 1/8 to 3/4 ounce range.  I prefer a medium-light rod paired with a 2500 reel loaded with 8 pound braid when targeting smaller seatrout and largemouth bass, and a medium heavy rod and 4000 reel spooled with 20 to 30 pound braid when fishing around docks or heavy vegetation, where I need to “horse out” large snook, redfish and bass before they wrap themselves around the structure.  

I generally believe that you get what you pay for so, notwithstanding my wife’s dirty looks every time I place an order, my go-to outfit is a G Loomis IMX or NRX rod fitted with a Shimano Stella reel retailing for more than $1,000.  It’s super sensitive and “light as a feather”, allowing me to cast my favorite artificial lures (a topic for another time) all day without tiring, yet is powerful enough to handle over-slot snook and reds.  The more expensive rods also have top quality guides allowing for smoother casts and a more consistent bend throughout their length; my rods have eight to nine titanium guides.  

I also like the more moderately priced ($400 – $500) St. Croix AVID rods paired with Shimano Stradic reels.  I’m told that many fishing guides provide this outfit to their clients, attesting to their performance and dependability.  Many excellent comparably priced and less expensive serviceable models are available.  

One-piece rods are a bit more sensitive with slightly more action, but make sure they’ll fit inside your vehicle, especially the shorter cab pickup trucks.  You won’t want to leave them unattended in your boat or kayak while eating lunch at a restaurant after a day on the water.  

High end reels are generally smoother, more durable and made out of lighter materials (e.g., carbon fiber, aluminum) with upgraded gears, drag washers and ball bearings.  

BTW, if you’re looking for more in-depth info on fishing Citrus County waters, check out my website and the January / February issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine.    

Peaceful Paddles, Tight Lines and Happy Landings Nature Coast Kayak Fishers (http://fishingkayaks.us)      

planning your fishing trip

The following article was published in the December issue of the Villager Newspaper.

Planning your Fishing Trip

Gary Rankel, The PackerYaker    

Finally, the answer to the age-old question: Why do 10% of the anglers catch 90% of the fish?   Because, of course, and bear with me here: 90% of the time, they target the 10% percent of water that 90% of the fish are in, instead of the 90% of water containing 10% of the fish you’ll be targeting 90% of the time if you don’t plan ahead.    As they say: Location, Location, Location.   Our cadre of fishing guides who are on the water most every day tracking the movements and whereabouts of target species, seem to put their clients in the 10% zone 90% of the time.  Those of us not fortunate enough to make their living fishing would be well served remembering the Rule of the P’s:  Proper Planning & Preparation Promotes Positive Performance & Production.  Implementing this rule will greatly increase your odds of returning home and treating your family to fresh fish dinners instead of leftover hamburger.  

Finding that productive 10% of water is best done the day before your outing, not after you’ve launched.  If you don’t know why you’re going to where you’re going, you’ll most likely end up where you don’t want to be: in the 90% zone.   The most valuable tools in finding that 10% of water are the satellite images provided on Google Earth Pro (download required) and the Google (google.com/maps), Bing (bing.com/maps), Mapquest (mapquest.com) and U.S. Geological Survey Earthexplorer (earthexplorer.usgs.gov) websites.  Google Earth Pro is especially valuable because of its tools for measuring distances and for viewing multiple historical images of target areas.  Google maps provide a Street View (or coastline / water view) tool allowing you to view an area as if you are standing adjacent to it.        These websites allow anglers to locate submerged sea grass beds, oyster bars, points, passes, potholes, troughs and other structure where fish tend to hang out.  Dark and light color shades on these maps can be used to differentiate between shallow and deeper water, and identify drop offs and even currents.  There is a learning curve associated with using these websites, but clicking on them and exploring what they have to offer is time well spent.   

The most important thing you can do the day before your trip is to click on these sites, zoom in on the area you intend to fish, identify points of likely fish holding structure and plot a course or route for targeting as many as possible.  Following this plan is especially critical for us kayak anglers who can’t motor long distances between potential “hotspots”. 

Once on the water, as you head to your target sites, continually survey the surroundings and learn to read the water, being especially watchful for the three B’s (birds, bait and boils) indicating the presence of predators.  Don’t hesitate to deviate from your planned route to investigate. 

Satellite imagery is especially valuable for observing structure in our shallow inshore environs, but it can also be used to identify depth changes and other fishy features on our deeper inland lakes.

After settling on an area and sites to target on your next outing, you’ll want to check out the best fishing tides and times for that location, as well as the wind and weather.  My go to sites are smartfishingtides.com, tides4fishing.com and windfinder.com.    

As they also say: Timing is Everything.      

Good luck to y’all.         
Peaceful Paddles, Tight Lines and Happy Landings
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers  (http://fishingkayaks.us)

Keeping it simple

The following article was published in the November issue of the Villager Newspaper.

  KEEPING IT SIMPLE   Gary Rankel, The PackerYaker     As a boy, my father often told me to KISS (Keep it Simple Son), occasionally substituting the last word in the phrase with “Stupid”.  Mom, after venturing into my bedroom, often remarked: A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place.  When it comes to fishing from plastic vessels, both hold true.   All I need to load onto my kayak before launching besides a paddle and three rigged and ready outfits are a fish grips to hold hooked fish, a needle nose pliers to remove the imbedded hooks, a scissors to cut line, a small plastic box holding a few spare lures, a first aide kit, bottled water, bug and sun protection sprays and a small vhf radio.    That’s it.   

Dressing for success on the water necessitates wearing a wide brim hat to protect my eyes from the sun, and polarized sunglasses underneath the brim to facilitate spotting fish in the shallows.  My fishing license and a few bills fit in a waterproof baggie inside my moisture wicking, bug repelling shirt pocket.  A headlamp comes in handy when launching in the dark,.  My life vest and whistle (the only items legally required to be on board), rod holders, a compass and an anchor are permanently mounted and secured on board, so I never need to worry about loading and unloading them.     

Catch – release fishing works for me, but if you’re part of the catch, cook and consume crowd, you’ll want a net to improve the odds of getting fish on board, a measuring device and a cooler to store them.  Anglers using live bait will need appropriate containers for keeping them fresh and frisky.   I have no need for the other accessories that many anglers take with them including those fancy electronic gadgets and gizmos.  My fish finders are located on either side of my nose.  My depth finder: it’s called a paddle   Having loaded items in their designated containers and placed them inside my yak the night before, I’m able to lift it onto my pickup and take off a few minutes after getting out of bed while still stumbling around half asleep, knowing that everything I’ll need will be with me when I arrive at the launch site.  If you have a more traditional sit-on-top kayak that can’t conveniently accommodate your items during transport, just place them inside your vehicle or next to your kayak the evening before to facilitate loading.  Secure on or in your yak all items that can stay on board permanently.   

Develop a routine for storing, loading and transporting all gear and accessories the same way each time, so knowing the whereabouts of each item becomes second nature.  Keep your fish grips and pliers within easy reach; you don’t want to be searching for them while a trophy redfish or snook is thrashing around alongside.    

BTW, if you haven’t heard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has proposed regulation changes for spotted seatrout in our area reducing the daily limit from five to four, and the slot size range from 15–20 to 15–19 inches, while allowing one fish over 19 inches to be taken.  While not privy to the data that went into the FWC proposal, I had hoped for a more resource friendly recommendation.  As in the case of scallops locally, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific salmon in the Northwest and other fisheries, the long term interests of resources are too often given short shrift in favor of more user friendly regulations that are less disruptive to local economies over the short term.   There is as much edible meat on two 18 – 19 inch trout as on four 15 inchers, so I’d like to see a daily catch limit of two ranging in size from perhaps 17 – 20 inches.  Such a regulation would allow for many more trout to mature and spawn, thereby expediting the restoration of the stock to maximum sustainable harvest levels.         Public comments on this rulemaking can be provided at https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/rulemaking/saltwater-public-comments/.  

  Peaceful Paddles, Tight Lines and Happy Landings
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers  (http://fishingkayaks.us)