Angling for Social Distance

The following article was published in an April 2020 issue of the Citrus Country Chronicle

What to do when there is nothing to do

  • Gary Rankel Special to the Chronicle
  • Apr 11, 2020
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Gary Rankel is an avid kayak fisherman.Special to the Chronicle

Another day in paradise. Got up early to get my morning run in and check the weather. All looks good for a paddle around our spacious backcountry, hoping to hook into a snook or two and maybe catch a nice trout for dinner tonight. What better way to lower my blood pressure and relieve pent up stress and anxiety?

Talk about social distancing; I’ll most likely not spot another angler during my entire day on the water. The morning news isn’t all bad: The smog has lifted in LA, CO2 emissions have been reduced and burglaries are way down with everyone staying at home. March Madness certainly took on a different character, but the NFL’s off season activities are still on, so I’m able to follow what my Green Bay Packers are up to in free agency and the draft. And yesterday, I even found an eight-pack of Angel Soft mega rolls at Publix, so no need to install a bidet or resort to baby wipes, newspaper, paper towels, napkins or coffee filters. To flush or not to flush is no longer a question.

Most boat ramps in Citrus County remain open, allowing folks like me to get outdoors to boost my physical and mental health in a way that doesn’t necessitate close contact with others, while also providing opportunities to secure fresh, high-quality food. Hopefully, our county commissioners won’t have to close them should we get too big an influx of boaters from neighboring counties, where many ramps have been closed. Of course, with all the wide spots on the side of the road next to water, those of us who fish in a kayak need not worry about closed boat ramps, parks and other areas and facilities prohibiting water access. The reduction in fishing pressure this year should allow overfished stocks to recover, resulting in better fishing next year than can even be had now with the snook bite on fire lately.

Gary Rankel with fish
Rankel says fishing is a good way to accomplish social distancing.Special to the Chronicle

Being retired, my wife and I have become true germophobes, and found it relatively easy to self-isolate and adjust to the new normal in the comfort of our homes. I still venture out to stand in some of the early morning senior lines at Walmart, Publix and Winn-Dixie to secure needed supplies, and greatly appreciate their employees and the many folks still needing to interact with others to make their livings, most especially our health care workers. We’ve reread most of our old books and just placed an order for several new ones on Amazon. Thanks to Spectrum, we’ve been able to watch lots of on-demand movies. In between the reading and watching, we Facetime the grandkids in Scotland most days, though they seem to prefer shorter conversations than desired by grandma and grandpa. And, of course, I check the network news daily attempting to separate fact from fiction and science from false news given the unfortunate degree of disinformation and politicization of the crisis, be it by the media, world leaders or our governmental officials at federal, state and local levels.

I don’t understand how the United States can have more COVID-19 cases and deaths than other advanced countries, and wonder how the more undeveloped countries like India, Nigeria, Venezuela and Libya, not to mention the refugee camps, with their high population densities, precarious economies, inadequate heath care systems and lack of clean water access can achieve social distancing and avoid catastrophic numbers of deaths. How can unparalleled political turmoil possibly be avoided? Experts don’t seem to know if this could be the first in a series of similar recurring outbreaks spreading throughout the world; not a pleasant thought with hurricane season around the corner. Given the limited degree of global cooperation and the mountain of public debt the world is accumulating, how are we going to muster the resources and will to win this battle? Cooperating with China and other countries in seeking a fix to this pandemic seems like a no brainer, but all we do is argue and point fingers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis finally joined other governors with his stay-at-home order. Glad to see that it provides for many outdoor recreation activities, including boating and fishing, as “essential activities” as long as social distancing guidelines are practiced. Unlike the state of Washington, which has outlawed all recreational fishing, Florida’s order provides for a more appropriate balance between public safety and allowing for water access and a limited degree of camaraderie for families and community members in these stressful times. And I’m glad to see that the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act signed into law in March contains $300 million for fishing communities, charter fishery participants and other fisheries related businesses affected by the pandemic. Hopefully, that will help keep our hard working fishing guides afloat during this crisis. Fingers crossed, they’ll be able to lead scallop tours beginning on July 1.

I wish there was more I could do to address our problems. We don’t have a sewing machine and I wouldn’t know how to sew if we did, so thanks to all who are making and giving away facemasks; my idea of using heavy-duty, oversized storage bags was shot down by several folks on the Nextdoor network as setting a bad example for their kids and grandkids. The least we can do is continue to follow CDC guidelines and resolve to cast our votes in November for leaders who will place priority on science and common sense in addressing the problems we face.

But, for now, I’m off to Ozello. I look forward to getting some much-needed exercise, hope to come home with a fresh fish dinner, and expect to sleep reasonably well tonight.

Here’s hoping that April showers lead to May flowers, a rousing July 4 weekend and a Labor Day at full employment.

A New Pirates Cove Park

The following article appeared in the May 24,2020 Citrus County Chronicle

Ozello’s Pirates Cove Park Revisited

Gary Rankel, Guest Column

As an avid angler and retired biologist with over 30 years of experience developing and managing fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation resources and related public use programs throughout the country, I’ve long believed the county should acquire the 3.6 acres of prime waterfront property bordering Pirates Point Community Park at the west end of Ozello Trail, and develop the combined site into a prime eco-tourism destination for paddlers, anglers, picnickers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.  Vacant lots located near Sanddollar Lane might also be incorporated into the park. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that such a park (along with a boat ramp on the Barge Canal) would be game changers for the county’s tourism program, offer solid benefit / cost rewards, and pay for themselves in a few years.    

This area, bordering the St Martins Marsh and recently passed Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, would provide the perfect complement to existing nature oriented opportunities involving manatee interactions, scalloping, biking and charter fishing, and would serve as a centerpiece of the county’s tourism program.  It would have both local and regional appeal and become a popular destination on the annual kayak fishing circuit, among canoe and kayak clubs and for other visitors looking to experience Old Florida.  

Within a short paddle of this property, folks can encounter manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, rays, a variety of shorebirds and other marine life in gorgeous backcountry settings.  Excellent fisheries habitat exists around miles of mangrove shorelines, extensive salt marshes, sea grass beds, oyster bars and hard bottom substrates, all of which serve as nursery areas for popular sport fish and other marine life in this extraordinary and largely unspoiled ecosystem.  

This property once housed a restaurant and  tavern that was destroyed by the no-name storm in 1993.  Since then, the owner, Mr. George Decker, now deceased, has submitted applications to re-zone the area and develop a large resort condominium complex on the site.  Fortunately, these proposals have been denied by the Board of County Commissioners because of the environmental damage they would cause to this sensitive area.    

An eco-tourism park, on the other hand, would require only portable and easily transportable structures such as porta-jons, picnic tables, stationary grills, and, perhaps, a small kayak rental and food service trailer, all of which could be secured in place and safely cleared from the site before the next “big blow”, leaving the area in its natural state.  Small charges for parking, launching or overnight camping might be considered to cover maintenance.  Related service and caretaker jobs could be made available to the community. 

Paddlesports, including kayak fishing, are the fastest growing outdoor recreation activities in the country, with Florida leading the way in numbers of users.  The suitability of Pirates Cove to host such activities is further described and depicted on the Kayakbeach website (http://kayakbeach.com/ozello/ozello.html) and in the Fish Finder and Boosting Tourism sections of the Nature Coast Kayak Fishers website (http://fishingkayaks.us). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the normally uncrowded Pirates Point Park into one inundated with paddlers and boaters, often standing shoulder to shoulder as they unload and launch their vessels.  Scores of retirees from The Villages, Top of the World and other retirement communities seeking to relieve cabin fever and related  stress, as well as anglers up from bay area where many ramps and sport fisheries have been closed, have become regulars.  A few of them now even email me for a fishing report before heading over. 

On most weekdays, I can still manage to hit the water before first light and paddle to one of my “secret spots” before the throng arrives.  No such luck on weekends when I now have to put in north of Yankeetown to find some elbow room.   

Last year, Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, with support from the Ozello community, proposed purchasing Mr. Decker’s property and developing it into a public use area.  This parcel would also now provide valuable space to relieve crowding and achieve a much higher degree of social distancing, not only at Pirates Cove, but at Hunter Springs Park and other launch sites as well.  With all of the uncertainty about how long COVID will be with us, this park could also help sustain tourist related businesses in the county.        

Unfortunately, negotiations over purchase price seem to have stalled and the property remains vacant and unused.  Despite it’s reported purchase price of $464,000 in 2004 and $260,000 appraisal value, at least one county commissioner believes the land is next to worthless, and not worth a reasonable offer.  I’m afraid that such attitudes may hinder the BOCC from offering and negotiating a fair price, leading the owner to subdivide the parcel into home sites, thereby destroying its natural beauty and public use potentials forever.   

Here’s hoping some of our forward thinking community leaders who helped develop Three Sisters into what it is today, and supported the recent passage of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, will get behind the effort to acquire and develop a Pirates Cove Park for current and future generations to enjoy. 

Letters and emails of support to the BOCC (brian.coleman@citrusbocc.gov) will probably be required to keep this issue from falling through the cracks. 

Social Fishtancing

Social Fishtancing Guidelines

The following article appeared in the May 2020 issue of the Citrus County Villager.

Well, I survived the 6 a.m. old fogeys line at Walmart, and returned home triumphantly holding a 12 pack of mega rolls under my arm, proudly proclaiming that we no longer needed to worry about whether or not to flush.     

On my morning run, I encountered a group of neighborhood kids who claimed they were maintaining social distancing as they played soccer in the street; not the brightest bulbs on the block to start with, and now they’re out of school.  When I reached my normally uncrowded jogging path, it was chock-full of walkers I’ve never seen before.  No more hugs, handshakes or even high fives with neighbors I meet along my route, just some thumbs up (and one or two thumbs down).  Unless there’s been a recent spike in the neighborhood gay community, the many couples I observed in their golf carts were in clear violation of the one person / one household couple per cart social distancing guideline.  

With recurrent waves of the virus now predicted, I wonder if we’re doomed to a future of social distancing.  How can mom and pop businesses possibly survive with everyone ordering online?  Will all the home confinement couples are experiencing lead to more loving relationships or a flood of divorce proceedings?

I miss my oldies music concerts and eating out, cannot bear re-reading another old book or watching another movie rerun, and badly need an outlet to relieve pent up stress.  Thankfully, I can still load up my kayak and head to Ozello to fish a few times a week.  Some time ago, I wrote  an article outlining the benefits fishing from a kayak provides, never thinking to include social distancing, or, as I call it, social fishtancing.  I can launch from scores of wide spots along the road throughout the county, and, after a 10 minute paddle, pretty much escape civilization.  Or I can arrange safe on-water meet-ups with friends utilizing VHF radios to facilitate communication.     

Thankfully, Governor DeSantis’ Stay at Home Order includes boating and fishing as “essential activities” as long as social distancing guidelines are practiced.  Unlike the State of Washington, which outlawed all recreational fishing, Florida’s Order achieves an acceptable balance between safeguarding public health and allowing access to waterways and related activities, thereby providing the community with needed solace, respite and healing in these challenging times.    

The BOCC has opted to keep county boat ramps open, recognizing their value in providing a means for folks and families to relieve cabin fever and improve their physical and mental health, not to mention the prospect of catching a few fish for dinner.  It’s relatively easy to maintain separation during the launch phase, and, once on the water, fishtancing between watercraft is not an issue.  Maintaining adequate spacing between anglers on charter boats is a bigger challenge, but one that’s achievable with fewer passengers on board.  Should Citrus become inundated with boaters from neighboring counties where ramps have been closed and fishing for several species has been suspended because of the red tide, the BOCC may have to revisit the ramp closing issue. 

Of course, with the plethora of water access opportunities available to us who fish from plastic vessels, we need not worry about closed ramps, parks and related facilities.  And, as good as the fishing has been this year, the reduced pressure on stocks we’re experiencing bodes even better for next year.                

So, if you’ve considered exploring this fast growing sport, I encourage you to rent or buy a kayak and give it a go.  Just remember my tried and true social fishtancing rules: (1) three paddle lengths between kayaks when launching, (2) four kayak lengths between paddlers while on the water, (3) one fish pole length between paddlers on tandem kayaks not from the same household (and between anglers on charter boats), (4) no shoulder to shoulder wading at popular put out spots, and (5) no fistacuffs with folks treating launch sites as campsites, just yelling and shaking your fists at them from a socially acceptable distance!

Here’s wishing y’all peaceful paddles, tight lines, happy landings and safe homecomings. 

Gary Rankel, PackerYaker

Kayak Fishing for Codgers

The following article was published in the September / October, 2019 issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine

Kayak Fishing for Codgers

Like most aging anglers I’ve encountered since relocating to central Florida’s booming retirement area, I fished my entire life from skiffs and larger boats propelled by fossil fuels.  Now in my 70’s and receiving a pension, I’ve transitioned to a small plastic vessel and paddle power to reach my target species, and have spent the last 14 years trying to perfect my latest addiction.  Lately, I’ve observed increasing numbers of seniors doing the same, apparently opting for something a bit more adventurous than scooting after those little white balls in their electric carts. 

My wife and I seem to have moved to the retirement capital of the world.  According to 55Places.com, 40 of the top rated 100 active adult communities in the country are located in Florida, including 26 in the central part of the state within an hour or two drive of the Nature Coast.  Paddling groups are sprouting up all over; I commonly run into folks from The Villages and Top of the World, two of the top five ranked communities on the list, launching their kayaks in our scenic lakes, rivers and inshore area.  Rarely a week goes by when I don’t hear from some new retiree to our area who happened to stumble across my fishingkayaks.us website inquiring about taking up this sport.      

Lots of golden agers travel here to swim with manatees in the winter, participate in the Nature Coast’s underwater version of an Easter egg hunt for scallops in the summer, and book trips year around out of Crystal River and Homosassa targeting our renowned tarpon, shallow water grouper and other fisheries.  Many have begun transporting their yaks with them, and are extending their stays to explore our inshore area and rivers that haven’t been impacted by the red tide and guacamole-like summer slime events that have affected other parts of the state.  Most are recreational paddlers and eco-tourists looking for a nature oriented experience, but growing numbers are bringing fishing gear along.      

A series of wildlife refuges and nature preserves extending north and south of Citrus County create a contiguous 60 mile stretch of near pristine salt marsh offering extraordinary fish, wildlife and paddling habitat, giving the Nature Coast its name.  Countless numbers of mangrove islands, sea grass beds, oyster bars and other structure provide nursery areas for a wide variety of marine life, and support excellent fisheries for seatrout, redfish, snook and other species.  Close encounters with manatees, dolphins, rays, sea turtles, shorebirds and other critters, many seen in the wild for the first time, are a big hit with the geriatric set.  It is truly a piscatorial paddling paradise.        

Fishing from kayaks is not for all us pensioners.  For many, the thought of casting a lure from a small plastic vessel seems more appalling than appealing.  Experience has led them to believe that kayaks are notoriously too wet, tippy and confining to offer adequate comfort and support.  Ergonomically unsatisfying rides associated with sitting in the traditional “L” position for hours at a time run the risk of developing or exacerbating sciatica or other back problems.  Why, they wonder, would anyone in their right mind want to endure those kinds of senior moments?      

Mastering the art of repetitive paddling and casting while staying comfortable and safe on the water requires too much of a learning curve for some of us graybeards.  It’s physically demanding and can be physically exhausting.  Bad stuff can happen out there.  If you capsize, and sooner or later you will, can you muster the strength to reenter?  If a flopping hooked fish sinks a treble or two into your hand or other more sensitive body part, can you manage paddling back to shore and driving to the emergency room (been there, done that)?     

Living in the lightning capital of the world needn’t result in shocking experiences, but you’ll have to keep close tabs on the weather and start paddling back long before approaching dark clouds drift overhead.  It can get really buggy out there and, unlike up North where you can see the no-see-ums, here, you really can’t see-um.  You’ll need to cover up in the sun and learn how to handle the unfamiliar array of spiny and toothy species you’re likely to bring alongside without getting stung or bitten. 

Gators shouldn’t be a problem.  They generally prefer smaller bite size morsels, but you never know.  There’s nothing to fear from our manatees unless you happen to paddle between mom and her calf, in which case you may get their best Shamu imitations and a good soaking from being in the splash zone.  Ditto if you happen to paddle over a giant ray in inches of water.     

If you have a few discs in your back or neck that no longer line up the way they used to (the dreaded Baby Boomers Bad Back Syndrome), and other of the age related Burdensome B’s (bulging belly, big butt and befuddled balance), fishing from a kayak will be more challenging.  Couple that with failing eyesight, making it difficult to see the knots you’re trying to tie, a hearing impairment affecting your ability to enjoy the sounds of nature, and a few arthritic joints, and riding around the golf course may be a better option.       

If, however, you’re reasonably fit, up for the challenge and, like me, afflicted with Compulsive Kayak Fishing Disorder, a new generation of reinvented fishing kayaks awaits.  They are far more comfortable than their predecessors, allowing us to spend long hours on the water without getting wet or suffering from back pain, leg numbness and cramps.  Some, especially a few of the popular pedal models, exceed 100 pounds, approaching the load capacity of some car tops and even pickup tailgates.  So, unless you’re willing to hit the weight room to build up those shrinking biceps, you may want to get a trailer or hitch extender.  For me, the bed of a pickup truck is the only way to go.    

Lots of us oldsters seem to be moving toward a less is more, back to basics kind of lifestyle.  The hassle and expense of registering, licensing, trailering, storing and maintaining gas guzzling boats, and frustration of waiting to launch at crowded ramps is something to be avoided.  Many are opting for more affordable eco-friendly kayaks that they can put in at wide spots along road and paddled to remote backwater locations not accessible to the big boats.  No more worries about water in the gas tank and which fuel additives to use; just how many water bottles and energy snacks you’ll pack to keep your human motor going. 

What better way to get some exercise, relieve stress and enjoy the feeling of adventure exploring hidden coves, pools and mangrove shorelines with no other human in sight, except, perhaps, a fishing buddy.  Finding that ten percent of water containing 90 percent of the fish in a deep backcountry pool on low tide, and providing fresh fish dinners for family and friends, are bonuses.  You can count on coming back relaxed and refreshed even on slow fishing days.  A great night’s sleep usually follows.     

When fishing is over for the day, just give your yak a quick rinse to remove the smell of all the fish you caught. Store it outside in the shade, on the garage floor, hung from a garage wall or ceiling or in some other out-of-the-way place. They are virtually maintenance free. Should a rare crack or hole develop, even the least handy among us with arthritis can usually manage repairs.      

Tandem kayaks are available for those wishing to take their grandkids out; just remember that a couple of kids throwing hooks around in close quarters can pose a problem.  Sharing a fishing excursion in close quarters with Granny or Gramps can be a romantic experience; it may also result in divorce proceedings.  If a waning human motor restricts your paddling range too much, most kayaks can be outfitted with small gasoline or electric trolling motors. 

Before buying your first kayak, test drive as many as you can, just as you would prior to buying a new car.  Try sitting side-saddle, lean over the side and rock back and forth to see how far you can go before it starts to tip. Keep in mind that strong winds, whitecap conditions and wakes from passing power boats can greatly affect balance and paddling ability.  Ideally, arrange to rent one for a day of fishing to see how it works for you.

I couldn’t find a Kayak Fishing for Aging Dummies book prior to buying my first one, but did lots of research.  If a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Kayaks existed, the first one I tested, a wobbly sit-inside model, would certainly have been inducted.  Drenched and returning to a chuckling shop owner following my first drenching, but refusing to give up, I tried a few higher and drier models, and soon came to enjoy the close-up connection to the water.  I decided on a Sit on Top (SOT) model that I thought would be ideal.  It lasted two weeks. 

During my first few outings, I experienced considerable discomfort, the dreaded Yak-Back, while trying to adapt to the “L” sitting position in its unforgiving quarters.  Upon returning to shore, aching and with a soggy bottom, emerging from it and attempting to stand upright took more than a few minutes and was not pain-free.  If this was going to work, I had to find a more comfortable ride that would allow me to stand up and stretch out.  I did, and it made all the difference. 

There’s much to consider when test driving and deciding on a fishing kayak if you’re getting up there in age, may not be in peak physical condition and haven’t paddled before.  A dizzying array of SOT, Sit-Inside, inflatable, pedal and hybrid kayaks are available, each with their own set of operating characteristics and features, and ranging in price from less than a hundred to several thousand dollars.        

Make sure the kayak you choose is easy to lift, move around, launch and transport.  Will you require cross bars, a roof rack, trailer, trailer hitch extender or other gear to secure it to your vehicle, and wheels or a cart to get it to and from the water’s edge?  Will you be comfortable getting in and out of it, and mind wading in knee-deep water doing so?  Will you be able to lift it onto your vehicle following a tiring day on the water?  You’re not out of luck if you can’t lift heavy loads or have a space challenged sedan; many ultra-light inflatable models made of nearly indestructible PVC are available.

Be aware that pedals, rudders and other mechanisms extending below the bottom of some kayaks can be damaged when paddling over oyster bars and other structure in skinny water.    Sooner or later, a hooked fish circling your yak will wrap your line around one of these protruding items.  

An unstable kayak is a recipe for disaster.  Generally, the wider and more flat bottomed it is, the more stable it will be.  You need to feel safe and secure while seated, paddling, casting and playing fish, especially in windy and whitecap conditions, and you’ll appreciate being able to stay warm and dry, especially during the cooler months.  Can you comfortably stand and sight fish, and safely return to the seated position if you feel tippy while doing so?  Can you easily exit and reenter if you plan to do a bit of wade fishing? 

Try to avoid a kayak requiring sitting in the “L” position because of the pressure it puts on the lower back.  Check to see that it has a foot rest to provide support and help cushion your back when bouncing around in the waves.  Is its weight capacity more than adequate to safely carry you and your gear?

You will not want to feel cramped, but instead have enough room to occasionally stretch and change position.  Ideally, you’ll want enough space to store and secure all of your gear so that it stays dry and within easy reach, including from behind.  I practice catch-release fishing using artificial lures only, so I don’t worry about packing a fish cooler or live bucket.  If you’re part of the catch, cook and consume crowd and use live bait, you’ll need space for these containers.  

Is your seat elevated and adjustable while seated?  Does it provide good lumbar support and is it comfortable even with a life vest on.  Does the backrest restrict access to gear stored behind you?    

You will want to rig your kayak for silent running, recognizing that the slightest tap of a paddle or piece of gear on the top or side can spook fish in shallow water, turning off the bite.  Can you move around, handle gear and alternatively paddle and cast with a minimum of noise, and, ideally, none?

Are rod holders and a paddle holder conveniently placed?  Ideally, arrange to have two rod holders located out of the way behind you, but easily reachable, and protected from saltwater splashing.  Are adaptations available and conveniently located to mount various accessories and an anchor or anchor pin.  Can all your gear be conveniently placed and secured out of the way while playing and landing fish?       

Is it easy to paddle and does it track and hold position well while fishing?  Make sure your paddle matches your height and the width of your kayak.  Notched paddles come in handy for grabbing branches when retrieving lures from errant casts, which, sooner or later, will happen.  Storing a spare mini paddle on board is a good idea in case of emergency.     

How will you mount a motor and battery if they’re desired?  Some kayaks have built in systems, and others are designed to facilitate installation. 

Color shouldn’t matter.  If you want to stand out, yellow is a good choice.  Green and camo colors make it easier to sneak off to your secret fishing hole without being observed.

Following my experiences with traditional mono-hull models, I settled on the twin hull Wavewalk W500 I refer to as my sit-on-top-inside yak. It allows me to stretch out, stand up to sight fish, easily move fore and aft and even lie down for quick naps during slow bite periods.   It weighs a manageable 60 pounds and contains 14 cubic feet of storage space, much of it covered, providing for all of my carry-on items to be stored and secured within easy reach, without requiring one of those unwieldy milk crates.  It has a spacious work area in front of me and tracks nicely without requiring one of those annoying rudders.  Its maximum payload is 360 pounds, more than enough to support the 200 pounds me and my gear weigh.       

Like bicycles and a variety of all-terrain vehicles, it has an elevated saddle and no backrest.  My feet are situated directly below my rear rather than extended out in the “L” position, thereby, providing support and cushioning for my lumbar region with no unnatural pressure points created.  Unlike other kayaks, I can turn 180 degrees on the saddle to face the opposite direction.  If I feel a bit uneasy while standing, I simply sit back down on its high saddle much like sitting down in a chair, with no fear of taking a swan dive over the side.

Handles located at the tips of its four hulls allow for easy two-handed dragging to and from the water.  It provides a high and dry ride and facilitates stealthy paddling (a must when stalking fish in skinny water).  With the aid of foam noodles placed along its rim, repetitive casting and paddling is a breeze without making a sound.  Most importantly, after several hours of fishing, I can emerge from my Wavewalk upright and walk to my vehicle pain free. 

When pushing off from shore, I simply enter from between the rear hull tips, often without getting wet.  Upon returning after a day of fishing, I scoot to the rear of the saddle thereby elevating the bow while paddling onshore, allowing for a dry exit between the front hull tips.  The higher saddle and enclosed cockpit provide good protection against waves and water spray.  I can dress comfortably with little fear of getting wet or cold.

Rain or wave splash accumulating in the interior can be minimized by arranging a makeshift sprayskirt around the cockpit using plastic sheeting, but I just don’t go out if rain is in the forecast.  The Wavewalk’s higher profile makes it more difficult to paddle in windy conditions, so I normally stay home when wind speeds are projected to exceed 10 mph, unless I know I’ll be in a protected area.  It will take up to a three horsepower motor, but I prefer the quiet and exercise paddling provides.    

While it’s possible to tip the Wavewalk onto its side by extending oneself far over the edge, foam noodles like those used for swimming attached to the cockpit rim keep it from filling with water.  Righting the kayak and re-entering from between the hull tips is relatively easy, even for an old codger like me. 

Test driving and ordering a Wavewalk is a challenge with only one dealer in Florida (in Key Largo).  If you order factory direct, the company doesn’t accept credit cards or PayPal, so you’ll need to send a check in advance and accept its product warranty, service and return policies (see wavewalk.com).       

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.