October 26, 2015. I held our third group meet-up at Pirates Cove last Saturday, the 24th. Thanks to Walt, Suzanne, Gary, Greg and Btrain for showing up, and for Paul meeting up with us for lunch at Pecks. Fishing was slow but we had a good time. It’s good getting to meet a few of the new folks. The next few weeks will be some of the best fishing of the year, so plan to get out.
KAYAK FISHING LETTER
October 25, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers
October 13, 2015. I held the second NCKF meet-up on the water at Fort Island beach on October 9. Only Andy showed up, but we got into a bunch of seatrout fishing the oyster bars just north of Sandy Hook Island. At one point, I was getting one on every cast, but only a couple made it into the slot range. On a few other trips to Fish Creek and Pirates Cove, I managed a few nice reds over the last couple of weeks. Last night I was invited to give a kayak fishing presentation to the Nature Coast Anglers Fishing Club – most of the guys there are into power boat fishing, but a few expressed interest in giving yak-fishing a go.
September 27, 2015. We held our first NCKF meet-up on the water at Pirates Cove, launching at 7 a.m. on September 19. Ed, Greg and Andy joined me fishing the area SE of Ozello, and Tom joined us for lunch at Pecks. It was a slow fishing day, but Greg got his first trout and I missed a nice snook which threw my lure back at me on his third jump. Despite the low turnout, we had a good time under a bluebird sky and a quarter-moon tide. I also headed out from the Fort Island ramp alone a few times, paddling north of the Crystal River mouth, and managing a few nice reds. The floating grass situation is getting better and water temps are slowly decreasing. The next couple of months should be great fishing.
THREE SISTERS LETTER #3
September 27, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
In his September 6 Guest Column referencing the recent draft Environmental Assessment for Three Sisters Springs (EA), Bob Mercer noted the conflicting missions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the city of Crystal River relative to manatee management, encouraged greater stakeholder involvement, and suggested that the FWS focus less on single species management and more on the entire ecosystem, all excellent points. At the same time, however, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and associated Kings Bay Manatee Refuge and Kings Bay Manatee Sanctuaries, each established by the FWS at different times and under different authorities, were created specifically to protect the endangered manatee and its “critical habitat”, and to restrict various kinds of public uses deemed injurious to the species. In the sanctuaries, for example, all public uses are prohibited.
A shortened EA public review and comment period ended on September 4. In accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the FWS must now determine if the impacts of its proposed alternative, providing for a greatly reduced swim-in program at Three Sisters, are “significant”. Such determination must occur through an analysis of the severity of the proposal’s short and long term effects on the human environment and affected region, locality and interests. A finding of “significance” cannot be avoided just because its action may be regarded as temporary, and is more likely the more controversial its proposed action is. As one can imagine, “significance” may mean something quite different to the FWS than to those being affected by its action. As per NEPA, should significant impacts be found, the FWS would be required to prepare a full-scale Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), incorporating broad public input. If none are found to exist, a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) is issued, and the proposed action is carried out.
The EA is confined to a one specific activity (swimming) in one tiny (less than 1 acre) portion of the much larger refuge / sanctuary area in which manatees are protected and uses are restricted. Hence, it does not address how a swim-in program throughout the entire Kings Bay area might be modified and managed to compensate for the major reduction in use proposed for Three Sisters. Why, for example, couldn’t the FWS use its authority to reclassify the manatee sanctuaries, allowing for a limited swim-in program comparable to that proposed for Three Sisters, thereby expanding tourism opportunities and keeping a few more boat operators from going under? Wouldn’t such a program also relieve crowding and boat traffic in the canal leading to Three Sisters? Given the numerous stakeholders and socio-economic implications involved, and the short EA public comment period provided, an EIS may be an appropriate mechanism for considering and incorporating all public input and all designated Kings Bay manatee protection areas into the proposed action. Conclusions reached and action taken as a result of this comprehensive process might dampen the threat of future lawsuits, and, with support from our Congressional representatives, even result in an “add-on” appropriation to the FWS budget to implement related management and enforcement programs.
September 9, 2015. Redfishing the last few weeks has picked up in the area west of Fort Island ramp and north past the mouth of the Crystal River. I managed quite a few underslot and slot sized reds, but none of the really big boys as yet. I didn’t do as well on Fish Creek, but things should start picking up with the cooler air poised to come in. I’m still heading out an hour before first light and paddling back by 10 a.m. or so. Caught some reds on topwater early on and then switched to mirrodines, rapalas or soft plastics.
THREE SISTERS SPRINGS LETTER #2
September 4, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
Given the limited options available in it’s recent Environmental Assessment (EA) for Three Sisters Springs, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made the only logical choice by selecting Alternative C, providing access to a maximum of 20 visiting snorkelers to the area, rather than Alternatives A or B, which would have either closed the Springs to swimmers entirely, or provided for another year of unrestricted access, overcrowding and chaos. In so doing, the FWS proposed reducing the number of special use permits for tour boat operators (vendors) allowed to transport “in-water” users to Three Sisters from 44 to 5, creating legitimate concerns among the unlucky 39 for sustaining profitable operations.
Unfortunately, the EA did not include an Alternative D (or E or F) which might have addressed alleviating the strain on the vendors, without further impacting the manatee population, by, perhaps, providing for increased swim-in opportunities in the sanctuary areas around Buzzard and Banana Islands in much larger Kings Bay, which remain off-limits to all boaters and swimmers. What’s needed is a replacement of the ongoing effort to “tweak” the numbers of swimmers or vendors allowed in tiny one-acre Three Sisters Springs, with a broad-based Public Use Manatee Plan (PUMP) for the entire bay and refuge, taking into account manatee protection, tourism sustainment, socio-economic impacts, boat traffic congestion and all other related factors.
I recall sitting in my office at the Interior Department around the turn of the century reviewing and applauding the lawsuits filed by the manatee savior groups for losses this species was incurring through habitat loss, water quality degradation, waterfront development and boat collisions. Clearly, these impacts continue to be of much more concern than any that may occur through the aquatic meet and greet program in Kings Bay. Certainly, we should be able to craft a swimmer program that neither jeopardizes manatees or tourism providers.
Until such a PUMP is developed, if it ever is, some tour boat operators may have to consider diversifying their operations to survive. Perhaps some may incorporate eco-tours of the Salt River backcountry. It’s reachable and beautiful back there, but may be tricky during low water periods. Another idea is to equip some of their vessels as “motherships” for transporting kayaks and yak-anglers out to the Gulf for half or full days of fishing the flats, beyond the reach of paddlers launching from land. I’d sign up for one if bottled water and lunches were provided, and wouldn’t have to listen to another lecture on manatee manners.
THREE SISTERS SPRINGS LETTER
August 23, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers
August 15, 2015. Lots less rain lately, but the floating grass is still bad, especially on the incoming tides. The bite has picked up a bit with the cooler water, and I’ve been getting a few trout and redfish west of Bear Island and in Pea and No-Name Passes at the mouth of the St. Martins River. I’ve found a few weedless topwater lures that allow me to wiggle through the weeds. Just a reminder that, if you want to fish the St. Martins near the mouth, time your trip so that you’re paddling with the current, both going and returning. I’m normally launching around 5:30 and returning by 10.
The bigger reds should be making an appearance west of Ft. Island and the Crystal River mouth soon, so I’ll start hitting that area a bit more.
July 20, 2015. The heat and floating grass coupled with quite a bit of morning rain had me sleeping in more than usual the last few weeks. The rain seems to have cooled the water a bit, and the few times I got out, I did manage a slot and overslot red near the Bird Keys and a few small trout along the oyster bars west of the Ft. Island ramp, most on topwater lures or mirrodines. I now take one rod rigged with a topwater lure having its trebles replaced by the single inline hooks to use when the floating grass is bad. I continued to follow my usual summer pattern of hitting the water around 5 a.m. and paddling to where I wanted to start fishing at first light. Launching this early also ensures a good parking spot before all the scalloping folks show up.
July 2, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
The good news is that the recently approved Florida State budget allocates $1.6 million for Kings Bay cleanup. The bad news is that the money is earmarked for projects which treat the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Most of the money will fund the never-ending harvesting of lyngbya and dredging of bottom muck (the result of the nutrient overload and decreased flushing of bay waters) with nothing, as far as I can tell, allocated to address the factors causing nutrient accumulation and retention in the bay. Where is the funding for the acquisition of sensitive lands and conservation easements, wetland enhancement, stormwater catchment, septic tank removal, and improved sewage treatment? Where are the new regulations curtailing the use of fast-release fertilizers and groundwater pumping throughout the watershed? Could the continual muck dredging operations actually make matters worse by increasing turbidity and releasing nutrients deposited on the bottom into the water thereby adding to the nutrient load and stimulating more lyngbya growth?
Some of the 2015-16 state funding will also support an effort to replant native grasses into the bay. While the re-establishment of native grasses or other macrophytes would be wonderful, how likely is it that they could out-complete the nutrient-loving lyngbya? Should limited re-establishment in confined areas succeed, how could they sustain themselves outside of fenced areas with hundreds of manatees eyeing them for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Hopefully, I’ll be proved wrong and the efforts of many well-intentioned folks succeed in improving the health of Kings Bay, or, at least, keep it from becoming the ecological nightmare that the Indian River Lagoon has become. An August 2014 article in Florida Today estimated that it will cost $1.4 billion over 15 years to cleanse that body of water. I see that $20 million has been earmarked for Indian River Lagoon clean-up in the 2015-16 state budget, most again for muck dredging. I know that legislators are often accused of muddying up the waters, but this is ridiculous.
Gary Rankel, Hernando
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers
HUNTERS SPRINGS PARK DEVELOPMENT
July 1, 2015. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
The June 19 Chronicle reports that the city of Crystal River has been awarded a $175,000 matching grant to expand and improve Hunters Spring Park. Thankfully, plans include a new and expanded kayak launch area, separate from the swimming beach, which should greatly reduce user conflicts. The park provides easy access to Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs, both of which receive heavy use during the winter months.
The constant 72-degree spring-fed water warms the bay during cold periods, attracting, not only manatees, but sea-trout, redfish and other saltwater species for fishers to seek out. Hopefully, city officials will develop the area in such a manner as to allow “first-light” access to the launch site instead of having to wait for the 8 a.m. park opening, hence benefiting paddlers who wish to wet a line as well as those hoping to observe a few manatees before the crowds close in.
Gary Rankel, Hernando
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers
OLD BLUE EYES IS BACK
June 28, 2015. Yep, scallop season opens today. Plan to launch your yak at a not-so-accessible site to avoid the crowd.
June 22, 2015. The last few weeks have been challenging given the heat and floating grass showing up. I fished the west side of Bear Island a few times, Fish Creek once and the St. Martins River once. I met Bob Smaldone in his power boat near Bear Island on one occasion, and he said he had spooked some nice reds in the area – probably the same reds I’ve spooked on a few previous occasions. Just can’t get them to hit artificials, and I refuse to use live or dead bait. I did manage a few slot-sized and under slot reds, and a few mostly small trout in the area as well. I got 2 nice reds and a few trout in Fish Creek not too far up from the mouth, and only one small red in Pea Pass.
As usual during the summer months, I hit the water an hour or so before first light and started paddling back by mid-morning. Some people tell me that I’ll get used to this bloody heat the longer I live down here, but it’s been 10 years now! With the heat intensifying, the floating weeds encroaching and the flotilla of scallop seeking vessels ready to hit our waters, it will be more of a challenge getting up at 4 a.m. for an early morning launch. I hope all my snowbird friends are enjoying the weather up north – please send some down here.
NEW WEATHER STATION CREATED ON THE SALT RIVER
May 27, 2015. A new weather station has been created at the Marine Science Station (on the Salt River just below the Crystal River) in Crystal River providing real time information which can be accessed at https://citrus.weatherstem.com/mss. This site is linked to Weather Underground for forecast information, and the Marine Station has a Facebook page and Twitter feed which can be accessed to receive real-time weather updates. This website should be added to your list of sites to check before heading out on each trip.
NATURE COAST KAYAK FISHING YOUTUBE VIDEO
May 1, 2015 The youtube video of the April 18, 2015 Nature Coast Kayak Fishing Challenge described below follows:
NATURE COAST KAYAK FISHING CHALLENGE A BIG HIT
April 20, 2015. Thanks to the Inglis-Yankeetown Lions Club for hosting the Fourth Annual Nature Coast Kayak Fishing Challenge on April 18, 2015. According to Donna Norton of the club, 50 participants registered for the event which has steadily grown from 7 participants in 2012, 15 in 2013 and 30 last year. Many of the kayak fishers keep coming back, bringing their families with them for the Captain’s Meeting held the day before the event where tournament rules are explained, and at the awards ceremony, both held in conjunction with a great fish fry.
A registration fee was charged to enter, tournament T-shirts were provided, raffles were held and prizes were awarded for the various categories of fish caught. Profits from the event support charitable endeavors of the club. Only kayaks and other non-motorized paddlecraft may participate. Winners were determined by examining pictures of fish caught and placed on approved measuring boards in accordance with tournament rules.
I won first prize for largest redfish and 2nd prize for largest combination of fish (snook and redfish), and am already developing my strategy for competing in next year’s event.
A few pictures of the event follow.
AMENDMENT 1 FUNDING FOR KINGS BAY
December 14, 2014. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
I recently launched my kayak at Hunters Spring Park and paddled over to one of my favorite fishing spots near Buzzard Island. I lowered my lure into the water and watched it disappear about two feet down. I hoped that fish in the area had better eye sight than me and would have no trouble locating my lure. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and I paddled back a few hours later with an empty cooler.
I’m told that Kings Bay once looked more like the Rainbow River. Now, it more resembles the Indian River Lagoon where recent algae blooms have killed countless marine animals and devastated a once nationally renowned fishery. As a biologist, now retired, I’ve had some experience dealing with stressed ecosystems. Clearly, the deterioration of Kings Bay has resulted from development along its shoreline coupled with human activity throughout its large watershed. Septic tank leakage and the fertilization of golf courses, agricultural lands and residential communities in the watershed, and associated runoff and leaching into the groundwater, has led to nutrient overloading of bay waters. Water withdrawals and irrigation has resulted in reduced water flow into the bay with a concurrent reduction in flushing activity.
The passage of Amendment 1 offers a vehicle for addressing this situation. The challenge will be finding the best mix of restoration measures to apply, recognizing that they must be directed to address the causes of the problem: notably, those which reduce nutrient accumulation and retention in the bay. Examples of actions which seem to make sense include wetland restoration, storm water catchment, septic tank removal and connecting homes to effective sewage treatment, banning fast-release fertilizers, seagrass restoration and curtailing water pumping throughout the watershed. The purchase of sensitive lands and creation of conservation easements should also be considered. Funding should not be wasted on politically popular efforts offering no long-term benefit.
Amendment 1 funds should be used to hire a knowledgeable Bay Area Restoration Coordinator who would collaborate with state and federal agencies, local governments and educational institutions with expertise in the area to further investigate causes of the problem, explore remedial measures, and develop strategies and an action plan aimed at restoring the bay.
While it’s not realistic to think that Kings Bay will ever look like the Rainbow River again, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just avoid approaching another Indian River Lagoon situation, and I could see my fishing lure drop another two or three feet before it faded out of sight?
Gary Rankel, Hernando
PIRATE’S COVE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL – 2
November 6, 2014. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
This is in further response to the proposed development of a motel, restaurant and supportive infrastructure at Pirate’s Cove, and, specifically, to Mr. Bruce McLaughlin’s letter published in the Chronicle on October 22, 2014, referencing my previous letter to the Chronicle objecting to this development. He accused me of being “misguided” and “misinformed”, and wished to “set the record straight”.
Mr. McLaughlin stated that the amenities I recommended for inclusion in an enhanced paddling and kayak fishing area were offered by the property owner in a previous development agreement submitted to Citrus County as part of overall construction, but that the county could not agree to them for financial reasons. In fact, what I suggested in the way of improvements (a few porta-johns, picnic tables, lighting, fish cleaning station and, perhaps, a small kayak rental and food service operation) would involve minimal costs. Furthermore, because Pirate’s Cove would be left in a near natural condition, and the improvements would be transportable, the next “no-name storm” or hurricane to hit the area would cause minimal economic and environmental impacts.
Mr McLaughlin further implied that I have no regard for the owner’s property rights, and that I supported acquisition of this property following some sort of devaluation. Conversely, I fully support the property owner’s rights, and simply suggested that county officials consider purchasing the property as an addition to the existing Ozello Community Park, and to do so for what I assumed would be fair market value. Having said that, and having no idea what this property is worth, I do not doubt Mr. McLaughlin’s contention that the county may not have adequate funding to purchase the property at this time.
Mr. McLaughlin contends that, even if the county could purchase Pirate’s Cove, funding of my suggested course of action would remain “highly problematic”. In fact, the minor improvements to the area I suggest and associated maintenance would involve minimal effort and cost, even for a county as cash-strapped as ours. Should funding somehow become an issue, small charges for parking, launching and/or overnight camping could be considered. Any such costs, would be far outweighed by the resulting benefits to tourism and the local economy.
Creation of a premier paddling and kayak fishing destination at Pirate’s Cove would add an “Old Florida” feel to the Nature Coast eco-tourism experience and offer a perfect complement to existing opportunities involving manatee interactions, scalloping and other fishing. As a biologist with 35 years experience in the fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation field, I believe that Citrus County would come out way ahead from a cost-benefit standpoint.
I don’t have an answer for how Pirate’s Cove can be acquired in a fair and beneficial arrangement for all parties involved. It’s happened before with other high quality areas, most recently at Three Sisters.
Let’s hope our elected officials are willing to explore creative ways to address this issue.
Gary Rankel, Hernando
PIRATE’S COVE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL – 1
October 3, 2014. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
I would like to offer my comments on the proposal to further develop the area known as Pirates Cove near Ozello.
I have become a kayak fishing addict since retiring to Citrus County several years ago, and regularly fish the Pirates Cove area. This area offers a great diversity of pristine habitats, remote backcountry, and secluded mangrove and tall grass shorelines. Good fishing is available within a few hundred yards of the launch site, while the open Gulf is an easy 2 mile paddle. Numerous species may be caught with most attention directed at seatrout, redfish and snook. Frequent encounters with manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life in this extraordinary area add to the experience as does getting up close to herons, egrets, ospreys and other shorebirds. Being able to enjoy the beauty and solitude of this area makes for a quality experience even on slow fishing days.
Kayak fishing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Members of kayak fishing clubs in the Jacksonville (the largest kayak fishing club in the country), Tampa Bay and Orlando areas regularly visit Citrus County and fish the Pirates Cove area. The Tampa Bay club has annual outings to Pirates Cove for its members, as it did this last summer, when I enjoyed fishing with them (I recall one of their members stating that the area reminded him of The Everglades). Other groups hold annual kayak fishing competitions at Pirates Cove where prizes are awarded for their catches (based on photographic records, as these groups release all fish caught). While other areas in Citrus County offer paddling and kayak fishing opportunities, none has the solitude, beauty and remote, uncrowded “Old Florida” feel of the Pirates Cove backcountry, with ample parking for larger weekend crowds also available. With a few simple improvements to this area to enhance the paddling and kayak fishing experience (as opposed to major construction and all the environmental damage that entails), I believe Pirates Cove could attract many more anglers and paddling enthusiasts from around the state and beyond.
I suggest that Citrus County officials discuss purchasing this land from the owner for improvement as a premier paddling and kayak fishing destination. Additions might include an improved picnic area, porta-johns, lighting, a fish cleaning station, and, perhaps, a small food service and kayak rental operation. Benefits of an improved Pirates Cove area, coupled with a well designed and promoted tourism program highlighting paddling and kayak fishing along the Nature Coast should accrue to local kayak dealers, fishing guides and numerous ancillary businesses.
Thank you for your consideration,
Gary Rankel, Hernando
KAYAK FISHING IN CITRUS COUNTY
January 22, 2014. The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
I’ve enjoyed reading R.G. Schmidt’s recent Tight Lines series in the Outdoors News Section of the Chronicle on kayak fishing along the Nature Coast, as well as recent articles concerning efforts to develop tourism in Citrus County. While kayak fishing may never account for as much public use as manatee viewing or scalloping, I believe it has the potential to generate far more tourism dollars than currently occurs.
I have become a kayak fishing addict since retiring to Citrus County in 2005, and regularly paddle the coastal area between the Withlacoochee and Chassahowitzka Rivers. I fish along beautiful, secluded mangrove shorelines, catching and releasing a variety of fish including seatrout, redfish and snook. Sneaking up on and casting to fish in a stealthy kayak, and getting pulled around by 10 to 20 pound redfish or snook for half an hour before landing them is an awesome experience. Frequent encounters with manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life add to the experience as does getting up close to herons, egrets, ospreys and other shorebirds. Not having to trailer a boat in traffic, wait in long lines to launch at boat ramps, and put up with loud motorized boats and windy open water conditions are additional pluses. Being able to maneuver around fish attracting oyster bars instead of having to avoid them for fear of lower unit damage is another benefit. Ditto for being able to reach deeper fish-holding pools in extreme low water conditions. Being able to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the backcountry makes for a quality experience even on slow fishing days. Nearby rivers, bays and freshwater lakes provide additional opportunities to hook into lunker bass and panfish (keeping an eye out for those pesky gators).
Many kayak anglers prefer catch-release methods, and participate in tournaments where winners are determined by photos of caught fish taken prior to release. Others enjoy fresh fish for lunch or dinner. Folks on limited budgets can get outfitted relatively inexpensively. Many fishing kayaks today offer increased roominess, stability (even while standing and sight fishing) and comfort (even for older codgers like me with back problems). Many are in the 40-70 pound range, and can easily be dragged from a vehicle to the waters edge. Some can accommodate a second person, and most can be motorized for those wishing to extend their fishing range or forego the benefits of great upper body exercise. When fishing is over for the day, they’re easily rinsed off and stored.
Kayak fishing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Kayak fishing clubs in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Orlando keep their members informed on the where’s and how’s of fishing in their areas and provide opportunities for fishing get-togethers and tournaments. Each of their websites include classified sections, up-to-date forums for members to exchange information, and a variety of other information. While many areas in Florida offer great kayak fishing opportunities, few provide the un-crowded, “Old Florida” feel that one can experience along the Nature Coast. With further improvement and development of kayak launch sites, and inclusion of related fishing opportunities in tourism websites and ecotourism materials, I believe that paddle fishing could attract anglers from around the State and beyond to the Nature Coast.
Benefits of a well designed and promoted kayak fishery along the Nature Coast would accrue to local kayak dealers, kayak rental shops, fishing guides, and numerous ancillary businesses.
Copyright © Gary Rankel