Threatened or Endangered

January 8, 2016.  The following article was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.
Threatened or Endangered
Recognizing that the population of the “endangered” Florida Manatee has approximately doubled to about 6,000 over the last 20 years, and possibly prompted by a lawsuit filed against it by the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced its intention to consider proposing to reclassify this species to the less serious “threatened” status. Such a down-listing would no doubt be challenged by the manatee savior organizations, and might even be opposed by some boating advocacy groups who believe the manatee should be reclassified as “recovered”.
How such action will affect future proposals by the FWS to limit the number of swimmers in Three Sisters Springs (and in the manatee sanctuary areas of Kings Bay) will be interesting to follow.  At the very least, the action should help the economy by keeping lots of lawyers employed over the next few years.
Gary Rankel
Citrus Hills, Florida

Three Sisters Springs

December 3, 2015.  The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

To Swim or Not to Swim…..That is the Question.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposes to further reduce the number of people allowed in Three Sisters Springs during manatee season from the previously recommended 29 to 13, including only 8 visiting swimmers or snorkelers.  Furthermore, it would close most of the Springs area to swimmers, require them to wear wet suits without swim fins (thereby greatly restricting their ability to submerge, touch and chase manatees), require that 1 guide accompany every 4 swimmers (to ensure that proper manatee manners are observed, I assume), and restrict swimmer access to 6 hours daily.

Given these and other restrictions, how could 13, 29 or even more swimmers possibly harm this endangered species?

Clearly, the reduced number will harm the endangered tour boat operators.  Good luck to Crystal River City officials who now must choose which of the many boat operators will be lucky enough to continue making a living shuttling swimmers to the Springs.

Many locals believe that the reduced number of swimmers will lead to a decrease in tourism.  Some comments received by the FWS, however, appear to suggest that many, if not most, folks visiting Three Sisters Springs might prefer viewing manatees in a more natural, passive, swim-free setting.  Could curtailing or eliminating the swim-with program actually promote tourism and stimulate the economy?

Well funded animal rights groups throughout the country go to great lengths in their efforts to protect and restore listed species.  They wouldn’t hesitate to file a lawsuit to eliminate the swim-with program if they thought it jeopardized manatees.  Their comments, no doubt, prompted the latest swimmer reduction proposal.  As a former biologist, I ran into quite a few of these folks.  Some were so passionate that, if faced with the choice of rescuing a struggling listed species or their mother-in-law, they might very well choose the former.  Of course, they’re also among the most likely to visit Citrus County, hop on the new trolley and spend their tourism dollars.

Other folks I’ve dealt with, including several of our elected representatives, would like nothing more than to “take the teeth” out the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act, and down-list many species in favor of increased development and economic expansion in their states and districts.  If one is elected President next year, we may very well end up with a “watered-down” definition of “harm” and ESA.  Some like-minded folks have already filed a lawsuit to down-list the manatee from endangered to threatened.

So, what number of swimmers in Three Sisters Springs would best protect the resource while maintaining a healthy level of tourism and a sound economy: 29,13, 0, 100?  Might additional swimmers be allowed in the Kings Bay sanctuaries where all public uses are prohibited?  Should the manatee be listed as threatened instead of endangered, in which case a larger swim-with program should be allowable?  Your guesses are as good as mine.

What we do know is that the “magic” number of swimmers allowed at Three Sisters will be determined by the FWS , not through a full-scale Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, where answers to these questions are more achievable, but through an abbreviated, narrowly-focused Environmental Assessment (EA).  The fact that two consecutive EA’s addressing this issue have been prepared suggests that the FWS has found that its proposed swim-with program will cause “No Significant Impact”, and, therefore, should not require preparation of an EIS.

Gary Rankel

Wavewalk 500 Fishing Kayak Review

November 10, 2015.  The following review of my Wavewalk 500 fishing kayak appears in the November / December issue of the Southern Kayak Fishing Magazine located on the Southern Kayak Fishing website (www.sokayakfishing.com).  Just click on the magazine located on this website to access.

REVIEW OF THE WAVEWALK W500 FISHING KAYAK BY GARY RANKEL

The Wavewalk W500 twin-hull kayak is not your traditional sit-inside or SOT kayak, but, rather, what I like to call my SOTI (sit-on-top-inside) yak.  None of the several fishing kayaks I tried before buying could compare with the W500 for comfort, stability, storage, roominess and stealthiness.  Its twin-hull design allows for stand-up paddling and improved site fishing.  All stored gear is within easy reach.  Most importantly, for a 75 year old guy with a few discs beginning to bulge out in all the wrong places, it allows me to sit in comfort, stand up, lay down, stretch, move around and return to shore pain-free and able to emerge in a full upright position after a full day of fishing.  If I occasionally lose my balance while looking for feeding redfish in a standing position, I simply sit back down on the high saddle for a second before resuming my search.

Applying self-adhesive pads on the W500 saddle provides a bit of cushioning for my behind and a soundproof surface in front on me for changing lures and keeping other items handy. The foam noodles rigged around the cockpit rim allow for repeated casting and paddling in total silence, allowing me to sneak up on feeding redfish in a foot or less of water.  With the help of a magic marker, these noodles also can be used to measure fish at the side of the yak while they’re still in the water

The twin hull design tracks well with no need for a rudder, and I can keep up with most mono-hull fishing yaks.  Anchoring is a breeze.  Unlike mono-hull yaks, in windy conditions, I can move fore and aft along the 6-foot long saddle, thereby raising either the front or rear hulls, and allowing the wind to catch the raised section to turn me in the direction I want to go.  When pushing off from shore, especially in cold weather, I can enter from between the hull tips, often staying dry or with just one slightly wet foot.  Beaching the W500 while sitting toward the rear of the cockpit will elevate the bow, often allowing for a dry exit between the forward hull tips.  The higher saddle and enclosed cockpit provide good protection against wakes and water spray.  I can wear comfortable, warm clothing with little fear of getting wet

The W500 is fairly light (60 pounds) and easy to carry or drag around with comfortable handles on each hull tip.  Each hull tip also serves as a large, easily reachable storage compartment.  Additional storage can be arranged on top of and between the hull tips, which I use to mount my anchor, compass and other items to free up more room in the cockpit and help keep it dry.  I also taped a fish ruler between the hull tips allowing for measurements and pictures without having to bring the fish into the cockpit.  Flush rod holders can be added to the hull tips and clamp-on holders are easily attached along the cockpit rim.

I recommend the longer (9-foot), sturdier paddle available from Wavewalk to maximize paddling performance.   While a bit heavier than others, it is super sturdy, and can double as a push pole.

The W500 is relatively easy to motorize with a transom motor mount available from the company.  It has a load capacity of 360 pounds and, with its 6-foot long cockpit, can accommodate two adults. I’ve even had a couple of grandkids on board with me.

There is little not to like about the W500.  It is a bit pricey.  If you live near a Wavewalk dealership (list available on its website), you can inspect and test drive one before deciding to buy.  Otherwise, you will have to order directly from the company.  Wavewalk does not accept credit cards or PayPal, so you need to understand and feel comfortable with its Product and Service Policy before ordering.

Rain will fall into the large open cockpit and accumulate on the bottom of the hulls, however, a plastic tarp covering can be positioned over the opening to minimize the accumulation.  I simply place a couple of large sponges in the hull tips and keep a plastic container on board to bail if need be.  Cameras, and other gear stored under cover in the four spacious hull tip compartments will stay dry.  While it’s possible to tip the Wavewalk on its side if you try to by leaning over far enough, foam noodles attached to the sides or around the cockpit rim keep it from tipping upside down and filling with water.  Re-entering from the water is easy, even for an old guy like me; you simply swim between the hull tips, raise one foot onto each, and then use your arms and legs to lift and push yourself up and into the cockpit.

Detailed specs, articles, an informative blog, videos and other information are available on the Wavewalk website (www.wavewalk.com). I have found the Wavewalk folks to be very prompt and helpful in answering any questions I’ve had over the years.

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

 

FISHING REPORT

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.

I see the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has postponed its Environmental Assessment (EA) proposing to curtail swimming with manatees in Three Sisters Springs.  Hopefully, it will broaden its next effort to encompass the entire Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Kings Bay Manatee Refuge and Kings Bay Manatee Sanctuary complex, and provide for adequate shareholder input throughout the process.
This recent controversy got me thinking about two close encounters of a different kind I’ve had with manatees.
Last March, while kayak fishing for sea trout in Kings Bay, I unknowingly paddled between a mother manatee and her calf, prompting momma to give me her best imitation of Shamu, leaving me soaked and with an inch of water in my yak.  Thankfully, I was able to dry out my camera and get it working again.
Just a few days ago, while paddling in the Ozello backcountry searching for tailing redfish, I spotted a manatee poking his nose above water about 50 yards ahead.  I paddled over to where I thought it might be hoping it would surface again for a picture when it did so from directly under my kayak, sending me sliding down sideways into the water.  Somehow, I managed to stay upright, albeit soaked again.  I immediately turned around to check on my fishing rods which, miraculously, had not been thrown out of their holders.  All other gear got wet, including the camera I was holding at the time of the incident.  After bailing out several gallons of water, I proceeded on my way still looking for tailing reds with a new fish story to tell my yaker friends, and wondering if that manatee was the same one I encountered in Kings Bay who recognized my yak and decided it was pay-back time.
With my son-in-law and family arriving from Scotland next week on vacation, I’m hoping to get my camera dry enough in time to get a few shots of the grandkids.
And, above all, I sure hope these incidents don’t prompt the Service into doing another EA to determine the impacts of kayak fishing on the endangered manatee.
Gary Rankel
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers

FISHING REPORT

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.

FISHING REPORT

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.

Gary Rankel

FISHING REPORT

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.

Gary Rankel

THREE SISTERS SPRINGS LETTER

August 23, 2015.  The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

The manatee saviors of the world would prefer shutting down the swimmer program in Three Sisters Springs entirely, than allowing a maximum of just 20 visiting snorkelers access, even though most of the springs and adjacent entrance area where manatees congregate would be off-limits to swimmers.  Furthermore, those 20 allowed to swim would have to do without fins and wear wet suits (among other restrictions), thereby keeping them afloat and making it nearly impossible for them to touch a manatee that wants to avoid human contact.
No doubt, all but 5 of the 34 people movers on Kings Bay will object to having their access to the springs eliminated.  While I sympathize with the tour operators and acknowledge the challenges those 29 unselected will face, the overcrowding condition observed last year in this one-acre area cannot be allowed to continue, especially when the 66-acre bay remains available for their tours.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Alternative C in its recent Environmental Assessment for Three Sisters Springs appears to strike a pretty good balance between manatee protection on the one hand and tourism advancement on the other.
Gary Rankel
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers

FISHING REPORT

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.

    FISHING REPORT

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.

 I’ll probably focus on the Ft. Island bars the next few weeks hoping to spot a few of the big reds that normally pass through this area this time of year.  The paddle out to them is not too far allowing for shorter and quicker returns when it heats up.
      
2015-16 BUDGET FOR KINGS BAY CLEAN-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.

FISHING REPORT

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.

Gary Rankel
Hernando, Florida

Copyright © Gary Rankel