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By
Jackson Read (flatskayakfishing.com)


What is the Indian River Lagoon? Well, for starters it is not a river at all but rather a very long narrow bay. The Indian River has no current or headwaters and no rivers of any significance empty into it. Geographically speaking the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) System runs along forty percent of the East Coast of Florida. The Northern boundary of the system is Ponce de Leon Inlet just south of Daytona Beach. The Southern boundary of the system is 155 miles to the South near Palm Beach at Jupiter Inlet. The Indian River is bounded on the East by a more or less continuous barrier island. The existing Western edge is not as easily defined. In places, the natural mangrove marshes extend some ways inland in other places development has limited this or drained these marshes all together. Along the lagoon’s entire north south length its width is typically 2 to 4 miles. Finally, the Indian River Lagoon System consists of really three distinct bodies of water (see map). The 1st is the Indian River itself which runs continuously from just north of Titusville southward approximately 140 miles to Jupiter Inlet. The northern most part of the IRL is Mosquito Lagoon which runs from Ponce de Leon Inlet southward 20 miles and ending just north of the Space Shuttle Launch Complex. Haulover Canal an antebellum construction completed around 1853 connects Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River. Lastly, there is the Banana River, which branches off from the Indian River just south of Satellite Beach and runs northeastward for 25 miles ending just south of the Space Shuttle Launch Complex

The Indian River Lagoon System is a waterway of national significance providing a home to more than 4,300 kinds of plants and animals. This includes 36 in endangered or threatened species. The diversity is especially rich for the species fish. There are over 700 species of fish found in the IRL with a unique mix of temperate and tropical climate species. The IRL also contains 20 percent of the mangrove forests remaining in the United States.
 
 

The  Flats

If one were to give characterize the Indian River Lagoon by any one particular attribute it would be shallowness. Most of the IRL consists of vast shallows known as flats. It is in these flats that the primary biological richness of the lagoon exists. The flats are usually covered in seagrass in fact many times the term grass flat is often used to describe these shallows. The functions of the seagrass in the ecology of the IRL are many and important. Among other things seagrass provides food and shelter for many marine species as well as helping to maintain water clarity and control erosion. In fact, the importance of the IRL grass flats is shown in the following statistic: almost all of Florida’s commercially important species spend part of their lives in the grass flats of the lagoon. Finally, the abundance or lack of seagrass can be used as a barometer of the health of a part of the IRL. Developed areas of the lagoon can be almost entirely devoid of seagrass. The reasons for this lack of seagrass are primarily lack of water clarity due to excessive nutrients and sediments in runoff entering the lagoon

Kayaking

The Indian River offers opportunities for kayaking such as ecotouring, snorkeling and fishing. The important thing to decide is what you want to see and do. Before we start I want to direct your attention to one of the best guides out there for getting an inflatable kayak which is the best type of kayak to use on the flats. See a guide to the best inflatable kayak. First, no matter what you decide is your primary interest, remember that kayaking on the Indian River is going to consist primarily of traversing large areas of shallow water. The shallow water means there many opportunities for getting out of the boat. The depth of the flats can be from inches to several feet and the bottom may be anywhere from hard sand to very thin sand with gelatinous mud underneath. So be aware that the depth of the water may not be the only factor in determining how easy it is to get back in your boat. Consider also that constantly getting in and out of a sit inside kayak, can by the end of the day, leave a nice sampling of the bottom of the lagoon in your cockpit. It is for the above reasons that I recommend sit on top Kayaks for ease of egress at least on day trips.

Seasons



The kayaker considering the IRL should as I have said before first decide what you want to see and do. Remember that the climate of the IRL is semitropical meaning short cool winters and long hot humid summers. Fall and spring are not really distinct seasons and in the discussion below I omit them.
 
 


Winter

The winter months are by and large more pleasant for most people. The winter is also probably the best time to see manatees and bird life. The Manatees tend to collect in warm water areas and are more easily viewed in numbers than in the summer. The winter also brings a huge influx of migrant birds swelling the already large number of year round species. I believe that the Audobon winter species count for Brevard and Indian River counties are consistently the highest in the U.S. Winter does however have one drawback: cold. Yes, believe or not Florida does get cold in the winter. These cold air intrusions usually last only a day or two. However, because the IRL is so shallow even a short spell of cold temperatures will cool the water considerably. This cooling has both good and bad effects for those wishing to view the wildlife. The primary bad effect is that the rapid cooling of the shallow water drives many temperature sensitive species to warmer deeper water. The water temperature in the upper sixties to lower 70s also makes entering the water uncomfortable for some. A good effect of colder water temperatures is the concentrating of Manatees in warm water areas. An example of this is the Florida Power electrical plant near Titusville. During cold snaps scores of Manatees are consistently drawn to the warm water discharge from the plant.
 
 

Summer

The summer in the IRL is long hot and humid. The constant comment "it’s not the heat but the humidity" is commonly heard from 1st time visitors. For the Kayaker the summer months offer the opportunity to see the IRL at its most biologically productive. During the summer fish literally team in the shallows. Schools of mullet seem to take over the grass flats. The mullet in fact can be used as an indicator of a grass flat since they swim on the surface their presence is highly visible and usually and indication of shallow water. Another species that is most plentiful in summer is the Redfish. Redfish are one of the top predators of the flats and in the IRL they grow very large, forty pound Redfish are common. It is an awesome spectacle to see a school of these giants feeding on crabs in 3 feet of water. The Redfish feed by what is known as "tailing" that is tilting their heads down to the bottom to root out blue crabs. This type of feeding causes their tails to protrude from the water. Schools of large Redfish tailing may be spotted from several hundred yards away. It is probably obvious from the above discussion that summer is also the best time for fishing. Kayak fishing is an increasingly popular sport in Florida. In fact certain areas of the IRL famous for their fishing are accessible only by kayak or canoe.
 

Kayaking in the summer months also means coping with heat. Because of the high humidity sweating will not cool the body as effectively as in will in drier climates. The point here is to not be fooled by the temperature alone. The heat index temperature is what is important and in Florida this will typically be much higher then the ambient air temperature. Finally, take all the water you will need. Even though Florida is highly developed there are large stretches Lagoon where no water is available on the shore. Specifically, if you are planning on touring Mosquito Lagoon or the Banana River Manatee Sanctuary inside Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge landfall is restricted or prohibited entirely.
 
 

Manatees

The one species for which the Indian River is most noted for and which is the most endangered is the West Indian Manatee or Sea Cow. Most manatees in the US live in the IRL’s northern half and this population is carefully monitored. Today the manatee population is momentarily stableHowever, the continued existence of the Manatee is a matter still much in doubt. The manatee’s chief nemesis is the propeller of the recreational powerboat. Most Manatees bear scars from their encounters with powerboats. The problem for the future is Florida’s rapidly expanding human population. As the population of Florida increases so will the number of powerboats and also the number of Manatees killed or injured from their propellers. To save the Manatee the stopgap solution has been to restrict boat speeds on more and more of the IRL. This has finally led to certain areas being declared off limits to motorized boats of any kind. Unfortunately, every new restriction brings cries of foul from narrow-minded interests such as boat manufacturers, fish camp owners and some powerboat owners. The battle over the Manatee’s future continues…. Ultimately, the Manatee’s fate will be decided by how much the people of Florida are willing to give up to provide for it’s continued existence. I feel that education and experiencing the Manatee close up is the key. Almost everyone that sees a Manatee close up is deeply moved by the experience. The animal’s size and gentleness radiate an aura of serenity.
 

The Kayak provides an excellent means for seeing the Manatee in the wild. The quietness of a Kayak allows viewing the animals with out disturbing them. Remember though that it is a violation of state law to bother or touch manatees in any way. This includes actions coming from the most benevolent of intentions. When you see manatees don’t approach too closely. Let them come to you. They may be diffident or very friendly but it is their choice. So in summary, the IRL is probably the best place left on earth to see the Manatee in the wild.
 
 

Hazards

There are many hazards for the Kayaker in the IRL. Unfortunately these hazards are not obvious to most Kayakers. The primary hazards for the Kayaker in the IRL are (in descending order of importance) Lightning, Stingrays, Alligators and Manatees.
 

Lightning kills more people in Florida than any other state. The most deaths in Florida occur in "Lightning Alley" a swath running through the central part of the peninsula. Unfortunately, most of the IRL is in this area. Summer thunderstorms are the cause of almost all lightning injuries and fatalities. These thunderstorms occur suddenly and their movement is unpredictable. Never ever try and guess where a thunderstorm is going. Remember the wind and lower cloud movement are not true indicators of the storms track When you hear thunder look for a shore where you can take shelter and don’t stray to far from it. Believe me it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with lightning in Florida

Getting "Rayed"

Stingrays are extremely common on the flats of the IRL. Stepping directly on one can produce a nasty and very painful injury. Stingrays bury themselves almost completely in the sand and are hard to see even in clear water. The base of the Stingrays tail contains a detachable barbed mucous covered piece of cartilage i.e. The Stinger. This stinger is used by the Stingray to defend itself. When stepped on a Stingray will try and drive its stinger upward into the attacker (your foot) we locals call this being "rayed". The stingray then flees leaving the stinger imbedded in the attacker. The stinger’s barbs make extracting it difficult and the mucous surrounding the stinger is a perfect meduim for bacteria, which if left untreated, makes an infection almost inevitable. The best protection against stingrays is simple, don’t step on them! There is a dangerous myth that shuffling your feet, as walk will spook rays as you approach, DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT. I don’t know who came up with this gem but it wasn’t anybody that knew what they were talking about. Sure, some small rays will scoot when they feel you approach, but the bigger they are the less spooky they are. So look down as you wade before making each step. If you see one ray remember that they often run in schools. The 2nd best protection against Stingrays is to wear thick-soled wading shoes. By thick here I mean at least a half an inch (this excludes the very common and flimsy surf sox which are really no protection). Finally, if the worse happens and you are stung by a Stingray there is an antidote for most the  harmfuls effects. The mucous which sheaves the stinger and causes most of the problems is made protein. A common product which dissolves  this protein is Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. Making a paste by using saltwater and the tenderizer powder and applying it to the wound will usually alleviate most symtoms within a half an hour. I always carry Aldoph's in my  kayak as a precaution against being "rayed"

Gator Bait

Alligators are common in the IRL. The largest number of alligators in the IRL occurs inside Merritt Island National Wildlife refuge. This area includes Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River Manatee Sanctuary. The Alligators in the Merritt Island refuge are adapted to saltwater and can grow quite large up to 14 feet in length and well over 600 lbs. These Alligators for the most part are non-aggressive and will retreat upon approach. However just as with stingrays the larger animals tend to stand their ground. The key dealing safely with Alligators is also the same as with Stingrays i.e. see them and avoid coming too close. To avoid coming too close you must recognize when a Alligator is being aggressive. Alligators can become aggressive for two fundamentally different reasons. The most common reason for aggressiveness is territorial behavior. This territorial behavior occurs mostly in the mating season of late spring and early summer. During this time male gators stake out mating areas. If you violate the mating territory of a male gator it will make a threat display by raising its body out of the water, particularly its tail. If you see a gator doing this you should back off immediately. The only time I was attacked in a kayak was when I got in the middle of a territorial dispute between two gators. I was focused on avoiding one animal and did not see the other come up behind me. Fortunately, the only damage was a few tooth imprints in my kayak. The 2nd way gators can become aggressive and a threat to humans is when they associate humans with food. Notice that I did not say humans as food. Alligators will follow people because they think that they will get an easy meal. Many Alligators have picked off tired fish released by fisherman or have gotten a meal from discarded bait. When a small gator tags along with me I generally ignore it. Larger animals are (8ft and greater) are a different story. If I get a tag-along one of these I generally put the boat in high gear and paddle some distance away. Alligators will not follow you too far, since they are on a strict energy budget.
 
 

Manatees Back Off!

Manatees are only a hazard if you inadvertently spook one. The presence of Manatees is not always obvious since at rest they lie on the bottom and only surface to breathe every 3 to 5 minutes. This fact combined with the quietness of a kayak can lead to the kayaker passing directly over a manatee. The Manatee will spook when the shadow of the kayak passes over it. The result of spooking a 1000-pound Manatee in shallow water is frightening. I have had my kayak raised 45 degrees on end as the result of such an encounter. Needless to say you should avoid these encounters. The best way is to be aware of when you are near Manatees. You may hear Manatees breathing before you can see them. When you think you are near Manatees especially in shallow water slow down and wait for them to surface. Once you have located an animal’s position give it a wide berth and be aware there may be more than one Manatee in the immediate area.
 
 

Kayak Flats Fishing








Kayak flats fishing is my personal passion and it is my good fortune that I live in the probably the best place in the U.S. practice this sport. The IRL is now a booming sport fishery thanks largely to the ban on commercial netting that has been in effect for several years.Species like the Redfish(which was virtually wiped due the cuisine fad of blacken Redfish) have returned in great numbers. Flats fishing is primarily sight fishing that is seeing the fish you are trying to catch. A "Flats Boat" i.e. a boat used for flats fishing must be stealthy and able to run extremely shallow water. The kayak fits this description to a tee. A kayak is low profile, quiet and capable of cruising over the shallowest of water. I first became interested in kayaking as a way of fishing the no motor zones of the IRL. I had previously tried using canoes but found them to slow and also vulnerable in bad weather. The kayak offers the speed to search for fish and the stealth to approach fish closely with out spooking them. I have modified several kayaks for flats fishing the kayak in the photo has several of my modifications including rod holders, silent paddle holder and bait well with an aerator. Since I first started using a kayak for flats fishing of I seldom use my powered flats boat. The kayak for me is perfect I can out fish just about anything else and  have access to waters restricted to powerboats. Another benefit of using the kayak is that paddling 10 or so miles while fishing gives you an excellent workout.
 
 

There are 3 basic techniques used in kayak flat fishing. The 1st and simplest is where the kayak is mearly transportation. Specifically, the fishing is done by wading the flats after disembarking from the kayak. The advantages of this method are several. First among these is vision. The kayak's low profile is a two edge sword. The fish cannot see you but likewise you cannot see the fish. Another advantage is casting accuracy. The accuracy of a cast is especially important in sight fishing. A foot or two can make all the difference between a strike and spooking a fish. Casting from a moving kayak is abviously not as accurate a method as standing stationary and casting. Fly fishing can be especially difficult from a kayak and many fly fisherman only fish from outside of the kayak. The last advantage of wade fishing is simply comfort...its nice to get out of the boat every now and then. Finally, it is obvious that this method implies frequent egress in and out of the boat. This is another reason I recomend "sit on top" kayaks for flats fishing. Getting in and out of the boat in 3 or 4 feet of water should not be an act requiring great skill. Many sit inside kayaks especially those w/smaller cockpits make this and act requiring skill and practice. Since a flats fisherman may be getting in and out of the boat in waist deep water 20 or more times in a days, a low risk method of egress is extremely desireable.
 
 

The 2nd method of kayak flats fishing is fishing from the kayak. This method also offers many advantages. Stealth is perphaps the greatest asset of fishing from the kayak. Many times I have hooked fish virtually under the boat. A kayak casts a very  low shadow and paddled at slow speed makes very little noise. A school redfish may be approached very closely and from the desired direction thus preventing long casts or cross wind casts. The next most important  adavantage of fishing from the kayak is speed. Wading is a more or less stationary method of fishing. A fast moving school of redfish will only offer a momentary target and then will quickly out of casting distance. Fishing from the kayak allows you to keep up with moving fish and make multiple casts from any desired direction.
 
 

The last method of flats fishing with a kayak is the least known or practiced. This method is trolling. Trolling is technique primarily used to catch seatrout.  In order to troll w/a kayak a rod holder must be suitably placed. The best locations for a rod holder is directly in front of the cockpit. This location allows the paddler to see the strike as well as detect if the lure has hung weeds. The speeds nessecary to troll most lures is between 3 to 3.5 mph. This is normally a very liesurely touring pace for most kayakers. Trolling also has its own unique advantages. The first of these is the ability to cover water. Seatrout for most of the year are spread out fairly evenly across the flats. Cold weather or a abundance of bait may concentrate trout in a specific area for brief periods, but these conditions are usually temporary. Another advantage of trolling is simply the ability to be fishing all the time. If you do not fish until you have reached a desired spot you have wasted all of the travel time not fishing. In a power boat this travel time, may be insignifigant, in a kayak however, it is not. In the Banana River Manatee Sanctuary I frequently travel 4 or more miles to my favorite spots to fish. By trolling on the way I increase my fishing time signifigantly. Finally trolling offers the advantage of being able to non sight fish. By this I mean that sight fishing requires calm to near calm conditions in order to see the fish. The kayak troller is largely unconcerned w/wind. This ability to fish in the wind allows me to sight fish in the morning calm and then switch to trolling in the afternoon once the wind has gotten up. The lures trolled in flats fishing depend on the depth. Minnow plugs such as the Yo-Zuri L-Minnow are an excellent choice for water over 4 feet deep. In shallower water the best choice is a weedless spoon like a Johnson or Hopkins.
 
 

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