Standing on the bank of this 155-mile long estuary, fishing rod at the ready, the decision at hand is which way to paddle.
Disappear into the islands of the Mosquito Lagoon? Go explore the Banana River? Or perhaps just head south and follow the Indian River. Any way you go, the fishing is above average.
Covering about one third of Florida’s East Coast, the IRL, as the locals call it, straddles the border of the temperate and subtropical zones, making it the most biologically diverse estuary in the U.S.
More than 4,300 different species call this place home. If you care for a breakdown, that’s 1,350 plants, 2,956 animals (including more than 700 species of fish) and 310 birds. But don’t believe me. Bring your field guides and notebook, then start counting.
Sandwiched between the Florida peninsula and a string of barrier islands that stretch from Ponce de Leon in the north to Jupiter Inlet in the south, the IRL is also known for its world-record red drum. Anglers come from all over the world to fish the IRL for big, bull reds that thrive among the oyster bars and sea grass beds.
For thousands of years, people have fished and hunted along the lagoon’s shoreline. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the waterway was called The Great Lagoon of the Ais, after the native people who called the place home.
But the Europeans, thinking they knew better, thought the waterway was just another river and changed the name. The Ais River eventually became the Indian River, and the term “lagoon” was almost lost to history.
One hundred years ago, the river had nothing but open water. Then in 1951, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a 10-foot-deep channel to connect the waterway with a boater’s highway that stretched 1,089 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Miami.
Digging that ditch produced tons of dirt and sand that had to go somewhere. So the engineers dumped the bulk of it along the edge of the channel to create a string of spoil islands. Most folks who travel the Intracoastal Waterway don’t notice the islands as they fly by in vessels powered by gasoline or diesel engines.
However, when you rely on paddle power, the lagoon’s 212 spoil islands provide some of the IRL’s best camping and picnic spots. Some areas, such as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, are off limits so pay close attention to the posted signs.
But any minor inconvenience is worth it. The federal government has done an admirable job protecting this patch of wilderness. The 140,000-acre preserve that overlays NASA’s holdings on Cape Canaveral offers safe refuge to dozens of endangered species.
If you paddle the IRL, don’t forget your fishing rod. With the most fertile sea grass beds in Florida, the lagoon is also teeming with spotted sea trout and tarpon, the silver king of gamefish.
The five inlets that link the lagoon with the sea also introduce a fair number of species normally associated with the open Atlantic. Anglers can catch gag grouper by trolling the edges of the channels. Barracuda are sometimes found near the passes. Even the stray bonefish is caught in the southern region during summer.