Kayaking at Florida's Indian River Lagoon
By Jerry McBride
“Most biologically diverse estuary in North America.”
There’s probably never been an article written about Florida’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL) that failed to include that reference.
Due to its unique geographical location, both tropical and temperate ecosystems thrive here, and the shallow, 156-mile-long estuary hosts thousands of fish, bird and marine mammal species that rely on its immense grass beds and mangrove-lined shores for food and shelter.
There’s no better vehicle for anglers to encounter that vast array of life than a sneaky, unobtrusive kayak. Where else can a fisherman—without firing up the outboard—have a shot at a dozen different species of fish a day on one lure, despite dive-bombing ospreys, pelicans, porpoises, manatees and a hundred other distractions?
The IRL varies greatly from south to north, as dense mangrove trees give way to spartina grass, oyster bars and scattered scrub mangrove bushes in their northern range. The one thing both regions have in common is hundreds of unofficial launch sites; kayak anglers from urban areas will be amazed by the ease of access to prime fishing areas.
Kayaking Florida's Indian River Lagoon through four inlets, from Jupiter to Sebastian, flush southern tidal flats twice a day with warm water from the nearby Gulf Stream; year-round moderate temperatures further enhance long growing seasons for both forage and predator species.
Kayakers can choose from among a variety of fishing venues — mangrove shorelines, sand potholes in the grass, channel edges, and dock and bridge pilings. Target anything that provides camouflage to a predator waiting to ambush prey moving downstream in the current. The hard sand bottom and clear water make the southern IRL especially conducive to wade-fishing. Use the kayak to quietly approach the target area, then anchor and fish on foot. Renowned for giant snook, the southern lagoon also produced the world-record spotted seatrout (17 pounds, 7 ounces) at Fort Pierce in 1995.
Trout probably provide more consistent catches, but massive redfish are the main attraction in the largely landlocked north. For many kayakers, the ultimate angling thrill is sight-casting to a foot-wide tail waving in the air as a 40-pound bull red sniffs through the sea grass for crabs. Less tidal flushing has resulted in a softer, stickier bottom, so anglers are confined to the boat in many areas; a kayak wide enough to stand on is a great asset in spotting fish while staying on the move.
The northern lagoon, along with the adjacent Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River (which features a kayaks-only No Motor Zone), encompass a daunting expanse of water. Anglers new to the area can save a lot of exhaustive hunting by contacting a local kayak guide or tackle shop, or by getting cozy with a group such as the Orlando Kayak Fishing Club.
The IRL may serve as one of the few instances when engineers — though inadvertently — actually improved upon nature from an angling perspective. In expanding the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to 12 feet deep and 125 feet wide in the 1950s, dredged sand and rock were dumped adjacent to the boat channel. Mangroves now rim those 143 spoil islands, creating miles of additional fish habitat amid tangled root systems and rocky drop-offs.
Fish aren’t the sole beneficiaries: Kayak anglers can opt for an extended stay by camping on designated islands, many featuring picnic tables and grills. The islands provide a serene and scenic — if somewhat primitive — base from which to chase fish during the cooler, less buggy months. For an interactive map of island-use designations, consult spoilislandproject.org.
Jerry McBride is a freelance writer and photographer who specializes in kayak fishing. He lives in Jensen Beach, Florida, and has been fishing the Indian River Lagoon for 30 years.