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Against the wind and tide

As a group of kayakers begins a trip down Florida's east coast, the unpredictable weather makes for a trying first day.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published January 16, 2007


NEW SMYRNA BEACH- Standing at a boat ramp, a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, we looked at our maps one more time before embarking on our long paddle south.

"The good news is we will be protected all morning," Darry Jackson said, pointing to a swampy area known as Callalise Creek. "But the bad news is that once we hit the open water, we will be going against the wind and tide."

For weeks we had debated whether to start our trip at the north or south end of the Indian River Lagoon. The 155-mile-long estuary is actually made up of three waterways: the Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River and the Banana River.

Covering about one-third of Florida's east coast, the Indian River Lagoon straddles the border of the temperate and subtropical zones, making it the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States.

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, as it is called by the locals, is known for unpredictable weather.

The temperature of the air over the mainland, the ocean and the lagoon can vary widely. The warm water of the Gulf Stream, which runs parallel to the coast, is another variable.

Dedicated surfers, my companions play close attention to the weather Web sites, hoping to be the first to hit the water when the north wind kicks up a killer swell.

"I checked right before we left," Casey LaLomia said on the first day of our trip in December. "The wind will start to turn around 11 a.m. Or at least that is what they are saying."

We all hoped LaLomia was right.

We had 72 miles as the pelican flies to cover in 21/2 days. I had promised my friends that this adventure, unlike our other ones, would be a veritable leisure cruise.

"We will have the wind at our backs and sail the whole way," I told friend Keith Dudley. "We will finish early every day and have plenty of time to fish."

Dudley, an enthusiastic fly fisherman, knew this waterway was world-renowned for its big, bull redfish. Anglers come from all over the country to fish the IRL's oyster bars and grass beds for world record red drum.

For thousands of years, people have fished and hunted along the shoreline. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the waterway was called the Great Lagoon of the Ais, after the people who lived along it. But white men, thinking they knew better, thought the waterway was just another river and changed its name to Ais River and eventually Indian River.

Today, the Indian is known as an angler's paradise. Old-timers say that when the reds are thick, it is like catching fish in a barrel.

"I'm bringing a fishing rod, some tackle, a frying pan and a little corn meal," I told Dudley. "I'll supplement our freeze-dried rations with a little freshly caught redfish."

But George Stovall, a veteran of more than two dozen long-distance kayak trips, warned me not to count my fish before they were caught.

"If the cold front stalls, we will be paddling straight into the wind," he said. "That is some mighty big water out there. It might just take longer than you think."

When people think of a river, they think of a current. But because the northernmost inlet (Ponce) and the next one to the south (Sebastian) are nearly 90 miles apart, the tidal flow in the IRL isn't great. A paddler can feel the effects of the moon's gravitational pull only within a few miles of the inlet.

Unfortunately, our early morning departure put us smack in the middle of an outgoing tide.

"This will shave a mile an hour off our progress," Stovall informed me as we slid past Three Sisters Island. "Hopefully we can make it up when we hit open water."

About 2 to 15 percent of the water in the Indian River Lagoon actually flushes out of the five inlets. And that has helped create such biodiversity. The state of Florida estimates more than 4,300 species call it home, including 1,350 kinds of plants, 2,956 types of animals (including more than 700 species of fish) and 310 varieties of birds.

But I have one thing on my mind: redfish.

As my kayak slid across a shallow seagrass bed, a dozen large specimens scattered in the boat's wake.

"I sure hope we get time to fish today," I told my friends.

But by mid afternoon, it looked like my hope of an easy day on the water was just a pipe dream. As we left the shelter of the islands, the full force of a 15-knot wind howling out of the south hit us square in the face.

"Hey, Casey," I yelled to my paddling partner. "The weatherman lied."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.