Day 2: Weary, wet, worn

After 12 hours in their kayaks, the paddlers turn to the angling expert to put something in the pan for dinner. All he can think about is catching some Zs.

Published January 17, 2007


Paddling in the dark, spoil islands all look the same.

One hundred years ago, this stretch of river had nothing but open water. Then in 1951, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to dredge a 10-foot-deep channel to connect the waterway with a boater’s highway that stretched 1,089 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Miami, and deposited sand and dirt along the edge of the channel to create the spoil islands.

Most folks who travel the Intracoastal Waterway seldom notice the islands as they fly by in vessels powered by gas or diesel engines. Twelve hours earlier, when we left New Smyrna Beach on the 72-mile kayak trip that would take us down the Indian River Lagoon, we had been warned to stay clear of the main channel, especially at night.

“I am ready to stop and camp for the night,” I told my paddling companion Casey LaLomia.

“I’ll sleep on an oyster bar, under a bridge, anywhere. … I don’t care.”

When we set off, our little band of six merry men had anticipated a pleasure cruise. The weatherman had promised the wind would be at our backs, but instead, it blew right in our faces for eight hours straight.

“Where’s our campsite?” I asked Darry Jackson, the navigator of our group.

“I am ready to call it a night.”

Jackson stopped paddling, turned on his lamp and examined the chart.

“Those spoil islands over there are bird-nesting islands,” he said. “We can’t camp there. They are federally protected.”

The islands, seven of them in all, looked so close . If it were put to a vote, I’d say the pelicans would just have to learn to share.

Fortunately, my colleagues’ cooler heads prevailed.

“I think I see something down there,” George Stovall said. “It’s not on the map, but it looks like an island nonetheless.”

Just as well, I thought. One of the main reasons people come to the Indian River Lagoon (which is actually three separate bodies of water — the Indian River, the Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River) is because of the wildlife.

Straddling the temperate and tropic zones, the 156-mile-long lagoon, has more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, including 310 different birds.

Much of the lagoon still looks the way it did 500 years ago when the Ais Indians lived, hunted and fished along its shorelines. When the Spanish arrived, it didn’t take long before they realized the lagoon’s potential commercial value.

A mixture of fresh and saltwater that flows into the waterway through five inlets, the Indian River Lagoon is a breeding ground for dozens of commercially and recreationally valuable species.

Old-timers talk of schools of mullet as large as a football field and red drum the size of small farm animals.

“Are you going to catch us dinner?” Keith Dudley asked as we pulled our kayaks up the bank of one of the lagoon’s 212 spoil islands. “I could go for a little fried redfish.”

All day, I had been talking about fishing. I had hoped we would stop at sunset so I could toss a top-water plug out among the oyster bars. But now — cold, wet and tired — all I wanted to do was crawl in my nice warm sleeping bag and pass out.

“What kind of fisherman are you?” Dudley taunted. “Here we are at one of the best redfish spots in the world and you’re not even going to try to catch one?”

I had brought a three-piece fishing rod, compact reel, an assortment of tackle, as well as a portable grill, frying pan and fillet knife. But after paddling all day, I could barely move my fingers, let alone tie a loop knot.

“I’ll make the fire,” LaLomia said. “You just worry about catching some fish.”

So I broke out the rod and reel and fumbled with my knot. I could hear splashing off in the distance, so I knew the water was full of life. Perhaps they were mullet, or a dolphin herding redfish. Either way, I thought a lure twitching on the surface might invite something to strike.

Usually, I like to reconnoiter my fishing grounds in the daylight. It is good to know of any obstructions that could cause you to lose a fish. But under the circumstances, I’d be happy to get the plug to open water.

Stumbling in the dark, I found the water’s edge, hauled back and let it fly. Instantly, I knew something was wrong.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I think you just caught a tree,” Dudley said.

Happy the incident was not captured on film or videotape, I tried again, and again, and again.

A half hour passed and still not a bite. So I broke apart my fishing rod and returned to the fire, where my friends were boiling water on their portable camp stoves.

A cup of bitter black coffee with a bit of sugar helps take the sting out of a day on the water. We sat in silence and ate our freeze-dried meals.

“I’d kill for some real food,” I told my friends. “I’d eat anything … a candy bar, potato chips, a nice greasy, chili dog.”

In the morning, we might pass a town. We said our prayers: God, please deliver us to a 7-Eleven.

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