FORT PIERCE -- Jensen Beach kayak angler Jerry McBride prays for drought. Life was beautiful for him before Hurricane Isaac made a couple of passes through Florida last summer, followed by more torrential downpours that caused Lake Okeechobee to rise more than three feet. Fast-rising lake levels and safety concerns about the aging dike surrounding it prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin pumping upwards of 1 billion gallons per day into McBride’s favorite fishing grounds in the St. Lucie Estuary.
“I never left Sailfish Flats and I had a shot at 10 species a day,” McBride said of his paddle trips before the storm. “Now with the dumping, I have to go to Fort Pierce. I’ve had to turn everything into a road trip.”
The corps stopped the latest round of lake releases on Nov. 7. But McBride said estuary waters were still murky, making sight-fishing all but impossible in the Stuart area. So last week, he and I decided to fish the Indian River Lagoon north of the North A1A Causeway in Fort Pierce, hoping for water clear enough to sight-fish by kayak for snook, redfish and trout. Unfortunately, no joy.
Even a strong incoming tide at Fort Pierce Inlet could not overcome the opaque, brown water pouring out of Taylor Creek into the lagoon. With a higher-than-usual tide overlaying dirty creek water, visibility was poor, even on a sunny afternoon. McBride said he had scouted Round Island to the north the day before, and conditions there were no better.
So we gave up the idea of sight-fishing and instead blind-casted with jigs toward mangrove shorelines.
“It’s still possible to catch fish here blind-casting,” McBride said. “But not being able to see the fish or the potholes really takes the sport out of it.”
True, but as the old cliché goes, a bad day of fishing is still better than a good day in the office, and the day wasn’t that bad.
I caught and released a snook of 6 to 7 pounds on my second cast of the day with a chartreuse jig head and shad-like paddle tail, along with a couple of small jack crevalles. McBride caught and released a slot-sized redfish, plus two slot-sized sea trout and the usual complement of jacks.
At no point could we see the bottom, despite numerous periods of bright sunlight.
In late afternoon, winds picked up briskly out of the north and what little bite we had trailed off, so we decided to head back to the boat ramp.
McBride said he planned to check out his home waters this week to see if conditions had cleared. But he sounded pessimistic about the health of the Indian River Lagoon in general and the St. Lucie Estuary in particular.
“People say it will recover. It won’t necessarily recover,” McBride said. “We have so much nutrients in the water. It causes algae blooms and dirties the water up and down the East Coast.”
Indeed, the northern part of the Indian River Lagoon, including the Banana River and Mosquito Lagoon, suffers from algae blooms that some scientists blame for reducing sea grass meadows from more than 72,000 acres in 2009 to about 41,000 acres today.
Lake Okeechobee discharges are not the sole cause, but they are the most visible.
The head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Alan Dodd, issued a news release last week explaining the necessity of water releases from the Big O and vowing to “continue to work with stakeholders to find feasible solutions.”
Meanwhile, McBride and, no doubt, his fellow anglers on the Caloosahatchee River — the western recipient of Lake O discharges — are keeping their fingers crossed for a dry winter.
Said McBride: “There’s no easy solution, but we’re just tired of being the people who get dumped on.”