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Mission accomplished: Central Florida an ideal spot to catch redfish

The wind was blowing at about 14 knots as we dropped kayaks into the Banana River and paddled past the moored vessels of the NASA navy.

The two white ships, which recover booster rockets that drop into the Atlantic Ocean after spacecraft launches, are among a handful of motorized vessels allowed in these waters, along with some fast patrol boats that guard the perimeters of the sprawling space launch facility on the Atlantic Ocean.

The no-motor zone off the space center is well known for producing big spotted sea trout, jack crevalle, tarpon, black drum and snook. But what draws most anglers is a chance to catch another member of the drum family that grows to legendary sizes, the redfish, also known as the channel bass.

I tagged along with Tom Van Horn, a space center fireman who is also a fishing guide on inland lakes and rivers in central Florida and the inshore waters of the adjacent Atlantic.

"This area was closed to everyone after the 9/11 attacks. It only re opened a few months ago," Van Horn said. "When it first re-opened, no one had bothered those fish for five years, and when you cast a jig or bait, you'd see four or five wakes going after it. Some days we caught 50 reds."

Banana River is a misnomer. Along with the Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River, it's part of matrix of islands and tidal basins 156 miles long and 2-to-5 miles wide that is home to an incredible 700 species of fish.

Van Horn said the 35-square-mile no-motor zone, between the NASA Causeway on the north and the State Road 528 Causeway on the south, has produced nine line-class world records for redfish, an amazing statistic for such a small area.

In other big-red hotspots, such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, most anglers blind cast with long surf rods. Here, many big reds are caught by anglers who spot them in clear water and lay flies, lures or baits in front of their noses, one of the most exciting forms of fishing for any species.

I had the luck to do that when Van Horn pointed out a black shape _ darker than the grassy bottom _ moving slowly in four feet of water about 60 feet away. We hadn't been able to interest a dozen other fish we saw in artificial lures or flies, so I dropped a cookie-sized piece of blue crab six feet from it and hopped the bait along the bottom. The fish turned over the bait, the line tightened as it swam away, and I only had to reel in slack and lift the rod tip.

We had one quick glimpse of a long, white belly, too far off to be sure if it was a redfish or a big black drum, and with the reel filled with 8-pound test monofilament I didn't want to apply too much pressure. It came within 100 feet, then we saw a huge tail thrash and 80 or 90 yards of line melted away.

Worried that I was going to be spooled, I hopped on the bow of a kayak and gained line while another angler paddled after the fish. In five minutes we had it aboard, a 44-inch red that posed for our hero pictures before swimming off to fight another day.

Van Horn estimated its weight at 25-30 pounds, saying, "the slot limit here lets you keep redfish between 18-27 inches, but we have to release any that are bigger or smaller. And I don't like to hold fish upright by the gills or jaw to weigh them. I think we kill fish that way without realizing it. So we usually don't know how much a fish weighs because we just measure them and let them go."

We caught several other redfish and a 20-25 pound black drum, but only two of the reds fit into the slot limit.

"I've seen a lot of days out here when you couldn't catch a fish small enough to take home, but most people are happy with that. They come here because they want to catch big redfish, not because they want fish to eat," Van Horn said.