Across the state protection continues to increase along critical coastal ecosystems in an effort to ensure the well being of these essential habitats. Many areas of shallow water have been designated as poll and troll zones, with others completely banning motorized vessels altogether. It is here in the No Motor Zones where shallow water game fish flourish and paddle-powered anglers revel in their own private playground.
The author scouts shallow water for approaching drum.
Located along the northern stretches of the Banana River in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center, the Banana River NMZ is a sanctuary for an abundance of sea life including some of the largest schools of redfish and black drum the state has to offer. This No Motor Zone has been closed to boat traffic since 1990 in an effort to protect manatees. Because of the longstanding closure to motorized vessels in the refuge, the fish that call the approximate 10,000 acres of water home don’t see the fishing pressure they once did, making it a true fishing paradise.
The large schools of breeder redfish and black drum are almost as predictable as the sun rising in the morning.
So how do you get to the NMZ? The most popular launch spot for kayaks and canoes is KARS Park, located on north Merritt Island. The Kennedy Athletic, Recreational and Social Park was once only available to employees of NASA, but is now open to the public with a $5.00 launch fee. Launching from KARS Park puts you on the west side of the NMZ and only a few hundred yards from one of the most productive flats in the area.
For the adventurist paddler try heading to Buck Creek in the northern end of the NMZ, but be warned that this 4.65 mile one way paddle can quickly turn into a nightmare if a south wind picks up. There are no spoil islands along the west side to block the wind so make sure to check the weather forecast before launching. The expansive waters of the Banana River can be uninviting during windy conditions so you must always keep a close eye on the weather.
Another launch spot is located on the east side of the NMZ behind the cruise terminals in Port Canaveral. The launch area here is on the left side of the road just before the guard shack, but this is a park at your own risk type of spot so be sure not to leave any valuables in your car. On the east side you will have greater protection from a south wind, however here you must take note of the closed security zones. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has a security zone that extends 10,000 feet out into the NMZ, but it’s marked with buoys and hard to miss. There are a few bars that run north to south outside of the security zone that tend to hold good numbers of trout all year long. During the fall most of the reds and black drum will be found along the same bars early in the morning, moving to deeper water as the day progresses.
If you are one of the lucky few that work for the Space Center or Air Force Base, or know someone that does, you have the honor of launching from the NASA Bridge and working your way south to some of the fishiest waters of the entire NMZ. From here the paddle to Buck Creek and the spoil islands on the east side is shortened by over three miles.
Unlike other locales on the Space Coast, in the Banana River Manatee Refuge finding fish is fairly easy in the fall. The large schools of breeder redfish and black drum are almost as predictable as the sun rising in the morning. The prey items these big fish feed on consists of blue crabs, shrimp, snails, and various species of finfish. As the water continues to cool as winter approaches this list will shorten to mainly crabs, shrimp and snails, since they offer the greatest reward for the least amount of effort.
Because black drum feed primarily by smell, dead baiting is a great way to get connected. Cut blue crab, mullet and ladyfish all offer incredible scent dispersal and 2/0 to 4/0 circle-hooks ensure the healthy release of these big, ugly fish. Large live shrimp can also be irresistible, but when rigging shrimp I suggest a smaller 1/0 or 2/0 octopus beak fine wire hook so as not to weigh the shrimp down in an unnatural way. When having to make a long cast to lead a school of fish try hooking the shrimp in the tail and adding a small split-shot to get the shrimp down in time for the fish to find it. Since these fish will be in the 15 to 30 pound range I like to beef up my tackle. A 4000 class spinning reel packed with 20 lb. braid and a top shot of 25 lb. leader enables me to really put heat on them once they are close to my kayak.
Although bait fishing works really well, some anglers prefer the challenge of targeting these fish on fly. Seven to 9-weight outfits are capable of subduing these broad shouldered fish, with black clousers, merkins and shrimp or crab flies drawing strikes.
No matter your preferred approach, stealth is very important when fishing this time of year. With clearer water the fish are on high alert. If you are going to use live bait or cut bait try to collect it a good distance from where you plan on fishing, as the sound of a cast net isn’t inviting to redfish or black drum.
Safety needs to be top priority on any paddle trip, but even more so along the Banana River NMZ. Sometimes you will find yourself all alone with help miles away, so try and have a few things with you above and beyond the safety items required by law. A stake out pole is a great tool to have not only to stop yourself to more thoroughly fish an area, but also to stop and take a break from paddling and not lose the ground you’ve gained. A cooler full of cold drinks, and warm clothes to start the morning are a standard for me this time of year. You can always take layers off, but if you are exposed to the cooler water and air temperatures it can be downright bone chilling and uncomfortable. Also, you can’t forget the NMZ was created to provide a safe haven for the manatees…and man there are a ton of them out here. And who can forget about the giant alligators that call the NMZ home. They will rarely mess with you, but if you tend to keep a few fish for dinner try not to use a stringer.
The NMZ is one of those special places that every angler must experience. Respect the water and the fish that live in the NMZ and leave only paddle wakes. By protecting our resources we can make certain the great fishery that is the No Motor Zone will provide enjoyment and isolation for many more years to come. Enjoy the hunt!