September 30, 2010
The cannons of the Castillo still point out toward St. Augustine Inlet, but the only warriors present are seatrout patrolling the mud and shell flats. Here are some tips on doing battle with these gamesters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
When Heather and Warren Michael invited me out to the boathouse behind their bed and breakfast on Anastasia Island, I was tempted to decline. After all, it was 10:30 at night and 650 feet of winding boardwalk separated the back porch of the Barrier Island Inn from its two-story boathouse. Why not wait and see the whole deal in the morning sunlight?
Ah, but how naive I was to nearly miss an absolute bonanza of speckled trout action in the halo of dock lights illuminating the water's surface.
A quick glance off the tip of the walkway between two boat slips revealed a melee of silver shadows darting through the light with amazing speed. On closer inspection, I could see that any shrimp or baitfish drifting across the spotlight exited "stage left" with great haste!
Anglers at the Barrier Island Inn, and fishermen targeting any lighted docks in local waters for that matter, regularly enjoy the speckled trout night bite. But anyone fishing in the St. Augustine area can claim a share of the fun too. There is no doubt that the rich habitat surrounding America's oldest city abounds with angling action. Here, trout share expansive habitat with redfish, flounder and black drum. Let's take a quick tour of what the area has to offer.
The Matanzas River was once traveled by Spanish explorers and French Huguenots and now borders downtown and dominates St. Augustine's inshore fishery with expansive habitat that begs contemporary exploration. East of the fortress Castillo de San Marco on the city's waterfront, the Tolomato River flows south and converges with the Matanzas at the ever-shifting St. Augustine Inlet.
On the south side of this coastal portal, Anastasia Island runs 24 miles down to Matanzas Inlet. The Intracoastal Waterway on the western side of the island uses the same course as the Matanzas River, but just before reaching Matanzas Inlet the two separate. The river takes an easterly course around Rattlesnake Island and historic Fort Matanzas, while the ICW goes around the other side of the isle. At Summer Haven to the south of the inlet, these two channels again join.
Fishy habitat lines the entire Matanzas River system, but newcomers fare best by learning what to look for and targeting some of the top spots. For starters, local charter captain Bill Schuller said night-fishing for trout in well-lit areas is a must.
"Docks and bridges, anywhere you have lights, offer excellent action for trout," he said. "You get the bait moving into the lights, and that draws in the predators."
During the day, you find best results by targeting areas that are most likely to hold plentiful food sources. Oyster bars harbor hordes of crabs, shrimp and invertebrates, as do the swaying pastures of marsh grass. On outgoing tides, work the mouths of small feeder creeks that drain water from the marsh interior. Fish use these tributaries as travel lanes and often settle into deep holes near their entrances at low tide.
There's also plenty of action as trout move out with the falling water funneling through the narrow creek mouth to set up on ambush points. As the outgoing tide sweeps baitfish and crustaceans past those stakeouts, hungry fish take full advantage of hapless prey.
Live oyster bars, as well as the shell mounds formed from decades of commercial oystermen discarding shells, always have a deeper side where daily tides form deep troughs. Current eddies mark these hot zones, and you can bet the farm that trout and reds will be stacked below and eating anything that passes overhead.
One of St. Augustine's most consistently productive areas is right off the downtown waterfront. Centuries ago, unannounced vessels approaching the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos could plan on collecting a few cannon balls courtesy of Spanish forces. Today, the only thing firing from the coquina walls of this historic national monument at the northern end of the waterfront is the flash of tourist cameras. On the other hand, the grass- and oyster-lined mud banks off the fort's northeast corner attract plenty of trout, redfish and flounder.
To the north of the fort, the Matanzas River bends east toward the inlet. Shallow tidal flats and dense marsh grass hug the north side of this bend. Across at the Mission of Nombre de Dios stands high above these flats, making them easy to locate. Fishing anywhere along this edge usually produces well.
Winding through the lush grass of the flat, Hospital Creek crosses under the State Route A1A bridge and runs past the nationally known Florida School for the Deaf and Blind on the western shore. Trout find the creek's protected waters appealing when open areas turn rough or chilly, and the creek offers plenty of depth for boats to navigate. When high tide floods the area, look for good action regardless of weather.
Another good region is around the Airport Basin, about four miles north of town. A westward offshoot from the Tolomato River, this shallow lagoon runs up to the restricted shoreline of the St. Augustine Municipal Airport. The entrance can be tricky at low tide, but a deep hole at the back attracts several species, including tarpon.
Fish the points and run-outs along the grass and oyster shoreline. This location is especially good during colder months, when trout and other game fish seek shelter and warmth in protected waters.
A bit farther north is the Guana River, branching northeast off the Tolomato River near South Ponte Vedra Beach. This river runs through its namesake state park and up to a dam separating the boating channel from the brackish South Lagoon and freshwater North Lagoon. North of the dam, fishing is restricted to johnboats, canoes and the like. South of the dam, tremendous salt marsh habitat with expansive grassy shorelines, muddy oyster banks and lots of feeder creeks make this an absolute briny buffet for trout and other predators.
Far to the south of town at Crescent Beach is Moses Creek, along with some good flats near the SR 206 bridge. Outside the ICW channel in the Matanzas River, extreme shallows stretch from the bridge to the mouth of Moses Creek. Scattered oyster mounds increase in size and frequency closer to the creek mouth. The creek meanders northwest for several miles, and low tides often find trout stranded in deep holes far upstream. A small boat, canoe or kayak, however, is needed to reach this "captive audience." It is a good place to fish as well when windy conditions necessitate fishing protected water
Closer to the ICW channel, massive oyster bars display their muddy "petticoats" at low tide. Topped with wispy Spartina grass and carved by hundreds of narrow tidal arteries, these bars are loaded with crustaceans and invertebrates that attract seatrout.
On final area that offers promise is Devil's Elbow. A couple of miles north of Matanzas Inlet, the river makes a dramatic eastward bend that resembles a human elbow. Large shell bars create attractive habitat in this bend, and predators search for unsuspecting meals around these shells. Tidal flow has created steep dropoffs around these bars. Such features offer great ambush points, so make a cast right up against the shells and let your bait or lure fall naturally into the deeper water.
BAITS AND TECHNIQUE
Experienced anglers typically probe the vast shell and grass areas around St. Augustine with 1/4-ounce jigs, soft-plastic jerkbaits or other shrimp imitations. These artificial lures are often "sweetened" with cut shrimp to get more attention.
Another popular option is fan-casting with a jighead and a bull minnow, finger mullet or shrimp attached. With the latter, run the hook through the second to the last segment of a shrimp's tail or thread the shrimp tail-first onto the hook. Hook baitfish through the lips.
With any of these options, cast near the grass lines or oyster edges, but keep baits at least two feet out to avoid hooking shells hiding just below the surface. Fish the dropoff edges for more bites and fewer snags.
In low-light conditions, such as dawn, dusk or cloudy days, topwater plugs can draw exciting strikes from trout, but also from occasional redfish. Topwater lures certainly catch fish, but if the trout are creating boils with short strikes without hooking up, immediately toss a jig or jerkbait at the commotion. The sudden appearance of a subsurface bait often stimulates an aggressive fish into a follow-up strike.
A good "anytime" option is a popping cork with a live shrimp, artificial shrimp or jig suspended beneath. For one thing, the added weight enables you to cast farther, plus the cork keeps your bait from snagging bottom as often.
Cork rigs are particularly helpful for newcomers to trout fishing, since feeling a strike from these fish is not always easy. Simply watch the cork until it disappears under the water, reel until your line comes tight, and then raise the rod tip to set the hook. You do not need to jerk hard, since that can pull the hook right out of the relatively soft jaw of the seatrout.
For those who lack the patience for watching a baited hook or for repetitive fan-casting, trolling offers another option. Pulling a 1/4-ounce jig past creek mouths and oyster bar run-outs can produce well.
For kayak fishing, sit-atop models are best, as they allow easy mounting and dismounting, which is convenient for wading. Most have dry hatches and molded seats, foot rests and storage areas foe coolers. Foot controlled rudders are helpful for novices, especially in windy conditions. However, with proper paddling techniques, controlling kayaks is not that difficult.
Standard accessories for fishing kayaks include rod holders fore and aft, back rest, tackle packs (strapped to backrest or secured under bungee cords), and a bait bucket. This latter can be an aerated container left inside the kayak, or a flow-through bucket towed alongside. Dry bags are also necessary for protecting cell phones, cameras and other valuables.
Small anchors with about 50 feet of rope are a good idea when fishing deep water. The rope can double as a dock line or as a wading tether. In shallow areas, simply sticking your foot overboard will hold your kayak in place. Another idea is using a 2-foot wooden dowel or a cut-off mop handle to stick through one of the kayak's sc upper holes. Set firmly in the sea bottom, the stake holds fast and removes easily.
To rent a canoe or kayak at St. Augustine, visit Costal Outdoors Center on Anastasia Island, a block south of the State Route 205 bridge. The telephone number is (904) 471-4144.
Ideal tackle for St. Augustine trout and their inshore neighbors is a medium-action spinning rod and reel strung with 8- to 10-pound-test line. Braided lines provide greater sensitivity for detecting light bites, while also offering more abrasion resistance when fished around shell bars. Rods should be in the 6 1/2- to 7-foot length range, with plenty of fish-whipping backbone. Still, having enough flex in the tip to properly work your baits and detect strikes is also good.
For an up-close-and-personal angling experience, the Matanzas River offers plenty of opportunity to fish from kayaks. During a recent trip, Capt. Adam Morely and I fished the area around the mouth of Moses Creek from sit-on-top kayaks. As we crossed mere inches of water over mostly mud bottom, the benefits of a motorless, shallow-running vessel were clear.
After working the cuts between some of the outer bars, we pushed into the creek mouth, where the outgoing tide had left massive oyster mounds and mud banks high and dry.
Twisting ribbons of retreating water illustrated the daily tidal cycle. Throughout the Matanzas River system, inspecting such feeder creeks at low tide provides great reference points for underwater structure when you return on high water.
At one point when I stopped for a few scenic photos, Adam shouted, "Fish on!" Turning toward my host, I saw him sitting beside a large shell mound and struggling with two bent rods!
Adam had found a point where the falling water raced around the shells and over a deep trough. It obviously held some trout.
A 10-foot stretch of rippling brine marked the strike zone, and each time our baits drifted through, a fish rose for a bite. Later, we moved back out toward the ICW channel to tease up a few speckled trout that found our topwater plugs irresistible in the setting sunlight.
Had we been a little closer to Michaels' Inn, I would have suggested we make a few drifts past the lights. But it was late and we needed to pack in the gear, so that adventure had to wait for another time.