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Banana River Full of Black Drum

By: Susan Cocking, McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI (MCT) - While visiting east-central Florida's Indian River Lagoon last summer, I was extremely pleased to encounter many small, unexpected black drum to which you could sight-cast with fly rod.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I paddled the west shoreline of the Banana River no-motor zone with captain John Kumiski of Chuluota, Fla. The black drum we found were quite a lot bigger - so big, in fact, that they could be seen tailing in 3 ½ feet of water.

I wish I could say we caught them, but, alas, we did not.

"They are fish, after all," Kumiski said philosophically. "There are many things influencing fish that human beings will never be able to figure out."

These black drum - far from being hammered by motorboats in the main river and Mosquito Lagoon - were feeding happily where no boat engines (neither electric nor combustion) are allowed to go. Since the 1960s, access to the waters within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge surrounding Kennedy Space Center has been restricted.

From just north of the SR 528 Causeway to the NASA Causeway - an area of about 19 square miles - the Banana River is paddle-only. For an extended period after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the no motor-zone became a no-entry zone. And the waters from the NASA Causeway north have been closed to all boats for longer than most fishermen can remember.

Not to mention that Kumiski and I set out following passage of a fairly strong cold front, which would tend to discourage lazy anglers. So the Banana River resembled an idyllic pasture more than a frenetic freeway that early weekday morning.

Kumiski and I paddled his canoe for probably 1 ½ miles before we spotted an enormous, tailing black drum. Actually, tailing is not the proper description: This fish was massive enough that its entire back stuck up from the surface.

Kumiski cast his 7-weight, sending a black-bunny fly directly in front of where he had last seen the fish tip down. He was rewarded with a solid thump, then a strong tug, then ... nothing.

"I stink," he said disgustedly.

Still, I felt very optimistic. If this was the caliber of fish we were spotting after just a short paddle, I could only imagine what black-backed behemoths awaited us further north along the shoreline.

We kept going, spooking a redfish from the shallows with a pale belly so broad that I mistook it for a dolphin - really!

Up ahead, we saw a canoe and a kayak but figured there would be enough drum, both red and black, to please everyone.

Because of the sun's angle and the water's dark stain, we kept running over redfish before we could spot them. But Kumiski detected two tailers in the distance that we were able to sneak up on. Just to be able to say I got a fish to the boat, I cast a mullet plug out on a spinning rod and waited for one of the two reds to find it. The one that did weighed about 10 pounds. After a fun, canoe-towing tussle, I brought the fish up to be photographed and released.

Kumiski and I kept paddling north, spotting plenty of tailing reds but no black drum. We saw one school of reds in particular that tailed cooperatively near a mud flat dotted with terns. But when we crept quietly out of the canoe and began to wade toward the fish, they disappeared.

Things clearly were not going according to plan.

At mid-afternoon, Kumiski said we should start heading back south because we were facing a four-mile paddle back to KARS Park on Merritt Island where we had put in.

"We'll definitely see tailing fish on the way back," he assured me.

That was no lie. When we had gone about a mile, we suddenly encountered multiple black tails breaking the surface in about 3 ½ feet of water.

Again, we both slipped out of the boat with our fly rods and began casting to a herd of black drum that looked to average about 20 pounds. Big, broad tails sticking up in hip-deep water! To repeat a metaphor I used about a decade ago to describe these same fishing grounds, the river looked like a watery field full of grazing Holstein cows.

But no matter how many seemingly accurate casts we both made, neither Kumiski nor I ever hooked up. The school of fish milled cooperatively around us for probably 30 minutes before fading off.

"I stink," Kumiski repeated.

But that wasn't correct; he was just frustrated. With the low angle of the sun and the depth of the water, you couldn't see which direction the fish were facing when they went down. That meant that even if you made an accurate cast to where you last saw the black tail, you still couldn't see the fish in the water, so you had no idea whether or not you were casting to its butt. And that is not the orifice fish use to feed.

Near dusk, we gave up and paddled back to KARS Park.

What happened, I wanted to know. How could we be shut out by such happy fish?

"They have lots of barbells under their chin," Kumiski said, referring to protrusions used by the fish to dig up shrimp, clams and crabs from the bottom. "Because they have barbells, they are focused with olfactory or taste sensations to the exclusion of (sight). When they're like that, they are hard to get to take a fly."

The good news, he said, is that the fish are likely to make regular appearances in the river until early spring. And while they fall well short of the hyperspace runs of the bonefish or the pugilistic punch of a permit, they have a certain appeal.

"No one would mistake them for a bonefish, but on the other hand, if you have a 40-pound fish, it's still a 40-pound fish," Kumiski said. "I think those black drum up there are the biggest tailing fish you can fish for."

© 2009, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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