By Jerry White
For me, 2011 will be the year of "why not" as opposed to the year of "why". Case in point: We've been wanting to get back in to camping again after a very long break. So, we bought a new tent and host of other goodies to go along with it. With everything in place, we booked a primo waterfront camp site at Fort DeSoto for the end of January, hoping that the typical Florida "winter" weather would be typical at that time - highs in the low 70's. Keep in mind last year Florida had a very cold/devastating winter, so this was wishful thinking at best. This soon became one of the main topics for discussion, and other events were judged by their proximity to "the camping trip" on the calendar. We're pumped!
We kept watching the extended weather forecast and it seemed like New Year's weekend would be unseasonably warm (high in low 70's), so we decided, "why not?". We had no other plans, and we certainly wouldn't be on the roads dodging the party crowd. We've already got an extra day off, let's go camping! Why not, indeed.
Ever try to book a campsite on a holiday weekend, even this one? Nothing available. We both kept looking online until we finally found an open site. Yes, it got us in the park, but it wasn't a waterfront site, it barely had a water view. And for me, if I can't see water I might as well camp in my backyard - at least I can look at the pool. But, no big deal - we would just use this opportunity to set up the new tent and do a dry run for our trip at the end of the month. Without a waterfront site you're at the mercy of those waterfront folks when it comes to allowing access through their site to get the kayaks to the water. If it were me, I'd certainly let folks come through, but I've learned that everyone isn't like me. Sure would be nice to be waterfront though...
Good things happen to those who wait, or in some cases, to those who refresh their browser every 45 seconds while looking for a campsite. I couldn't believe my eyes when the *exact* campsite we reserved for the end of January became available - we booked it immediately. And with a click, a weekend camping trip was transformed into a "staycation". Fort DeSoto is about 40 minutes from my front door, but it's a destination for campers all over the country. You all have seen plenty of pictures from Fort D in previous articles. Guess what? You're about to see more!
Recent fishing reports for that area have been very good. Trout and redfish have no problem with the colder water temps (in the mid 50's). Most of the snook have hopefully left this area in search of warmer waters. The snook population took quite a beating last year, causing an extended harvest closure and prompting many anglers to not target them at all once the temps dropped. They are always pretty safe with me around anyway, as are most species. Flounder are in the area, some Spanish mackerel are still hanging around as well. I can always spin weather/fishing forecasts into opportunities, this would be no exception.
I take way too much stuff when I go fishing for a morning, let alone for a day. So can you imagine the list I compiled for a weekend fishing trip? I'd need 2 trucks. Then you toss in camping gear (often required for camping trips), and the list turns in to a scroll. Luckily, my wife (stabilizing force that she is), took possession of the scroll, and told me to just load the boats in to the truck while she gets camping things together. I can do that. Understand that this is NOT a primitive camping trip - the campsite has water, power, and showers. There is also a Wal-Mart about 20 minutes away, in case we *need* anything. She did her thing, I did my thing, and we're loaded - ready to go. Sleep won't come easy tonight.
DAY 1 - FRIDAY
If we hadn't been able to get a campsite we would have had to be at the gate at 6am (leave the house at 5:15am) and get in the long line for the 20+ campsites that get held for walk-ins. You can rest assured that these sites are not the better sites. We were prepared to do that, if we had to. Reserved campsites aren't supposed to be available until 2pm. Check out time is 11am. C'mon people, it doesn't take 3 hours to clean a campsite. So we figured we'd get there early (not at 6am, but...) and hopefully get on the site as soon as possible. Luckily, the site was unoccupied when we got there around 1pm so we got to start setting up early. Once the tent was up, the rest was easy. The last tent we owned had big bulky poles, and was quite an adventure to put up. These new whiz-bang tents available today are no challenge at all. Ours even has built in LED lights.
NO INSTALLATION REQUIRED:
Since camp was officially set up by 3 pm, we headed out on the water. I had big plans for fishing, but it was nice to just paddle around. I didn't expect to be on the water that early so all of this is bonus time. I made a few casts, even caught a little trout, but I just didn't feel much like fishing. My wife's boat was having some rudder issues, so we called it quits and headed back to camp. This is New Years Eve, Florida style:
They say that that whatever you're doing on New Years Eve, specifically who you are with, will be a sign of things to come for the next year. I should be so lucky. We had rib-eyes under the party lights.
You too can have these lights … here's where:
Please note the body of water in front of you … doesn't look treacherous, does it?
HELP - I'M TAKING ON WATER:
That's something you never want to hear, but that night we did. At sunset we noticed a couple paddlers out near a channel marker, I'm guessing about 150 yards from the shore. They weren't moving, just hanging out. I can't blame them for that - it was beautiful out there. This is a very protected area, not much tidal flow or boat traffic, and is mostly shallow even at higher tides. But as we were warming ourselves by the campfire, we heard the call. The folks in the site next to us heard it too, and were at their kayaks in seconds. They didn't have their PFD's by their boats, so we tossed ours to them. I had a light that I used for my bike handy, so I was able to find the 2 paddlers and luckily they were still very close to that highly reflective channel marker. One paddler was still in his boat. Our neighbors paddled out and soon they were back to shore with the capsized paddler on their kayak. The other paddler apparently paddled back to his campsite once his buddy was rescued (I'm still trying to figure out why he didn't stay with his buddy).
At any rate, the young man was soon walking around and our neighbors brought his boat back to shore. It was a weathered sit-inside, and they poured a LOT of water out of it. So, I don't know if it had a leak, of if the water came from failed attempts at re-entry.
We invited the young man to come over by the fire, since he was wet and cold. The water he was in was in the low 50's, no telling how long he'd been in it. At first he really didn't understand what I was saying, but after some coaxing he did decide that the warmth of the fire might feel pretty good. I'm confident that I witnessed a case of hypothermia here. But, he got warm and soon threw his boat over his shoulder and was gone back in to the campground.
WAITING FOR THE BALL TO DROP:
Since it was New Years Eve, the rangers were more lenient about campers making noise. Everyone was having a muted blast until about 12:01. It didn't take long for the party crowd to go silent and finally go to bed. It was hard for me to get to sleep because the air mattress wasn't inflated quite enough. Yeah, camping can be rough sometimes.
STRATEGY (as of New Years Eve):
If you want to catch fish, you should have some sort of strategy, even if it's a loose one. Here goes:
Low tide means the fish are more concentrated - that's a good thing. But, since low tide happened at 3am, it also means that they will be a little too cool to feed actively early in the morning. As the water moves in, and the shallow areas heat up, that should be the place to be. Crabs and shrimp that found safety in the mud and grass will now be accessible to redfish and other species that prey on them. Predatory fish will use channels and ruts in that low water to reach the shallows, and that will also be a good place to be staged if I don't feel like moving much. Did I mention it would be a lazy day?
Concerning bait choices, the colder the water, the slower the lure presentation needs to be. Lures will most likely be softbaits that mimic shrimp or crabs. I will bring the cast net too, because you can hardly go wrong by feeding fish what is already found in the area. Most recently I've seen a lot of small pinfish there. Easy to catch, and very hardy in a bait bucket.
The feeding action will most likely happen very close to shore all day. Dark grass will warm quicker than sandy bottoms, so that will be a target area as well. By mid-day, the water will be fairly high but the action will still be close to shore. By then, water will be reaching the mangroves and other protective structure, so more precise casting will be in order. Since my casting skills lack a lot to be desired and the fish will be more spread out, we may opt to head in and go ride our bikes.
There's a peak in the solunar table around 5pm, so we may head back out for a bit at sunset to see if there's any truth to those tables.
Such was the plan on Friday night …
DAY 2 - SATURDAY
It was nice to be able to sleep in. We're normally up at 6am, so sleeping until 7:30 was like money in the bank. Few things smell better than food cooked by the water, and the aroma of bacon and eggs were already in the air when we finally headed outside. I was soon served with a gorgeous omelet, hash browns, toast, and several cups of coffee. Did I mention that there is also a Denny's about 10 minutes from the campsite?
Another luxury was not being in any sort of hurry, whatsoever. It won't be long until Florida heat is making all the rules when it comes to fishing success. But for now, it's actually better to let the sun get up a bit and warm the shallows. We would have a slow incoming tide all day. So, no hurry … mmmmm, coffee …
The water is in the mid 50's now, so if we plan on getting in the kayaks, we'd need our waders/boots. I will go for long socks and sweats under breathable waders, and a windbreaker up top. I will also wear my PFD, for several reasons:
Before we headed out my wife fired up some chicken stew in to the crock pot that she had assembled at home. This would be REAL good later on in the day. So, we lazily headed out. We didn't stay long because the wind was crazy. I made a few casts but decided to stop before I had a dozen wind knots to untangle. But, we hopped on our bikes and still had a great afternoon pedaling around the park. The wind was so crazy that the only people having fun at Fort DeSoto that day were these brave souls. We took a break to watch their kiteboarding show.
- I really should be wearing it because in the unlikely event that I fall overboard *and* the water is deeper than 2 feet, it could do what it's intended to do.
- it's warm.
The chicken stew smelled heavenly as we biked back to the campsite. The wind was still pretty brisk, carrying that aroma everywhere. We didn't even ponder taking the kayaks back out - I hate wind. I made a few casts from shore, but my heart really wasn't in it. I just wanted to continue relaxing.
DAY 3 - SUNDAY
We had planed to get an early start home due to some prior commitments. But we awoke to the gentle pitter-patter of rain drops. Not a downpour, more like 1 here, 3 there, nothing, then 2. Our original plan was take great care in taking everything down so we wouldn't have to repack later. That changed thanks to the rain. But, we did see what I feel is a sign of things to come in 2011.
We were down and loaded in about an hour. Instead of being out of the campground by 11am we were back *home* at 11am - just in time to watch SportsCenter on ESPN.
THE STAYCATION, PART 2 (and 3, and 4, and...):
We still have our campsite reserved for the end of January. So since this trip we've been fine-tuning what we need vs. what we want in hopes of making that trip even better. The story of how much fun we had has encouraged a number of friends to come camp with us that weekend. So, hopefully we will have good weather, no wind, and hungry fish. If not, we will still have good food and a great time around the campfire. I'm already scouting campsites for upcoming weekends.
THE CHALLENGE FOR 2011:
I challenge you to make 2011 the year of "why not" rather than "why". Take an extra chance, go an extra mile, make an extra effort. You don't have to wait for the "perfect opportunity" in order to have a perfect outcome.
See you out on the water...
"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after"
~ Henry David Thoreau