Sunshine State Offers Family Fishing Fun
One of the best things about going to the American Sportfishing Association’s big annual trade show in Orlando is that it’s usually possible to bookend the trip with a little fishing. Whether it’s freshwater for big Florida bass, saltwater in the miles of inshore mangrove channels or bigger waters of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, fishing opportunities abound.
Many families faithfully trek to Florida’s theme parks, often neglecting the outdoors’ abundance in every direction. After this year’s trade show, I thought it’d be interesting to see what outdoors adventures might appeal to families visiting a locale some might think of as wild in other respects: Daytona Beach.
My good friend Jennifer Huber, who handles public relations for Charlotte Harbor on the state’s Gulf Coast and has her own hugely popular “Solo Girl Travel” brand, locked in a fishing trip out of Wilbur Bay, near Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach. She has taken to traveling with her dog Radcliff. He’s laid back, mostly of the mutt persuasion, and she wanted him to experience the joys of fishing.
Last Friday’s outing, though, wasn’t your stereotypical saltwater sportfishing trip. I joined Huber and Barbara Golden, who performs similar communications work for St. Augustine, Fla., aboard Capt. Rachael Reynold’s pontoon boat to fish in the Halifax River. This important waterway meanders south and west of Daytona, eventually flowing into Mosquito Lagoon and the ocean.
Yes, Radcliff and I were two lucky mongrels.
I’d never fished in a pontoon boat in saltwater before but quickly came to appreciate how the platform helps fill an ideal niche in the recreational, traveling angler market. If you’re an angler who must feel offshore breezes and the muscle-straining tug of tuna, amberjacks or other big game, this isn’t the trip for you. But if you still get a rush at the sight of a bobber going down, or watching kids or novices hook up their first fish, this type saltwater adventure is a blast.
“I’ve had some families come out after they’ve done the theme park thing and when the parents ask them the favorite part of the trip, they say it was fishing with me. That lets me know I’m doing it right,” Reynolds said.
We fished the outgoing tide, baiting a jig-head hook with live shrimp and casting toward mangrove-choked edges, or into small creek mouths and deep dropoffs where fast-moving, outgoing water funneled through small cuts in jagged oyster bars. Anything from flounder to redfish to speckled trout and more was possible. Reynolds’ last trip had boated near limits of chunky flounder up to 20 inches in length.
Fishing is a “Snap”
This day, however, mangrove snapper was fish of the day.
Across three different setups during the nearly five-hour trip, we caught more than 100 of the small, tasty fish with sharp, tiny teeth. Other hook-ups included ladyfish, sometimes called “poor man’s tarpon,” specks, gigantic pinfish, a sea robin and a sheepshead.
“My personal record is catching 19 different species of fish on one trip,” Reynolds said.
Catching keeper-sized snapper was another story. Many were just under the threshold. But we had enough fillets for a couple of meals. The little snappers were voracious bait-stealers. Who knew it could be so much fun feeding mangrove snappers?
A bonus came when a big manatee surfaced just feet from the boat in “Dead-end Creek,” grabbed a gulp of air while eyeballing us, then moseyed out of the creek into the main river. Egrets, pelicans, night herons and more feeding nearby made for fun bird watching.
Reynolds has been a fishing guide and licensed captain for nearly 20 years, operating both inshore and offshore from Cape Cod Bay, Mass., to Florida. This is her fourth year running R&R Charters from the pontoon boat.
She says she wants to give opportunities to laid-back anglers and families with kids not interested in the commitment or expense offshore trips require. Well-behaved pets are welcome and she says one family once brought four dogs aboard. The stable, pontoon platform is also nice for elderly anglers. She spoke of recently having a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair and his family members aboard, noting, “He had a great time.”
Inshore fishing in Florida is generally successful year-round, Reynolds said, except for times when prolonged cold fronts keep winter temperatures below 40 degrees. For more about this trip, see facebook.com/RandRcharterfishing or call (386)316-8614.
Trip tips: For a lower-budget, family-friendly trip offshore, check out the Critter Fleet ships at Ponce Inlet. The large party boat can accommodate big groups. Food and drink is available on board. They do a lot of reef fishing, catching anything from cobia to vermillion snapper. More than 60 artificial reefs have been constructed in the area in recent years.
If you want to work a little history and education into the mix, the 175-foot-tall Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse with its related exhibits is just across the street. A Marine Science Center is also nearby.
The Daytona Beach Boardwalk brims with activities, from an amusement park, restaurants to a scenic amphitheater built of coquina in 1937 at the north end. The bandshell regular free concerts throughout fair weather months with fireworks on Saturday nights.
Parking in Daytona Beach can be a challenge. Staying on the beach alleviates that with nearly everything within walking distance. I stayed at the Fountain Beach Resort. See daytonabeach.com for a full rundown of options.
This article appeared in my outdoors column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. To see it there, click here.