Friday, May 25, 2018
Outdoors

Kayaking through Fort De Soto, looking for the sharks and manatees

I called the Topwater Kayak Outpost in Fort De Soto Park hoping to paddle the waters there for the first time.

Aaron Peterson, a 33-year-old Wisconsin native, with a genuine Wisconsin accent, was manning the rental shack that day. He told me the outpost was getting less traffic than usual, because of a "rancid" Red Tide smell at the only entrance to the park. But in the park, and around the kayak trail, he hadn't noticed a smell, at least most of the time. When he did catch a whiff, it was nothing like the entrance to the park, he said.

I figured I should say I'm a reporter looking for something to write about.

"I've got a story for you!" he said.

Peterson said the dead-end cove that the rental shop overlooks was teeming with sharks that day. He didn't know why they were concentrated there, but said he'd "never seen anything like it."

Seeing the sharks for myself sounded like a story. If I came to kayak the next morning, did Peterson think the sharks would take a bite out of the kayak, or worse, me?

"They shouldn't," he said.

So I drove down to Fort De Soto the next morning, hoping the finned frenzy would return at least one more time.

It didn't. But that was okay.

"Not too hot, nice breeze," Peterson said from the shore as I drifted with the wind around the dead-end cove. "Perfect day."

The outpost is situated at the southern end of an L-shaped mangrove cove called Soldier's Hole in Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park. Peterson said I would have a chance to see sharks, dolphins, manatees and rays.

I started my two-hour trek on a self-guided tour starting at the outpost, paddling around the bottom of the "L" before hooking right, heading north toward an easy-to-spot island in Mullet Key Bayou and then looping back. I didn't smell anything.

As I paddled away from the shack, egrets and other birds were hanging out on mangrove branches. Some didn't flinch when I glided near, others flapped away. Mullet jumped out of the water, flopping and splashing.

When I had looped around the island, I hadn't seen any sharks, dolphins, manatees or rays. I kept my eyes peeled. The water around the island is clear, unlike most of the cloudy channel leading there. Some spots had beds of sea grass, and others were covered in oyster beds.

After passing the island, it was fair to say I was somewhat discouraged after not spotting any big animals. Then I saw ripples on the surface. They didn't have the same splashy, sharp sound as the mullet that flopped out of the water. This was a slow, easy ripple. I paddled closer to the clear spot and saw what I thought was a manatee.

"Oh my God," I whispered. I looked down to grab my phone to take a picture, but of course the manatee had disappeared into the cloudy water. Was it ever there at all?

I looked around for a few minutes and at that time caught my first whiff of the Red Tide, and saw a bunch of dead fish belly up. The smell wasn't "rancid" but I wasn't going to kick my feet up and get comfortable.

Heading back toward the rental station, there were two families on the water, and they seemed thrilled at every wildlife sighting. I thought I heard one girl say "manatee" and got irrationally jealous.

When I reached the outpost, Peterson said there were manatees and sharks nearby. I remained skeptical.

I won't bury the suspense any longer, there were tons of manatees. And by tons, I mean maybe four or five that could've easily weighed a ton each. They surfaced under the mangroves, they surfaced in the middle of the cove, they surfaced right in front of my kayak.

Two people were kayaking at the very dead-end of the cove, and they spotted a shark. We traded places; they went to see the manatees, and I went to see the shark.

"It's white, easy to see," the man said.

Sure enough, there it was. Maybe 4 or 5 feet. It looked gentle, as far as sharks go, and definitely didn't look interested in chomping on me or the kayak. It slunk by, disappearing into deeper waters.

Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

Comments
Captainís Corner: Swimmer crabs attract big permit

Captainís Corner: Swimmer crabs attract big permit

The outgoing tides of last weekendís new moon washed thousands of small swimmer crabs, known locally as "pass crabs," out of the estuaries and into the gulf. This suddenly abundant food source offshore works as a natural chum line and draws big permi...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18

Speckled trout are our most prevalent species around the bay area. They spawn year-round, so their numbers are sustained. They are a flourishing species. For sport, trout are easier to catch than almost everything else we have in the Gulf of Mexico. ...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Captainís Corner: With full moon, tarpon are on the move

With the full moon this next week tarpon are moving down the beaches and making their way out of the bay and moving out to the bridges and the passes to feed before some of them leave to go out and spawn on the full moon. Early in the morning along t...
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/22/18

Captainís Corner: Cloudier water improves the bite

Windy conditions this week have actually slightly improved fishing. The waters of Saint Joseph sound had become so clear that it made finding fish easy, but getting bites very difficult. Snook have been gathering in great numbers all along the beache...
Published: 05/19/18
Updated: 05/21/18

Captainís Corner: Red grouper fishing continues to be good

Red grouper fishing continues to be steady in depths of 100-120 feet. Large bait stacks are holding a fish or two, but larger concentrations are on very small rolls and potholes in those depths. Zooming in on the bottom 10-15 feet of the water column...
Published: 05/19/18
Updated: 05/20/18

Captainís Corner: Catching a giant cobia

Cobia is the topic this week. Capt. Tom Markham, aboard the Simply Hooked, was beginning his daily bait routine. It turned out that one of the markers located near Clearwater Pass, surprisingly, had a giant fish waiting for him. The captain slid up t...
Published: 05/16/18

Captainís Corner: Tarpon showing up on beaches, bridges

This week shouldnít be a total wash out. While there is a chance of rain every day, it should only be sporadic. Hopefully it wonít dirty up the water too much. If you are a tarpon fisherman and look forward to their arrival like I do, then you are in...
Published: 05/14/18
Updated: 05/15/18

Captainís Corner: This is best time of year for bay area fishing

Itís the best time of year for fishing in the area. Tarpon can be targeted off of any of the bridges. The Gandy, Howard Frankland and Skyway are my top choices. While awaiting a tarpon strike, I kill time by dropping smaller baits for Spanish mackere...
Published: 05/13/18

Captainís Corner: Change tactics for fly fishing success

Most fly fishers would prefer minimum wind and cloudless skies to increase chances for a banner day. This has been a problem lately. The wind makes casting more difficult, unless very experienced, and clouds interfere with sight casting opportunities...
Published: 05/11/18
Updated: 05/14/18

Captainís Corner: Tips on handling burgeoning baitfish

Schools of baitfish have arrived and taken up residence in all depths. Birds are diving on them close to the beach, all the way out to the midwater artificial reefs. Farther offshore, bait schools might not be visible on the surface but can be detect...
Published: 05/11/18
Updated: 05/12/18