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Surf's up at Matanzas: drop in on this wild natural inlet on Florida's Atlantic coast just south of St. Augustine.

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There's a reason why Matanzas Inlet locals fish only single baits on a rod, and we found out quick.

Not long after setting up our multi-hook surf rigs, I saw one of our PVC sandspikes keel over in shallow water. With the tide ripping out, I headed down the beach, grimly intent on wading out, hoping to grab line in murky water. After splashing along for 80 feet, I was amazed to see my rodtip appear, hung up on the next guy's line. I waded out chest-deep and snatched it, struggled back against the current, and handed the rod off to Amy. In her hands, the 7-foot spinner took a serious bend, the wet reel coughing up water and 12-pound line. Something huge had stripped that rod right off the beach, and it fought differently from anything we'd seen before.

Amy knew that setting the hook was unnecessary, one of those thin, red 5/0 circle hooks had done the job minutes before. Against a strong current, her battle took a long time. Finally, the crowd behind us gave a collective sigh, when a 4-pound redfish broke the surface. Then a 6-pounder came up as well, a double-header. Both were securely hooked, but the outgoing tide worked to their advantage. Each time they drew near, I waded out and grabbed the hand-tied, 40-pound leader--but the bigger fish would turn and bolt, dragging the smaller red back offshore. He just wouldn't give up. On the fourth grab-fest, I clamped down on the leader, trusted the knots and just kept backing up until both fish were beached.

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The crowd was impressed. It was the first double-header on redfish anyone could remember. The regulars here use big spin gear with a single hook and bait, because sizeable fish cruise the inlet and hooking two would shred most leaders. Live dangerously, as they say.

We were using fresh finger mullet, slit using a thin fillet knife. In murky water, cutting the fish releases more scent. Schools of finger mullet, sometimes thousands, pass through this inlet and it's very easy to castnet them, so it remains the local favorite bait. I'd brought a kid's castnet of only 3-foot radius. It fits into a coffee can that's easy to carry. Sail it like a Frisbee onto passing mullet, and you've got a few baits. For drum and snappers, stick with fresh shrimp.

The long rod that snagged mine was more appropriate for this area, loaded with 25-pound line, able to sling a 6-ounce pyramid weight a long way. The surf crowd loves those 12-foot rods, though how stiff remains an issue. According to Caca Smith, who has fished Matanzas his entire life, and whose Jeep can be found at the inlet on many days, surf anglers are going more for the softer 12-foot rods that lob baits easier. They also bend more while fighting fish, such as these slot-size (18 to 27 inches) redfish.

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Reds are most abundant here in the fall, but the seasons bring a changing mix of quality catches. "During spring, we have flounder and drum," said Smith. "Plus there are sharks, snook and goliath grouper around, if the weather isn't too cold. In the fall, redfish, flounder, drum, bluefish, tarpon and trout. In winter, it's trout, drum and sheepshead."

This is a scenic place to spend the day. Windsurfers cross the horizon, without scaring the fish. On our trip in October, several thousand royal terns swarmed across the inlet, a cloud of birds on a dark blue sky, wrapped around two kite-surfing kites headed our way. The birds poured overhead for a long, magical minute.

Hiking means going low-tech, parking in a nearby lot and carrying everything needed. It has advantages; the smallest of cars can manage and return home with fresh fish, without burning much fuel. And while avoiding getting stuck in the sand or prematurely rusting from salt water.

Trucks and Jeeps used by fishermen here tend to ease along slowly and back up to the inlet, causing very little commotion. It's the big, jacked-up trucks on the weekends, cutting deep ruts in the upper beach, spraying sand for 30 feet, using the national park for a sandbox, that has fishermen shaking their heads in disgust. And wondering when that behavior will result in the national park being closed to vehicular traffic.

As for tides, most anglers favor the outgoing. On choppy days, the tide ebbs strong enough to flatten the surf in the inlet. An incoming tide on the same day can be rough as a cob, however, with 6-footers crashing left and right.

The bottom of Matanzas Inlet is studded with natural rocks, where the current has peeled away covering sand. These rocks attract a host of fish, but they're said to be festooned with fishing leaders, weights, even boat anchors. During one brief, clear-water tide change, when the currents calmed for a few minutes, scuba divers reported much tackle snagged on the rocks, in about 12 feet of water. These same rocks today will snag surf weights, so it's best to cast downcurrent from where these rocks cause obvious upwelling in the current.

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Current and dropoffs make this a hazardous spot. Non-swimmers and kids should be closely watched. On a busy weekend, you see all kinds of foolishness here--jet skiers toppled over, the riders too ungainly to climb back aboard, the current sweeping them out to sea, rescued by boaters, later staggering ashore. A family dog rescued a quarter mile offshore, beyond the breakers, by kite surfers. We even watched a family of four calmly treading water under the bridge, swept out by the tide, who eventually found a sandbar to wade back. The incredulous owner of a center console watched them drift past, then pulled anchor and went after them to make sure they didn't drown. A Marine Patrol officer stationed here each weekend in warm weather, with a jet ski, could stay fairly busy.

As for hiking back to the car, it can be done barefoot, which is nice. Your shoulders get tired, but that 26-inch redfish in your bucket makes it all worthwhile.

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Matanzas Access

The Matanzas bridge, on Highway A1A halfway between St. Augustine and Flagler Beach, has protective walkways on either side for fishermen. Parking is on the bridge's south side. There's no fishing on the south shoreline, except an accessible area to the west, lined with rocks, where snook are said to be caught after dark.

Surf fishermen come in from the north and spread out for about a half mile, growing thicker near the pass. They walk in from the twin, pared parking lots (free of charge) on either side of A1A, hiking in using two routes (ICW or Atlantic side) almost a half mile to the bridge. Vehicles with four-wheel drive access the beach several miles north of the bridge. They're asked to leave late each afternoon, when the outer beach is closed to vehicular traffic for the night (hikers may night-fish). Daily beach-driving passes are about $5 and a seasonal pass is available, usually offered beginning each March.

Matanzas boaters can launch at Devil's Elbow Marina about four miles north of the pass, off A1A. Motels are widely available in St. Augustine or for several miles south of there. Anastasia State Park is also south of town, highly recommended for camping, and perhaps 20 minutes north by car from the Pass.

To contact the Fort Matanzas Visitor Center, call (904) 471-0116 of visit www.nps.gov/foma.

TACKLE AND BAIT

Devil's Elbow Fishing Resort

7507 A1A South

St. Augustine, FL 32080

(904) 471-0398

Hook Line & Sinker

2601 N. Ponce De Leon Blvd

St. Augustine, FL 32084

(904) 829-6073

Matanzas Inlet Bait & Tackle

8805 A1A South

St. Augustine, FL 32080

(904) 461-3008

Oceanside Bait & Tackle

6880 A1A South

St. Augustine, FL 32086

(904) 461-8808

Walk or Ride?

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Gordy Wilson, head of Castillo de San Marcos National Park, which supervises nearby Matanzas Park, says they're revising a management plan for public access and vehicular traffic. "It will reflect public comment," said Wilson. "A lot of vehicles get stuck here on the beach, even four-wheel drives. We have big tides and the sand is soft and fluffy. The areas with coquina sand are hard to pack down."

Will it be walk-in traffic from pared parking lots of vehicles allowed to cruise the beach? Of both?

Public comments can be e-mailed to David Libman, project leader for the National Park Service. His e-mail is: david_libman@nps.gov and his office address is National Park Service, 100 Alabama Street, 1924 Bldg., Atlanta, GA 30303.

Six Surf Fishing Getaways

ATLANTIC COAST

Talbot Island State Park: Stunning, undeveloped beaches in Florida State Park on A1A north of Jacksonville. Similar mix to Matanzas: Reds, trout, bluefish, flounder.

Canaveral National Seashore: Federally protected seascape located on A1A south of New Smyrna Beach. Bluefish, whiting, occasional redfish.

Hutchinson Island: Countless free public beach access points between Fort Pierce and Stuart. Snook, pompano, bluefish, Spanish mackerel.

GULF COAST

Gulf Islands National Seashore and Santa Rosa Island: Beachfront between Pensacola and Destin. Pompano, whiting, ladyfish and occasional big-water surprise, such as cobia or king mackerel.

Cape San Blas: Peninsula separating St. Joseph Bay from Gulf of Mexico. Redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel.

Lovers Key and Wiggins Pass State Park: Stretch offine fishing beaches between the touristy, condo-ized Fort Myers Beach and big-city Naples. Snook, snook and more snook!
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Title Annotation:fishing in Florida's Matanzas Inlet
Author:Richard, Joe
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Apr 1, 2009
Words:1582
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