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Destination Fort Pierce - ‘NASCAR on the water’ - Soundings Online

Destination Fort Pierce - ‘NASCAR on the water’

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Sunrise brings more than the sun to Fort Pierce. At first light sportfishing boats thunder out of the inlet, throwing sheets of spray and with the roar of outboards totaling 600, 750, even 900 hp.

Sunrise brings more than the sun to Fort Pierce. At first light sportfishing boats thunder out of the inlet, throwing sheets of spray and with the roar of outboards totaling 600, 750, even 900 hp. During tournaments, the inlet roils with the marine version of NASCAR, as more than 100 sleek, powerful fishing machines head out in search of marlin, wahoo, kingfish, dolphin and sailfish.

Moving the Fort Pierce City Marina channel in 2005 shaved 10 minutes off the run to the Gulf Stream fishing grounds. “That’s important for those who want maximum time with their lines in the water,” says marina general manager Dean Kubitschek.

The Gulf Stream meanders 15 to 20 miles offshore and trophy fish are only 10 to 20 miles out, including kingfish that grow to around 50 pounds on the prolific baitfish nurtured in the Indian River Lagoon.

Each of Fort Pierce’s dozen-plus fishing tournaments attract up to 150 amateur and professional teams. And they catch fish — sometimes more than 20 sailfish in a single day. The winner may take home $75,000 of a tournament’s $1 million or more in total cash prizes.

Each major tournament — particularly the Southern Kingfish Association’s and the Wal-Mart FLW Kingfish Tour — generates about $1.5 million for local businesses, says Kubitschek. Marinas are booked solid, boat ramp lots are full, and trailers line waterfront streets. Local teens catch and sell hundreds of blue runners for $100 a dozen.

Out-of-town anglers may raft with locals, including Mayor Robert Benton III, who often has four visiting boats at his dock. Benton, an avid fisherman, competes on friends’ boats that are larger than his own 17-foot Dusky. “Big mortgage payment, small boat,” he says.

The boats roar back each afternoon to present their heaviest fish. It’s impressive to watch the weigh-in, and encouraging to know that in the Southern Kingfish Association, FLW Kingfish Tournament and others the iced fish aren’t discarded but are sold, the proceeds donated to charity.

Luckily, you don’t need a million-dollar boat and another half-million for fuel to go fishing offshore. Choose a charter boat from City Marina or Harbortown Marina, and the experienced captain will customize a trip for you. Cheaper still are the party boats.

Offshore anglers can fish natural reefs, shipwrecks and artificial reefs created in 90- to 100-foot depths from the destroyed City Marina docks and Fort Pierce Utilities’ discarded concrete light poles.

To fish the surf or the Indian River all you need is a license, rod and reel. Surf anglers dot North and South Hutchinson islands’ 21 miles of sandy ocean beach, seeking pompano and snook. “Snook like rough weather — especially in March, September and October — when the mullet run,” says Benton.

Fort Pierce Inlet, which biologists consider the most productive and diverse inlet in the Indian River Lagoon, attracts anglers to the jetties and to South Causeway Island Park’s two fishing piers in search of bluefish, redfish, snook, flounder and tarpon. The shallow lagoon nurtures more than 400 species of fish, including sea trout. From City Marina, you can follow the brick walkway to the fishing pier under South Bridge’s west abutment. The equally popular fishing piers under the bridge’s east abutment and at South Hutchinson Island’s Bear Point Sanctuary require transportation.

From a boat you can fish just north of South Bridge in the commercial ship turning basin. “Many guys catch their limit of snook [there] February through April,” says one fisherman as he lands a legal snook on South Jetty. “Snook are great eating; they’re the next best to mullet.”

Or you can boat to North Inlet State Recreation Area for lagoon, inlet or surf fishing. The PVC tubes on the lagoon shore are to protect mangrove seedlings and should not be mistaken for rod holders.

Prefer freshwater fishing? In 550-acre Savannas Reserve, a wilderness area seven miles south of downtown, the lakes and canals are stocked with bass and other game fish. You can launch a boat (engines are limited to 7.5 hp) or rent a canoe, as well as hike or picnic.

Fort Pierce has been famous for fishing since the Seminoles paddled their dugouts through the Indian River Lagoon before settlers arrived. When Northern sportsmen began wintering here, they hired native fishing guides.

In the early days of commercial fishing ocean boats threaded the original inlet. For a decade after it silted in they had to push their catch across the barrier island in trams, then boat across the lagoon to Fort Pierce markets.

“After commercial fishing declined, we spent several years convincing the Chamber of Commerce and local businesspeople of the value of recreational fishermen,” says Mayor Benton. “Now Fort Pierce caters to fishermen. We’re NASCAR on the water.”

Taut lines and good fishing.