By Pat Ford

For some time now the sleepy little fishing town of Stuart, Florida has become the center of an ecological-political nightmare. Water authorities have always used the St Lucie River to drain Lake Okeechobee.  Well last winter was particularly wet, resulting in unusually high lake levels and massively increased drainage of fresh water into the Atlantic through the St Lucie.  Sounds pretty simple except for two things: 1) the increase of fresh water decreases the salinity in the salt water sections of the river affecting grass geds and salt water sea life; 2) the increase in drainage levels increases the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and other farm runoff pollutants that flow from the lake and into the Stuart.  Ecologically, this year is the worst on record.  This combination of events has  resulted in a massive, repulsive, toxic algae bloom that is killing sea life and making residents sick while politicians argue about esoteric causes and why it’s not Big Sugar’s fault.  I’m no scientist, but a recently posted satellite photos of Lake O show some 33 square miles of its surface covered in the same green algae that is choking the life out of Stuart.  That should pretty much end the discussion over where the algae is coming from so the authorities can concentrate on how to put an end to it!

My friends, Mike Connor and Rufus Wakeman, are doing their best to publicize the algae contamination and try to stop its onslaught into their community, but in the meantime Stuart’s tourist business is ‘dead in the water’.  With all that in mind, I ventured up to Stuart to spend a day fishing with Rufus and Larry Jones.

I really expected to see green pond scum everywhere but was somewhat relieves to learn that it is pretty much contained in marinas and pockets along the shoreline of the St Lucie.  The ocean beaches that we searched for pilchards were all clear.  The jetties outside the inlet were clear and contained their usual supply of spawning snook.  We had no trouble netting a live well full of palm sized pilchards and used them to land a half dozen big snook.  I spent some time with my underwater camera chasing the schools along the bottom and wound up with plenty of photos.  Our next stop was offshore where we ran into a dozen manta rays which must have been spawning.  The water in that area was about 40’ deep and was dark green – too dark for decent photos but it did not appear to be affected by the runoff at all.  It was an incoming tide and this was simply green ocean water. 

We didn’t find any cobia swimming with the mantas so we mover out to 70 feet and put out some live pilchards.  Within an hour we had a bunch of unwanted bonito and two sailfish.  We headed back to the beach to try to find a tarpon and we spotted several small schools moving north in about 6’ of water but no bites.  We did find a friendly manatee that posed for a few photos before we headed inshore to a spot in the river where Rufus had hooked a huge tarpon the day before.  We staked out along the edge of the channel and watched several tarpon swim by in the surprisingly clear outgoing water, but all we caught was o small barracuda before calling it a day.

All the publicity about Stuart’s algae bloom is well deserved and it is a complete disaster, however Start’s fishery is still in good shape and the new moon tides have flushed most of the beaches clean.  There’s no reason to put off a fishing trip to Stuart….we had one of our best trips ever while I was expecting the worst!