The Treasure Coast's rich, diverse and trophy sport fishery is really a pretty poorly kept secret.
Over the past decade, dozens of shows broadcast nationally on television and over the Internet have paid visits to local ports. Half-hour programs produced by nationally-recognized fishing personalities have showcased exciting fishing trips for snook, tarpon, spotted sea trout, sailfish, sharks, dolphin and Goliath grouper.
The exposure has helped develop the area's reputation as an important sport fishing destination, say local tourism officials, but fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee foul the fishy waters of the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
Last week, a new television fishing show slated to debut next spring, cut short its production schedule when releases of lake water into the sensitive estuaries were doubled by water managers and the polluted fresh water chased fish out of the area the crew had planned to shoot at.
Byron Velvick has been a professional bass tournament angler for 18 years, but the 48-year-old isn't recognized at supermarkets and restaurants for his titles. He earned his 15 minutes of fame — and subsequent double takes in public — from his role on the sixth season of ABC's "The Bachelor" in September 2004.
Since then, Velvick has maintained a steady television career as host of several popular fishing shows that have aired on networks such as ESPN and Outdoor Channel.
His first visit to the area was during the fall of 2008 when he was shooting a show that aired on ESPN and ESPN2. The action on that initial visit was fast and furious and included Velvick's first career catches of snook, tarpon and Goliath grouper.
Seemingly every one of the previous three times Flatlined Charters Captain George Gozdz has fished with Velvick, the bite has been on. That's why when Velvick landed "Guides' Eyes," a new show to debut on Outdoor Channel in January, he immediately made plans to visit the Treasure Coast.
Velvick and the film crew from Arkansas-based JM Productions visited Lake Okeechobee to fish for bass last Tuesday and planned to follow that in Stuart and Jensen Beach Wednesday through Friday for snook, tarpon and more.
Two for the show
"We had planned to film two shows in that area and had one more shoot on Lake Okeechobee," said Velvick, from his home in San Antonio, Texas. "Every time I've been down there we've been able to capitalize on the great fishing to get two shows out of it."
Velvick said the first day started off well, although perhaps not quite as strong as some of his previous trips. He had caught a couple of small tarpon near St. Lucie Inlet, but nothing like the 100-pounders he caught here in previous trips. Then they ran to the Roosevelt Bridge in the St. Lucie River where one by one they caught good-sized snook, measuring just under 40 inches, but the truly bigger fish like Velvick had caught there before eluded him.
"It was the first time I had a production crew from JM Productions and I kept telling them 'That over there is where I caught my huge tarpon and over there is where I caught a huge snook,'" Velvick said.
Gozdz said the fish bite was solid Wednesday and even Thursday morning before breaking for lunch. Following the midday break, the fish simply quit biting altogether.
Should've been here yesterday
Gozdz makes a living out of staying on the hot fishing bite. So when the snook shut off, he knew the fish were still there. Only something caused them to quit feeding.
Gozdz decided to return to the St. Lucie River for Friday's final day of filming. He cast-netted a live well full of finger mullet for bait in the lagoon near Caribbean Shores motel in Jensen Beach. He and Velvick motored up the St. Lucie to pick up Triton Boats' Earl Bentz and then doubled back to the Roosevelt to resume the previous morning's bite.
Velvick said a bad omen awaited them.
"We were ready to make a second complete show and something had totally killed the bite," he said. "Then our bait died."
Velvick said the veteran producers told him it was only the second time they had ever been blanked with no fish.
"These guys can make a fishing TV show out of almost anything, and we had nothing," he said. "Unfortunately, we have to make that up somewhere else. Instead of George and Earl being able to shine a light on a really cool fishery, some other guide in some other place will have an opportunity to show his fishery."
Something in the water
Gozdz was so busy making preparations to fish with Velvick he missed the news Wednesday of last week when the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was doubling the release volume of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River.
"I didn't realize it until I read the story (last) Friday," Gozdz said.
The Corps began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee Sept. 19 at rate of about 581 million gallons per day. The rate was damaging to the estuary's oysters and seagrasses, Gozdz said, but fish that feed in brackish
conditions like large snook and tarpon often can still be caught by anglers.
Unbeknown to Gozdz and Velvick, the Corps decided to double the dump rate to 1.2 billion gallons per day so that by their second day of filming, the water in the wide, deep St. Lucie was changing.
"That's a bad deal," Velvick said. "It was really surprising to me how poor the water quality was. It just shut those fish down. It was way off from one day to the next."
Fred Rutzke, owner of Caribbean Shores motel on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Jensen Beach, said Velvick's previous visits have generated large jumps in his business.
"I've seen my business increase tenfold when one of his shows airs," Rutzke said. "My website averages three or four hits a day usually, but when we appear on one of his shows, we'll get 300 or 400 hits a day."
Rutzke said it would have been crucial for his small business — plus local restaurants and other small businesses — to gain two chances for exposure rather than one. Had it not been for poor water quality, Rutzke said his business might have gained an additional $10,000 in sales next year.
The stained water, Rutzke said, is tarnishing the Treasure Coast's reputation as a sport fishing destination.
"The word is out among our interior Florida visitors, too," Rutzke said. "They heard we have dirty water here now. More than 50 percent of our visitors come here to enjoy being in or fishing on the water.
"They know not to come until the dumping stops."