A Day on the Water with Captain Mark Yanno

The biologist and longtime fishing guide enjoys fishing the healthiest part of the Indian River Lagoon, right in our backyard

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Biologist and longtime fishing guide Captain Mark Yanno enjoys fishing the healthiest part of the Indian River Lagoon, right in our backyard. Photo by Steven Martine
Biologist and longtime fishing guide Captain Mark Yanno enjoys fishing the healthiest part of the Indian River Lagoon, right in our backyard. Photo by Steven Martine

As he sits back, expertly and effortlessly steering his custom-designed 19-foot Egret flats boat at 30 miles per hour down the main channel of the Indian River Lagoon in Vero Beach, veteran fishing guide Captain Mark Yanno turns to me and utters just one word: “Paradise.”

He smiles, eases off the throttle for a moment, and elaborates, “On days like this, there is no place I’d rather be. No job I’d rather have. This is paradise!”

On this balmy 78-degree April morning, as the sun glistens off the lagoon’s shallow waters and, as if on cue, a dolphin breaks the surface in a nearby cove ahead and a group, or bowl, of roseate spoonbills nestle into the trees on a spoil island rookery, it’s impossible to disagree.

An aerial view of the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine
An aerial view of the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine

For the last three decades, this drop-dead beautiful slice of Florida has been Yanno’s open-air office. He told me a few days ago, “I know how lucky I am. More than one CEO I’ve taken out here on a fishing trip has offered to trade jobs with me!” He paused for a beat, smiled broadly, then added, “But I turn them down.”

A mangrove snapper gets thrown back after being reeled in. Photo by Steven Martine
A mangrove snapper gets thrown back after being reeled in. Photo by Steven Martine

Today Yanno is taking me, a newbie angler, and my brother-in-law Bill Cull, a longtime Vero resident and experienced fisherman, on a “sample” tour to give us a taste of what he offers to the clients who hire him for half-day fishing trips.

As we glide along the shallow waters, Yanno offers a concise mini-lecture on the lagoon’s history, geography, and environment: “The Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles long and stretches from Cape Canaveral to Jupiter Inlet. Despite its name, it’s not really a river or a lagoon. Rather, it’s an estuary where salt and fresh water mix together. Five inlets bring in ocean water twice a day, keeping the water salty, and several rivers and canals feed fresh water into it, creating the brackish water that is characteristic of an estuary. It is one of the most productive bodies of water in North America and is home to more than 400 species of fish.”

We pass one of the lagoon’s many spoil islands, most of which were created when the estuary was dredged and deepened in the 1950s, and Yanno points to and names an Audubon-rich variety of birds at the island while continuing his introduction: “The Indian River Lagoon also hosts more than 370 species of birds; 2,100 species of plants; and 2,200 animal species.” 

The Indian River Lagoon is dotted with spoil islands throughout its 156-mile span along the east coast of Florida, and it is filled with over 400 species of fish. Photo by Steven Martine
The Indian River Lagoon is dotted with spoil islands throughout its 156-mile span along the east coast of Florida, and it is filled with over 400 species of fish. Photo by Steven Martine

As we listen, it’s clear that Yanno, 59, is intimately familiar with the lagoon, and for good reason: before setting out as a charter fishing captain in 1995, the Rochester, New York native had earned a degree in biology and moved to the Vero Beach area in 1988. He worked in aquaculture, then as a field biologist with the State of Florida Bureau of Aquatic Preserves, and later with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That background, on top of his 30-plus years of fishing for both pleasure and profit, makes him an unparalleled authority on the Indian River Lagoon.

One of the cofounders of the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County, Yanno has long been concerned with what he terms the “environmental stresses” that have affected the water quality of the lagoon. “There’s no denying that the IRL has its share of problems,” he explains. “Because of various factors, water quality has deteriorated and fishing stocks have suffered.

Vero Beach resident Heinz Proft finds that while fishing, you may see dolphins gliding by alongside the boat. They are one of about 2,200 animal species that make their home in the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine
Vero Beach resident Heinz Proft finds that while fishing, you may see dolphins gliding by alongside the boat. They are one of about 2,200 animal species that make their home in the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine

“But there is also some good news. My backyard, this area of the IRL between Vero Beach and just south of Fort Pierce Inlet, is the healthiest section of the lagoon. The good news is that the 40-foot-deep Fort Pierce Inlet to the south and the Sebastian Inlet to the north flush in huge amounts of clean ocean water twice daily. Also, this is the most undeveloped stretch of the IRL, and it also contains the largest areas of seagrass flats.”

When I ask Yanno how these environmental factors have affected his fishing results, he admits, “There may not be as many fish in the lagoon as there were 30 years ago, but we’ve still got some of the most varied saltwater fishing in Florida. My clients catch everything from snook to sea trout to redfish to snappers—the list goes on and on.” He notes that it is common for his clients to catch more than 10 species of fish with him in a typical half-day, four-hour, trip, and his record is 22 species of fish caught in one half-day outing.

There are 2,100 species of plants that dot the lagoon, including three different types of mangroves. Photo by Steven Martine
There are 2,100 species of plants that dot the lagoon, including three different types of mangroves. Photo by Steven Martine

As he cuts the engine of his Moccasin 190, he adds, “Just last Monday I had a 10-year-old boy with his dad out for half a day. The youngster landed a total of 58 fish, and that’s not counting the ones that got away. He was thrilled! That’s one of the reasons children are my favorite clients; they get so excited.” While Yanno reports that most of these were small fish (the average Indian River Lagoon fish weighs between 1 and 3 pounds), clients have caught trophy fish with him, such as a 120-pound tarpon, a 50-pound black drum, and snook that weighed over 20 pounds.

Vero Beach resident Paul Sarsfield, a repeat client of Yanno’s, is one of those trophy fish hunters. “I’ve fished all around the world, with a host of professional fishing guides, and Mark is at the very top of my list,” he says. “He is the consummate pro.” After hiring Yanno several times for fishing excursions throughout the lagoon, Sarsfield confessed to him there was one fish that had long eluded him and was number one on his bucket list. “It was the permit fish,” recalls Sarsfield. “I know they are hard to locate and land, but I told Mark it was still my dream catch.”

Roseate spoonbills can be found in the foliage and around the edges of spoil islands in the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine
Roseate spoonbills can be found in the foliage and around the edges of spoil islands in the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine

Sarsfield remembers the day he got the call he’d been waiting for. “Mark told me all the conditions were perfect for permit fishing; the weather was right, not too windy, the ocean was calm, and the crabs—the permit’s favorite—were plentiful. The next day we were on his boat headed for a spot just outside the Fort Pierce Inlet and close to the shore.”

Sarsfield relishes the memory: “It was a beautiful June morning and we’d brought a handful of crabs. Mark had reminded me that permit were tough to locate and land but I had my fingers crossed. Then I caught one—a beautiful 18-pounder—my first permit in a lifetime of fishing! Then another. I couldn’t believe my luck. By the end of the trip I’d landed four permit. It still seems like a dream. But I owe it all to Mark and his years of experience.”

Captain Mark Yanno pushes his boat through the shallows of the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine
Captain Mark Yanno pushes his boat through the shallows of the lagoon. Photo by Steven Martine

How, given the decrease in the lagoon’s fish stocks and other factors, does Yanno continue to deliver such rich pickings for his clients? “I just have to work harder to find them,” he explains. And I have lots of high-tech help.” This becomes crystal clear when he turns on his sophisticated Humminbird fish finder, which gives him a clear sonar image of everything that’s underwater, including, most importantly, fish. He then deploys off the bow an even more impressive tool, a Power-Pole remote-controlled trolling motor that uses a GPS system to keep the boat’s bow “parked” in the same position once the target area is located. With a broad smile, he tells us, “Now the fish don’t have a chance.”

Technology can be key when looking for fish, and Yanno uses a Humminbird fish finder that shows what’s under the boat. Photo by Steven Martine
Technology can be key when looking for fish, and Yanno uses a Humminbird fish finder that shows what’s under the boat. Photo by Steven Martine

Yanno hands Bill and me two of the boat’s $800 G. Loomis rods, outfitted with Shimano spinning reels, and quickly baits our hooks with live shrimp. I cast into the waters just off the nearby spoil island, and within less than 10 seconds, I feel a familiar tug. “Got one!” I shout, suddenly feeling much as that 10-year-old must have felt last week. I reel in a 2-pound almond-shaped mutton snapper. Seconds later, Bill lands another snapper. Neither is a keeper, but we don’t care.

Another cast, another fish. Then another. And another. Soon it’s time to move on, but I’m in no hurry. This is fun. And thanks to Captain Mark Yanno’s hard-earned expertise in locating productive fishing holes for his clients, I realize what I’ve been missing since last holding a rod and reel. I’m hooked.

Yanno shows off a small jack. Photo by Steven Martine
Yanno shows off a small jack. Photo by Steven Martine

As we cruise along the sun-dappled main channel of the lagoon, back to the dock at Vero’s MacWilliam Park, I can’t help recalling one of those corny—but true—fishing sayings I once saw somewhere: “You can’t buy happiness, but you can go fishing, and that’s pretty much the same thing.” 

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