By Paul Macinnis
In hindsight it wasn’t the best idea to be flirting with the boundary of secured space center property at 3:00 am when eco-terrorists were threatening to sabotage a launch. I imagine it was quite a letdown for NASA security when they realized their big terrorist bust was really just a couple of local fishermen with visions of monster spotted seatrout clouding their better judgment.
It was the summer of 1997. Tom Ingram and I were hoping to catch a big seatrout to put us in the finals of the Coastal Conservations Association’s S.T.A.R. (snook, trout and redfish) tournament. The three month tournament was based on length. Lucky anglers catching the top ten longest fish of each targeted species would qualifying for a one week fish-off with the winners taking home new boats. It was nearing the end of tournament time and Tom and I decided a trout over 28 inches would guarantee us a place in the top ten.
For our final assault on the tournament Tom and I choose a night trip to the Banana River manatee sanctuary on the east coast of central Florida. Specifically we were targeting the NASA causeway bridge at the very northern boundary of the manatee sanctuary. The entire sanctuary is designated a no motor zone making it a haven for canoeists and kayakers. The NASA causeway bridge was over eight miles from the nearest launch point. We figured nobody other than us was willing to make the two hour paddle in the dark so we expected to find loads of big trout that had never seen another fisherman waiting for us under the bridge lights.
At this same time, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was perched atop a Titan IV-B/Centaur rocket ready to be launched on its seven year journey to Saturn. Cassini was powered by three Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) that use heat from the radioactive decay of non-weapons grade plutonium to generate electricity for the spacecraft. The plutonium on Cassini is what raised the ire of environmentalist and anti-nuclear activists. Greenpeace and other protesters announced they would sabotage the Titan rocket to ensure Cassini would never be launched.
Tom and I dropped our canoe in the water around 1:00 am just across the causeway from the cruise ship terminals of Port Canaveral. Two hours later we reached the NASA causeway bridge after a brief stop by a nearby spoil island to fill our bait bucket with finger mullet. Looking through the span of the bridge we could see the maligned Cassini and Titan rocket only about five miles to the north.
We knew there was a nice drop off north of the bridge that we thought would hold the biggest trout. Our plan was to get out of the canoe and wade up to the edge of the bridge, the very edge of the security zone, and cast our baits as far to the north as we could. It seemed to be a good plan. The poor finger mullet didn’t have a chance, and we soon landed a couple of 24 inch trout. Our prospects were looking good.
Things quickly went downhill when a big black SUV pulled into the shadow at the base of the bridge. The door opened, and a few seconds later the orange glow of a cigarette revealed the driver was leaning against the side of the truck. I wondered if this person could see us as we stood just inside the shadow line at the edge of the bridge.
I got my answer when I waded back to the canoe for another finger mullet. When I broke from the shadow into the bridge light I saw the orange dot of cigarette dart back into the SUV and stay there for the next few minutes until a second SUV and a police car arrived with flashing lights. Seconds later we were blasted by a pair of spotlights and an authoritative from voice behind the lights called out, “Come here please.”
Blinded by spotlights, Tom and I stumbled across barnacle covered rocks lining the banks. When I got to shore I saw there were three space center security personnel waiting for us. The first was a female security guard who it turns out was the cigarette smoker who originally spotted us. The second was a short, scrawny guy. With the way he talked and his mannerisms I couldn’t help but think of Barney Fife of Andy Griffith Show fame. It was very obvious Barney was the one in charge. The third person was a SWAT guy dressed in all black, carrying an awfully big gun and enough armament to single handedly take out an Al Qaeda cell. Apparently he was called in just in case Tom and I got a little too rowdy.
“Can I see your ID please,” commanded Barney. Well I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a habit of keeping my wallet in my hip pocket when I’m wading waste deep in the water. Back across the rocks we went. We retrieved our ID’s from the canoe and then groped our way across the rocks for a third time.
It soon became obvious to everybody but Barney that Tom and I were just a couple of harmless locals. Barney would ask us a couple of questions, and then go off to his car to talk on the radio for a few minutes. SWAT guy chatted about fishing every time Barney left, and the female security guard was getting bored. “What do you want me to do after we let these guys go?” she asked Barney. “If I let them go,” he replied with a strong emphasis on the word “if”. I was wondering what Barney was thinking of hauling us in for.
The interrogation went on for over an hour. I started to feel a little sorry for Barney. He was seeing his heroic fantasy of a big eco-terrorist bust slowly fade away. He probably felt the same way I feel when I realize that monster gator trout that slammed my topwater plug is really a big ugly sail cat.
Unsatisfied with what he was getting from the interrogations, Barney told us to pull in the canoe for inspection. Barnacles added a few more scars to the bottom of my canoe as we eased it over the rocks. Barney pointed at the cooler in the middle of the canoe and said, “Is that your cooler?” Every sarcastic cell in the right side of my brain wanted to scream out, “Whoa, where did that come from!” but the left side of my brain won out and I replied, “Yes sir.” Barney searched the cooler, dry bags, tackle boxes, bait bucket and everything else in our canoe. It finally became painfully obvious to him that the only thing we intended to sabotage that night was some fish.
Barney left for a while and then came back with a piece of paper. Our conversation went like this.
Barney, “I’m going to let you off easy. You understand I’m giving you a written warning for trespassing.”
Me, “On no sir. We were not trespassing. We were in the water the whole time. We never went on shore.”
Barney louder and higher pitched, “You understand I’m giving you a written warning for trespassing!”
Me, “I don’t understand. We were in the water the whole time. We never went on land.”
Barney, face turning red, veins popping out and probably ready to pop me with his one bullet, “You were not in your canoe! You were in the water! You were not swimming! You were standing on the bottom! The bottom is land, therefore you were trespassing!”
Me – said nothing.
Barney informed us how lucky we were that he let us go and told us if he caught us wading again he would haul our sorry backsides off to jail.
We lost almost two hours of prime fishing time. Although we were hampered somewhat by having to stay in the canoe, we still caught some nice fish. We didn’t get that 28 plus inch trout we were hoping for, but we came really close twice.
The eco-terrorist never came through on their promise. Cassini-Huygens successfully launched on October 15, 1997. I’ve waded the flats near the NASA causeway bridge many times since the trespass warning and I’ve never had a problem with space center security. As far as I know, nobody has ever been taken to jail for wade fishing the Banana River manatee sanctuary.