Audubon Florida News

Laurilee Thompson: Growing Up on the Indian River Lagoon

posted on May 2, 2013 in FL Special Places

Cocoa Beach Library, April 2013

Description:  Fifth generation Floridian and local resident Laurilee Thompson will share memories of an idyllic childhood in and out of boats on the Indian River, and the changes she has seen since returning to the river as an adult. 

Indian River LagoonI want to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to speak today.  I always love getting up in front of people and talking about the river. I’m going to read a portion of a talk that I did for a National Estuaries Symposium that was held in Titusville several years ago.

That biannual gathering attracts about 150 biologists from all up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States.  Marc Epstein, who was the senior biologist out at MINWR asked me to give the keynote address at an evening banquet they were going to have at my Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant.  I quickly agreed without considering what that might entail.

After contemplating what I’d done, I was terrified – I have no formal training in public speaking!  What could I say that could possibly be useful to 150 biologists who were 20 times smarter than me?  I tried to back out of the commitment, but Marc assured me that I did indeed have something important to contribute and he knew that I would think of something.  I believe he had in mind comments on the economic value of nature-based tourism and the Space Coast Birding Festival and stuff like that. I often get requests to speak on those topics.

But I wanted to do something different for the biologists and I frantically searched for something meaningful to say to them.

White PelicansMost field biologists are way younger than I am.  They are working to restore estuaries that have suffered harm from growth and development, much of which happened before they were even born.

It must be difficult to bring back a system when you have no way of knowing what it was like before the damage was done.  I decided that my gift to the biologists would be to tell them what it was like growing up on the Indian River Lagoon.

It was my hope that my words would help them in their quest to restore the great coastal estuaries that are so important to our nation’s economy and quality of life.

During the last shuttle launch, I marveled at the 5,000 people that crowded onto Titusville’s beautiful new high rise bridge.  What a spectacular bird’s eye view they had of our space center, our wildlife refuge and our beautiful Indian River Lagoon.  If you have not yet ridden over Titusville’s new bridge, you really must take the time to do so.  You won’t find a better representation of what makes this community so special… we truly are the place where nature meets space.

Before the Race for Space really got going, the 5,000 visitors on the bridge would have represented the entire population of our town – it was a small community where no one locked their doors.  The home of  my  childhood is on the north side of the Titusville causeway – it’s that green concrete block building where Coast Guard Auxiliary and the sailing club are located now.

It was a fantastic place to live – it was right on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon.  My dad had a small boat dealership on the ground floor and our family crammed into the small apartment on top.  I had a little sister and twin brothers.

The four of us, along with various cousins and friends who were actually allowed to play with us, evolved into the Pier Gang.  That’s because my grandfather ran the nearby Titusville Pier and that’s where we hung out.  We terrorized the kids from town and the nearby trailer park when they came out to the pier to go fishing.

Fishing was THE major tourist activity in Titusville as it was in many coastal communities.  There were a lot of fishing piers in Florida back then and most operators charged a fee.  Our pier was different because my grandfather didn’t charge people.  He figured he could make a good enough living just off of selling bait and renting fishing poles and nets and lights.

My Dad added power lines with plug-ins under the railings, which was another thing that made our pier unique. You could use electric lights instead of messing around with fussy gas lanterns.  The Pier was a big part of Titusville’s social life, especially during shrimping season.  Springtime shrimp runs were a huge event – on a good run, you could fill up several five gallon buckets with shrimp in no time.

You never could tell when the shrimp would run – usually it was freezing cold and really early in the morning, like around 4 o:clock.   When the shrimp started running, my granddad would call 2 or 3 people on the phone and they’d call the rest of their buddies in town.  Within minutes, the pier would be covered with people, many of whom were still in their pajamas and bedroom shoes – they would not risk losing the time it took to get dressed — sometimes the shrimp only ran for just a few minutes.

Dad’s job was to get out of bed and go out to the baithouse to help my granddad rent shrimp nets and lights.  We considered it our jobs to race up and down the pier jumping over poles and generally getting in people’s way. Any misstep would send someone’s carefully arranged nets and fishing poles flying.  We spent a lot of time running from irate grownups in flapping bathrobes.  They hated to hear us come thundering down the Pier.

St._lucie_river_from_spThere was a small boat basin with a ramp by our house.  Dad built a finger dock right by the boat ramp so people could tie up their boats after they put them in the water.  When the wind blew out of the east, big mats of seagrass drifted in. Then the manatees would come – only we called them sea cows.  We could sit on the dock and touch the backs of the grazing sea cows.  Sometimes they’d nuzzle our bare feet with their soft whiskery faces.

My dad gave me a small rowboat that came with restrictions – I was not allowed to go past the entrance to the boat basin.  My arms weren’t long enough to row the conventional way.  So, I improvised and perched on the bow to use only one oar, paddling furiously on one side then quickly switching to the other.  I propelled myself endlessly up and down that boat basin yawing from one side to the other because of my unique style of paddling.

There were all kinds of things to discover in my small world – sea squirts, barnacles and oysters grew on all of the the seawalls and pilings. A variety of interesting creatures could be found just by turning over rocks on the shore.

Back then, you could walk along any shoreline of the river and there would be fiddler crabs as far as you could see.  The big ones would hang outside their burrows waving their claws trying to attract a lady fiddler.  As you approached them, they’d all race toward their holes – the motion of thousands of fiddler crabs running for cover looked like water parting as you moved along the shore.

With the coming of spring, hordes of bigger crabs made their presence known.  It is hard to imagine how many horseshoe crabs were in the river when I was young.  They would crawl up on the shore to lay their eggs and the whole shoreline would be covered with horseshoe crabs and more of them would be waiting out in the water. You knew they were there because you could see their tails slowly waving in the air like sticks above the surface.

Warm weather also triggered jellyfish season.  We always knew that spring was officially here when  clouds of comb jellies floated into our boat basin.  Only we called them pocketbook jellies because to us they looked like pocketbooks.  Some of you all might not know what a pocketbook is.

That’s what southern ladies called purses – All southern ladies had a collection of pocketbooks – my grandma Thompson was buried with her favorite pocketbook in her hands.  We’d never heard of pocketbooks being called purses until all of the northerners started moving down because of the Space Center.

Pocketbook jellies were special because you could pick them up without getting stung.  You could hold them in your hand and see all the colors of the rainbow as their fluids moved through them.

They were all different sizes – there were comb jellies so small you could barely see them all the way up to jellies that were bigger than my hand.   The tiny ones were wonderful to put in jars with river water.  When you held them up to the sunlight, it was like holding a container full of prisms.  Comb jellies are also bioluminescent.  When you jiggle them at night, they glow like green fire.

Later in the summer the moon jellies came.  There were times when there would be so many moon jellies that it seemed like you could walk on them.  They were all different sizes – you could see them all the way from the bottom of the river to the surface.  Do you all know what a moon jelly is?  They are beautiful, graceful perfectly round jellies with 4 big eye looking things in the center that kind of look like a 4-leaf clover.  They can get really big.  (describe – tell them about jellyfish displays in public aquariums so they can relate)

Moon jellies were everywhere – and they’d be that thick from the head of the river here all the way down to Stuart.  My dad showed us how to pick up the moon jellies without getting stung by putting our hands on top of them and forcing them down in the water while flipping them over at the same time.  You do it like this…. (describe)

We had some spectacular battles using moon jellies as projectiles. After a major fight, the dirt road by our house would be covered with blobs of jelly.  We’d laugh and run when cars squashed them.

Another summer ritual occurred when my parents packed up our station wagon and hauled us out to Playalinda beach at night to watch the sea turtles nest.  We’d smear ourselves with Deet and put on long sleeve shirts to ward off the hordes of terrible mosquitoes. We’d walk the beach, and enjoy fantastic lightening storms out over the ocean while waiting for a huge sea turtle to crawl out of the surf so we could watch her lay her eggs.

You could catch all kinds of fish off the pier when I was little.  Back then, the water in the lagoon was much cleaner. Sometimes, the water would get so clear, you could go all the way out to the end of the pier and see the bottom.  It was over 12 feet deep out there — you could see the fish swimming right up to your bait.

And you can’t believe how many blowfish there were.  There were so many blowfish, you couldn’t get your bait through them to reach the fish you wanted to catch.  Frustrated anglers would leave them on the pier to die, hoping to thin them out.

The pier was always covered with dead blowfish.  Some of them puffed up before they expired and remained so after their demise.  We liked to run up and down the pier and kick them back in the water.  But you had to be careful not to kick a blowfish in the mouth with your bare toe.  They have razor sharp teeth that can really hurt you – even when they’re dead.

There must have always been a lot of blowfish.  My uncle Herman told me that when he was a kid and he fished on the old wooden bridge in the middle of the night, he could tell when a car was coming long before he could see the headlights.  He said it sounded like a gun battle coming towards him as the car ran over all of the dead blowfish.

Bottlenose dolphins fed outside the entrance of our boat basin every evening. We could stand on the pier and watch the dolphins tossing mullet in the air and leaping after them.   It didn’t take long before temptation got the best of me – I had to paddle out with dolphins.  I’d spend hours out in my little boat, right in the middle of the feeding dolphins.  It was better than Marineland because the dolphins were in the wild in their home in the river.

I got a little older and my dad gave me a little 3 HP kicker for my rowboat.  Suddenly my world expanded.  I could finally reach the closest spoil islands and go all the way over to the east shore of the Lagoon.  I began my career as a tour guide, taking my friends out on the water, always eager to show them my beloved Indian River.

The following summer, my dad announced that it was time for me to start working.  My grandfather needed live bait shrimp to sell at the pier. I was 9 years old. There was no such thing as child labor laws back then, or if there was, my Dad figured our family was exempt. He helped me expand the live well in my rowboat and built me a push net so I could catch bait shrimp for the pier.  Do you all know what a pushnet is?  (describe).

It’s hard work, even for a grown-up.  I must have looked pretty funny pushing that big net around – but I was in hog heaven!  Every morning we’d load my rowboat into the back of Dad’s truck and take it up to Haulover Canal where he’d dump me and the boat off.  I’d spend the day doing whatever I wanted to do.  Of course I had to push the net and catch a few shrimp to justify the trip up to the canal.  But I mostly spent my time exploring.

There were beautiful soft yellow corals and colorful seaweeds growing on the rocks in Haulover Canal and the water was so clear you could see sheepheads picking barnacles off the rocks 15 feet down.   Dolphins were always there and every once in a while I’d even see a big sea turtle cruising through the canal.

The best place to look for shrimp was in the seagrass beds along the west sides of a string of spoil islands that ran north from Haulover Canal.  My dad called them the Clinkers.  I have no idea what that means, but that’s what all the old timers called the spoil islands.

I loved seeing all of the things that got captured in my pushnet.  I caught pipefish, sea horses, spider crabs, conchs, little tiny blowfish and porcupine fish and tons of other stuff.  I also got a lot of shrimp.  Sometimes I’d bump my net up against a sting ray that was so big it would knock the handle of the net out of my hands as it leaped off the bottom and flapped away in a big cloud of sand.

Dad came back in the afternoon and we’d put my shrimp in a garbage can with an aireator.  Then we’d load the boat in the truck and drive back to town to sell my shrimp at the pier.  I collected my money every day and put it in a squirrelly bank.  It truly was a wonderful summer.

The next summer, I got a bigger boat and a 20 HP motor.  I could now get to Haulover Canal under my own power.  We built some pigfish traps and I added pigfish income to my shrimp money.  Surely you all know what a pigfish is.  They are the BEST bait for seatrout. (tell them what a pigfish looks like)

I’d run my pigfish traps in the morning.  The little pigfish were so thick, my traps would be half full when I pulled them out of the water. They looked like shimmering gold in the morning sunlight.  Then I’d go in behind the clinkers and push the net around for bait shrimp for a while.  By late afternoon I’d head back to the pier, dodging thunderstorms along the way.

The following summer, one of the commercial fishermen asked me why I was selling my pigfish for bait.  He said I could make a lot more money if I used them to catch fish.  He taught me how to splatterpole with a cane pole for big sea trout.

The term splatterpoling comes from what you do with the end of the pole.  Every once in a while, you stick the pole in the water and thrash it around (like this) — then you beat on the water with the tip of the pole (like this).  That makes a sound like a school of fish feeding on top of the water and the big fish move in to see who is eating what.

You want to drift in the wind right at the edge of the seagrass where it starts breaking up and getting spotty – that’s where the big trout are.  You only catch little trout if you get in shallow where the seagrass is solid.  You have to figure out which way the wind is blowing and where to start your drift so you can spend the most time possible passing over the the spotty edges of the seagrass.

You want to fish right off the back of the boat.  You hook the pigfish right above its bottom fin (like this) and then toss it out.  You have to keep the line tight.  Every once in a while, you kind of bump the bottom of your cane pole (like this) and it tumps the pigfish upside down.  That makes the pigfish mad and it grunts and that’s what attracts the trout.  You can actually feel the pigfish grunting through the line and the pole.  If you’re in a good place, it usually only takes a couple of grunts before a big trout slams the pigfish.

It was easy to catch 50 pounds of sea trout in a morning of fishing.  That  old fisherman was right. I made a lot more money using the pigfish for bait.  But I always saved a few for my granddad to sell at the pier.

I spent the next couple of summers content with trapping pigfish and fishing for sea trout. After that, true greed set in and I got a bigger boat, a 23-foot crab boat with a 75 HP Evinrude motor.  My friends helped me build 150 blue crab traps.  I’d pull my crab traps every afternoon after school, spending countless hours on the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. I could now range as far north as New Smyrna, where I discovered a world of beautiful mangrove lined waterways that ran beyond Ponce Inlet.

The next year, my grandpa Wattwood co-signed for my first bank loan and I financed enough money to buy 500 yards of gill net, a bigger motor and a bow runner mullet boat. I was 15 years old.  I started spending entire nights out on the lagoon, doing my homework under the dim glow of a 15 watt DC light bulb that I hooked up to my outboard motor’s battery.

One of my favorite places to fish was Banana Creek. That was back when they were finishing up the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Space Center.  It was eerie, listening to workers on the VAB, especially when it was foggy.  I could hear their hammers ringing and their voices carried so well in the fog, it sounded like they were in the boat right next to me.

Banana Creek was full of alligators, and some of them were really BIG!  When I’d shine my spotlight down the shoreline, dozens of big red eyes glared back at me.  The alligators liked to swim along my net looking for an easy meal. Now I didn’t mind donating an occasional fish to a large gator to keep him happy.  There were two problems, the first one being that the gators were discerning diners.  They definitely preferred the 75 cent a pound sea trout over the nickel a pound mullet.

The second problem was that the gators couldn’t get a fish out of the net by pulling on it backwards.  That’s why you call it a gill net.  The fish swims into the net, pokes its head and gills through and it can’t back out.  The gator would swim up to the net, grab a big trout and start jerking.  When the trout wouldn’t come out, the gator would pass by the gilled mullet as it searched for the next big spotted morsel.

The gator would work its way down the net punching holes in my trout – with me madly poling my boat after it.  It must have been a pretty comical sight – a 15 year old girl out on the river in the middle of the night — whacking a 10 foot gator on the head with an oar trying to get it to let go of my fish.

My poor mom would have had a heart attack if she really knew what I was doing out on the river.

I loved being out by myself on the river after dark.  On calm, moonless nights, every star reflected in the water and you couldn’t tell where the river stopped and the sky began.  Running the river on a night like that was like flying through the Milky Way.  On summer nights the bioluminescence was spectacular.  Looking down into the dark water was like peering into a fairy land. Tiny luminous creatures scattered through shimmering sea grass like flickering stars.

Schools of mullet exploded when I got near them — it looked like green popcorn on the surface and fireworks down below.  Bottle-nose dolphins streaked beneath my boat and burst from the water showering brilliant florescence. When the wind blew you could stand on the Titusville Causeway and look east over a river that was alive with dazzling green whitecaps.

When the mullet started bunching up later in the fall, I ranged further south, looking for roe fish between Eau Gallie and Sebastian Inlet. It was common to see school after school of mullet moving south – there were acres and acres of traveling jumping mullet hanging right on the surface and swimming with their lips out of the water like mullet often do.

It was a mind-boggling heart-stopping spectacle of noise and constant motion as pelicans and cormorants crashed into the middle of the schools and dolphins attacked the edges. You could actually hear schools of roe mullet going by even in pitch black darkness.  It sounded like water roaring over a waterfall.

I graduated from high school in 1971.  Hoping to stall my efforts to become a full-time commercial fisherman, my parents sent me off to Florida Tech where I studied Oceanographic Technology.

We reached a compromise and I hauled a smaller mullet boat down to Jensen Beach with me and continued my practice of doing homework at night while my nets soaked in the Lagoon.  I discovered that the southern end of the Indian River Lagoon is really quite different than it is up on this end.  There were tropical fish – the same colorful fish you see in salt-water aquariums – and banded coral shrimp and arrow crabs and different kinds of seagrass.  For the first time I caught barracudas in my nets.

After I got out of college, it wasn’t long before I started running big boats. A whole new universe opened up for me – the Gulfstream became my new playground.  I was thrilled to see new species of dolphins riding in my bow waves.  There were whales and sunfish and huge jellyfish and I learned about wide ranging ocean fish – tuna, swordfish, and sharks.  I spent the next decade on the ocean, fishing from Hatteras, NC to the Texas/Mexican border.

In all of my travels on this country’s southern oceans and estuaries, I never found a place that even came close to having the range of habitats and variety of wildlife that we’ve got right here.  Ladies and gentlemen, believe me — I’ve seen it — our home is ground zero for wildlife diversity!

I left the ocean in 1987 and returned to Titusville to help out in my parents’ seafood restaurant.  When I finally got back out on the lagoon, I was appalled at its horrible condition – I couldn’t believe this had happened in such a short time – I was only gone for ten years.

I remember my grandfather Thompson standing on his pier and looking south at the cranes and barges during construction of the NASA Causeway.  He said that we were killing the lagoon with all the causeways we were building.  I have to think he was right.  The damage was already happening even when I was a child.  The demise of our Indian River did not just happen overnight.

In his wildest dreams, my grandpa could not have imagined that nearly 20 million people would be living in Florida just two generations past his.  A lot of them live near the Indian River.  They use fertilizers, pesticides and precious water to keep lawns green where salt marsh vegetaion once buffered the lagoon.

Even more people live away from the lagoon.  They use fertilizers, pesticides and water where once were native grasses, shrubs and trees that do not need such additives to flourish.  Where is the logic in this behavior?  Not all of the chemicals are absorbed by lawns.  They filter down into the aquifer that quenches our thirst and feeds our state’s unique system of springs.  When it rains, the chemicals flow down our streets and into culverts and into our lagoon.  The cycle has been ongoing and increasing for decades.

Fertilizers feed algae blooms that block sunlight that seagrass needs in order to grow.  No seagrass means no place for fish and crabs and shrimp to live.  That means no commercial or recreational fishing.  The lagoon may become an unsafe place for people to recreate — no more eco-tourism.  That could trigger a massive reduction in value of homes that are adjacent to the lagoon.  Do we really want to experience the castophic collapse of a system that brings billions of dollars into our economy?

One way to measure the character of a community is to look at what it protects — we protect what we value.  For several generations my family and many others have depended on a healthy environment to make our living.

The economic value of natural lands and unpolluted water through the creation of jobs in the fishing, tourism, recreation and other industries is well documented.  It has been shown time and again that property values increase in direct proportion to their proximity to natural areas.

Corporations consistently rank quality of life as a key consideration when relocating.  It was Florida’s natural areas and warm climate that sustained wildlife and brought vacationers long before there were theme parks and sprawling metroplexes. When viewed merely as an economic asset, natural lands clearly pay their way.

How do we put a price tag on a child’s chance to see a nesting sea turtle or a manatee instead of just seeing pictures of them on an electronic screen?  What is the value of that first bird’s nest they see or the first fish they catch?  What is a peaceful walk in the woods with your children or grandchildren worth?

I was fortunate as a child to be able to dip shrimp from crystal clear waters in the Indian River Lagoon and ride my horse through seemingly endless woodlands.  Many of today’s children will never get that chance. Who knows what tomorrow’s children will miss and how it will affect their quality of life.

It’s been 22 years since our Indian River Lagoon was designated by President Bill Clinton as an Estuary of National Significance.  Much has been done to address its deterioration.  It is not enough.

We have a lot of newcomers to our area.  Unless someone’s been here for more than fifty years, it’s impossible for them to even imagine what our Indian River was like before the impacts of development.

The River is the heart and soul of this community.  The River needs our help.  Our economy and our quality of life depend on its survival.  It’s really important that people like me and now people like you talk about its former splendor.

Like my words to the young biologists, your words will be the best way to inspire a demand to restore it.

Thanks again for your time and your interest.  Questions?


  1. What a nice presentation. Heart warming!

    Comment by Murray Gardler — May 3, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Very memorable about a person I admire a great deal.

    Comment by Dave Freerland — May 4, 2013 @ 6:21 am

  3. Laurilee joined us at the fertilizer protest rally in Rockledge and spoke. Her story was VERY powerful and I had the honor of being there. You can find her picture here; And I posted up what she said.. well worth the peruse, this Florida girl is special!
    Marty Baum
    Indian Riverkeeper

    Comment by Marty Baum — May 5, 2013 @ 4:55 am

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