Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Springs Diving in North Florida

When most folks think of scuba diving, the first thing that comes to mind is gliding over colorful coral reefs and vast schools of tropical fish, or maybe exploring the decks of a long sunken ship. Many years ago, when I lived in Lake City Florida, I fished the Suwanee River and would occasionally see people diving the many springs that feed the river. I promised myself if I was ever in possession of a dive certification, I would come back and try diving the springs.

25-ish years later, a writer’s conference was drawing me back to the area. Fishing buddy Jim VanPelt and I were headed up for a couple days so I saw my chance. After checking with old friends in the area, I called Scuba Monkey Dive Center, a family run shop catering to open water certified divers, in Alachua. Tim and Tracey Boehnlein opened the full service dive shop 7 years ago and it has become one of the largest in the region offering full gear rentals and sales, certification classes and onsite hydro testing while still maintaining that personal family run feel. After making plans with Tracey over the phone, Jim and I stopped by the shop on Thursday to meet up with Tim and go over the next day’s agenda.

Scuba Monkey Dive Center

Scuba Monkey Dive Center is in the heart of spring country and convenient to I75. While checking out the gear, I asked Tim why he chose to open a dive shop in a landlocked town so far away from any coastal diving areas. “I love diving the springs. They are so quiet and peaceful. There is nothing else quite like it” Tim said. We decided to meet up at Troy Springs the next morning for our dive.

Checking out the latest gear

Troy Springs State Park is just outside of Branford, about a half hour West of Lake City. We arrived as the park opened and aside from a couple of guys testing out dive gear, we were the only people there. A narrow winding road lead to a small bluff overlooking the springs. Although I have more experience scuba diving than Jim, it was soon apparent that we both needed a little refresher. Tim was patient and informative and soon we were geared up and headed down the path to the entry platform. Troy Spring is a 1st magnitude spring that is over 60 feet deep and has a circular limestone basin over 100 feet in diameter. The cold clear aquifer water runs about 300 feet to the warmer and tannin stained waters of the Suwanee River. The water temperature hovers around 70 degrees, so it took a minute to acclimate.

Troy Springs

Water as clear as an aquarium

Floating over the center of the spring, I looked down into the green tinted, clear water. The limestone walls formed a steep slope down to the inky blackness below. As we descended I noticed how clean the ledges and floor of the spring was. Other than a log or two, and some natural debris, it looked much like it has for centuries. A few mullet swam by and the occasional turtle would launch across our path from it’s mossy hiding place. The sunlight penetrated the water to illuminate the whole area like a great underwater colosseum. At the bottom of the spring looking up, the surface seemed a mile away. Tim had it right, it was quiet and peaceful.

Jim ready to dive

GoPro still photo by Jim

A couple of turtles on the way down

Jim descending

That fish was this big!

Our adventure wasn't quite over. We surfaced and headed over to the spring run. As we floated over exposed limestone bottom passing curious turtles and schools of mullet, something interesting came into view. I quickly recognized the basic frame of a sunken wooden vessel. Turns out this was the river steamboat Madison, owned by James M. Tucker. During the Civil War the Union Navy imposed a blockade of southern ports that gradually eliminated steamboat traffic on coastal rivers. By the fall of 1863, as the fighting got closer to the Suwannee Valley  region, Tucker scuttled his ship to prevent it from falling into Union hands. He may have  intended to raise his steamboat after the war, but by the time the fighting ended in 1865, scavengers had removed much of the ship's machinery and planking. All that remains today are the ribs and joists.

Mullet school

The Riverboat Marion

Back at the truck, Tim, Jim and I talked about the vast numbers of springs in the area. Tim obviously had spent a lot of time learning about and diving the region’s springs. Jim was hooked as well and was discussing a return visit to check out a few other dive spots. As for me, I don't know if I will be back to dive the springs again. It took me 25 years for my 1st time, and I loved it, but there are still so many things left to do. I would encourage anyone who has ever thought about diving one of Florida's beautiful springs to contact Tim and Tracey at www.scubamonkeydivecenter.com .

More of the Marion

Sunday, July 19, 2015

iCast winners and Losers - 2015

iCast 2015 is over and, like years past, there were new products competing for the coveted “Best Of” prize. As I walked around the Convention Center I noticed many products, new or not, that were winners on their own, and some that fell short. While this is by no means an all inclusive list, these are the products that, for one reason or another, interested me enough to add to my list of iCast Winners and Losers - 2015.  

The Winners

The “Rail Cube”

A vertical and horizontal mount Rail Cube

The Rigrap is a cool system to store pre-tied terminal rigs in small storage boxes to prevent tangling. The creator of Rigrap was figuring out a way to attach the boxes to the rail systems that are popular with kayakers today. Enter the “Rail Cube”, a product so new, I am officially the first person to ever write about it. The only specimens that exist now are the prototypes made from a 3D printer, but that is about to change. The Rail Cube is a small square block that attaches to any rail system. The four sides will accept mounts for all the major makers including Ram, Scotty, GoPro and others. The cube makes it possible to mount four different accessories in one square inch of rail space! The words “game changer” are thrown around for almost anything these days, but the Rail Cube will be just that. There are plans to release this product soon and the makers are already looking into the “Mini Cube” from the makers or Rigrap!

Rail Cube with GoPro, Ram and rod holder mount

Raymarine Dragonfly 4

Raymarine already hit a home run with the Dragonfly 6 and 7, with GPS, chart plotting and wide spectrum downvision in a small package. They were popular with kayakers who could afford them but mounting options were limited, especially for smaller kayaks. Raymarine is up to bat and has fired one over the fence again with the Dragonfly 4 and 5. For as little as $199, kayakers can get a Dragonfly 4 with CHIRP Downvision sonar on a Ram mountable platform! The PRO model also has WiFi and will send the display to your smart phone or tablet. Now you can share your display with your paddle partners. Well done Raymarine for proving that very big things can indeed come in small packages.

Dragonfly 5 w/GPS

Dragonfly 4 w/full color split screen GPS and downscanning sonar

Ultimate Survival Technologies

Outdoor people, specifically kayakers, love gadgets that have more than one use. UST has a huge line of key fobs with extra uses. Small flashlights, whistles, paracord and many other useful items are attached to key clips that can be used to hang them on PFDs, belts or anything else. UST also has many other unique survival gear suited for the remote area kayak angler such as dry bags, gear boxes, first aid kits and ration bars. They have just about everything one would need for remote camping or survival situations and unforeseen circumstances under one convenient roof.

There are many options with Key Gear
High quality tools and gadgets
Some of the many products from UST

Weego Battery Packs

Weego is a young company that sells very small jump starters and battery packs. 
Everyone who uses a cell phone knows the inconvenience of low to zero power. Anyone who drives a car has firsthand experience of dead batteries, a mess of jumper cables, or poor-performing jump packs. These familiar issues now have a solution as portable as our fast-paced lifestyles. These very small battery packs average the size of a large smart phone or smaller, but they pack a large punch. The largest one weighs only one and a half pounds and boasts 300 starting amps. They also have flashlights for use at night and usb ports for charging everything else. They are powerful enough to start gas, diesel and marine motors. Kayakers can use them in remote areas for phone charging and powering up small electronics. 

Weego Battery Packs and Jump Starters

Flying Fisherman Polarized Glasses

A sleeping giant in the polarized glasses and accessories industry, Flying Fisherman has been around for a long time. While other companies are pushing high end, expensive products and often resort to giving them away to promote sales, Flying Fisherman stick to making affordable polarized glasses that equal or exceed the quality of the expensive counterparts. They are a Florida family owned company and every year come out with several new styles of eyewear and accessories like SPF rated clothing and travel rods. They are constantly striving to improve products and styles while the competition spends more money on marketing. A friend at iCast said about her expensive glasses, “If I didn't get these free, I couldn’t afford to wear them”. With Flying Fisherman glasses, everyone can afford performance!

New FF performance technical shirts

Just three of the new Flying Fisherman frames

FF is also known for their Sun Bandits

Hobie Outback Limited Edition

Yes, I have an affiliation with Hobie. No, that’s not the reason they are on my “winners” list. For years, Hobie has been the leader by far in the kayak industry. There is no argument to that fact. Every year anglers flock to the Hobie setup to see what they have come up with next. This year, the limited edition Outback. Thats right, they made an Outback in a special color, orange, added a limited edition number to it, only 500, and when it’s available, they will sell out in hours. That shows how comfortable they feel at the head of the pack. I don’t have any doubts about these guys being innovators and I know there will be more great things, but only Hobie can pull off a marketing piece like this! The only question I have is will the buyers use them, or keep them as a collector’s item?

The Hobie Outback Limited Edition

The Losers

Tauten Line Welder

This was the one product I was really looking forward to checking out. They blasted out a few emails prior to iCast with video showing how the line welder worked. Even though it looked a little cumbersome to connect lines in the field, I could certainly see it’s value in setting up gear in advance. Maybe mass producing tapered leaders without having to tie many, many knots. I searched out their booth and asked for a demonstration. There I was informed they had no working models, and I was advised the video on the monitor showed how it worked, the same video from the emails. I asked about the line welder under glass at the booth. “Thats the prototype” I was told. “We don't use that one”. Needless to say my disappointment was obvious. All that hype for a product they couldn’t even demonstrate. Maybe Tauten should have introduced their product next year when it would be ready.

The Line Welder under glass

Cranka Crab Lures

Fishing is simple. If folks want to make it harder than it is, that’s unfortunate. There are crab lures out there that are pretty simple. Tie them on and cast them out. The Cranka Crab guys take that simplicity and throw it out the window in favor of tiny interchangeable parts that are more like a puzzle than a lure. And the lures, once assembled, don't do anything different than cheaper, simpler crab lures. The rep explained to me that you can change the legs, claws, shell and weight of the lure while he was taking it apart into many small parts. I asked him why someone would want to do that, and he advised me that you can change the color of the claws, for instance, if you find the fish are keyed into a specific color. Bullshit. I’m not going to sit in one spot digging through a box with impossibly small parts trying to figure out what color combo the fish prefer that day. Nice try, but I need a lure, not a gimmick.

Looks legit.....

Too many parts

Engel Softside Cooler

Last year Yeti introduced a soft-sided cooler called the Hopper. In spite of what I think is a ridiculous price, over $300, they proved to be a popular product. This year, the Engel Cooler company introduced their own version, basically a copy of Yeti’s design. I don't necessarily mind a copy, especially if the price is more affordable to the regular angler who would rather pay their mortgage then spend too much for a cooler. I have always thought Engel products were fairly priced, so I assumed we would see the Engel version of the soft-sided cooler affordably priced as well. I was very disappointed to see the same ridiculous price as the Yeti. Sorry guys, you lost a fan.

The Yeti Hopper

The Engel 

 Freebie Seekers

I know this isn’t a product, but I couldn’t help noticing how many people would walk right up to a booth, ask for a free sample, and walk away in a huff as the reps explained why they don't give out samples. iCast is a place where manufacturers and distributers get together and make sales deals. Members of the media are invited to cover new products and in some cases may receive a sample of a product to test and review. The folks I am referring to act like it’s Halloween and hold out their bags as if looking for a piece of candy. The only good thing I noticed was that none of the people I saw behaving like that wore media credentials.

Obviously there are thousands more products at iCast and its impossible to cover everything. Other writers will undoubtedly cover different items in the weeks and months to come. These are also my opinions and I encourage everyone to check out these products and companies for yourselves and only use anyone else’s opinions and gear reviews as a guide.