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Hook, Line, and Handcuffs

Just north of the Boca Raton inlet, a vision of luxury rises suddenly from the beach. Dozens of chaise longues, each of them complete with plush, two-inch-thick padding and a retractable hood, sit in perfectly placed rows on carefully raked sand.

Attractive as this seashore opulence may seem to those who plunk down more than $400 a night to experience it, to others its lure is nothing compared to the sirens singing just offshore.

"There's a point off the beach where there's a sandbar with a deep drop-off," says Charles Walker, manager of Walker Bait and Tackle in Hillsboro Beach. "Throw a line out there, and see what you get."

Depending on the season, here's what you'll get: snook, tarpon, cobia, bluefish, barracuda, Spanish mackerel, kingfish -- all of these and more can easily be caught from the beach claimed by one of Palm Beach County's most exclusive resorts.

"Thirty to forty fish a night" is the usual haul for George Tavarez, a local angler who knows the spot and fishes it whenever he can. "Even if you're just your average person who's out there to wet a line, you'll pull in three or four in a couple of hours, at least."

Angler heaven, you might say, except for the fact that it's surrounded by fences -- fences that some fishermen say violate the spirit of the tradition holding that all parts of the beach seaward of the high-water mark belong to every Floridian.

Walker and Tavarez's favorite fishing spot happens to lie just offshore of the Boca Raton Resort and Club, where access is so restricted that anyone who is not already a guest or a member is prohibited from even entering the driveway leading to its registration area. Separating these fish-rich waters from the masses of covetous anglers with their rods, tackle boxes, and Bomber lures is an entangling maze of walls, guards, and 24-hour surveillance cameras.

To a committed shore-fisherman like Tavarez, the situation poses a heart-wrenching dilemma. "There are very few places where they let you fish and you can actually catch something that's worth your while," he says. "Most of those places -- they're all right if you just want to wet a line, but not if you're serious. It's a real struggle for a fisherman who doesn't have a boat."

Fortunately for fishermen with gumption, there's a solution. "You gotta sneak in," according to angler Bill Corry, who says he does it all the time. "It's killer fishing."

In fact sneaking onto the beach that fronts the Boca Resort is something of a common practice among the select group of anglers who know the spot's true worth. "I fish on the jetty on the north side of the inlet. It's right there in front of the club," says Boca native Greg Cuciak (for whom life is but an endless cycle of "part-time work and full-time fish"). "You can see the schools of snook coming from 50 yards away."

Sooner or later, though, the resort's security guards always seem to find Cuciak and tell him to move along. "It's always a big battle," he laments.

That's just too bad, responds Richard Gonzalez, one of the resort's guards. "Hey, it's a private beach," he says simply. According to Gonzalez most nonmembers do move along when asked, and those few who try to put up a fight are warned that a call has been put in to the Boca Raton Police Department.

Gonzalez says most guerrilla anglers don't stick around long enough for the Boca Raton Marine Patrol to show up and start making arrests, and Cuciak agrees, "I leave when they tell me to. I don't know if it's legal or not, but I know it's not worth getting cuffed over." Says angler Charles Walker, "When the police start calling you by your first name, you know it's time to quit."

Others, however, do put up a fight. Ray McAllister has some advice for Cuciak and all others worn out from ducking and hiding from police and security guards: "Just be polite and say, 'Officer, I'm standing down here below the high-water mark, and this is public property.' Then stay right where you are."

McAllister, a retired professor of ocean engineering, has made something of a cause out the public's right of access to supposedly private beaches. "Everything below the mean high tide [mark] is public property," he proclaims. "So as long as you're not causing a problem, throwing beer bottles around, playing loud rock music, or starting fires on the beach or something, no one can make you leave."

It appears the law backs him up.
According to Melease Jackson, assistant general counsel of the state department of environmental protection, everything below the mean high-water mark, defined as the average of all high tides over a period of nineteen years, is state property. Below this line there's no such thing as a purely private beach, she says.

As one who's responsible for enforcing the law, Cathy Porthouse, an environmental specialist for the Florida Marine Patrol, gets a little heated when she hears that native Floridians are being being chased off Florida beaches for the benefit of the guests -- many of them out-of-staters -- of a high-priced resort. "When drums full of methyl-ethyl-death wash up, they (landowners in general) don't consider it a private beach then," she says. "They holler for us to come take care of it."

Lori Croy, public information officer for the Boca Raton Police Department, says officers in that town consider the issue of public access to private beaches in a similar light as the issue of public access to easements between adjoining back yards on private property. "Those easements are for utilities. You wouldn't let somebody just wander onto them," she says. Similarly only those with a reason for being on a private beach should have access to the easement there.

But beaches, according to a legal view that dates back to English common law, are seen as a natural resource of the commonwealth, according to Jackson.

McAllister thinks that anyone who tries to restrict access to a beach by building fences and gates is violating at least the spirit of that common law, if not the letter. "One of these days I'm going to get me an LCV-P [a military landing craft for vehicles and personnel] and load it up with underprivileged kids. Then I'm going to head into that beach club with my horn blowing and black smoke pouring out and slam, the gate'll go down and those kids'll run out, and I'll shout, 'Okay, now behave yourselves and don't go above the water line,' and I'll be back with 30 more."

Cuciak, Corry, Tavarez, Walker, and company don't need a landing craft. They've got their own methods. When the mullet are running and the snook are biting, a carefully placed hole in a chainlink fence leads them straight to the beach they feel is theirs by right.

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Paul Belden

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