With our abundant springs, spring runs and spring-fed rivers, the Natural North Florida region is the perfect place to spend a lazy day paddling.
In the southern regions, there are several springs that feed the mighty Suwannee River. County parks at Otter Springs and Hart Springs attract paddlers to their quiet waters. The State Parks at Manatee Springs and Fanning Springs are busy, but there’s always room for another paddler or swimmer.
Gilchrist County’s Blue Springs is a private springs resort, and offers a great family outing. It’s cool, blue headwaters is great for swimming and the spring run attracts paddle craft and tubes. If you want more of a lively place, try Ginnie Springs, just downstream on the Santa Fe River. And just up the road, in Alachua County at High Springs, Poe Springs County Park has been hosting paddlers and swimmers for decades. Ginnie and Blue Springs require modest fees to use the parks; Poe is FREE!
Taylor County’s Big Grass Island lies “slap dang” in the middle of the stretch of Gulf shoreline between Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach. And while the low island serves as a navigational landmark, it’s the shallow water near it that attracts the interest of inshore anglers.
From a geographic and geologic perspective, Big Grass Island was likely once the tip of what is now Crooked Point, which lies about a half-mile inshore, along the edge of Crooked Creek. Piney Point, to the north, and Long Grass Point, to the south, mark the unofficial boundaries of a large shallow bay.
While many “bays” typically have a deeper mid-point, this one is shallow throughout and generally not accessible, on low water, to boats with drafts deeper than flats skiffs, jon boats, airboats and paddle craft. However, as the tide floods, making access easier, seatrout and redfish move into the bay. There, they hunt baitfish over widely scattered clumps of rocks and along the grassy mainland shore. Good places to begin your search for structure is the short stretch of shoreline just north of Long Grass Point, the area around the mouth of Crooked Creek, or the northeastern corner of the bay, along the south shore of Piney Point. Depending on the amount of floating grass, this area is an all-round excellent place to throw topwater lures like MirrOlure Top Dogs or Heddon Super Spooks. But if the grass bogs you down, try that old-time favorite–a gold Eppinger Rex spoon.
As is typical of our waters, the flats outside of Big Grass Island don’t get deep very fast. You’ll have to run almost two miles west to get to the one-fathom curve and 6 feet of water. Anglers using jigs like D.O.A.’s CAL series, bounced off the bottom of sandy holes or drifted over the seagrass tops under noisy corks, will find easy limits of seatrout mixed with some fat bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
Fishing the shoreline of Big Grass Island can be iffy. There are two deep sloughs that run along the north and south shores of the island. Both have good potential for seatrout and pelagics on fast-moving tides. However, the island can host a fleet of picnickers and partiers on weekend days, making fishing away from the island a better choice.
According to Dunnellon resident Buzz Phillips, who’s been fishing Waccasassa Bay his entire lifetime, the fishing’s not as good there as it was twenty or thirty years ago. That may be true, but the unspoiled waters reached by leaving the Waccasassa River are hard to beat when many other Big Bend ports are crowded with boats and eager snorkelers in search of bay scallops. Don’t get me wrong–there’s nothing wrong with scalloping, but some of us really need to wet a fishing line every so often!
There’s not much “civilization” on the Waccasassa River. In fact, despite the private fishing club and public boat ramp located about a mile west of US19/98 on CR326 at Gulf Hammock (Located between the rural crossroads of Lebanon Station and Otter Creek) it’s still in the middle of nowhere. And that’s a good thing. As you travel out the river, you’ll see what many consider the most beautiful stretch of untouched north Florida. And upon reaching the river’s mouth, you might find your boat one of the few along the rugged coastline between Yankeetown and Cedar Key—even on a “busy” weekend day.
While there are some undefined boundaries here, I consider Waccasassa Bay to include the waters between Yankeetown and Cedar Key, in Levy County. It’s unique position on Florida’s Gulf coast acts as a natural catch basin for bait, pushed into the bay by tidal flow. And the outflow of the Waccasassa River, the Withlacoochee River and numerous feeder creeks provide just the right amount of fresh water to create an oyster-encrusted shoreline that’s well over 25 miles in length. Those two facts combined are the basis for an exceptionally rich fishery.
As you exit the river, you’ll encounter several channel markers, now privately maintained, to guide you through the shallow bars making up the Waccasassa Reefs. Once you leave the “channel”, you’re on your own, with ten or twelve miles of rugged shoreline to your north. Proceed with caution, and don’t bring your big boat. Here, shallow draft vessels and airboats find comfort among the rocks, oysters and shallow bottom. Afternoon low tides during summer months are usually extreme, but more so here, where 3-foot depths are the rule, rather than the exception. As you approach the northern shore, be on the lookout for rows of bars several hundred yards out and parallel to the shore. Those bars create the ebb and flow of water and bait that interest big redfish, gator seatrout and big black drum. One good bet is to cast topwater plugs near and over the bars east of Tripod Point. If you think the north shore of the bay is rugged, wait until to venture south from the river’s mouth towards the mouth of the Withlacoochee River. You’ll encounter a similar fishery as that to the north, but the number of miles of shoreline is amplified by the jagged landmass that makes up Turtle Point and Eleven Prong. If, after several trips, you tire of fishing those points, ease your boat south and east into Lows Bay and try the mouths of Spring Run, Demory and Jones creeks.
While Waccasassa Bay’s big attraction is the nearshore fishery, there’s still plenty of action out in the middle of the bay. Take a look at a #019 Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart (Suwannee) and you’ll see a stretch of deep-water sloughs and holes southwest of the mouth of the Waccasassa River. Those spots hold cobia and tarpon in the summer months, and hordes of slot-sized seatrout infest the vast grass flats that stretch all the way west to Cedar Key.
Waccasassa Bay can be accessed not only from the public ramp upriver, but also from the ramps in Cedar Key or at the end of CR40 in Yankeetown. In any case, be sure to pack your GPS to help you on the trip back to port. This bay is bigger than it appears on charts, and unless the weather’s perfect it may be hard to see land, or the familiar landmarks of the power plant at Crystal River or the water tower at Cedar Key, from the middle.
Owning and operating a fishing boat can be a complicated (and expensive) venture, especially if you don’t use it much. Gas goes bad, trailer bearings and tires wear out if not used, and outboard motors gum up if not run frequently. If you’re only planning to fish a couple of times a year, hiring a professional guide may be your ticket to a good time. You’ll have the opportunity to fish with someone who’s on the water much of the time, likely knows where the fish are, has good tackle–and a boat that runs!
Steinhatchee, in Taylor County on Florida’s Big Bend, has a reputation for some teriffic fishing, inshore and offshore. Seatrout, redfish, flounder and grouper regularly come to the cleaning tables at local marinas.
Here are some recommended guides:
Captain Randall Hewitt 386-208-3823 http://www.hookedonreds.com/
Captain Scott Peters, Jr 352-356-7502 http://badtothebonefishingcharters.com/
Captain Rick Davidson http://bitemefishing.wordpress.com/
Captain Brian Smith 877-852-3474 http://www.bigbendcharters.com/
Captain Steve Kroll (352) 322-4085
Captain Mark Lord, www.captainmark.com
Capt. Brad Riddle (352) 318-2138 email@example.com
Capt. Mark Brady (contact thru Good Times Marina, 352-498-8088
Capt. Steve Hart, (352) 498-0299
Capt. Bob Erdman (352) 356-2554
There’s probably no prettier, or fishier, stretch of uninhabited Gulf shoreline than the Pepperfish Keys area, between Steinhatchee and Horseshoe Beach in Dixie County.
And in September, especially after the close of the recreational bay scallop harvest, anglers willing to make what many locals consider a ‘long run’ to the Pepperfish Keys will have lots of water to themselves, sharing it only with some nice trout and redfish.
A trio of small rocky islands laying parallel along the coastline and just south of a deep slough that was probably once the channel of an ancient version of Cow Creek, the Pepperfish Keys sit at the southern end of a straight, north-south oriented coastline that stretches about 10 miles to Steinhatchee. To the south, the shoreline turns southeast 7 miles to Horseshoe Beach. The keys’ position at this westernmost point-of-land makes the entire area a natural catch-basin for bait washing north up the Big Bend shoreline. And it’s not a bad thing that there are numerous tidal creeks feeding the shallow rocky flats either. With the exception of a few small tongues of deep water and the Pepperfish channel itself (Which begins at about N29 30.761 W83 25.369 and runs a mile or so eastward towards land to its unofficial dead-end at about N29 30.405 W83 23.832), you’ll find some pretty shallow and rocky running. But a great fishing day on those shallows is sometimes worth the anguish—and maybe even a lower unit or two. I’m just kidding, of course, but it’s prudent to watch your speed and the bottom here—at least until you know your way around.
The Pepperfish Keys are easily accessible from either Steinhatchee or Horseshoe Beach. Both ports have good lodging and food opportunities, with Steinhatchee leading in amenities. But while Horseshoe Beach is a bit farther from US19 than Steinhatchee, and proclaimed on a local roadside sign as, ‘Florida’s Last Frontier, it’s definitely a place to add to your ‘bucket list’.
There are distinct local approaches to fishing ‘Pepperfish’, as the general area is called locally. It seems that folks who live or depart Horseshoe Beach rarely venture north of the islands, while those departing Steinhatchee don’t cross over to the south. I’ve sometimes wondered if there was some sort of Hatfield-McCoy reason for this phenomenon, but suspect it probably happens simply due the fact that fishing’s pretty darned good on both the north and south sides of the keys. And as there’s no coastal highway between Steinhatchee and Horseshoe Beach, your choice of departure port might depend on where you want to fish. It’s about a 40-mile drive between the two by road and less than 20 miles by boat. Of course there’s really no reason that you can’t just run all around, fish the whole Dixie County coastline, and burn up lots of gas!
The most significant feature of the shoreline that runs north from the Pepperfish keys is the solid limestone rock bottom that stretches from the shoreline westward, at some places a distance of several miles. The flat that’s inshore of the Tater Island Rocks marker (N29 34.125 W83 24.999) is overgrown with several varieties of grass, but you’ll also find rock patches that hold lots of small bait fish and crustaceans, daily forage for big redfish and sea trout. This is excellent topwater lure territory, especially on early warm September mornings. Another productive shallow-water area is the grassy bottom about a mile offshore of Bowlegs Point (N29 31.374 W83 24.080), closer to the Pepperfish Keys. On a low tide, you can almost walk over this area without getting your feet wet. If you’re less-adventurous, consider moving offshore a couple of miles to the deeper water around the big sand bar off Bowlegs Point, and fish for trout bouncing shrimp-sweetened D.O.A. CAL jigs off the bottom. Located near waypoint N29 32.439 W83 27.139, this bar sits in the middle of a deep grass flat, and is renowned for holding schools of bait fish in late summer. To reach this area from Steinhatchee on a moderate tide, make a due south turn from Marker #5 and set a course for a point at least a half-mile offshore of the Tater Island Rocks; then turn east (running slowly) when you’re due west of the waypoint.
Two important features to the south of the Pepperfish Keys are Stuart Point (N29 29.230 W83 20.640) and Drum Point (N29 28.476 W83 19.857). Both points are adjacent to big tidal creeks with lots of oyster and rock bars at, or just inside, their mouths. On times of rising September morning tides, expect to find redfish holding along the shoreline here, with sea trout a bit farther away from shore over some of the many rocky patches south of the keys. Jumping mullet are a good sign that there are predators in the area. Although the creeks themselves look ‘fishy’, expend your energy poling quietly along the outside shoreline. Noisy topwater plugs like Heddon’s Super Spook, Jr (in Nickel or Bone) or MirrOlure Top Dogs (chrome and black) are a good bet here. At high tide, you can motor (slowly) north from the Dixie County boat ramp in Horseshoe Beach to Drum Point, but on periods of falling tides, don’t stay too long–or you might spend the night with the skeeters!
Whether you fish north or south, don’t overlook fishing near the Pepperfish Keys themselves, especially the edges of the channel on the north side during falling tides. All those shallow backwaters flush out pretty quickly as the tide falls and lots of predators wait. You’ll find trout, reds, flounder and Spanish mackerel in that mix, as well as cobia, sharks and tarpon for your angling enjoyment. Anchor up along the edge, set out a chum line, and wait for the magic to begin. The south side of the keys is rockier, so expect some good redfish action there on the flood of the tide. In fact, in late September, you may start to see big schools of slot reds gathering here, fattening up in anticipation of their fall migration to deeper Gulf waters.
I admit it. I’m guilty of telling anglers heading to Cedar Key to avoid these Big Bend backwaters. Of course, many of them are taking powerboats with them, and likely appreciate my advice after they see the structure there. While Cedar Key is the name of the town that actually sits on Cedar Key and Way Key, the vast majority of fishable water flows through an archipelago of tiny unnamed islands between these islands and the mainland. Some of the islands are large and some are small, and for the most part they’re separated by only trickles of water at low tide. Not a situation you want to be in—unless you’re paddling. The islands here jut out into the Gulf of Mexico, making good fishing on both the west side and the east side of town. To the west, islands and bars face the Gulf and to the east, Waccasassa Bay. And with no shortage of improved and roadside launching spots, Cedar Key is one of the most paddler-friendly towns on Florida’s Big Bend. The best and most secure access to the backwaters is from any of the public ramps at the Number Four Channel and Shell Mound.
The Number Four ramp is located adjacent to the FWC’s Marine Laboratory on SR24, just north of town. A walk down the fishing pier there and a quick scan of the waterway will give you a good idea of the structure of these backwaters, especially if you’re there at low tide. You’ll see oyster bars by the hundreds, each with the potential for holding inshore species such as spotted seatrout, redfish, black drum and flounder. After launching, and dependent of tidal flow and wind direction, you have several choices regarding where to fish. A two-mile paddle to the east will get you to the general area of bars named Corrigans Reef. Two miles to the northwest will put you in the middle of the islands near the mouth of Goose Creek and some excellent fishing. But I advise you don’t focus too hard on these destinations as you’ll likely find some fish before you reach either. Just look for jumping mullet or activity alongside bars or deeper sloughs and cast simple lures like MirrOlure Top Dogs or 3-inch D.O.A. shrimp.
There are two ramps at Shell Mound, on the backwaters north of the town of Cedar Key. They’re easily reached by car from SR24, CR347 and CR326. One ramp is located at Shell Mound County Park and the other is at the beach at the end of CR326. The ramp at the park is a good choice if you’re interested in fishing the backwaters south of the Raleigh Islands (at approx. N29 13.027 W83 40.099) or east of Deer Island (at approx. N29 14.069 W83 40.543). Launch at the beach if you want an adventure at the “Tarpon Hole” behind Derrick Key (at approx. N29 11.353 W83 40.777). Or, make a left-hand U-turn from the beach and head up usually fishy and wind-protected Dennis Creek.
Not every paddle angler enjoys the backwaters, especially if the winds are calm and the bugs are biting. If your fishing interest lies in fishing the flats or the shorelines of bigger islands, there’s good access from the beach at the City Park, where “Yakker Tom” rents kayaks at Kayak Cedar Keys (www.kayakcedarkeys.com) Atsena Otie Key is about a mile south of the park beach–a quick paddle and a good trip for those of you who’ve never tried kayak fishing. There, you’ll find some good flats to the island’s east, numerous oyster bars and even a backwater lagoon, accessible at higher water. Reaching the other southern islands (Snake Key, North Key and Seahorse Key) can be an arduous paddle, but often worth the effort. Lush grass flats surround each and their shorelines can be quite fishy.
There’s nothing worse, after a long day of paddling, casting and landing fish, than coming back to port and having a limited choice of places to stay, eat, or have a cold beverage. Cedar Key’s not one of those “outposts.” There, you’ll find comfortable lodging, award-winning casual restaurants and lively nightlife–if you’re not too worn out from your fishing adventure. For complete listings, take a look at www.cedarkey.org
While the “deer and the antelope” roam much of North America, it’s the American alligator that appeals to hunters and fishermen during the late summer and early fall months in Natural North Florida. Yes, we do have abundant deer, wild pigs and Osceola turkeys, but the chase for alligators is what stirs the spirit of many residents and visitors to our area. It’s much like fishing, in that “gators” live in the water and are usually chased in boats, snagged with hooks, but then dispatched using bang sticks–a relative of the modern firearm. The end product is a huge reptile, often reaching ten or 12 feet and weighing in excess of 300 pounds. The tail meat and ribs are considered delicacies, and the hides often appear later–tanned in the form of expensive shoes, belts, wallets and purses.
Florida’s 2014 alligator hunt began on August 15. Hunters must apply for a special permit to harvest gators, and winner of the lottery are give two tags that must be accounted for at the end of the highly-regulated season. Permits are valid for specific week-long hunts and unused tags are valid for the month of October. Permits are also site-specific. Permits are issued for entire counties (such as Levy and Alachua) or specific bodies of water (such as Newnans Lake or Orange Lake, in Alachua County). For example, 31 permits were issued for the first phase (week) of the 2014 hunt for Newnans Lake in Alachua County. With two tags each, a total of 62 gators could be taken during that week. Permits are awarded by lottery, and the drawing is held in early summer. It’s a complicated process, and the cost is $272 for residents. Many residents obtain permits and then hire guides to fulfill the quota allowed. For complete information regarding alligator hunting, see the FWC Alligator Hunting web page.
Steinhatchee/Jena Florida • $100 for 100 participants maximum
October 3-5, 2014 with early bird trips October 1st and 2nd
4 more paddles have just been added due to the heavy registration so far
and here’s what we’re giving you – - – - -
Yes, the Suwannee River is a great place to boat and fish, but during the summer months, the sturgeon are jumping. So take it easy and heed this advice from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:
It’s an ugly fish with a face only another sturgeon could love. It’s the prehistoric-looking, sucker-mouthed, scute-covered Gulf sturgeon and it’s creating quite a stir on the rivers in North Florida.
Although the sturgeon residing in the Suwannee River have received the bulk of the media attention during the last several years, the fish are present in quite a few rivers in the northern portion of the Sunshine State.
The sturgeon can trace their roots back 200 million years. And even though they’re just doing what they’ve been doing for eons, it’s causing a problem for some boaters. The Gulf sturgeon makes its presence known by jumping out of the water. With adult fish reaching up to eight feet in length and weighing up to 200 pounds, they can make quite a splash.
Boaters have been injured while traveling on the Suwannee River and other rivers in the Florida Panhandle when they are struck by the jumping fish. There’s no apparent warning…the sturgeon just jump. If a boater is in the wrong place at the wrong time, there’s a chance of injury.
In past years, boaters have been injured by direct strikes with sturgeon. However, in 2013, there were no reported sturgeon strikes on the Suwannee River. The FWC would like to keep that trend going for 2014.
Scientists believe there are approximately 10,000-14,000 Gulf sturgeons that make the Suwannee their summer home, with far fewer numbers in the seven other major U.S. rivers where Gulf sturgeon are known to spawn. These rivers are the Apalachicola, Choctawhatchee, Yellow, Blackwater, Escambia, Pearl, Pascagoula The Suwannee River, which flows from the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia down through northern Florida, is one of the most pristine rivers in the country – with no dams for returning sturgeons to contend with. The Suwannee is considered one of the last “wild” rivers in Florida.
The fish use almost the entire length of the river to complete their complicated life history. The sturgeon spawning grounds on the Suwannee are 140 miles (220 kilometers) upstream from the mouth. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning in freshwater, sturgeons – which can live to be 25-plus years old – spend summer in the river, then swim back down the river to winter in the Gulf.
Sturgeon return to the eastern Gulf of Mexico during the winter, where they feed heartily. They typically do not eat while they are in the river – losing somewhere around 20 percent of their body mass. Because of this extended fast, biologists wonder why the fish would use energy jumping out of the water.
When they do eat, Gulf sturgeons are bottom feeders. They have barbles – catfish-like whiskers – that help them search sediments for prey, which they vacuum up with their sucker mouths.
Despite their long history, Gulf sturgeons were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. The sturgeon is listed as a species of special concern in the state of Florida.
Why are these fish listed? There are many reasons. Their Gulf-wide habitat has been destroyed or greatly altered. Dams have prevented the sturgeon from migrating to old spawning areas. Dredging and other navigation maintenance may have eliminated the deep holes where sturgeon congregate. They were overfished to the point where Florida took the unprecedented action in 1984 of banning harvesting, capture, or “take” to prevent their extinction, just as we did for Bald Eagles. To make things even tougher for the sturgeon, it takes many years for the fish to reach breeding age, slowing population recovery.
What FWC has done
FWC “Go Slow”
When the reported strikes began increasing in 2006, FWC mounted an intense public awareness campaign to let people know these fish were present and could injure those boaters enjoying the Suwannee. The agency message of “Go slow on the Suwannee” for better reaction time if a sturgeon did leap out of the water was stressed.
Signs were posted at all Suwannee River boat ramps and “Go Slow” decals were handed out to remind boaters to go slow while traveling on the river.
FWC personnel coordinated with elected officials from the five counties in north Florida affected by this issue.
A news release was put out in the spring, alerting boaters that the fish are migrating back into the Suwannee from the Gulf of Mexico.
What boaters can do
Go slow: The best course of action is to go slow. This gives more time to react and if you are hit, the force of the blow is much less at 10 mph than it is at 35 mph.
Wear your life jacket: Some boaters don’t like wearing a life jacket due to its bulkiness or fit. However, there’s been a revolution in life jacket design, and there are lighter, more compact and less restrictive models on the market. They include lightweight over-the-shoulder and belt-type inflatables, in addition to vest-type life jackets. If you’re hurt and unconscious, a life jacket will help keep you afloat. FWC suggests getting a type that will have you float face up.
Be alert: Pay attention to your surroundings. If you’re in an area where you see sturgeon jumping, slow down and get closer to the shoreline. The fish tend to stay in the deeper sections of the river.
Designate an operator: Don’t boat and drink. If you’re impaired, you have slower reaction times. If alcohol is consumed on a vessel, there should be a sober designated operator.
Boat safe: Keep passengers off the bow of the boat.
The Suwannee River is a beautiful part of Florida and should be enjoyed. The FWC wants boaters to know that these fish are out there and they do jump. Just be prepared, go slow and have fun.
GULF STURGEON AT A GLANCE
Common Name: Gulf sturgeon
Scientific Name: Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi
Size: Average 5-6 ft, up to 8 ft. To about 200 pounds.
Range: Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Louisiana.
Habitat: Marine and brackish water during the fall/winter months, freshwater rivers and streams during the spring/summer months; commonly found in spring-fed tannin-stained rivers with steep limestone banks and hard bottom areas upstream.
Diet: Gulf sturgeon in saltwater feed on invertebrates – brittle starfish, small crustaceans such as ghost shrimp and crabs, lampshells, marine worms, and lancelets (a group of primitive animals, fishlike in appearance, usually found buried on the ocean floor). In freshwater, Gulf sturgeon generally do not feed or seek out prey.
Status: Protected. Listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1991. Also covered by Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1998. Human interactions are restricted to observation and research; no harvest is allowed.
Taylor County presents, the 2014Annual Fall Trout Tournament.
CASH PRIZES for heaviest 5 Fish Stringer, Mystery Fish and redfish with the Most Spots!! Captain’s meeting will be at Keaton Beach at Sea Hag at Keaton Marina, with weigh in’s at both Keaton Beach (Sea Hag at Keaton) and in Steinhatchee (Fiddler’s Restaurant Dock). For tickets, call the Taylor Chamber at 850-584-5366