Snook are probably the most fun and abundant gamefish in Florida. They run, they jump, and if you want to keep one for dinner during open season, they’re delicious to eat. However, they’re also highly susceptible to cold water temperatures and are some of the first fish to be found floating dead after a hard winter freeze. Warm winters in recent years have allowed snook to migrate north from Pinellas and Pasco counties (Tarpon Springs’ Anclote Key was the northern edge of their range for many years.) Now, with our recent warm winters, snook are regularly being caught well north of the Withlacoochee River in Waccasassa Bay and even as far north at Suwannee’s Salt Creek.
Snook are ambush feeders, and prey on small fish (mullet, pinfish and sardines) as well as crustaceans (crabs and shrimp). They will also readily attack artificial lures like the D.O.A. shrimp or slow-sinking MirrOlure Catch 2000s. Rigging is important, with stealthy knots (Homer Rhode or Uni Knots work well) and tough, invisible fluorocarbon leader (24-30#) a “must”. An interesting fact about snook is that they are picky about their prey. If you’re using live fish for bait, don’t rig them like you do for redfish (through the back or tail) but hook them through their lips. Snook attack from behind! And they prefer fast-moving water, especially when it’s washing baits off shallow flats or bars into deeper troughs.
In 2015/2016, Gulf Snook “season” runs from September 1, 2015 to February 29, 2016 and from May 1 to August 31, 2016. While you’re allowed to keep one snook per day, anglers are urged to have fun and release fish they catch. Just remember–one cold winter and the snook will again head south and away from our Big Bend waters!
Complete information about snook and other saltwater gamefish species can be found at www.myfwc.com/fishing
If you’re heading to the Gulf, the rivers or the lakes in our Natural North Florida region, be assured we have plenty of boat ramps with public access for your use. And the best way to find them is to use the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Boat Ramp Finder. It’s a complete listing, county-by-county, and it’s an easy tool to use when planning your trip.
The Boat Ramp Finder provides descriptive information, maps and photographs for hundreds of public boat ramps throughout Florida. The Find-A-Boat-Ramp menu provides several options to search for the particular type of boat ramp you want to visit.
The counties represented by Visit Natural North Florida are: Alachua (Santa Fe River, Newnans Lake, Orange Lake), Union (Lake Butler, Santa Fe River), Levy (Cedar Key, Yankeetown), Dixie (Suwannee, Horseshoe Beach), Taylor (Steinhatchee, Keaton Beach), Gilchrist ( Suwannee River, Santa Fe River), Jefferson (Wacissa River), Wakulla (St. Marks, Panacea), Lafayette (Suwannee River, Madison (Withlacoochee River, Suwannee River), and Bradford (Hampton Lake, Sampson Lake).
Many anglers write off fishing our Big Bend waters in summer, simply giving in to the crowds of scallopers who invade our coastal ports, boat ramps, restaurants and motels. But we do have excellent summertime fishing opportunities in our less-busy darker waters. And Suwannee Sound, between the towns of Suwannee and Cedar Key, tops my list.
The Suwannee River flows through Florida from the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia, and empties into the Gulf about 90 miles north of Tampa Bay, just about in the middle of the Big Bend. As it flows, it picks up fresh spring water, tannin and particulate matter, making the flats and nearshore waters darker and brackish, rather than the salty “clear as gin” quality that scallops and scallopers desire. And Cedar Key, while essentially a point of land jutting well into the salty Gulf, doesn’t have much scallop-friendly water either. Its local waters, especially to the north and east, are darkened by runoff from numerous tidal creeks and by the freshwater outflow of the Withlacoochee and Waccasassa rivers. The net result is a vast system of live and dead oyster bars, along the coast of Levy County, between the two towns.
Take a look at a Florida Sportsman Suwannee Fishing Chart, Suwannee #019, and direct your attention to the shoreline between Cedar Key and the mouth of the Suwannee River. You’ll see a ragged coast, created by creeks and their adjacent oyster bars and reefs. There, you’ll find some of the best fish habitat in our area. On early morning flood tides, fish the mouths of creeks and points of bars and islands for slot reds and huge, 30-pound-plus, black drum. Reds will be particularly interested in topwater plugs, jigs like the D.O.A. TerrorEyz (#304, “root beer/gold glitter” is a good choice) or cut mullet. Black drum are natural “suckers” for chunks of blue crab or dead shrimp. Remember that reds will attack their prey on top of the water, but that black drum feed facedown along the bottom. The shoreline just west of the primitive boat ramp at Shell Mound has been especially productive for the last few summers.
If you’re interested in catching spotted seatrout, move a bit more offshore to the flats along edge of the one-fathom curve, along the bars that make up the Suwannee Reef. There, free line live or 3-inch D.O.A. #321 shrimp (“copper crush”) alongside your drift. And don’t forget to pack a big spinning outfit, rigged and ready with a black eel look-alike, just in case a tarpon or cobia comes along. I prefer the 10-inch tandem rigged Hogy.
Suwannee Sound can be reached easily from the north or the south. Cedar Key and Suwannee are both angler-friendly with good restaurants, lodging, boat ramps and sources for bait and tackle. However, from both directions, and depending on the tide, you’ll encounter some rough bottom and tricky turns, making thoughtful and careful navigation essential to a successful day on the water. So plan well, and take it easy in this special part of what’s known to many as “Natural North Florida”!
On our Natural North Florida Big Bend, floating grass seems to take over our coast during late summer months. And there are numerous conspiracy theories as to why huge mats of grass clog the intakes of outboard motors and make fishing for redfish and seatrout with topwater lures almost impossible. It’s not that our grass flats are declining, nor it it that scallopers have stirred up the bottom and loosened the grass. An aircraft carrier probably couldn’t do the same job that Mother Nature does late each summer, in terms of releasing excess grass from our flats. In fact, it’s just a part of the natural life cycle of turtle and manatee grass that we find lots of floating grass atop our fishing spots.
The fact that grass mats are floating isn’t a bad thing when it comes to providing cover for predators. Offshore, cobia and dorado (mahi-mahi or dolphin fish) often hide under grass mats, seeking shade and lurking there to ambush baitfish. Inshore, redfish do the same, often right up against shorelines or creek mouths. In either case, anglers need to be aware of the grass “problem”, and have a plan to handle it.
Many saltwater anglers discount the use of freshwater-designed baits, thinking that their hooks or shapes are not salt-ready. but many manufacturers of freshwater lures are ahead of the game, making lots of lures and hooks that work well in salt as well as fresh water. A good example is the weedless spoon, made by Eppinger or Johnson. These were originally made for northern lakes, and are proven lures for saltwater as well. But the attack on a lure is best appreciated by anglers when a topwater lure is attacked. And being able to drag a lure over floating grass is a sure way to attract a big coastal redfish!
I recently fished with Captain Rick Davidson at Steinhatchee and we “fought” floating grass all day. However, he had more explosive strikes on, of all things, a Sebile Pivot Frog lure. The strikes were good, but I think the long trailing legs needed to be cut back to improve the dynamics of the cast. These bulky lures are hard to cast and trimming the legs will make it more aerodynamic. We also discussed the use of lures that specifically don’t “match the hatch” along our coastline and have pretty much concluded that the reds are hungry for almost anything that swims near them, even if it doesn’t exactly resemble a natural target. Another lure we’re planning to try is the Culprit 4-inch Incredi-Frog, rigged with 4/0 Daiichi wide-gap hook and no weight. It should attract some attention as well!
My advice for anyone pestered by floating grass is to look beyond the saltwater tackle rack at your local tackle shop. Head over to the freshwater department, and give some of those tried and tested lake and river baits a try!
In the late summer, water visibility can hinder and slow the harvest of bay scallops. This year, they’re plentiful along our coastline, but are often hard to see.
We’ve had more than our fair share of rain on the Big Bend, too. Mornings have been calm, but with high humidity and high air temperatures, thunderstorms have been building up every afternoon. Usually they form on shore, but some can eventually drift off the coast in the late afternoon, depending on the strength of the east coast sea breezes. What that means for you, the scalloper, is that you need to take your trips early, watch the radar (use the Weather Bug app on your smartphone!), and try to get back to port by mid-afternoon at the latest.
Despite the amount of rainwater we’ve seen in ditches and pastures miles from the coast, the visibility of the Gulf waters isn’t as bad as I expected. Scallopers north of Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach are doing well, especially off Piney Point and off Dekle Beach. The only thing I can’t predict is just how long the visibility will be good. It usually takes several weeks for the leaching cycle to complete.
If you’re looking for a quiet, low-key place to have a leisurely bicycle ride, head to Lake Butler, in Florida’s Union County. Union County is small and rural, but there are plenty of sights to see from either the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail or the not-very-busy city streets. The trail’s western terminus is in downtown Lake Butler and runs 47 miles east, to Palatka, on the St. Johns River.
Lake Butler is located about 28 miles north of Gainesville, FL, at the intersection of SR121 and SR100.
With two Bar-B-Q joints, a “meat and three” restaurant, a crab house and two Mexican restaurants, there’s plenty of good solid food available in downtown Newberry, Florida. And there’s also some good things take home and cook. Newberry’s oldest retail establishment is Newberry Cold Storage, set back from SR26 (Newberry Road), across the street from Newberry’s BBQ and just around the corner from the Baptist Church.
In addition to processing and storing whole animals for customers, owner Sanford Roberts and meat cutter Glenn Padgett offer smoked and fresh sausage, bacon, as well as a full line of pork and beef cuts at fair prices. Bacon sells for $4.50 a pound and pan sausage goes for $3.50 a pound. Smoked sausage will set you back a half-buck a pound more–and it’s worth the price.
I always advise folks that smokehouses and Bar-B-Q restaurants don’t often “show well”. It’s the smell and the smoke that count–and when you open your car door at Newberry Cold Storage, you know you’re getting close to some excellent smoked products!
Yes, Steinhatchee, like the rest of Taylor County, is busy in the summer months. That’s when hordes of eager snorkelers invade the small Gulf-side community in search of bay scallops. Motels are full, boat ramps crowded, marinas busy and the waits at local restaurants can be long. But despite the bustling tourist season, a hearty breakfast can be hard to find, especially on weekdays. An option at Steinhatchee is Lynn-Rich Restaurant, a small diner-style establishment just west of the Post Office at 202 15th Street (Riverside Drive).
While Fiddler’s Restaurant does serve a great breakfast, with friendly service, it only serves on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday–and that’s during the busy scallop season. As the crowds dwindle, Fiddler’s cuts back to just weekends for breakfast. But Lynn-Rich, being a local hangout, serves breakfast and lunch (6AM to 2PM.363 days a year. They’re closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving days.
Lynn-Rich makes great food, and I am particularly enamored by their biscuits and pancakes. The biscuits are tender and flaky–and HOMEMADE–and excellent with butter, jelly or country ham or sausage. The pancakes are big, so bring your appetite. And their selection of lunchtime sandwiches can’t be beat. I recommend the cheeseburger.
So, fear not visitors to Steinhatchee. You don’t have to eat store-bought honey buns for breakfast–just head over to Lynn-Rich before you go fishing or scalloping on a weekday morning!
Fanning Springs State Park, located on the Suwannee River, this inviting source of cool, clear water has attracted people for thousands of years. Fanning Springs now produces less than 65 million gallons of water daily, making it a second magnitude spring. Historically, Fanning Spring was a first-magnitude springs as recently as the 1990s. Swimming or snorkeling in the spring is a refreshing activity on a hot day. Visitors can enter the park by boat from the Suwannee River or by car from U.S. 19/98. Visitors enjoy the picnic area, playground and sandy volleyball court. A boardwalk overlooks the spring and river. White-tailed deer, gray squirrels, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls are some of the animals seen in the park. Manatees sometimes visit the spring during the winter months. Five full-service cabins are available for rent. Overnight vehicle parking for primitive campers is not permitted. Primitive camping is available only for those arriving by foot, bicycle or paddling on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.
The first-magnitude spring at Manatee Springs State Park produces an average of 100 million gallons of clear, cool water daily. In winter, West Indian manatees swim upriver to the warmer waters of the springs. Popular for snorkeling and scuba diving, the headwaters of the spring are also a great spot for swimming. The spring run forms a sparkling stream that meanders through hardwood wetlands to the Suwannee River. Canoe and kayaking is available all year round through a concessionaire, Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures, LLC Children enjoy the playground in the picnic area. Hiking and bicycling are available on the north end trail system. The full-facility campground is surrounded by red oak woods.
Located just 6 miles west of Chiefland on CR320, Manatee Springs State Park offers camping, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and SCUBA diving. One of the largest springs in Florida, it feeds a quarter-mile-long spring run that feeds crystal clear water into the Suwannee River, just downstream from US19/98.