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Our Big Bend Gulf Waters Are Shallow–Even Shallower When The Winds Blow From The East!

Fall “officially” started this week (September 22) and that usually means that the chances of  heat-driven thunderstorms dwindle and the chance of fronts bringing easterly or northeasterly winds increase.  And when the winds blow from those directions, the impact is usually seen in the form of lower-than-predicted tides.  High tides, especially during lesser moon phases (not full or new) will “buck” the winds, but still can’t muster enough strength to meet the estimates.  Conversely, low tides are often driven lower my as much as a foot, and as much as two hours ahead of “schedule”

As winter approaches, anglers and boaters need to be aware of lower-than-predicted tides for several reasons.  Either can run aground or become stranded by tides that are unpredictable, but most important, anglers can take advantage of the fact that fish (like smart boaters) abandon shorelines and head to holes and channels to escape the lack of water and cover.  Baitfish are the first to head away from shore as the waters drop, followed soon by predators, and hopefully followed by you, armed with a rod and reel.

The best advice from seasoned Big Bend boaters and fishermen is to be prepared to move should the tide start moving quickly towards the west.  Also, having a set of local charts, like those from Florida Sportsman or Navionics, can help youfind narrow channels and navigable submerged creek beds that are good “escape routes”.

 

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Even boats in the seemingly-safe anchorages up the Steinhatchee River may ground on extreme fall and winter low tides.

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Cedar Key’s backwaters, near the #4 Channel, are littered with oysters–and go dry on low fall and winter tides.

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Low tides are especially apparent along the banks of the Withlacoochee River at Yankeetown, in Levy County.

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A good set of electronic or paper charts can help show you submerged creek beds that are good escape routes during falling tides!


5th Annual Hidden Coast Paddling Adventure, October 3-5, 2014 at Steinhatchee/Jena

Come celebrate Steinhatchee/Jena’s Culture and Wildlife at the 5th Annual Hidden Coast Paddling Adventure.  This year’s event, scheduled for October 3-5 (with some great pre-event trips starting on the 1st!) promises paddlers a look at the spectacular Dixie and Taylor County coastlines of Florida’s Big Bend.

Highlights include:

  • Guided paddle trips through the beautiful coastal waters.
  • Social events including meals and speakers
  • A fishing tournament
  • An early-bird camping trip.
  • Land based events acquainting participants with the history and outdoor opportunities in the area.

To register for the event, go to HiddenCoastPaddlingAdventures.com

jerryredkayak 1 225x300 5th Annual Hidden Coast Paddling Adventure, October 3 5, 2014 at Steinhatchee/Jena

Whether touring or fishing, Steinhatchee offers great access for paddlers from either the Dixie or Taylor County side of the river.

 


Don’t Miss The Last Weekend of Florida’s 2014 Recreational Bay Scallop Season

There’s no better Gulf shoreline at which to snorkel for bay scallops than the shallow stretch between Keaton Beach and Steinhatchee, in Taylor County.  The 2014 season ends on September 24 and limits of the tasty critters are still being caught (picked up!) daily.

nicolescallop 1 300x215 Dont Miss The Last Weekend of Floridas 2014 Recreational Bay Scallop Season

Scalloping is a shallow-water adventure. All you need is a snorkel, a mask, fins, a mesh bag–and a keen eye!

 

Scalloping is a relatively easy process.  In fact, cleaning your catch is the “hardest” part of the adventure.  Luckily, at Steinhatchee, there are lots of willing folks at the Sea Hag Marina who will clean your catch for a modest fee.  And if you don’t have a boat, rental boats are available at the Sea Hag, River Haven or Good Times marinas.

Look for scallops on the shallow flats off Big Grass Island or near the cuts off Dallus Creek, to the north of the Steinhatchee River.  Just look for a gathering of boats and jump in!  For complete information about scalloping, take a look at “Bay Scallops, The Gulf of Mexico’s Tastiest Treat”


Steinhatchee River Designated Florida’s 50th State Paddling Trail

With the addition of the Steinhatchee River, Florida now has 50 state paddling trails. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways & Trails designated the Steinhatchee River during the Taylor County Commission meeting on Sept. 16.

jerryredkayak 1 225x300 Steinhatchee River Designated Floridas 50th State Paddling Trail

Whether touring or fishing, Steinhatchee offers great access for paddlers from either the Dixie or Taylor County side of the river.

The Florida Paddling Trails Association also presented signs designating the communities of Keaton Beach and Steinhatchee as “Blueway Communities.” “We are proud to add the Steinhatchee River as our 50th designated state paddling trail,” said Florida State Park Director Donald Forgione. “Designation of the river creates well-deserved recognition of this excellent destination for paddling, fishing and wildlife viewing and will promote sustainable tourism and boost the economy for the local communities.” The scenic Steinhatchee River is the latest of Florida’s outstanding waterways to be designated a state paddling trail. The river’s spring-fed, tea-colored water meanders through a shady corridor of moss-draped trees flanking the river. It widens gradually as it flows through the colorful fishing villages of Steinhatchee and Jena before joining the Gulf of Mexico. The roughly eight-mile designated portion begins just below the historic Steinhatchee Falls, which has been an accessible river crossing for countless travelers through the ages. Wagon ruts can still be seen today where Native Americans, Spanish explorers and early settlers crossed the shallow limestone shelf that creates the low, cascading waterfall. Steinhatchee Falls offers a pleasant picnic area and hand-launch access for small fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. There is also a three-mile, multi-use trail that can be enjoyed by hikers, off-road cyclists and those seeking vibrant seasonal wildflowers and wildlife. Fishing from a boat or kayak is an interesting prospect for anglers, as both freshwater and saltwater species may be encountered depending upon the stretch of river. Delicious “pan fish” abound in the upper stretches of the Steinhatchee, while saltwater species appear as the river mingles with the Gulf waters. Improved boat ramps on both sides of the river in the towns of Steinhatchee and Jena mark the lower end of the paddling trail and provide good access for all types of boaters. Visitors are urged to bring binoculars and a camera to capture photos of the wildlife frequently seen along the river corridor and the Gulf coastline. In the fall, colorful monarchs and other butterflies feed upon wildflowers as they migrate southward. Spectacular flocks of white pelicans and other migrating birds are supported by vast tracts of public conservation land that bracket the Steinhatchee River, providing critical habitat for an array of wildlife species inland and along the coastline. For maps and information about the new paddling trail click here


Paddle Natural North Florida’s Springs and Spring-Fed Rivers

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.

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There’s great canoeing and kayaking on Jefferson County’s Wacissa River, just south of Monticello

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.

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The spring run at Manatee Springs State Park offers seasonal fishing.

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!

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Ginnie Springs offers camping and is a favorite place for the college crowd.

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Blue Springs, in Gilchrist County on the Santa Fe River, is a family-oriented park..

 


Big Grass Island–A Landmark For Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach Anglers

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.

big grass 300x196 Big Grass Island  A Landmark For Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach Anglers

Aerial view of Taylor County’s Big Grass Island


Waccasassa Bay–Levy County’s Best Backwater! Redfish Await!

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.

wading waccasassa 1 300x207 Waccasassa Bay  Levy Countys Best Backwater!  Redfish Await!

Try wading the bars on the north end of Waccasassa Bay. Redfish await!

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.


Want to Fish at Steinhatchee, But Don’t Have A Boat? Hire a Professional Fishing Guide!

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:

Departing From The Sea Hag Marina:

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/

 

Departing From River Haven Marina:

Captain Steve Kroll  (352) 322-4085
Captain Mark Lord, www.captainmark.com

Capt. Brad Riddle  (352) 318-2138  captainbradriddle@cox.net

 

Departing From Good Times Marina:

Capt. Mark Brady (contact thru Good Times Marina, 352-498-8088

Capt. Steve Hart, (352) 498-0299

Capt. Bob Erdman  (352) 356-2554

 


September Fishing’s Hot as Pepper—at Pepperfish Keys in Dixie County, FL

 

pepperfish keys 300x200 September Fishing’s Hot as Pepper—at Pepperfish Keys in Dixie County, FL

An aerial view of Dixie County’s Pepperfish Keys

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.


Kayak (and fish!) Cedar Key’s Backwaters

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.

CK Backwaters 300x180 Kayak (and fish!) Cedar Keys Backwaters

The shallow backwaters at Cedar Key are an excellent spot for paddling anglers!

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