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July 14, 2008

Gem in the Bend

Rediscovering Florida's secret fisheries on the Nature Coast

For centuries, Native Americans fished and hunted along the Steinhatchee River in the Big Bend area where the Florida Panhandle dips southward. In the heart of the Nature Coast, much of the land remains relatively unspoiled in a state where condos seemingly sprout on nearly every inch of shoreline.

Where few roads exist, the river still forms a highway to an angling paradise.  The lower river feeds a rich, marshy delta punctuated by shallow creeks and grassy islands on Deadman Bay off the Gulf of Mexico. Near the river mouth, the fishing community of Steinhatchee rests about 65 miles west of Gainesville and 85 miles southeast of Tallahassee.
 
These marshes and creeks spawn a marine nursery that produces abundant baitfish, shrimp, crabs and other morsels.  In the Gulf, extensive grass flats contribute to the vibrant ecosystem. Remote and undeveloped, the area sees comparatively little fishing pressure.
 
"Steinhatchee is an undiscovered secret," says Capt. Wiley Horton of Tuner Sport Fishing. "It doesn't get nearly the pressure that many other places in Florida receive. Steinhatchee is not as well known for the size of its fish, but for the abundance. It's a great place to catch a ton of fish and have a lot of fun."

Something for Everyone
On any given day, anglers may catch several species. While most anglers fish for redfish or speckled trout, they might also catch black sea bass, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish, flounder, jack crevalle, sheepshead and more. In the summer, anglers might even spot a school of permit or a roving tarpon.
 
From Sea Hag or River Haven marinas, anglers head downstream. At the mouth of the river, turn left and run at 180 degrees to reach Horseshoe Beach. To the right, the channel snakes toward Heaton Beach. Anglers can also set their course for 273 degrees to reach an area called the Bird Rack. About 10 miles west of the river, Steinhatchee Reef typically holds good schools of Spanish mackerel, bluefish and jacks.
 
For speckled trout, head to the grass flats, which run for miles along the coastline. The bottom slopes gradually, so anglers can fish several miles from shore in water less than 10 feet deep. In clear water, anglers can easily see "potholes," or sandy bare patches, in 3 to 7 feet of water. When not actively chasing bait, trout patrol the potholes looking for prey to burst from cover. Anything that looks like a shrimp   or small baitfish might entice a bite. Tip a 1/16-ounce jig head with a Berkley Gulp! shrimp and drag it through the pothole.
 
"We catch many fish around the edges of potholes in the grass," says Capt. Jim "Roundman" Henley. "The bait hangs on the pothole edges. Trout also lay on the grassy edges. We mostly use 3-inch Gulp! shrimp in white, new penny or root-beer colors. My theory is that the Gulp! attracts baitfish. Trout come to the baitfish, see the Gulp! and bite."
 
Anglers throwing Gulp! may also catch black sea bass, pinfish or lizardfish. Anglers who grow tired of feeding tiny fish could attach a live pinfish to a drift line and let it swim behind the boat. If that doesn't work, dangle a pinfish or live shrimp about two feet below a popping cork. A Gulp! shrimp on a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jig also works under a popping cork.
 
"We use live pinfish about the size of a 50-cent piece on a drift line," Henley says. "Sometimes, we use cut pinfish on a   popping cork with a 4/0 Mustad long-shank hook. If I'm in short fish or close to catching a limit, I strictly use circle hooks."
 
Toss to a likely spot and let it sit briefly. Every few seconds, jerk the rod to make the float "pop" the surface. Fish hear the gurgling cork, come to investigate and see the bait. A glass bead attached beneath a popping cork reflects light in the clear water and could flash "bite me" signals to big fish. With larger live baits, anglers might also beguile hungry jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel or bluefish.

Hot Fishing in Cold Weather
As water temperatures drop below 60 degrees, fish dive into holes in the river channel. The river averages 6 to 8 feet deep, but some holes plunge more than 30 feet. In deep holes, anglers might find big specks, redfish, jack crevalle and many other species.
 
"From about Thanksgiving weekend through January, we catch trout at the mouth of the river and in the channel," Henley says. "In the winter, we pitch or troll the channel edges with 52M MirrOlures in silver/white/black, silver/white/green or chartreuse/gold. I've caught big trout all the way up to Steinhatchee Landing by trolling the river."
 
As the water warms, fish begin moving out of the river. Pinfish and other baitfish move to the flats with trout in hot pursuit. Suspended silt particles absorb solar heat and may warm the water off the delta a degree or two, often just enough to make a difference in early spring. Fish live shrimp or pinfish along the mudline edge.
 
In the spring, topwaters like the MirrOlure Top Dog series, Rapala Skitterwalks and similar baits also work very well. Topwaters could attract redfish along the marshy shorelines. Work these baits with a zigzag "walking" motion.

More Action Offshore
Offshore anglers can also join in the fun by catching amberjack, cobia, snapper and other species. When trolling, anglers might raise king or Spanish mackerel, barracuda, perhaps even a dolphin, wahoo or sailfish.
 
However, most people remember Steinhatchee for grouper. Juvenile grouper grow in the grass flats before heading offshore. Keeper grouper sometimes surprise trout anglers by smashing a bait in water as shallow as 5 feet. For big grouper, run 230 or 240 degrees for about 20 to 25 miles and start fishing in 50 feet of water. At times, anglers catch grouper in water 35 feet deep, but bigger fish usually stay in deeper water.
 
"Grouper are our bread-and-butter fish, but we also catch kingfish, cobia, amberjack and black sea bass," says Capt. Brian Smith of Big Bend Charters. "We sometimes catch grouper as close in as 10 miles. The depth drops off about two feet per mile. We start finding red snapper in 75 feet of water about 42 miles out."
 
Offshore action generally kicks off in March, peaks from April through June and remains productive into the fall. In the summer, anglers mostly catch red grouper in the 8- to 12-pound range, but some break the 18-pound mark. In the fall, gag grouper up to 30 pounds dominate the catch. Many anglers troll plugs or drop bait to deep rocks and holes.
 
"When there's tons of bait around in the summer, trolling with live bait can be effective," Horton advises. "On some days, grouper won't hit live bait, but they'll strike plugs. My favorite plugs are Mann's Stretch 25s, Stretch 30s or Stretch 40s. I pull them on 50- to 80-pound braided line with high-speed, low-torque reels such as Penn Senators."
 
Although anglers might find a few wrecks, much of the rocky bottom remains relatively flat. To locate grouper, look for any depth variances and try to avoid sea bass. Black sea bass congregate near the same structure as grouper, but since grouper eat sea bass, a spot full of bass might not hold many hungry grouper.
 
In an area with few secrets, most reefs see considerable pressure. Therefore, Horton focuses on something different. "Instead of looking for things that rise from the bottom, I look for anything that goes into the bottom. Springs or holes make good places to fish. I like rocky areas that look like Swiss cheese," he says.

Casting for Cobia
While trolling for grouper or motoring to the next spot, look for cobia cruising near floating weeds or debris. A cobia might hang near something as small as a drink can or even drift with a boat that offers shade. Toss an eel-like plastic bait or a livey toward the cobia. If it bites, keep it in the water as long as possible. Another jealous cobia might rise to investigate.

Cobia sometimes rush toward a bait but stop suddenly without striking. If a cobia chases a bait, jerk it away. That only makes it mad. Keep doing that until it can stand no more teasing and explodes on it. If that doesn't work, run the offering in a figure eight off its nose until the furious fish smashes the bait.
 
"This area has a lot of cobia, but most people don't really target them," Smith says. "It's more like hunting than fishing. Sometimes we see them over artificial reefs and rock piles."
 
Whatever the season, anglers should find ample action in a gorgeous glimpse of what little remains of Old Florida. Even if their favorite species suffers lockjaw, they should find something biting!