Trailer your boat to “Old Florida” for top inshore action
By Chris Woodward
Florida — which means “flowery” in Spanish — could easily bear the name A Pescado: “fishy.” That certainly describes the entire coast of this sunny state, and it spells out the reason many anglers plan vacations to Florida’s various ports.
Anglers who trailer their own boats find welcoming locations throughout the state in virtually any season and for any species that swims in warm water. But few places carry quite as much Old Florida charm or deliver quite as much laid-back enjoyment as the state’s Big Bend region — where the Panhandle curves into the peninsula on the Gulf Coast.
Two towns in particular serve well as home bases for roaming this area: Steinhatchee and St. Marks. Both feature lush inshore estuaries, and boast excellent red drum and spotted seatrout fisheries. Steinhatchee also offers a robust grouper fishery offshore and ranks — with St. Marks — as a top destination for summer scallop harvesting.
Steinhatchee (pronounced STEEN-hatchee) lies just minutes upriver from the mouth of Deadman Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. With fewer than 2,000 residents, it could be described — most of the time — as a “sleepy fishing village.”
The town caters to anglers. It sports a new, three-lane boat ramp on the main drag, Highway 51. The facility offers on-site daily parking (no overnight trailer storage) and long lanes protected from wind and river current. Daily use fee is $5; it’s $20 for an annual permit. A second ramp on the south side of the Steinhatchee River in Dixie County, across from the Sea Hag Marina, features only one lane and limited roadside parking.
At River Haven Marina and Motel, located a short distance upriver from the new ramp, a 15-ton boat lift is available to launch and haul boats at a charge of $1 per foot for standard monohulls.
Most Steinhatchee anglers use bay boats or moderate-V vessels and focus on inshore fishing, since offshore action for amberjack, snapper and grouper generally begins about 20 miles out in 50-plus feet of water. Anglers may book offshore charters aboard properly equipped vessels through any of the local marinas.
Numerous captains also run inshore charters, which can be a great way to learn a new location. Just be sure to tell the captain your intentions.
As in many locations, fishing usually peaks at Steinhatchee in spring and fall. However, the region’s moderate climate permits nearly year-round fishing. Species include the prized trout and reds, plus mackerel, bluefish, cobia, jacks, flounder, snappers and grouper.
To target trout, most anglers head to the grass flats that fan out from the river mouth north and south. If the water’s clear, look for sand patches, and cast a jig and shrimp imitation — such as a 3-inch Gulp! bait — or a live shrimp under a popping cork. Light spinning or bait-casting tackle covers a broad range of opportunities and most nearshore species.
During the coldest times, trout move into deep holes upriver, where anglers troll plugs. In spring, cast topwater plugs toward potholes and along grass edges.
Redfish flock to marsh edges, oyster reefs and creek mouths most of the year. Use a live shrimp under a cork, spinnerbaits or gold spoons to create commotion.
During much of the summer — generally July 1 through Sept. 10 — angling opportunities mix with scallop season. Hordes of boaters descend, especially on weekends, to harvest the tasty bivalves, using snorkeling gear over shallow grass beds.
Steinhatchee accommodations vary from simple cottages to luxury condos; many offer on-site boat-trailer parking. Fuel is available at several local gas stations or at the marinas, which also offer bait, tackle, boat rental and repairs.
About 80 miles north of Steinhatchee, St. Marks lies upriver from Apalachee Bay in a historic area that hosts a national wildlife refuge amid acres of lush grass flats and creeks. “What the area lacks in offshore fishing, it makes up for with our great shallow-water opportunities,” says Capt. Dave Lear, a guide and freelance writer who has fished these waters for more than 25 years.
Lear targets the ubiquitous trout and redfish, but also finds Spanish mackerel, pompano and cobia in spring and fall, flounder most of the year, and tarpon averaging 90 pounds in summer.
St. Marks features two public ramps and a full-service marina — Shields Marina — with two deepwater ramps for boats to 36 feet. Shields charges $5 for ramp use and also sells nonethanol gas and diesel, live shrimp, frozen bait, marine supplies and tackle, and works on various engines and trailers.
The public ramp at San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park can accommodate boats to the mid-30s. It’s located near the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla rivers just below town; the use fee is $5. The ramp at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge lies just a quarter-mile from the bay, but it’s suitable only for skiffs, bay boats and small center-consoles, Lear says. The refuge charges a $5 entry fee; a $15 federal duck stamp serves as an annual pass.
Overnight trailer parking is generally available at area hotels; accommodations range from a quaint bed-and-breakfast to a rustic lodge or modern hotel. A few nearby gas stations sell standard fuel.
As in Steinhatchee, spring and fall are prime seasons for spawning trout and aggressive reds, Lear says. “With all the protected habitat in Apalachee Bay, it’s not unusual to catch trout pushing double digits. Reds range from teenagers to 30 inches on average.”
In winter, trout move into the rivers and reds begin tailing in larger schools, but both can be caught year-round. Lear uses light spin or bait-casting tackle with 10-pound braid or 8-weight outfits when fly-casting. For tarpon, he steps up to slightly heavier tackle.
From his 20-foot Bayshore flats skiff, Lear’s clients cast strictly lures and flies. His go-to trout lures include shrimp patterns, shad tails and jerk baits behind - or ¼-ounce jig heads. Best redfish lures include gold spoons in ¼- and ounce sizes. “I throw wooden topwater plugs for trout and reds too,” he says. “I like the buoyancy and action of wood over plastic.”
Live baiters generally use shrimp, pilchards and finger mullet under a cork. “It’s a common practice to float a live pinfish behind the boat while casting,” Lear says. “Shiner tails — a fresh pinfish with the head removed and then split down the middle — also account for lots of big trout and cobia.”
Before heading to any Florida destination, check trailering regulations and fishing laws at boatus.com/trailerclub/gulf_laws.asp and myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/regulations. Saltwater-fishing licenses are required for residents and nonresidents.
Taylor County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Center
Marinas (full service with lodging and guides)
River Haven Marina
Sea Hag Marina
Steinhatchee Landing Resort
Steinhatchee River Inn
Sunset Place Resort
(condos with dock)
Pepperfish Key Charters
Something’s Fishy Charters
Capt. Tommy Thompson
March 02, 2012
A trio of top spots from Mexico to Massachusetts where you can fish your own boat