Even in early May, the Florida sun can scald a mild morning before the stars fade. So by the time Capt. T.J. Shea turned his Southport 33 north out of the marina, the day had grown decidedly warm.
Shea, who operates 2 Shea Fishing and Diving Charters out of Clearwater, Florida, was slightly out of his neighborhood — about 80 miles north in Crystal River to be more specific. But his meticulous preparation and reconnaissance made up for any lack of consistent local experience.
After a tolerable run into the Gulf of Mexico and pinpoint boat placement over a low-relief wreck, testing Shea’s Raymarine Axiom display with RealVision 3D sonar, we started hauling in red snapper, gag grouper and amberjack.
Over the next four days, our group of fishing writers and industry reps would catch-and-release scores of bottomfish over the offshore wrecks; nail cobia, trout, and tripletail over inshore grass flats and nearshore weed lines; and then take our targeting on a land adventure to shoot feral hogs at a private ranch — an easy springtime Florida cast-and-blast.
Crystal River, on Florida’s “Nature Coast,” takes me back to my childhood. I grew up in Tampa to the south. Heading to Crystal River as a kid meant escaping to a wild and beautiful coastal venue with gin-clear springs and a mix of tropical foliage and upland scrub.
The location seems little changed. In fact, our primary home for the week — the 232-acre Plantation on Crystal River — dates back to the same era as my original visits. However, unlike me, it has enjoyed upgrades and refreshment with a series of multimillion-dollar-capital campaigns through the years.
This visit I joined a large group of fishing and boating media and hosts such as Okuma, Savage Gear, Mustad, Cuda, Yo-Zuri/Duel, Maui Jim, Power-Pole, Raymarine and Navionics, as well as the Plantation resort and nearby Ross Hammock Ranch. Although my experience had been highly choreographed, Plantation and Ross can craft a similar trip for any angler/hunter, and even add in manatee swims, scalloping (in season), photo safaris, golf and other family-oriented fun.
I found limitless activity. Smaller flats and bay boats dock on property for easy after-breakfast transfer. Larger boats tie up at Pete’s Pier, a five-minute drive from Plantation.
On our first morning, I caught a ride to the pier with our crew of five and boarded Shea’s 33-footer. We carried an armload of Okuma Shadow Stalker rods with Azores reels, spooled with 60-pound braid and 30 feet of fluorocarbon leader.
Shea tied on some 4/0 hooks and 4-ounce weights for fish-finder rigs so we could pin on sardines and threadfin herring. We also pulled out some jigs, including bucktails and Savage Gear’s Sandeels.
The Southport, powered by twin Yamaha F350s, ate up the flat Gulf seas as we made our way 30 or so miles out to depths of 50-plus feet. We started with a drift, dropped jigs and quickly hooked into an amberjack.
After a few marginal drifts, Shea anchored up and filled the chum bag. Soon, enough red snapper came over the gunwales to fill the annual Gulf of Mexico recreational quota. All had to be released, however, since the season was closed. Ditto the ubiquitous gag grouper, many of which would have made the minimum size.
As one location slowed, Shea dialed in a new set of numbers on his plotter — some had come from spearfishing friends who hunt the Crystal River area — and we found nonstop snapper and grouper action. Among our 40 or 50 red snapper and gags, we also caught a few mangrove snapper and two red grouper.
Shea rigged one light spinner with a jig and shrimp to lure a hogfish, but the few we caught measured below keeper size.
I fished with Capt. Jimbo Keith, who operates out of nearby Cedar Key, on my second day trip. Fellow anglers Rick Constantine from Connecticut-based Cuda Brand and Stephen Bates, the national sales director for Canada’s Ontario Out of Doors magazine, wanted to tick off a bucket-list cobia.
Keith set up his highly customized 24-foot Carolina Skiff — equipped with an elevated helm station and two Power-Pole shallow-water anchors — near a trough coming into one of the area’s shallow bays. “I saw a 50-pounder here Monday,” Keith offered.
He began cutting up mullet chunks for chum and rigged up two Okuma Shadow Stalker/Azores spinning outfits, spooled with 40-pound braid. Beneath an 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and a B52 popping cork, he hooked on live pinfish as bait.
The bright morning and calm winds created mirrorlike conditions on the tannic-stained bay. Steam from the Crystal River Coal and Nuclear Plant rose in great vertical clouds.
Bates hooked up first. The cobia streaked off and then dogged near the bow, where Bates tired the fish with steady pressure. Keith adeptly netted the legal fish.
Like well-timed clockwork, Constantine hooked up a nearly identical cobia while Bates tackled a hefty seatrout on the second rod. Cobia: check, check.
As the cobia bite began to wane, Keith suggested patrolling a weed line that had gathered just outside the bay. The structure may have attracted tripletail, he wagered. To a south Georgian like me, tripletail near structure is a spring rite of passage.
I joined Keith atop his helm platform to spot the mottled brown species that many folks liken to an angry bream on steroids. Before long, we each started calling out directions and distances to Bates, who stood poised at the bow to fire a live shrimp at the structure dwellers.
We had switched to lighter Okuma outfits — EVX Carbon split-grip rods and Inspira 30 reels — with 20-pound braid. Keith had tied on a 1⁄16-ounce jig head beneath a clear Double X Tough Bubble.
Bates cast to the first fish and put the reel in free-spool as the boat slowly drifted away from the weeds. The fish circled the shrimp in the sandy green water. “I can still see him,” he reported. “He’s still looking at it.”
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Eventually the fish disappeared, and Keith continued cruising an easy casting distance away from the weed line. Bates tossed the shrimp to another fish hovering at the edge of the grass. This one had lunch in mind and crashed the bait, pulling initial drag before making several dives near the boat.
Tripletail often shake their heads at the surface and sometimes clear the water in a surprising leap. They’re a fun fight on light tackle, and excellent table fare. Bates and Constantine each brought tripletail back to the plantation to share as appetizers that night.
After a final fishing day offshore, a handful of our group headed about 20 minutes north to Inglis, Florida, to hunt feral hogs at Ross Hammock Ranch, which features more than 13 miles of bordered land comprising hardwood hammocks and uplands.
The private facility offers a first-class Florida-cypress-log lodge, common local game such as whitetail deer, wild hogs, turkeys and alligators, and exotic game (which, along with feral hogs, can be hunted year-round) such as red, axis, sika, Pere David and fallow deer, Indian blackbuck antelope, water buffalo, pure Russian wild boar and several species of rams.
I had brought my Weatherby Vanguard Camilla .243 deer rifle and some 95-grain soft-point bullets to take the allowable meat hog (anything under 150 pounds). Event organizer Paul Michele from Navionics unpacked his Remington 700 .30-06, which he would load with 180-grain bullets, aiming to down a trophy boar. We all perked up when we heard he’d be tracking a 600-plus-pounder. That’s the land equivalent of a giant bluefin.
Because spring had progressed without much rainfall, we scouted the sprawling property using a utility vehicle rather than a swamp buggy. My guide, Stephen Ross, son of lodge founder Harold Ross, offered me the opportunity to hunt from a stand over a feeder or to stalk hunt. I chose the latter.
“There’s no food source right now because we’ve had so little rain,” Ross said. “They’re depending on roots and corn at the feeders.”
Michele, Ross and I headed out before dawn toward areas the guides had previously scouted for activity. Four other hunters headed to stands.
Near our first checkpoint, Ross parked the UTV and we walked slowly down a dirt path. At a clearing in the brush, we saw a small herd of four hogs near a feeder about 50 yards away. Ross motioned for me to go prone and use a nearby fallen tree to help bench my rifle for the shot.
The shade shrouding the feeder beneath a grove of palms and water oaks made it tough for me to see the hogs clearly, even with my scope. I looked for the largest, blackest animal and waited for it to move from behind a tree. I aimed at its vital organs and squeezed off a round.
Pig hysteria broke out as squealers ran through the woods. I quickly chambered another round and peered through my scope. The animal had dropped instantly — a 125-pound sow.
We loaded the hog into the UTV and took it to one of the lodge’s processing-station coolers before we headed back out to look for Michele’s monster. Ross took us to several locations where they had spotted the huge hogzilla. We photographed various wild exotics and stalked slowly toward likely cover but saw no sign of the boar.
Ross dropped us back at the lodge for lunch. Shortly after we had eaten, he and a group of guides came back. They had found the giant, wallowing in a cool, damp section of forest.
Our entire group jumped aboard two pickup trucks and jostled toward the location. Michele’s mood grew intense. We parked along a perimeter road a distance away. Ross led Michele with his rifle and me with my cameras into a dry swamp full of cypress trees and palmettos.
Ross pointed toward a tree where Michele could set up as Ross moved to flush the hog from its den. Holding a small GoPro camera on a monopod, I felt exposed. What on earth would a 600-pound hog look like? I wondered, fretting. I put another tree between me and Michele.
Ross created commotion, which spooked several smaller hogs. Finally, the large boar rumbled to its feet and walked up a slight incline about 10 yards in front of Michele. I caught sight of the animal’s enormous head; the camera shook in my hands as Michele’s .30-06 rang out loudly in the enshrouding woods. The hog fell heavy as gravity suddenly claimed it. Ross needed a front-end loader to retrieve the carcass.
At the end of the day, several other hunters had bagged meat hogs. The guides dressed out the game and packed the quarters in insulated-foam coolers.
For a sportsman, few trips rival a successful cast-and-blast experience. And this was certainly one for the record books.
Because of the springs and temperate climate of Florida’s Crystal River region, captains here fish year-round, targeting popular species such as seatrout, redfish, and tarpon inshore, and grouper, snapper, and kingfish over offshore artificial reefs and limestone ledges.
During our May trip, we added cobia and tripletail. Anglers also find snook and goliath grouper.
Plantation on Crystal River (plantationoncrystalriver.com) sprawls over more than 200 acres fronting the area’s namesake spring-fed waterway. The resort features 196 rooms, docks, a dive shop, swimming pool, golf course and spa.
Ross Hammock Ranch (rosshammockranch.com) features a top-notch lodge with a theater room and bar, as well as private cabins. Hunters can choose to target a wide variety of native and exotic game, using firearms or bows from tree stands or ground blinds or by stalking.
The following regional captains worked with our group during the May cast-and-blast event:
Jimmy Nelson, Luiza Barros