My friend Rodney often says, “You don’t choose where you are born”. I was born on the Space Coast but if I had a choice, I’m pretty sure I would have chosen the Nature Coast. Had I been born there, my life would not have taken the path that it has and while my life has had some great highs and severe lows, I hold zero regrets and wouldn’t change a thing.
Crystal River is a small town that sits on the Nature Coast of Florida and it has been a thumb tack on the map of places the wife and I would like to relocate to. I saw an opportunity for her and I to get away over Memorial Day weekend so I booked a camp site and made it happen. Plans were to leave Melbourne on Friday afternoon in time to get to our site and be set up by dinner. We made it with plenty of time to take the short drive from our site to Fort Island Beach to watch the sunset. It was the perfect ending to my day because I watched the sun rise over the Atlantic earlier that morning. I spent the longest possible time with the sun this day. It’s a small ingredient to my healthy lifestyle.
Atlantic Ocean sunrise 5/22/15
Gulf of Mexico sunset 5/22/15
Another ingredient is a well-balanced relationship. With some proper preplanning, I was able to pick which day I would fish and which day I would spend with Steph. Sunday had better tides, more winds and a chance of rain and I’d leave that for fishing. Saturday’s forecast looked clear so that would be the best enjoyable day to spend with Steph on the water with a packed lunch. In Florida, if you don’t check the weather before paddling, you could get into some serious trouble. Summer lightning storms happen almost daily and sitting in a small plastic boat in one of these storms is the last place you want to be. I’ve been stuck in a bad one before when I had to resort to the base of a tree cluster on land. Never again do I want to be in that situation.
Camping breakfast is not always bad
Saturday I had planned for us to ride the incoming tide to Three Sisters Springs where we would enjoy some swimming, eating and relaxing. After talking to Earnie, a local friend, he said avoid that area during a major holiday. He shot some other ideas at me and we opted for a paddle on the Chassahowitzka River, about a 20 minute drive from Crystal River. It too is a spring fed river so we would get the clear 72/73 degree water we wanted but less traffic. There is a small fee to park your car but they give you a nice black and white copy of the river map. Between that, maintaining a nice sandy boat launch and safe place to park your vehicle, the $5 fee is easy money.
This is real Florida
Night heron with a blue crab snack
We launched around 10:30am and even though the tide was incoming, the spring water was enough to pull us towards the Gulf. It didn’t take long for me to see some nice fish including large schools of snapper. Out of sight, out of mind, I kept my rods inside my boat. This way I could enjoy the day a bit more with my lady but I also had the reassurance of knowing I had them on me in case I found myself in a once in a lifetime situation. Unfortunately, that situation never presented itself so the rods stayed dry in the boat and Steph and I explored.
Lots of small gators out
Didn't find the big ones
Pileated woodpecker-largest woodpecker in the US
Our first stop for lunch was in a nice shaded area with a sandy flat where we could swim. As I got to shore, I noticed a small gator that was trespassing in my wife’s comfort zone so we simply moved up a bit. Now a full 30 yards away from that finger nipper, we enjoyed PBnJ’s, cold drinks, cool water and I even got to close my eyes for a bit. Each time I recline my seat back in my boat I have memories of the night on Florida Bay in the Everglades where I sat on still waters looking to the sky with John as we watched shooting star after shooting star. That night will forever sit with me. I’m grateful to have a kayak and make memories like these.
Keeping an eye out for big lizards
Keeping an eye out for nothing
Before loading up, we checked out 7 Sisters Springs. It’s a short paddle from the ramp and it was loaded with people when we got there. In a way, it was a bummer it was so packed but it’s nice to see everyone enjoying the water. Kayaks on top of canoes on top of boats, they were all there. In this spring there are a series of caves you can free dive in. We watched as some people swam into one hole and came out from another hole ten yards away. The inner child in me wanted to swim these caves but the adult in me knows my legs don’t work like they used to. We floated around instead and listened to the stories from locals about people who have unfortunately lost their lives in these caves. I mentally took a moment of silence for all those people. We shortly wrapped up our water time and headed back to camp to cook burgers and relax.
With the truck previously packed, I hit the road Sunday morning at 5:30am to be at the undisclosed fishing locale by 6. Forecast called for easterly winds at 3mph but that pretty much means it will be anywhere between 0-15mph and come from any direction. It was blowing an easy 6mph out of the east but that wasn’t going to put a damper on my morning, yet. I was in the same location as last year but I had a different float plan to follow. The tide was very low and each place I caught fish the previous time were exposed by dry oyster beds or rock. The tide was incoming so it made for finding turbulent water very easy and that’s where I found my first and only snook of the day.
First fish of the day
From there I pushed on with my plan. I knew of a small pass from one bay to another and the idea was to paddle the tidal flow and fish the opening of the outgoing side. Unfortunately that incoming tide was not incoming fast enough and I ended up stuck in an oyster covered one way creek that only had a small trickle of water in it. I didn’t stand a chance for at least a good hour so I made the ugliest three-point turn and paddled on.
With no anchor and a stakeout pole that wouldn’t penetrate rock or oyster beds, the wind became my enemy. It began to blow hard and it wasn’t even mid-morning. I took advantage of the situation and planted myself in areas where the winds blew me one way and the tide pulled me the other way. Motionless I sat with Mother Nature as my anchor and I began to work the area. If you didn’t have your eyes on a landmark, you’d think you were floating at a decent speed. A chunky mangrove snapper was what I found in this washing machine type environment. It was a decent size for an inshore snapper and had full potential to find its way back to the grill but I was not prepared for taking fish back to camp.
I continued to battle the wind and caught a few more fish in these ugly conditions but my course was set for the ramp. It was now 10:30am and I figured the day was a wash so I would head back to camp and go explore the area more with the wife. My windy fishful morning would have easily been traded for a calm fishless one. Taking the good with the bad, I paddled new water and left much more to see in the future. A measly 3.5 miles were covered.
Not the float plan I wanted but still enjoyable
After washing the gear back at camp we searched for another small adventure to take on before dinner. Saturday we had passed the Homosassa Springs State Park and decided to scope it out. Neither of us knew much about it except for the giant roadside manatee out front. It cost $13 to get in and I would learn later that it would be well worth it. The park itself is based around a mile long oval like walkway around the spring. With the exception of the hippo, all the animals are Florida natives and to my knowledge, all rescued. This includes the extremely endangered Florida panther. There are only an estimated 160 Florida panthers living in the wild so these large cats are under a very watchful eye.
1.5 year old Florida Panther
A few other animals caught my attention but nothing like natures fishbowl at the very end of the park. Prior to reaching the fishbowl, I saw a few fish on the walkway over the spring. I watched as three redfish in the 35”-45” range swam freely with manatees, sheepshead, mullet and jack crevalle. One small snook sparked my attention after watching the redfish for 10 minutes. Simply observing these great fish will reinforce your foundation for more productive catching results. That excitement was short-lived when we arrived at the fishbowl. My experience with snook has been both on the water and in the water and dates back to when I was a child. These fish are a thing of beauty and never before have I seen what was right in front of my face. Over 1000 snook ranging from 20” to over 40” sat before my eyes suspended weightless and a fishing pole was the last thing on my mind. The respect I hold for this single fish is more powerful than the simple thought of tossing a line in the water. It may not be understood by some and I’m still trying to understand it myself but it is by far the most magnificent thing I’ve seen in a very long time. My trip to the Nature Coast was coming to an excellent end.
40" redfish feeding on crustaceans
Like expected, the late afternoon storms rolled in pretty thick. We hit a local restaurant called Charlie’s Fish House for dinner then headed back to camp to rest before we would pack and leave in the morning. Our stay was short but it was a great trip. Due to it being a holiday weekend, campground fees were doubled so that was our only downfall of the entire weekend. On top of power, water, a swimming pool and decent bathrooms, there is an ICE CREAM SHOP. The campground is loaded with locals, some that live there all year and they are all beyond friendly. It is lively during the day but the 10pm quiet time is pretty well enforced and respected. Somehow we lucked out and got a nice corner lot. We were also one of the only tents in the entire park. Most sites are equipped with a full size diesel truck, gooseneck camper, lifted golf cart and a trailered boat. All I need is my wife, our little tent and my kayak.
Just another place to call home
See ya soon, Crystal River.