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Fishing the Withlacoochee and Waccasassa Rivers

Explore this pair of wilderness rivers.

Low tide access to creeks is limited by a buffer of skinny water running for a mile or more offshore.

It’s easier if we just call them the Ws. If you’re like most Florida residents, you probably have no clue where the Withlacoochee and Waccasassa bays are—let alone how to pronounce their Indian names. But for the anglers who regularly fish these rich, uncrowded waters, that’s just fine.

Misunderstandings, in fact, have kept outsiders guessing for years.

“The fishing’s great here in Yankeetown,” laughs Capt. Matt Fleming, “but that image of Elvis catching a tarpon with a canepole from the Bird Creek Bridge in his 1961 movie Follow That Dream is a bit misleading.”

Tucked between the more popular ports of Crystal River and Cedar Key, the Ws offer terrific fishing for seatrout, redfish and other inshore species. The never-finished Cross Florida Barge Canal leads to artificial reefs and natural limerock formations offshore, holding grouper, kingfish and cobia. Boat ramps are seldom crowded. “And yes,” says Fleming, “like in many other places on Florida’s west coast, tarpon are caught here, too!

The Withlacoochee River, the more southern of the Ws, begins in the center of the state and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown. Access to the river mouth is from U.S. 19 at Inglis, about 10 miles north of Crystal River. Traveling through Inglis into Yankeetown on S.R. 40, you’ll pass several bait and tackle shops before reaching the Levy County public ramp at the end of the road. Yankeetown Marina, with the only marine fuel on the river and a good freshwater ramp, is just a short distance off S.R. 40 about midway between U.S. 19 and the Gulf.

To reach the Waccasassa, equally beautiful and virtually uninhabited, turn west at the village of Gulf Hammock, about 20 miles north of Inglis. Unlike the long, meandering Withlacoochee, the Waccasassa is navigable only a few miles from the Gulf to its only launching ramp, some four miles from U.S. 19. There are no fuel or food facilities on the Waccasassa, so plan your trip accordingly.

The two ramps put you within striking range of a lot of water, from the spoil banks and canal at Crystal River all the way to Tripod Point in northernmost Waccasassa Bay.

There’s something magical about the water temperature reaching 68 degrees in this part of the state. Insulated waders go back in the closet. Small mullet and mud minnows get frisky near creekmouths and light-colored shell bars. Reds and trout leave their deep creek hideyholes in search of free-ranging prey. Deepwater fish begin moving around, getting hungrier by the day. Sheepshead begin their spawning rituals on the close-in reefs.

For many anglers, the mouth of a creek—and there are many hereabouts—is the place to be on a sunny spring day. Rising tides seem to be the trick, and if you can get to areas north of the Waccasassa River mouth, you’ll do well using grubs or live shrimp under popping corks. Local guide Capt. Kenny Rees regularly fishes these areas using an airboat and also hangs around after the tide begins to fall, hoping to catch some of the many large fish holding back in the potholes in the creeks.

Getting to those creeks, however, takes some doing. Both rivers are rocky in places. The Waccasassa is the more hazardous, as it’s not well-marked, and has several shallow subsurface rockpiles in the middle of the river channel. Motoring seaward from the county ramp, be careful as you pass around the south side of the large island downriver. There are some huge, outboard-eating rocks here. I don’t recommend anyone run this river on plane, unless you’re a veteran of a few trips. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery and wildlife. Pristeen palm hammocks push up from the river marsh in every direction, and there’s always a chance of seeing bald eagles, which seem to have increased in numbers in recent years. Also, the excitement of spotting ospreys, turtles, alligator gar and an occasional manatee can make the trip from the ramp to the bay a treat for even the most seasoned outdoorsman. On a flood tide, it’s possible to move toward some of the creeks north and south of the Waccasassa mouth by running slowly, using your trolling motor or poling. But, as the tide falls, beware. Anything other than an airboat can get stuck for the duration of the tide cycle.

Offshore fishing picks up in spring as baitfish move north with the warming water. Lots of anglers discount running offshore from the Ws as they feel it’s a longer run, but those who regularly launch at Yankeetown (Waccasassa is certainly a long run, as it’s farther up the bay) cite several advantages. There are always fewer fishermen launching at the Yankeetown ramps, and there’s always plenty of parking. Also, should you launch at Yankeetown Marina upriver, you’ll have the advantage of a good, clean freshwater run back to the ramp. A freshwater dunking for your trailer is always a good thing if you frequently launch at saltwater ramps.

The Withlacoochee River is a great cool-season bet for trout and small redfish.

A must-stop for your first Ws springtime offshore trip is the junction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Crystal River power plant channel. If there are bait pods on the markers, there’s sure to be Spanish mackerel and small kingfish close by. Troll jigs tipped with mullet belly strips or small, durable swimming plugs. Just be sure to use a short piece of light wire leader to keep lure loss down. Also, have a live pinfish, shallow-running plug or plastic eel to toss to any cobia you see around the markers. Some anglers targeting cobia prefer to anchor and chum, fishing one bait on the bottom and another under a cork near the surface.

With depths in excess of 20 feet, both channels hold keeper grouper. Troll large diving plugs along the jagged edges, rather than over the smooth bottom mid-channel. There are also some fishy rocks near the junction of the channels that hold grouper in early spring.

Summer is prime time on the grassflats west of the Ws. For nice catches of seatrout and an occasional cobia, try live or artificial shrimp, or pinfish, under corks. Ladyfish and jacks are ever-present prey for fly fishermen using 8-weight tackle and blind-casting Clouser Minnow or Deceiver flies over the sand holes. As everywhere, be alert for diving gulls as a sure sign of bait schools. A good place to begin your flats drift is the “Trout Stake” (29-02.488′N and 82-50.504′W). Be careful getting there from either river. Captain Richard Steinhorst suggests moving inshore toward Porpoise Point and if your boat’s draft will allow, up into Low’s Bay, casting gold spoons or Texas-rigged grubs to rocky islands in search of summer reds. Another approach is to soak cut mullet in cuts near oyster bars as the tide falls—so long as you don’t get left high and dry. Wade-fishing Bird Island or the Withlacoochee Reefs early on a summer day is another favored tactic.

To the south, try the same redfish techniques near the inshore islands created by the dredging of the Barge Canal. Particularly good spots include Deadman’s Key and the islands and bars across the channel to the south. The last half of the rising tide and the first hour of the falling tide are usually productive here. As for trout in this area, it’s hit-and-miss, depending on water clarity. Some of the inshore cuts in the power company spoils toward Crystal Bay have silted in, and water flow has suffered.

Summer also means good offshore fishing—if you can accept that the depth here drops only about a foot per mile. The run to the fishing grounds from the mouth of the Withlacoochee River is not very much farther than from Cedar Key or Crystal River, and it’s always an easier time at the boat ramps. Start your day at the end of the Barge Canal channel, check the markers for big cobia, and then head west. At that point, you’re just about due west of Crystal River and a reasonable trip to the Grouper Grounds, an area of abundant rock and live bottom (28-49.59′N and 83-11.58′W is the general neighborhood.) Troll the area first, and watch for good structure or fish; then anchor, chum and fish the bottom with cut threadfin herring, squid or live pinfish on dropper rigs. And don’t forget to freeline a live blue runner or pinfish.

There’s plenty to explore in this corner of the coast, and each season brings exciting new prospects. Visiting the little towns along the rivers is like traveling back in time. You won’t find fast food, chain motels or tackle megastores, but you will find comfortable lodging and decent food in Yankeetown and Inglis. And, you’ll be treated to some of the prettiest scenery and best wildlife viewing in the state.

Destinations

Yankeetown Marina
15 Hickory Avenue
Yankeetown
(352) 447-2529 (fuel, bait, tackle, ice, dockage)

B’s Marina & Campground
6621 Riverside Drive
Yankeetown
(352) 447-5888 (dockage, RV hookups)

Bait and Tackle Shops

Hook-Line & Sinker
144 Highway 40 West
Inglis
(352) 447-5477
(bait, tackle, ice)

D&D Bait and Tackle
439 Highway 40 West
Inglis
(352) 447-2677

(bait, tackle, ice)

Yankeetown General Store
Highway 40 West
Yankeetown
(352) 447-2532
(bait, tackle, ice, deli, marine supplies)

Lodging

Whippoorwill House Bed & Breakfast
Yankeetown
(352) 447-3510

Pine Lodge B&B
Inglis
(352) 447-7463

Riverside Marina and Cottages
6451 Riverside Drive
Yankeetown
(352) 447-2980

Cattail Creek RV Park
Yankeetown
(352) 447-3050

Big Oak Campground
Inglis
(352) 447-5333

Restaurants/Dining

Izaak Walton Lodge
Riverside at 63rd St.
Yankeetown
(352) 447-4899

Riverland Cafe
U.S. 19
Inglis
(352) 447-4230

 FS

Florida Sportsman Classics, 2005. All contacts updated 7/2012