Steinhatchee is epicenter for west Florida’s unique midsummer fish-and-dive trips. Plan now.
It’s one of those must-do items on any Florida angler’s list: Drift-fish the seagrass meadows of Steinhatchee. Along this stretch of Gulf Coast, lush seagrass blankets the sea bottom out two or more miles from shore. It’s a nursery area for many fish, and home to countless predatory seatrout.
We’d just caught a 22-inch keeper on the first drift, among other trout. But with a rising tide, Capt. Jim Henley had other plans. Even bigger trout lurk in thin water, and that’s where we were headed. His roomy, 26-foot skiff eased into clear water spotted with limerock outcroppings that will stop any lower unit cold. The powered stake anchor soon dug in, and we surveyed spotty bottom rippling with foolish mullet. Co-worker and guide Mark Lord anchored 50 yards beside us with a couple of retirees aboard. Out came the live pinfish, each one pinned to a circle hook under a cork, and these were set out. Tossing a topwater plug out over the rocks, I was shocked as a trout of six pounds or bigger abruptly swirled on it and circled angrily, just as I was speeding up the retrieve for another cast. No! It was bad timing. The trout swam away in a sulk, a tournament winner in these waters.
Switching to a white jig, I worked it around and through nearby rocks, where it stopped abruptly, still way out there. When in doubt, “rare” back, and I did. A big weight shook it slightly then began to move, heading out to sea.
Eventually it became a 27-inch redfish that was turned around. It took me around the boat in a pleasantly long fight—I basked in glory under a bent rod, while the other boat crew stared. This redfish was shy around a landing net but Jim scooped it up anyway, and we soon had as fine a redfish as the law will allow. More redfish followed, some of them caught on pinfish with their heads removed, which offered more scent.
Then it was the other boat’s turn… three big fish in a row broken off on rocky outcroppings. Then several redfish came aboard, followed by two fine trout, a double-header of 5-pounders that would make anyone a thin-water fan. Mark waved us over, and we pulled alongside his boat for a pow-wow. We admired their trout. The other crew was positively camera-shy, but my wife Miss Amy held them up for a quick picture. These thin-water big trout are fine fish, well worth probing the hard-to-reach spots in rocky bottoms. Both were old enough to be wary, but couldn’t resist pinfish.
Steinhatchee is about the easiest place in the world to catch these baitfish, but it requires hook-and-line time, often a half hour or more during prime early morning. The marinas now trap their own pinfish for sale, for anglers in a hurry.
Around us drifted other boats, with anglers tossing jigs and spoons, but the wind took them by without a strike. Ours was a waiting game; it helps to be patient with these shallow fish. A kayak would have been good here; kayakers tend to work an area with patience, since they’re not distracted with dreams of another spot miles away. We saw one boat make only six casts before impatiently leaving at high speed.
The wind later rose up and both boats were soon scampering back into Steinhatchee, taking short cuts thanks to a high tide. This winding blackwater river is a welcome refuge from any wind, quite scenic in places. Soon we were docking at The Landings two miles upriver, where we were welcomed by Dean Fowler, the owner.
About 20 years ago, Dean built a mix of 66 Victorian cottages and dwellings in the forest, while disturbing as few trees as possible, and it remains the showcase of Steinhatchee today. At least one U.S. president has stayed and fished here. Regrettably, we didn’t have time to sample from The Landing’s fleet of kayaks on the river. However, our redfish and trout were later served up both blackened and fried on a silver platter at nearby Fiddler’s Restaurant on the river, compliments of Chef Jim. Dean and his wife Loretta dined with us until past closing time, after many stories were told.
Fiddler’s is rustic and comfortable, established on the property of an old fish camp on the river, originally built by the Coey family before the Depression with Pecky cypress, now a rare wood. Fiddler’s owner Jim Hunt also runs Pelican Pointe Inn, right next door, with 18 units: 8 single, 8 double and 2 suites (closest to the water), all with screened balconies. Singles are like a regular motel room, with 2 queen size beds. The doubles have 3 queen size beds and kitchen quarters to accommodate angling groups.
Both The Landing and Pelican Pointe offer docks and other amenities for visiting anglers, all the makings of a fine summer vacation.
The busiest time is scallop season, the second is fishing season during the month of May, with lots of tournaments every week.
They call this Nature’s Coast for good reason, because the shoreline here is unbroken forest, save for occasional small outposts such as Keaton Beach and Horseshoe Beach, both about 15 miles north and south of Steinhatchee. The latter was invisible from the Gulf until only a few years ago, when a three-story motel was finally built within sight of passing boaters. This area of the Big Bend has a scattering of protected saltwater creeks, some of them reachable by dirt road, known only to a few intrepid kayakers. That’s how many anglers prefer it.
The old-town charm still hangs on here, despite losing five small marinas that have vanished in the past 10 years, snapped up by out-of-towners with stars in their eyes. After demolition, some of these spots became very expensive dirt, because the state refused permits to rebuild. Among the casualties was Palm Grove motel and marina, the town’s first and more than 50 years old. Three full-service marinas remain today, Sea Hag, River Haven and Gulf Stream. Here you can find guides, live bait and more useful tackle than some big city stores offer.
Scallops and Fish: Summer Mixed Bag
If you want a full day on the water, consider a half-day of fishing, and the remainder diving. You won’t have trouble sleeping. If you schedule both here during scallop season, which runs July 1 through Sept. 10, Capt. Jim Henley offers this sage advice: “While fishing, stay away from boats that are scalloping. There’s too many people splashing, and fishing near them isn’t advised: it attracts sharks, and that’s when you don’t want people in the water. Also, swimmers and hooks don’t mix well,” he says.
“Because of high summer temperatures, the bite usually shuts down at 10:30 or 11 a.m. So we fish early, then when it gets hot we dive for scallops. There’s not much chance of an afternoon bite; those reds and trout sit in the grass and won’t move. If they do eat bait they won’t hit it; instead they suck on it. It’s like they’re saving calories in the heat. We use pinfish for bait. Topwater plugs are fun, but here we have floating grass to contend with,” Henley says.
“By July, our local redfish are schooled up in bigger bunches. So we look for ‘em. They’re in a school, but sitting still in favorite spots. If you spook ‘em, they’ll come right back.
“Most scallops are in fairly shallow water. Our boat record is 10 gallons of shell in 20 minutes. My favorite depth is only 21⁄2 feet. That’s shallow enough to wade, but I don’t want my guests walking around. It muddies the water, they’re liable to step on something sharp, and they could damage the seagrass,” he says.
“Scallops have a fascinating life cycle, grow and mature very quickly,” Henley says. “They hatch in March and May is their prime growth time; that’s why we like to see plankton in the water, it feeds them. They grow well during summer and about Sept. 10 begin spawning. Then 99 percent die. Their shells disintegrate and fertilize the seagrass with lime, helping that grass grow for the next generation to hide in.”
For those who prefer diving in the morning, there is the alternate game plan we’ve developed: clean the scallops in the boat, ice properly, and use the leftover scraps as pinfish bait, catching them on hair hooks or baited sabiki rigs. Then motor out to 20 feet of water just offshore, still within sight of land, and look for patchy bottom with the depthfinder. Or dark bottom, if the water is clear enough. That’s where tasty sea bass congregate. They’ll grab a jig tipped with a strip of pinfish every time.
For complete scalloping regulations, visit www.myfwc.com/fishing.
These are regions for which the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) maintains annual surveys of scallop populations. You can see the past years abundance at: myfwc.com/research/saltwater/mollusc/bay-scallops. Listed here are some hotels with dockage (or nearby dockage) for fishing boats.
Homosassa Riverside Resort
Plantation Inn and Golf Resort
Steinhatchee Landing Resort
St. Joe Bay
(850) 229-7678 (near marina)
First published in Florida Sportsman print edition.