Take a magic carpet ride into the deep backcountry of the Big Bend.
One January morning after we scraped ice off the windshield in 27-degree weather and drove to the Aucilla River boat landing, our guide said, “Today I’m going to show you the mountains of North Florida.”
Knowing this fellow never tells tall tales if he can help it, Doug and I stuck our rods in his boat and climbed aboard. “With lots of mountain trout I suppose.”“Call ’em what you like. Fish’ll be waiting,” he grinned.True to his word, a half-hour later we stood on the bank at a creek bend fishing in four to six feet of water catching fish on every other cast. “You were right about the fish, but where’s those mountains?” I asked.“Over there.” He pointed.Rimming the horizon toward the Gulf to our south were the unmistakable jagged up-thrust black peaks of a long rocky range.“Isn’t that the Rocky Mountains Florida Range?” asked Doug. “Not many people ever see those like that,” grinned Lester Walker Jr., best known around the Aucilla River as JR.
“Only reason we do is there’s a minus tide a good foot below sea-level. Those rocks are sticking up from these flats we’re fishing! Usually they’re underwater.” The almost waterless sand-and-rock flats stretching for miles in all directions looked as empty as a moonscape. Not a tree, not a bush, nothing green. Nothing but miles of glistening wet mud or sand flats, with scattered patches of black rock looking exactly like mountains in miniature.We were deep into the remote backcountry flood plain of the Pinhook River and creeks area of the St. Marks Wildlife Preserve, stretching for miles just west of the Aucilla River. The combination of a strong north wind and a minus low tide contributed to this almost lunar landscape. Few people see it under these conditions because the area is largely inaccessible. We were miles from a decent waterway, looking at a flood plain usually seen only by birds and airboaters. Prop-driven airboats are the only contraptions capable of skimming into this waterless wilderness and coming out again. We were about to sample something that has been growing in popularity along these extensive tidal flats for some years now. Anglers found they had only two ways to get into this remote area to fish it on these minus tides. Either you drop out of the sky or you hire an airboat guide to take you there. The latter is the easiest. Once there, you fish isolated deepwater pools and creek bends that trap fish when the tide was full. On these prairie-like Pinhook flats, fish have one of two choices. They could leave with the falling tide and swim several miles to deeper water, then return with the next rising tide. Or they could simply drop back to a staging area of deep water and hold fast until the tide returns. Which would you choose? Personally I’d hold tight, rather than swim all those miles. That’s what these fish had done. On this icy morning we came in to see if any of these fellows were hungry enough yet to eat breakfast. All this began for us in what North Floridians call “a cool snap.” Icy weather isn’t the most comfortable time to go winging off perched on the nose of an airplane motor but JR had himself this new play-pretty and was anxious to show it off. Normally, this was prime trout-fishing time. January temperatures usually run the fish far up the rivers into the warmer spring waters. But sometimes a sudden northern blast topples temperatures overnight, inducing a severe case of lockjaw or worse in these river fish. If the intense cold persists, the fish leave the spring-fed river waters for deep, warm Gulf waters. The question now was, had our weather turned so cold it turned off the fish, or were they already gone from these backcountry potholes and creek bends?Now, this particular morning a dozen boats fanned out down the Aucilla River, casting everything from plugs to popping floats with fresh shrimp. As we eased past with idling motor, JR asked about the action. Spotty at best, they said. One or two trout here and there. Worse, the tide was falling and the north wind promised that it would fall further than expected. Similar recent cold blasts had either put the fish off their feed or run them out. JR speculated that what fish were still in Aucilla were simply too cold and lethargic to feed.
When anglers did see them now, the fish seemed more interested in finding shallow sunny water where they could get warm. Old-timers used to say that the best time to catch seatrout was when the weather was cold enough to freeze the bilge water in your boat.Once we were well past the river fishermen, we pulled on earmuff hearing protectors and hunkered down into our layered jackets. JR fired up the afterburner, and we roared off at face-numbing speed toward the mouth of the Aucilla River.Well before reaching the Gulf we slued around a corner and took a shortcut westward along what looked like a narrow manmade canal. Considering the chill factor, the experience was exhilarating rather than painful. Thankfully, our sunglasses kept our eyes from turning into ice cubes.Sometime later we skimmed across the almost dry Sulfur Creek area opening into the backcountry.
Beyond it we skidded over sandbars into serpentine Oyster Creek, heading north. Sometime later we shot out of it into the mud-and-rock flood plain of the wide-open Pinhook River country.JR’s airboat is large enough to carry four or five people in nicely padded, two-tier seats. The Freedom Craft hull with stainless steel motor safety screen was fabricated in Cross City. The other components were purchased at Hoffmans in Inverness. Two of JR’s friends put it together for him. The boat has a 220-horse ground power unit, a 6-cylinder Continental with a four-bladed warp-drive prop for quieter running. A sheet of polymer was added to the hull bottom to make it slide easier and to protect the hull from rock and oyster bar damage. The high-rise seats gave us a poling platform view of everything. Cooler and tackle boxes were stowed below the platform. Fishing rods stood upright along the sides. JR carried a 10-foot-long, 4-inch-diameter green bamboo pole to help pry the boat off steep banks or sandbars. At top speed we flew across the flats in two or three inches of water, then picked up a swatch cut by the main Pinhook Creek artery only inches deeper than the surrounding flats. Carefully JR worked us up the thin creek. Some distance in, the stream became a winding, dark brown passage of water punctuated with deep holes flanked by golden sandbars. As we hurried along this waterway, no fish flushed. Had the cold run them all out? When JR found what he was searching for he swerved the boat’s nose onto a mud bank beside a deep, muddy waterhole. While we rigged rods, he shot out a shrimp-tipped jig and caught the first fish—a sheepshead. If the roar of our approach bothered the fish, this one was too hungry to care. Doug stepped off and walked up the bar a ways and cast. Then he, too, was into a fish. Another sheepie. Then I was into them. Usually we all had a fish on at the same time. Before long we had caught and released all we cared to handle.“Thought maybe there’d be more than sheepshead in here,” said JR. “Let’s go see if we can find some reds.”On with the earmuffs. JR powered up, pivoted the boat and we flew again, snaking around dry sandbars that would have stopped us on a dime. After some adroit wiggling and grinding over dry spots, we settled into another deep hole.This time JR found us reds. They were beside a large yellow sandbar big enough to set up a company picnic. Much to our elation, this tea-colored deep bend in the creek contained nothing but redfish.
You couldn’t cast without getting a hit or catching one. Doug and I walked down the bar catching and releasing fish. Oddly, each one of the reds was just south of being a legal fish. But they were anxious to feed and fun to catch.Not too cold for these fish to feed; they were hungry! They took everything we pitched at them. We started with shimp-tipped jigs and red or white grub-tails. Then we left off the grub and just tossed the jig and a live shrimp. Next we tried only the jig and grub with no shrimp. The fish took all our offerings. JR couldn’t believe that among all these hungry fish there wasn’t a single keeper that showed himself. He told us that the week before he and another angler had airboated to this same spot and caught several 30-inch redfish.
In fact, he said there wasn’t a small one in the bunch. The next day he brought in five other anglers and, “we pulled up to this very same spot and caught maybe 500 fish. And not one of them was even 18 inches long! One day it’s slam full of big ’uns; the next day nothin’!”JR shook his head and grinned. “But that’s the fun of it. Out here you never know what size fish you’ll find.”After catching and releasing until our arms ached, we finally headed back. As we neared our shortcut to the Aucilla River we saw fish action on the incoming tide.
It showed first with schools of finger mullet, then larger fish swirled the deepening waters around us. We took GPS bearings here because the up-thrust rocks once covered with deeper water would be a redfish and trout sanctuary for sure. When I mentioned this, JR grinned and pointed back of us to a marker. “That’s why it’s called, Redfish Point,” he said. “You can see why the fish like it with all the rock protection for bait. This place is worked heavily by the fish on both incoming and outgoing tides.”Airboat fishing with its racket may not be for everyone, but it’s sure a super-fast way to get into and out of country unfishable by any other means. I always thought airboats scared off every fish in the county but now I’m not so sure. They may not even hear it as loudly as we do. Maybe that’s why our fish struck so quickly after we roared in on them. Sound travels five times faster in water than in air but airboats are doing all their roaring in the air, not the water. My bet is that the sound is less upsetting to them than the whirling props of outboard motors. Either that or our fish were too famished to care about noise.Later as we eased up the Aucilla, JR hugged the bank as close as he could while idling past boat anglers. “People hate the sound of these things and there’s no need to upset them,” he said. “It’s just common courtesy to go easy. I purposely put on a 4-blade prop to keep from upsetting folks. It’s a lot quieter. But whether it’s an airboat or a power boat, it’s the driver that makes the difference. All of us know the other kind.”As we hauled out at the river landing, JR reflected: “It’s a whole new world out there in an airboat. I can run this coast and check out six creeks to find fish in a fraction of the time it takes to do it by boat. Only thing I wish is that I’d had one 20 years sooner!” JR does no guiding and rents no airboat. His craft is just a fast magic carpet ride to find the action, so he can report it to anglers along the river. To those who know him, that’s the way JR is.“If a fellow did no more than hire an airboat fishing guide to go down this river with him on low tide with his GPS, he’d come back knowing a lot more about where to fish, than most guys learn in 30 trips in their own boat,” he said. There are 52 coastal miles of Taylor County and not all of them are as rocky and riddled with oyster bars as what lies around the Aucilla River. But in all those Big Bend miles from the Aucilla to Yates Creek and Keaton Beach, there are airboat fishing guides available for anglers wanting to fish similar remote sites. Bait and tackle shops post their business cards. Sampling backcountry fishing other anglers can’t reach isn’t a bad way to go.
Hire a guide with an airboat, and he’ll fast-forward you there sooner than you can catch your breath. Best of all, you’ll have such a heart-thumping ride getting there, you might not care if you catch fish or not!
FS Classics, May 1993.