Take the Scenic Route

Redfish and seatrout, solitude and scenery along the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail.  

Big Bend sunsets make catching fish a momentary afterthought.

A 5-pound redfish towing a 45-pound kayak, burdened further by angler and gear, harnessed by a wisp of 10-pound-test thread. This surely mocks some obscure law of physics.

“Here we go again,” I happily muttered as my 13-foot craft veered left and right at the whim of the circling mass of muscle. By the time near-darkness demanded that I paddle into a fiery sunset to collect my partner a half mile to the west, I’d taken five such redfish rides in two hours of late-afternoon fishing, and a much larger fish condescendingly popped my leader rather than budge.

My friend, meanwhile, was in no hurry to be collected. As I approached, he hefted a 6-pound trout—his fourth—to silhouette it against the flaming horizon. Not a bad ending to a first day of kayaking the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail.

Obtained from private forestry companies in 1986 by the Nature Conservancy, much of this sparsely populated, isolated coastline came under the management of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) when the state of Florida purchased the property the following year. In combination with other public lands, the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area (BBWMA) comprises one of the longest continuous coastal wetlands in the United States. Much of it is virtually unchanged since pre-European settlement.

The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail (BBSPT) spans approximately 105 miles, from roughly the Aucilla River south to the mouth of the Suwannee. Designated by the Florida Legislature as part of the Greenways system in 1996, it moved beyond the concept stage in 2001 with the commencement of two years of intensive planning and mapping by the FWC’s Recreational Department and a group of sturdy volunteer kayakers. As camping is generally off-limits in the BBWMA, negotiations were required between the agencies to permit limited overnight stays on designated offshore islands along the route. The trail officially opened in March 2003 and was recognized as one of 37 National Recreation Trails.

“When we laid out the trail, we weren’t looking for the super-paddlers who want to kayak 105 miles in three days,” recalled FWC Director of Recreational Services Jerrie Lindsey. “Campsites were set up relatively close together to facilitate plenty of time for side trips for fishing, bird-watching, exploring the many creeks or hiking trails along the route.”

Anglers kayaking just a portion of the trail have a choice of fishing environments. Due to the number of tannic rivers pouring into the upper stretch—roughly north of Keaton Beach—the water is much darker, and limestone outcroppings and oyster bars and beds more prevalent. Areas to the south feature miles of grassbeds in crystal clear water, interspersed with occasional oysters, such as the large beds near Horseshoe Beach. Wintertime anglers paddle themselves up the creeks to pursue trout and reds that desert flats and bars in favor of deep, warmer river waters.

As we slogged our boats across bare mud flats, it would have been easy to differentiate our fleet from the 3-year Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803. Mark Nichols and I had more stuff.

Months of delay in kayaking the BBSPT gave me plenty of time to accumulate the latest in absolutely essential lightweight kayaking and camping goodies. Ultralight tent, ultralight cookware, ultralight sleeping bag, ultralight self-inflating mattress, ultralight kayak anchor, ultralight rain gear and kayak fish bag. Even ultralight lights. I single-handedly jump-started the entire U.S. economy, one ultralight item at a time.

Nichols prepares to sight-fish spartina.

All this ultralight stuff made a pretty impressive pile on top of my kayak. Throw a king-size sheet over it and bolt on some wheels, and my open panga-style fishing vessel would have blended nicely into any Conestoga wagon train headed for California a century and a half earlier.

We actually arrived with intentions of paddling and camping over several sections of the kayak trail from Spring Warrior Creek north of Keaton Beach south to Steinhatchee. We had second thoughts when we discovered the previous weekend’s storm surge and torrential rains had soaked the firewood at designated campsites to the point that anything short of nuclear incendiary devices wouldn’t light it.

A camp without a campfire creates an ambiance only the bugs can embrace. Our decision to sample the fishing at various spots along the route seemed a very sensible solution.

We fished the first morning with Jake Landreneau, son of local fishing guru Joey Landreneau. Jake was paddling his shop project, a 15-foot wooden version of my own kayak. Our first stop was a cove several miles south of Keaton Beach. We fed jigs to school trout in four feet of glass-clear water, and Nichols even traded stares with a ray-escorting cobia directly under his boat before it spooked. After cooking a midafternoon lunch at a shoreline park, we packed up and headed north, where the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail guide and Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart No. 20 clearly indicated the presence of oyster bars.

We didn’t make it to the bars. At the mouth of a cove half a mile offshore in just over a foot of water, I put down my paddle to throw a 3-inch shad-tail on a 1⁄16-ounce jighead into a nervous herd of mullet. On the third bounce, the jig stopped cold, and my kayak was off to the first of five redfish races.

Kayaker parts low-tide sea of fiddler crabs.

Expecting Mark to be similarly entertained, I was surprised to find him unhooking an impressive trout when I caught up with him.

“When I saw the tails, I assumed they were mullet or redfish, and when I cast to the first one and got a trout, I thought it was just coincidence,” he beamed. “But then it happened a second and a third and a fourth time. I was looking at tailing trout. In all my years of fishing, I’ve never seen tailing trout.”

An exquisite sunset, tailing trout and redfish rides.

Mark and I paddled back through the same cove the next morning, hoping to re-create the magic of the night before. A southeast wind—predicted at 5 to 10 knots the night before, but already brisk in the ominous, cloudy dawn—propelled us toward our target, oyster bars near the mouths of Yates and Little Spring creeks. By the time we got there, 5 to 10 was 15 to 20, and worsening. Despite a sea anchor slowing my drift, I had time for just three casts as I rocketed past the outer bar, releasing a pair of fat 5-pound trout from the tiny oyster mound. I anchored on the main bar farther inshore, where Nichols was already wading and releasing the first of half a dozen small redfish at the far end. The gale-driven current swept his 6-inch weedless soft-plastic bait in a natural manner past the bars, where the rat reds had to grab on quickly before it rushed out of reach. I released a pair of slot trout and a red before my sense of self-preservation persuaded me to inspect the smoother waters inside the mouth of Yates Creek. But even here, the wind made fishing nearly impossible. We held a conference behind the protective spartina breakwater. Knowing that trout and redfish lay just a hundred yards offshore, it was downright painful to call it a day. An hour of exhaustingly hard labor got us back to the trucks. Lesson: Given an option, put in at a location allowing you to paddle upwind to the fishing area. That way you have the wind at your back when you come in.

While the front prematurely terminated a promising start, it could have been exponentially worse. Launching on a low tide that morning, we parked on the same ground as the night before. As we dragged the kayaks toward the distant water, Mark thankfully came up with what proved to be a slice of brilliance.

“Just in case we get a really high tide, maybe we oughta move the trucks up to higher ground.”

So much for the calm marine forecast.

When we returned, we paddled over the biggest mud minnows (killifish) I’ve ever seen, rambunctiously spawning in a foot and a half of water—right where we had initially parked. That’s another lesson to keep in mind when you fish the Big Bend.

Aside from the inexhaustible array of grassflat, oyster bar, spartina and river habitat, the real angling beauty of this region lies in the lack of wariness these fish demonstrate versus their cohorts in Florida’s more heavily fished coastal waters farther south. This being the center of the popping-cork-and-pinfish universe, they seemed delighted to snatch anything that didn’t pop and gurgle, just for a change in diet.

As we headed back to Keaton Beach, we had to laugh at a sign advertising a soon-to-open fitness and tanning facility. My paddled-out arms, abs and chest were too tired to sign up, and no further tanning was needed.

Amenities

There ain’t none. Campsites along the BBSPT are primitive—no water or toilet facilities—so bring what you need and expect to rough it. Take advantage of shoreline parks and boat ramps (no camping at these sites) along the way. If you’re tired of your own cooking about halfway through the full trail, paddle up to the waterfront Keaton Beach Hot Dog Stand with five bucks and a bag of trout or redfish fillets, and Sam will fix you up with a full-course home-cooked fish dinner. By the time you get to Steinhatchee, you’ll be ready for a real bed and hot shower at one of the many available establishments. Tackle and other supplies can be replenished at Keaton Beach Marina or in Steinhatchee.

Permits

Paddlers must possess an approved permit (no charge) from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to camp on the paddling trail. Campsites are limited to eight people and four tents each night, one-night limit, between Sept. 1 and June 30. Contact (850) 488-5520 to verify availability and reserve your traveling dates. Download an application or information at the Website listed below. At this point there are no commercial outfitters offering guide services, but you might be able to hook up with experienced paddlers. FS

By Jerry McBride