Tips for exploratory missions on Florida backwaters.

Florida is criss-crossed by scenic, fish-filled runs like this. Kayaks and canoes are ideal here.

I remember vividly the day I discovered the pleasure of fishing water with current. One day, on a whim, I took my boys—they were very young then—to the Santa Fe River north of Gainesville. We found gin-clear springs spaced perfectly for swim breaks. Eel grass waved in the current. Silver mullet darted, while golden shiners and snails slowly foraged on the algae growing on the blades of grass. My boys, Clint and Joe, were enthralled with this new world, and I viewed it through their eyes. They skipped rocks and caught crawfish. With the fiberglass fly rod, I found willing fish and they were beautiful: Bluegills, redbreast sunfish, spotted sunfish, warmouth, speckled perch, largemouth bass, the endemic Suwannee bass.

This water had a purpose, it was going somewhere. With our old canoe, we kept going on these river trips. Fall brought color to the hickories, Florida maples, winged sumac, and Virginia creeper. Ducks began to appear, and we saw more deer, and even an otter. There were fewer people on the river, too.

These experiences set in motion my ongoing search for secluded waters in Florida. At 57, and set in my ways, I still look for blue lines on my Florida Atlas. My scientist buddies at the University of Florida Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences program employ Google Earth for this search. Nowadays, I often fish with some of these younger colleagues. They remind me of my sons.

Some Things We’ve Learned

›› Make sure boat ramps are nonexistent or well downstream from your launch site. Generally, the more difficult the entry, the more likely you are to have a true wilderness experience.

›› Look for areas between large population centers. There are over 1,700 miles of rivers, streams and creeks in our state.

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Try to determine what type of ecosystem you will encounter. Spring-fed gem or tannin-stained creek dependent on surface flow? Or a little of both? Has there been a drought, or above average rainfall? Is the creek susceptible to tidal influence? These are some of the questions that should be considered prior to loading up.

›› The Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection Greenways and Trails has inventoried a number of good streams online at Florida Designated Paddling Trails (Google search). Access points and links to USGS water level gauges are some of the resources available.

›› Be prepared. In addition to basic kayak or canoe safety gear, bring rope, a camp saw, a dry bag with rain gear, waterproof matches, a tarp, extra bait hooks, needlenose pliers, a small first aid kit, and plenty of water. Make sure you tell someone where you are going, and when you expect to return. Bring rope in the event you need to launch or retrieve on a steep bank.

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Life with critters: Be aware of alligators, especially in spring during mating season. Try not to invade their space. Keep a lookout for venomous water moccasins in the willows or on top of weed beds, and try not to provoke them.

›› Go light. More than two rods on a kayak in tight conditions is asking for trouble. Fly fishers need a few popping bugs, woolly buggers, and deer hair flies in sizes 10 to 6. I do carry a few crawfish flies tied on 2x No. 4 hooks, but only use them on creeks with considerable aquatic vegetation. Spin fishers will find success with Pop R’s, Rapalas, soft plastics, small Zara Spooks, Beetle Spins, and lipless crankbaits.

›› Keep a few fish if you want. A mess of fresh panfish can be rewarding dinner treat after a day on the water. Just follow the laws.

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Surprises: I’ve landed snook, redfish and even a flounder far from the salt my creek was destined for. Fish can get around Florida in unusual ways. I once caught a striped bass where I did not think it would be possible for the fish to reach. It was about 7 pounds, and full of roe. I took the fish’s head to a fisheries professor at UF, and I was told of a population of Gulf of Mexico stripers. The striped bass I had caught had trekked through the aquifer to spawn in a blackwater stream. FS

First published Florida Sportsman January 2016

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