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Hooked on Chassahowitzka - Redfish on the Gulf Coast

Judging by her T-shirt, Katie Branyon may have been thinking of snook, but it was redfish that provided most of the action.

Staring teary-eyed into a stiff norther with wind chill 13 degrees below freezing, we zipped along the scenic “Chassa-whiskey” (that’s what many fishermen call it because it’s easier to say and easier to spell than “Chassahowitzka”). Today, I will keep my gloves on—even while baiting my hook with live shrimp—I vowed.

At the helm was Bill Hope, a fishing guide from nearby Brooksville. Clad in thick, insulated overalls, he was the only one of us dressed warmly enough for this kind of weather. Hope pulled into the leeward side of a grassy cove and shut down the outboard on his 24-foot skiff. As he slipped the anchor quietly over the stern, we hauled out the fishing rods and began casting. Jerkbaits would have been good because our involuntary shaking would have supplied all the action needed. After 30 minutes of fruitless fishing while we (along with the fish) thawed, I tried to reassure my brother, also named Bill, who was used to warm South Florida:


“Before this day is over, you’re going to catch so many fish that you’ll forget all about how cold you are.”


Optimism is what keeps anglers going, especially on days like this. Two hours later, as we fought back-to-back reds to the boat after each cast, I reminded him of my prophecy: “See, Bill, I told you that you’d be catching so many fish that you’d forget all about the cold.”

“Well, you were half right,” he said, still shivering as he reeled in another scrappy redfish. I thought I heard him mumble something about going back to South Florida.




It was one of those rare Florida days when no clothes are shucked as the day progresses. If the weather warmed even slightly during the day, I couldn’t tell it. In fact, it seemed to get colder and colder.


As I clumsily threaded a shrimp, tail first, onto a sharp hook (it’s hard to bait a hook while wearing gloves), I ran my hand across my nose to make sure it hadn’t frozen and dropped off in the boat. I also wiggled my toes inside my boots to keep them from freezing.

Hope had made a prophecy of his own that morning, which was now coming to pass. “As cold as the weather is and as low as the water is, we should find the redfish stacked up like cordwood in any deep water we locate,” he’d said. After a couple of unproductive stops, we found our first of several honeyholes.

Every time I looked around, Bill and my nephew Bart Branyon were battling redfish. To stay warm, even the captain was fishing. I watched him haul in a big red while I was fighting another fish of my own. It turned out to be the most action-packed day of redfishing that I have ever experienced—also, the coldest. Each time I cast a live shrimp, I got a hit or a hookup. We had double hookups and even triples many times.

We were rigged up with 4/0 hooks, 20-pound mono leaders and 1⁄8-ounce, sliding sinkers. Hope estimated that we caught at least 150 reds. We kept our limit of one each and released the rest. Along with the reds, we also hauled in some large black drum.

I was especially proud to see my brother Bill catch so many fish that day because it turned out to be his last fishing trip. As we wound up the day back at the dock, my brother looked at me and smiled: “It’s the most fish I’ve ever caught on one trip. However, I’m going back to Fort Lauderdale where’s it’s warm,” he said.

“The fishing is good in the Chassahowitzka River throughout most of the year,” I reassured him. “We’ll come back when it’s warmer,” I promised. How- ever, his sudden death kept me from keeping that prom-ise. In fact, my brother’s death so affected me that it took me a couple of years to go back to the Chassahowitzka, even though it’s one of my favorite fishing sites.

When I returned in early June of 2001, I brought along the memory of that great trip. Also, I took my son Bob and granddaughter Katie to help me share memories of my late brother. We climbed aboard Capt. Hope’s new boat, another 24-foot skiff.

Weather-wise, this day would be a complete contrast to our previous freezing outing, but fishing-wise it would be another good trip. It even got so hot during midday that the captain hoisted the Bimini top, something he doesn’t do very often, as we slathered on more sunscreen.



After launching at Don’s Bait and Tackle, we followed a playful otter for a short distance as we wended our way down the crystalline river toward the Gulf of Mexico. Largemouth bass, gar, mullet and bluegills skittered beneath our boat as we eased along. Later, Katie, 11, got a special treat as a couple of porpoises raced beside us and darted beneath our boat.

While motoring through a slow-speed manatee zone, I wondered how the river got its unusual name. According to our skipper, in the native vernacular Chassahowitzka means “River of Pumpkins,” which is strange because neither he, nor anyone he’s talked to, has ever seen a pumpkin growing along its shores. Hope, whose great-great grandfather was the first settler in Hernando County, thinks that name may be a misinterpretation and could have meant “River of Grapes.” There has been an abundance of wild grapes along the river banks throughout the years, he explained.

The Chassahowitzka is a bountiful river in many regards. Ten springs (three main springs) pump 40 million gallons of 72-degree water into the Chassahowitzka daily. The river flows southwest through wild sections of both Citrus and Hernando counties. The fishing, like the scenery, can be spectacular.

When I travel to the Gulf coast to fish the Homosassa River, I usually haul my own 17-foot flats boat. However, when fishing the Chassahowitzka, a few miles south of Homosassa, I prefer to charter Hope. The Chassahowtitzka is much shallower and trickier, with rock and oyster formations that can damage a boat or outboard.

Our plan on this summer day was to wait for the incoming tide to fish for reds on rocky points inside the river. In the meantime, at low tide, we would start off fishing for spotted sea-trout on outside grassflats in 2 to 5 feet of water near Chassahowitzka Point.

While Bob and I cast for seatrout with popping corks and silver curly-tail jigs, Hope rigged up a cork and live shrimp for Katie to drag along behind the boat as we drifted. We caught a potpourri of fish, including seatrout, ladyfish, gafftopsail catfish and sharks. Trout fishing wasn’t so hot that morning, but the action kept us occupied until the tide turned.

At the first redfish spot, we anchored and baited up with live shrimp, threading the hook through the tail and leaving the point of the hook embedded in the belly two thirds of the way toward the head. That way, the hook is not as likely to hang up on a rock. When a redfish takes the bait, a short, firm hook set with the wrist will free the point and stick it into the fish’s tough mouth.

Hanging up on rocks is not a big deal as long as a piece of shrimp remains on the hook. Several times it happened to me and I waited a minute or so until a mangrove snapper came around and freed my hook. Above the hook, we use small sliding weights, depending on the strength of the tide flow—the stronger the current, the heavier the weight. However, smaller is better.

We cast to the outer edge of the rocky points along the weedlines. Bob was the first to hook up and turned the redfish over to Katie, who had a good fight until, like reds sometimes do, it managed to shake the hook. Before long, Bob hooked another fish and again gave the rod to Katie. Strike two! Right at boatside, the biggest fish of the day flopped over and swam off. Katie reeled in the line, which was not broken, but while closely examining it, we discovered that the knot was still tied; apparently, the line had slipped through a gap in the eye of the hook. No fault of Katie’s.

The third bite was the charm. With a little coaching from Hope, Katie finessed her redfish to the boat, putting enough pressure on it to keep it out of the outboard prop. She was all smiles.

“Can I cast the next one out for you?” she asked. I had just threaded another shrimp onto the hook. I handed the rod to her and she made a perfect cast right back to the same spot that yielded our first red. Then, just as she was handing my rod back to me so that she could return to her own tackle, another redfish snatched up the bait and took off toward Homosassa. Katie was engaged in back-to-back battles with redfish and soon put a second one into the boat.

It was one of those hot summer days when the reds are more scattered than during the fall and winter, so we kept moving from rocky point to rocky point, locating at least one redfish per site. We all hooked and landed plenty of redfish, keeping our limit of one each, between 18 and 27 inches, and releasing the rest. Bob even caught a big sheepshead and a gar to round out the catch. Katie got lots of action fighting redfish, trout, ladyfish, sharks, mangrove snapper, catfish and even a stingray.

Once again, the Chassahowitzka had come through. I have fished the river and that section of the Gulf in pleasant fall and spring weather, during freezing winter conditions and even in the hot summer and I have yet to come home without a mess of fish or without experiencing great action.

This last trip was on a balmy day—the kind of weather my brother Bill would have enjoyed. For me it was a bittersweet reunion with a river I love to fish, and a reminder that I need to get back there more often.

FS

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