Search Gulf Coast Fisherman's
Panacea, one of the lesser known coastal communities in Florida, claims a high percentage of undeveloped land in the county with plenty of seafood on the docks daily fresh out of the Gulf of Mexico and the area still retains undisturbed natural splendor. Located in Wakulla County, less than an hour drive from Tallahassee, you will find the community warm and friendly. Panacea was named for the all-potent healing powers attributed to a spring that once flowed near town.
Panacea is home to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory. Founded by biologist Jack Rudloe, the private, nonprofit lab supplies live marine fish and invertebrates to colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, and Britain.
For most visitors, the main attractions here are the 30,000 gallons of seawater in marine aquariums and touch tanks and the creatures like sea horses, scallops and starfish that live in them. Touch tanks offer close encounters with living whelks, sand dollars and crabs. No matter how old you are, watching the tiny hairs undulate across the perfectly symmetrical face of a living sand dollar is fascinating to see. The laboratory gives visitors a better sense of the diversity of life along north Florida's fertile coast. They're open daily and admission is charged.
About five miles north of Panacea, Sopchoppy, a tiny community with a huge heart, claims less than five hundred residents. This is the special kind of place that I hesitate to draw attention to for fear of creating too much pressure and changing its character.
Writers, craftsmen, artisans and many other creative people live in or near Sopchoppy, a place Charles Kuralt considered one of his favorites and was named one of the "Best Little Towns in America." Worm Gruntin', a worm raising technique documented by Kuralt, is an annual Sopchoppy event held the first Saturday in April.
Backwoods Pizza, arguably the best place to eat in Sopchoppy, makes gourmet pizzas from scratch and bakes them in a stone oven in the restored 1912 Pharmacy building on Municipal Avenue. The owners double as Sopchoppy Outfitters and will rent you a kayak, canoe or bicycle.
Wakulla County presents many opportunities for birding, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving and fishing.
The Ochlockonee River is the site of a state park with biking, camping, fishing, swimming and a well-known canoe trail that empties into the bay of the same name. Ochlockonee means "yellow water." It is a mix of brackish, tidal surge and fresh water - very alluring to many fish species. The point at the confluence of the Ochlockonee and Dead Rivers is especially scenic.
The nation's first archaeological boat trail is an interpreted waterborne trail between the Ochlockonee River State Park and Mash Island Park in Wakulla County. The trail interprets prehistoric shell middens and other historic sites on the way to the Gulf. It is best suited to shallow water craft such as canoes and kayaks with stops near shell middens.
The Sopchoppy River meets the Ochlockonee before entering the bay. The relatively undeveloped Sopchoppy has a canoe trail lined with limestone banks and hardwood forests. The Myron B. Hodge Sopchoppy City Park offers camping, swimming and boat launch facilities.
Fishing the Bay and Gulf
Numerous tributaries flow into the bay and produce fantastic fishing in the fall and winter for trout, redfish and sheepshead. When the waters warm in early spring, the trout head for the shallow grass flats along the shoreline and this is when most anglers' attention turns from tributary fishing to drifting the flats for speckled trout. By early April, schools of baitfish appear in the bay bringing Spanish mackerel and ladyfish with them.
In May, cobia arrive and all species are in the bays by then except tarpon that typically show up around the end of the month or early June. Fishing slows somewhat in summer, except for tarpon. By the end of August and first of September, fishing gets its second wind and remains good through fall and early winter.
If you want to feel more weight on your line, a ride into the Gulf will provide you with some of the best grouper fishing in the state. Black and red grouper are plentiful as well as red snapper, amberjack and king mackerel. Bottom fishing is the most popular fishing method offshore but trolling for grouper has become very popular.
Wakulla County offers several charter boats for both offshore and charter fishing. Captain Chris Oaks took a group of us grouper fishing out of Bayside Marina in Ochlockonee Bay. It was December and the Gulf was smooth as we motored an hour and a half to 50-foot waters where the grouper were waiting. The fish move shallow during cool months but head for much deeper water in summer.
Once Captain Chris dropped anchor, we began a contest to see who would win the pot by landing the heaviest grouper. One angler had a six-pound fish in the boat in less than three minutes. Soon, a larger one came in and then another, until it took a 12-pounder to be top fish. I hooked a 15.7-pound grouper and felt confident it was the winner because they needed only one more fish to fill our limit. The wind was sucked out of my sails within minutes when Panacea angler, Don Lesh, brought in a 16.1-pounder and won the pot.
Boat ramps can be found at the marinas, on U.S. 98 at the bridge across Ochlockonee River, Ochlockonee River State Park and Mash Island Park (at the mouth of the river with the Gulf of Mexico).
You can reach Capt. Chris Oakes at Oakes Offshore Charter (850-926-3762). Bayside Marina offer charters on Blow III Fishing Charter, Capt. Steve Sharp (850-984-5839), blow3charters.com); Fishin Magician Charter, Capt. J. Adam Hunter (850-570-1787).
Outlaw Charter, Capt. Marvin Lawler (850-984-5841); and Seaweed Charter, Capt. Dusty Long (850-528-7016).
There are several restaurants in Panacea: Angelo's Seafood, Harbor House, Posey Beyond the Bay Restaurant and Motel, Steven's Seafood and Chicken, and you can find others at panaceafl.com.
Rental lodging in Panacea includes condos, homes, townhouses, Panacea Motel and The Landing hotel. See floridavacations.com/fv/Panacea-Florida for more information.
· Backwoods Pizza, 106 Municipal Ave., Sopchoppy, FL 32358: 850-962-2220
· Bayside Marina, 2273 Surf Road, Ochlockonee Bay, FL 32346: 850-984-5548, baysidemarina.com.
· Capt. Chris Oaks, Panacea, FL: 850-926-3762
· Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, Panacea, FL 32346: 850-984-5297, gulfspecimen.org
· Panacea Harbor Marina, Panacea, FL 32346: 850-251-3544
· Panacea Motel, Panacea, FL 32346: 850-984-5421
· Tide Creek Marina, Panacea, FL 32346: 850-984-4841