The Saltwater Magazine for Gulf Coast Fishing!

 

 

FLORIDA'S Forgotten Coast

by Herb Allen
Summer 1995

 

It's called "Florida's Nature Coast" by various chambers of commerce when describing a zone from Pasco County, north to the Big Bend area of the Gulf of Mexico, a distance measuring 200 plus miles from Port Richey to St. Marks.

However, the further north you go, the less folks know about the territory.

When you reach St. Marks, overlooking Apalachee Bay in Wakulla County, some refer to it as the "Forgotten Coast."

But, those of us who have been privileged to visit and fish out from St. Marks or nearby Panacea and Lighthouse Point, will always think kindly of the vicinage.

For example, my initial safari to St. Marks and the "Forgotten Coast," occurred in late-spring of 1970, with Jim Bagley of Winter Haven and Charlie Whitehead of Inverness.

Bagley, of course, was president and founder of the Bagley Bait Company, a manufacturer famous for its Bangolure, Big B and Salty Dog; Whitehead was the Bank of Inverness prexy, an ex-WWII bomber pilot and flight instructor who taught Bagley to fly; while I was the outdoors editor of the Tampa Tribune before eventually attaining respectability and vast wealth by writing stories for Gulf Coast Fisherman.

We didn't get onto the water that day until 10 a.m., following a five-hour drive from Winter Haven.

"You don't have to worry about our late start," Bagley assured his companions.

"Our only worry will be keeping the boat afloat from the weight of all the fish we'll catch."

We met up with a late, outgoing tide and decided to concentrate our drifting efforts in about nine feet of water over Apalachee Bay's lush grass flats.

Even before our outboard engine cooled down our ice chest was filling up with nice-sized trout that couldn't or wouldn't pass up our Salty Dog offerings. It was the rule instead of the exception to experience triple hook-ups.

On one cast, a tremendous swirl engulfed Whitehead's jig offering.

"This has got to be the trout to end all trout," he exclaimed while watching monofilament rip from his Langley reel, burning his thumb in the process.

Upon hearing the commotion I immediately reached for a camera and was in the process of focusing when, not 10 feet from the boat, an estimated 60-pound tarpon crashed through the water's surface, leaping eight feet skyward.

"Try to keep him on for one more jump!" I pleaded. "I need a couple of good tarpon shots!"

Since the Inverness banker had no shocker leader, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he and his fish would soon part company. Unfortunately, it happened before a second jump.

"A good fisherman would have kept it on for a little while, at least," I mumbled.

"A good photographer would have been on the ball and shot the fish when it first came out of the water," Whitehead countered.

"I think that I've got a couple of amateurs aboard," Bagley commented, concluding the brief spat.

As the tide turned, we began to work closer into the shoreline and catches continued at a frenzied pace on fish ranging in weight from one to four pounds each.

"Reckon how many we've caught?" Bagley asked nobody in particular. "I'd bet, counting all those we released, we've brought 300 into the boat," he mused.

"At least," answered Whitehead. "And, if that Tribune guy would have caught any, we'd have had even more."

"Keep it up, Banker," I said, setting the hook into another three pounder, "and I won't let you lend me any money."

"Promise?"

By 6 p.m. on this warm May afternoon, a dog-tired trio, dreading a long drive home, decided to call it quits, head in and load up.

From then to now, not much has changed, except the trout seem to have grown larger and hoards of redfish have invaded the area. According to Capt. Randle Leger, (850) 997-8641, lots of trout ranging from five to eight pounds are now being caught. Leger, one of the area's top guides, feels the overlooked "Forgotten Coast" is probably Florida's last major area that hasn't been used up.

From now through fall, Leger will fish a 1/8-ounce Cotee Liv'Eye Action Jig about 12 to 14-inches behind an Equalizer.

"I like to use yellow Grub Tails in dark water and white tails in clear," Leger stressed. "My favorite tail, day in and day out, is a pink and white

Although Leger feels it's too time consuming to make a 40 to 50-mile run into deeper waters to reach prime kingfish habitat, the excellent trout and redfish opportunities close to shore more than offset this inconvenience.

"Trout fishing has always been very good here and promises to get even better," he enthused.

"Redfishing," Leger continued, "is just fantastic, maybe the best that it has ever been.

"We can now fully expect to catch quality reds on every trip that will range between five and 12 pounds each in areas containing rocky bottoms."

Tarpon opportunities throughout the St. Marks and Alligator Point orbit in summer months have been increasing since the late 1980's, with 40 to 60 pounders, plus an occasional fish scaling on the plus side of 100 pounds, becoming quite common.

Big cobia put in an appearance throughout Apalachee Bay during the spring months in general, and from late-April through the end of May in particular. Good grouper hauls are being made in isolated pockets scattered throughout the bay. Capt. Danny Sellers, (850) 925-7660, amens Leger's reports.

Sellers, who bases at Shields Marina in St. Marks, said the main targets for his clients are trout and redfish.

Running his 22-foot home-made skiff powered by a 48 h.p. Yamaha outboard, Sellers also prefers a 1/8-ounce jig head with a pink and white curly-tailed grub for trout, and Cotee's new 1/4-ounce gold flats spoon for reds.

"I get very few customers who want to chase tarpon," he said.

"But, when I do, I'll head to the Alligator Point grass flats where lots of tarpon can be found from March through August."

Shallow, fish-filled Apalachee Bay receives outflows from four distinctly divergent major systems, the St. Marks, Wakulla, Sopchoppy and Ochlockonee Rivers. Numerous small creeks and streams add fishing opportunities for those willing to explore.

The entire coastal region on the southern shores of Wakulla County is known as the Coastal Marsh Belt. Saltwater marshes are the transitional waters between the fresh water of the rivers and the salt water of the Gulf.

Saltwater marshes here, as elsewhere, are characterized by such plants as cordgrass and needlerush. Freshwater marshes up river are distinguished by sawgrass, bulrush and pickerel weed.

Recreational opportunities abounding throughout Wakulla County include fresh and saltwater fishing, hiking, camping, bicycling, hunting and canoeing.

Probably the area's most notable oasis is the 65,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge which affords anglers ample opportunities to bag both fresh and saltwater gamefish.

Apalachicola National Forest is a favored site by both hunters and freshwater fishermen; Leon Sinks Geological Site features more than a dozen dry and wet sinkholes; Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is home to one the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs; Ochlockonee River State Park is a 392-acre wilderness area offering a variety of recreational choices; and Mash Island Park offers a sandy beach with picnic cabanas bordering Apalachee and Ochlockonee Bays.

Those wanting complete information on Wakulla County, including St. Marks, Lighthouse Point, Panacea and other locales on Apalachee Bay are invited to write Christy Davis, P.O. Box 598, Crawfordville, FL 32326. Or, call: 1-888-WAKULLA.

Though the area is remote and lightly traveled when compared to other Florida waters, an adequate marker system makes navigation easy. They also provide positive waypoints for those searching out grouper numbers in various close-in holes as shallow as 15 feet.

Most call it either the "Nature Coast" or the "Forgotten Coast." But, after battling abundant trout, redfish, cobia and tarpon here, I call it "My Coast."

Perhaps after a trip here, you will too.

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