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The ads say the 19th century is back in Steinhatchee. It never left. This quiet fishing village is where Florida grows west into a panhandle, an area known as the "Big Bend." It's a jewel reserved for people who snub the crowds and glitz in favor of a taste of nature, raw and wild.
Steinhatchee is located in Taylor County, most of which is state owned and preserved, offering visitors some of the most rewarding fishing in Florida. Located on the Gulf Coast about 90 miles from Tallahassee, it's a fisherman's paradise, offering fresh and saltwater angling.
Taylor County has the longest coastline of any county in the state and those who venture here are sure to find that perfect spot where the fish are biting.
Local guides in Steinhatchee will supply everything you need for a day on the water for as little as $150 for a half day. Capt. Paul Cronk has been running the Willa Mae, a 25- footer, out of Steinhatchee for 12 years. He has no trouble finding the fish; with his knowledge of the coastline and his experience his clients keep coming back for more.
"Knowing the area is so important," he says, "there are so many oyster bars and rock piles that can make it hard for someone not familiar with the area."
April is the best time for fishing on the flats, where an abundance of sea grass make it a great place to drop a hook. Flatboats, bird-dog boats, airboats and small charters share the very shallow area that gradually drops off toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Saltwater fishing is good year-round offshore. The seasons are longer, but during January and February the water gets cold and the fish stop biting.
Anglers can expect to do a lot of bottom fishing for redfish, speckled trout and sheepshead. March is the best month for sheepshead and trout. Cronk charges $350 a day for trips out to the grouper banks.
Visitors can stay at Steinhatchee Landing, an upscale fishing resort, or the Steinhatchee River Inn. Accommodations range from three-bedroom houses to motel rooms. Both are on the river and both are owned by Dean Fowler.
"I started fishing in Steinhatchee with some friends, and was hooked even more than the fish," said Fowler.
The Landing provides fishing guides and specializes in putting large groups of fisherman on the water, complete with boxed lunches available from the Landings Restaurant.
Up County Road 361 from Steinhatchee, there are several coastal communities, like Adams Beach, Dekle Beach and Keaton Beach. They range from rustic to modern and all are within easy access to fishing areas known statewide as being among the best uncluttered places to wet your line. The variety of fishing along this coastline is enough to please even the most discriminating fisherman.
Injoy Charters in Keaton Beach provides offshore fishing with host and guide Jerry Cawthon. That means up to 12 hours for $450, license and bait included. Flat fishing in Keaton Beach is the specialty of Pat McGriff, who leads fishermen to a full cooler of speckled trout or prized redfish.
Jim Dupre, a redfish guide based in Gainesville, Florida, gives a few tips on how to catch that redfish. Low tide is the best time to catch them; when hungry they may stop to root out a crab. When this happens they tip forward, and if the fish is longer than the water's depth its tail pops up into view. Tailing reds are feeding reds; waste no time and move toward them slowly. Once hooked the others will mill about the hooked red, some trying to get the lure out of the hooked fish. If a second fisherman is along get bait near the excited fish, and a double catch is nearly assured.
Saltwater anglers can drop their lines from almost any river or flats that abound on this coastline. Beyond the flats are the coastal reef systems, where you'll find the "keeper" fish that frequent deeper waters.
Several man-made reefs dot the coastline, offering fishermen a chance at the really big ones. A stop at a local
bait or tackle shop will provide all the necessary information on what's biting out there.
Traveling further north in Taylor County, fishermen will find Econfina On The Gulf and the Econfina River, a tannin- stained river arising from San Pedro Bay. It winds its way down the county for 35 miles before entering the Gulf in the northeast corner of Apalachee Bay. Econfina On the Gulf is located 21 miles west of Perry off U.S. 98 on County Road 14.
Pristine grass flats and thick stands of hardwoods adorn the Econfina River, where a bountiful supply of cobia, redfish, Spanish mackerel, tarpon and sea trout are waiting for fishermen to drop their hooks.
Before you venture out on your own here ask local tackle stores for directions on getting safely to the Gulf. If your boat draws even a moderate amount of water you don't want to navigate the river at low tide. When you move out away from the river you will spot Rock Island about six miles to the south. This small island makes a good reference point if you're fishing in that direction.
Sea trout roam the grass beds in relatively deeper water about three miles offshore. These same waters contain cobia, shark and Spanish mackerel. Lately there seems to be an abundance of mackerel so consider some type of leader, even when trout fishing.
Redfish tend to stay close to shore where they feed around oyster bars and rocky areas. The manager of Econfina On the Gulf is Bobby Stefanelli, who warns, "Pay close attention to the tides, as the water rises you can work toward shore where you will find plenty of redfish and maybe even a occasional big trout."
To increase your chances of catching fish, Stefanelli suggests watching the boat wake as you move away from the mouth of the river. At first you will see that the water is the color of "iced tea." Eventually you will see the water become clearer, giving the fish a better chance of finding your hook.
The fishing is best at Econfina between April and December. Good days bring about 200 boats here, from as far away at Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. But Stefanelli can't remember the last time he had time to fish on his own. "I used to work to pay for my fishing." Stefanelli says with a boyish grin, "Now, I go fishing all the time - I hardly have time to wet my line. But I love this job."
If you care to make a weekend of your stay here, Econfina On The Gulf offers accommodations ranging from RV/camping sites to modern stilt-style villas, apartments and motel-type rooms. Econfina On the Gulf has a small restaurant where the menu includes hamburgers and seafood specialties, or they will be happy to cook your daily catch. Taylor County is a place where fishing enthusiasts come to escape traffic jams and overcrowded boat ramps. Here you will find nature, old-fashioned hospitality and fishing as it was truly meant to be: A relaxing and pleasurable experience.
Steinhatchee Steinhatchee Landing 904-498-3513 Rates for Lodging $95.00 and up Econfina On The Gulf 904-584-5811 Apartment/Condo - up to four people per night $Call Motel - per couple $Call RV (full hookup) $Call House - sleeps four to six people $Call Econfina Restaurant 904-584-5811 Area Accommodations, Marinas and Charters Steinhatchee Wood's Breeze RV Campground 904-498-3948 Edwards Fisherman's Rest 904-498-3421 Riverhaven Marina 904-498-0709 Captain Paul Cronk Jr. 904-498-7317 Keaton Beach Keaton Beach Marina 800-243-2002 Injoy Charters (Jerry Cawthon) 904-578-2148 One More Cast Charters (Pat McGriff) 904-838-1895 Charlie Ward Charters 904-578-2055 Old Pavilion Motel 904-578-2637 Taylor County Chamber of Commerce 904-584-5366