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Spend the new year in old Florida

11/17/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

Homosassa points of interest | Photo galleries

HOMOSASSA, Fla. — Its Muskogee Indian name refers to an abundance of wild pepper, but contemporary Homosassa boasts pristine waters teaming with angling abundance and a laidback lifestyle seasoned with Old Florida ambiance.

Decidedly down home and comfortably casual, Homosassa is small-town USA with a collection of historical and recreational gems that make this Citrus County community an attractive destination for those seeking life at a pleasant pace.

Rich with natural resources abounding in its namesake river and nearby Gulf of Mexico, Homosassa finds much of its past rooted in the fishing industry. Today, shrimpers, crabbers and commercial fishing boats share the waterways with sport-fishing vessels, as the sea remains the essential pillar of this community.

Fed by several rivers and creeks — principally the mighty Homosassa River — the region from Chassahowitzka Point, northward to the St. Martin's Keys, offers a potpourri of piscatorial potential.

Launching at the county boat ramp next to historic MacRae's Resort and running downriver kicks off a local fishing trip with a visually appealing voyage, accented by ospreys, otters, sable palms and majestic oaks draped with Spanish moss.

Describing every creek, cut, point and island would take more space than we have, but visitors will fare well by minding the general fishing principles of depth, contour and current.

Worth noting is the need for ultra-cautious navigation. There are places along Florida's Gulf Coast where "cheating" across shallow spots bears minimal consequence. This is not one of those spots. Run outside the markers in Homosassa and you'll find something hard in a hurry.

Notoriously rocky, the Homosassa waterways demand respect and a high level of navigational alertness. Outside the channels, the Gulf of Mexico's nearshore zone drops off slowly, so shallow running extends a considerable distance from shore.

Limestone outcroppings — the true face of Florida's calcium carbonate complexion — emerge with startling randomness. And while these structures contribute greatly to the area's fishing scene, they've also claimed a bunch of propellers.

PHOTO GALLERY

Launch Gallery

Shallow drafting skiffs are preferred in this region, and those with towers provide a strategic vantagepoint for spotting trouble. Locals have marked some of the isolated rocks with PVC stakes, but watch for dark shadows or water swirling around something solid.

Capt. Mike Locklear, a third-generation Homosassa resident and one of the area's premier guides, advises visitors to study local charts and go slow in unfamiliar waters. Investigate new areas on dead low tide and note where bars and rock reefs will impede your running. Returning on high water, you'll have a better grasp on where to fish and what to avoid.

Take it easy and you'll find the Homosassa waters generally cooperative. Here's a look at what the cooler months offer.

Inshore "In" crowd

Homosassa's fertile estuarine system cranks out loads of shrimp, pinfish and crabs that keep predators well fed. Redfish are practically a year-round target, with large scattered schools grazing the shallows.

Fall sees good trout action around shallow rock piles, while most of the fish retreat to deeper grass flats to avoid summer's swelter. Winter finds a lot of trout holed up inside the rivers.

Homosassa lacks the lush sea grass meadows of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, but patches of low, sparse grass intersperse the locally-favored habitat of shallow rock reefs. Look for trout over such spots with good tidal washing and deep drop-offs for travel and safety.

Redfish also like the rock piles, as well as oyster bars, island points and leeward edges with adjacent pockets of deeper water.

Throughout the jigsaw puzzle of coastal islands, look for coves with lots of mullet activity and structure that offers feeding opportunities. The fish often will move in close to shorelines on rising water and then fall back into cuts and channels on low water.

Weedless gold spoons, soft plastic jerk baits, Berkley Gulp! Shrimp and 1/8-ounce jigs with root beer curl tails work well for redfish. Trout like topwaters (low light), suspending plugs and soft plastic jerk baits.

On windy days, fish the latter under a rattling or popping cork to help the fish locate your bait. When working jigs slowly across the bottom, you're also likely to tempt a flounder lying still in the sand.

Now, are there snook in Homosassa? Yep. Should visitors burn a lot of time looking for linesiders? Nope. Just be content to marvel at the occasional incidental catch during redfish and trout pursuits.

Snook will hit most of the same artificials as their neighboring species, but if you luck into a couple of linesiders, send in the jumbo live shrimp or pinfish under a cork and you may get a rally going.

Coastal crew

Moving 2-5 miles offshore, anglers quickly find that the very element that makes Homosassa waters so treacherous is exactly what creates such an angling hotbed — rocks, rocks and more rocks.

Shore dinners

Forget fancy restaurants, the freshest seafood dinner you'll ever enjoy may be just the thing to spice up your Homosassa fishing trip. There's something very satisfying and rewarding about catching your own dinner, but to cook and consume it just hours from the hook defines outdoors bliss.

After a morning on the water, local guides will treat you to an Old Florida custom called the shore lunch. Frying your fresh catch a short walk from the water's edge and serving it along with secret recipe hush puppies and guava jelly, baked bean and maybe some chilled coleslaw punctuates a great day of fishing with the freshest seafood meal you'll ever eat.

Rich in angling ambiance and very easily organized — even for novices — shore dinners invite the kind of camaraderie and family-friendly fun that complements the angling experience with an element of authenticity that you won't get from roasting hot dogs. Guides cooking for several anglers use large fry pots heated over propane burners, but for smaller operations, a single or double burner camp stove works fine.

Capt. Mike Locklear starts by frying a pound of bacon to season his canola oil. (The bacon makes a nice appetizer while he cooks the meal.) Next come the hush puppies — a melon scoop yields the traditional round shape — followed by the fish. Fillets cut in 2-inch strips cook quickly. Packaged fish fry coating is convenient, but for a simple option, season all-purpose flour or corn meal with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Many of the islands and beach areas throughout the Homosassa River system are privately owned, so make sure you confirm accessibility prior to cooking. Wherever you cook, minimize your environmental impact. Fire safety is top priority, so keep open flames well away from leaves and brush. Cook on open beaches when possible and keep a bucket of water handy for accidents.

Keep the meal part simple with disposable plates, napkins and flatware and carry a trash bag to eliminate litter. Also, carry a sealable plastic container for your cooking oil. Fish cleaning scraps can be tossed in the water for the crabs. Raccoons will make short work of leftover cooked food, but toss it well away from the clearings to keep insects from gathering at cooking spots.

Each sporting its unique set of features, the more pronounced coastal structures hold mini-ecosystems with a multitude of crustaceans and invertebrates, along with pinfish, mullet, grunts and squirrelfish.

Rocks in 8-15 feet attract a variety of predators, including black seabass, bluefish and Spanish mackerel, but gag grouper — many of them keepers — are the real stars of the show.

Bottom fishing with cut threadfins or live pinfish works well, but locals troll up their grouper with large diving plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25, Magnum Rapala, or Rebel Jawbreaker. Running at about 5-6 mph allows you to cover lots of water with a trembling lure that mimics passing forage.

On clear days, you'll see the rock piles or at least their shadows from a distance. However, newcomers find that trolling provides an effective means of locating productive structures. Just drop a couple of plugs, pick a compass heading and troll until you draw a strike. Mark productive spots on your GPS and return for additional passes.

For a straight-up adrenalin rush, sling shallow-diving plugs across the rocks on heavy spinning gear, crank like mad and brace for maximum impact. Zero line stretch means crushing strikes, so hang on or you'll donate your gear to the grouper's collection.

In the winter months, nearshore rock piles see an influx of mature sheepshead, gathering in spawning groups over the coastal structures.

Live shrimp fished on a 1- to 2-ounce sinker rig will connect you with the convict fish, but when strong currents blow your tackle into the rock crevices, snags become a constant threat. Avoid the hassles by threading a live shrimp tail-first onto a ¼-ounce jig head for a more controllable presentation.

If you don't get your fill on the shallow rocks, head offshore about 15 miles and look for grouper over deeper spots in 30-plus feet. Similar deep diving plugs bumping over the rocks will tempt hefty gags. A hand-sized pinfish or a half of a mullet fished on a 7/0 circle hook could be the ticket to rod-bending behemoth.

Regardless of your target or tactics, make time to visit Bonnie Van Allen of Island Bait Company. You can't miss her shop. It's right on the water — literally.

Anchoring outside the channel near Marker 26, Van Allen sells shrimp and pinfish from a pontoon boat with a giant white shrimp on top. The gargantuan crustacean — Van Allen's own handiwork — makes it easy to spot the floating bait shop from a distance.

Stop on your way out for reports of current angling action or visit on the way back to share your big fish tales. There's always plenty of both in Homosassa.

For historical details and current information about Homosassa, visit www.homosassaflorida.com/location/history-facts.