DOWN RIVER: Paddle the Withlacoochee
From its origin in the Green Swamp of eastern Polk County, the Withlacoochee River meanders 156 miles to its outfall at the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown. One of the few rivers in the Northern Hemisphere that flows north, the Withlacoochee has about 83 miles of waterway considered "navigable." Up near its headwaters in the Green Swamp, just north of Dade City, you will see little evidence of man. Ibises prowl the banks here in great numbers. And if you are lucky, perhaps you'll catch a glimpse of a wood stork. If it's sunny, you'll find alligators warming themselves on the banks. There will be a few anglers too, working the weed line for panfish and bass. And you can't travel the Withlacoochee without brushing shoulders with Florida history. In 1539, the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto crossed the river during his ill-fated expedition through Central Florida. Centuries later, Seminole warriors led by Osceola battled federal troops on the banks of the Withlacoochee. Two of the river's many feeder creeks — Jumper and Alligator — still bear the names of two of Osceola's most trusted lieutenants. As you travel north, you'll pass through every type of habitat the state has to offer — hardwood hammocks, cypress swamps, pine flatwoods, palmetto scrub, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh. Silver Lake, in the heart of the sprawling Withlacoochee State Forest, is this region's major recreational destination. Here you will find the river's best canoeing, fishing, camping and hiking. The World Wildlife Fund once declared this area one of the "top 10 coolest places you've never been in North America."
SPRING CASTING: Freshwater Fishing
You don't have to be a professional bass fisherman to catch tournament-size fish. With a little advice, anglers can swing by their nearest sporting goods store, stock up on some artificial lures and learn to fish like a veteran of the tournament trail. Spring is the best time to fish for the legendary Florida bucketmouth. The live bait of choice for most anglers is the golden shiner, fished under a cork. When it comes to artificial lures, the weedless, or Texas-rigged, plastic worm is the most popular. Jerk worms, spinner baits, crank baits and topwater plugs will also work under a variety of conditions. A simple spinning outfit rigged with a 12- to 15-pound test will work in most Florida lakes. Bass typically hang around structures such as grass beds or submerged logs, so you will need a sturdy outfit to keep from losing fish. Florida has its share of great bass lakes including Lake George, northwest of DeLand; Stick Marsh/Farm 13 Reservoir, east of Vero Beach; Lake Kissimmee and West Lake Tohopekaliga, in Central Florida; Rodman Reservoir, east of Gainesville; Lake Tarpon; Lake Weohyakapka (commonly known as Lake Walk-In-Water), south of Orlando; Lake Istokpoga, south of Sebring; Everglades Water Conservation Areas 2 and 3; and Lake Okeechobee.
ANIMAL OF THE WEEK: Horseshoe Crabs
Every spring, horseshoe crabs gather on beaches throughout the state to mate. Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission need the public's help to pinpoint places where horseshoe crabs spawn. Beachgoers are likely to have the most luck seeing mating horseshoe crabs at high tide, just before, during or after a full or new moon. The conditions around the new or full moon will create an ideal opportunity to view the spawning behavior. Males cling to the shells of the larger females as the females head onto the beach to lay eggs. If you see mating horseshoe crabs, go to myfwc.com/contact and click on the "Horseshoe Crab Spawning Beach Survey." You can also email any findings to horseshoe@MyFWC.com or call the FWC toll-free at 1-866-252-9326. Note the number of horseshoe crabs seen and whether they were mating.
RARE QUEST: Ghost Orchid
Deep in the forests of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, southeast of Naples, botanists come from all over the world to see the rare ghost orchid bloom. Each summer, word travels like wildfire to head to this state park, the only place in the world where bald cypress and royal palms share the canopy, to see the flowering orchid during the summer months. But it can be hot and buggy, so pack plenty of water and don't forget the insect repellent.