Capt. Greg DeVault remembers waking to the sound of waves, eating breakfast on the Gulf of Mexico and catching sea trout and snapper just a short walk from the door of his family's stilt house, a couple miles southwest of the Pithlachascotee River.
Built by his grandfather in the 1940s, the gulf retreat of DeVault's youth burned when a lightning strike during the no-name storm of 1993 started a fire that consumed the structures.
Nevertheless, DeVault returns to the area west of Port Richey several times a year. All of the nine stilt houses standing outside the Cotee River are fish magnets, kind of like emergent reefs that offer shade and feeding opportunities.
Common stilt home residents are trout, snook, mangrove snapper and undersized grouper. Cobia make spring and fall appearances, while sheepshead often show up during winter months.
Schools of glass minnows and pilchards gather in huge clouds around the stilt house pilings. The latter, a.k.a. whitebait, are the main ammunition for many inshore pursuits. Not surprisingly, the splash of cast nets hitting the water is a sound commonly heard near these structures.
On a recent outing, DeVault and I tried in vain to fool a pack of snook we had seen hanging around the boat slip of a stilt house south of Durney Key. When my live pilchard found a taker, I was surprised the fish didn't run directly for the pilings.
The reason was clear when a legal sized redfish rolled at the surface. Reds aren't one of the commonly targeted species on these structures, but fish have tails and there's not much keeping any of the area's inshore and coastal species from stopping by for a visit.
"Redfish aren't that common out there, but it seems that when they school up in the fall they will gather (at the stilt houses)," DeVault said.
When it's good
Considering most of the stilt houses sit in relatively shallow waters, higher tide stages typically offer the most opportunity. Slack high is okay, but the last half of the incoming and the first of the outgoing are best because water movement is the key to fish feeding.
Cloudy days will loosen the fish a little. This makes it easier to pull a hooked fish away from the pilings and reduces the chance of breaking your line.
Windy days bring challenging conditions to the stilt house scene. For one thing, boat handling is tough in choppy water. Also, waves affect fish behavior in shallow environs.
"If it's rough, you get a lot of turbulence around the pilings and the fish don't relate as well to the structure," DeVault said.
Calmer water allows predators to settle into their feeding positions. Essential here is plentiful baitfish.
"If there's bait on the houses, there's usually someone there to eat them," DeVault said.
In addition to pilings, transitional lines between surrounding grass and sandy holes give gamefish additional ambush points. Therefore, stilt houses standing over significant sandy spots may have an advantage.
Night fishing can be good, as fish roam farther from the perimeters. Although none of the stilt houses have dock lights, the moon creates a shadow line that fish will utilize when feeding and hiding.
Most of the stilt house crowd will readily accept a live whitebait free-lined near the pilings. Low, snappy sidearm casts enable you to reach gamefish hiding under the house.
Jigs, soft plastic jerkbaits and topwater plugs will also tighten your line around stilt houses. Topwaters are especially productive at daybreak and sundown.
For sheepshead, try fiddler crabs, cut shrimp or freshly shucked oysters on small hooks with a light split shot.
In all pursuits, braided line will prevent cutoffs on stilt house pilings and provide the strength you'll need to turn a stubborn fish your way.
When it comes to fighting a tough stilt house opponent, DeVault offers this advice: "Just like any dock, use a lot of side pressure and really put it to them. If you can, don't fight them with the rod; walk them to the back of the boat and you'll make more ground on them."
Safety and courtesy
As with any private property, tying off to a stilt house or climbing onto the structure is a no-no. Making brief contact to retrieve a lure or baitfish snagged in an errant cast is probably a reasonable exception, but don't linger.
If owners are present, a polite greeting will set the right tone. Moreover, you may be pleasantly surprised at the insightful fishing tips your may receive.
Of course, night fishing requires a heightened sense of consideration. As DeVault notes, "If you see boats tied up (to a stilt house), you obviously don't want to be out there at the crack of dawn if there are people up there sleeping on them."
In the neighborhood
Proximity to Durney Key adds an element of ambiance and entertainment to a stilt house visit. First, the photogenic qualities of this remote island with its neighboring houses are undeniable.
From the key's southeast corner, you can line up a photo with multiple houses in the background.
Also, Durney Key's small but inviting beach offers a nice spot for a picnic lunch or a shore dinner. For the latter, carry a propane camp stove, a cast iron skillet, cooking oil and whatever side dishes you may wish to eat with the fish you catch around the stilt houses.