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Take it Outside Planner: Visit Big Talbot Island, look for cranes and fish for sheepshead

MAKE THE TRIP: BIG TALBOT ISLAND

If you have never been to a maritime forest, northeast Florida's Big Talbot Island is well worth it. This state park near Jacksonville is one of the last undeveloped "sea islands" in that area of the state. Bring your camera and binoculars and you'll get great photos and memories. Also bring your lightweight hikers. Take your pick of the Blackrock Trail, Big Pine Trail or Old Kings Highway, each one traversing a different habitat. You can put your boat in at the north end of the island to fish the edge of the salt marsh. Or rent a kayak and take a guided paddle tour. Afterward, visit the Bluffs for a picnic lunch, then head down to Boneyard Beach, famous for the salt-washed skeletons of live oak and cedar trees. For a more civilized adventure, bring your bike or baby stroller and cruise the paved, multi-use Timucuan Trail that runs parallel to A1A. Big Talbot Island State Park is on State Road A1A N, Jacksonville.

GUILTY AS CHARGED: SHEEPSHEAD

The water may be cold but that doesn't mean the fish have stopped biting. Winter is a great time to fish for sheepshead. You will find the finicky eaters in residential canals, along rocky channel edges and, of course, under docks. These unappreciated sport fish feed on everything from barnacles to shrimp. Old-timers sometimes call this lowly bottom dweller the "convict fish." Some say it's because the pattern of black stripes on their bodies resembles prison uniforms. Others argue the name came from this species' uncanny ability to strip a piece of bait clean off the hook before it hits the bottom. This fish looks a lot like a juvenile black drum except with a full set of very human-looking choppers, complete with molars, incisors and rounded grinders well suited for crushing a variety of crustaceans. Sheepshead are members of the porgy family, a close relative and constant companion of a well-known species anglers often use for bait: pinfish. The two are often found together, and the first task of any sheepshead angler is learning to differentiate between the pinner's nibble and sheepshead's chomp. Most sheepshead found in local waters weigh 1 to 2 pounds, but fish caught in deep water can weigh five times that much.

SKYWARD: CRANES ARE HERE

Cranes are the largest birds in North America. Florida has two species — one a year-round resident, the other a winter visitor. Sandhill cranes love Florida pastureland and can often be found milling about in the morning fog. Whooping cranes, the tallest of the nation's native birds, have migrated from Wisconsin to Florida every winter since 2001, led across the countryside by an ultra-light aircraft. Officials announced last week that this season's guided flights will be the last.

KEEP IT COOL: YETI HOPPER

The Yeti Hopper is an ideal cooler for those situations in which a big box just won't do. Flexible and lightweight, this high-tech bag will fit just about anywhere — behind the seat of a pickup truck, beneath your console or on the deck of your paddleboard. It will hold 24 cans and 26 pounds of ice plus a couple of Cuban sandwiches. It is pricey at $349 but will last forever. Keep this in mind for Valentine's Day. yeticoolers.com.

Take it Outside Planner: Visit Big Talbot Island, look for cranes and fish for sheepshead 01/27/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 11:20am]
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