GO THE DISTANCE: Big Bend Paddling Trail
Located on the Gulf of Mexico between the St. Marks River lighthouse and the Suwannee River, this 105-mile route was the state's first attempt to service long-distance sea kayakers. With well-marked primitive campsites located a day's paddle apart, Big Bend Paddling Trail is the best place to try your first overnight expedition. So named because it is here that the Florida Panhandle takes a hard right and heads south, this stretch of coast has always been a wild and lawless place. In the early 19th century, Seminole Indians and renegade slaves sought refuge along the Aucilla and Econfina rivers. During Prohibition, rum runners brought their wares up the Steinhatchee, located a few miles south. In the 1970s, smugglers hauling bales of marijuana, a.k.a. "square grouper," also found this desolate stretch of coastline useful. There are few roads and even fewer towns. The shoreline is exposed to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the shallow, sometimes placid waters can easily churn themselves into a deadly chop without much notice. Kayakers need to be self-sufficient and prepared for anything. And remember: Pack out what you packed in. Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it. As the saying goes, "Take only photographs; leave only footprints."
SEE COWS: Manatees on the move
Boaters and anglers should keep an eye out for manatees on the move to warmer waters. All it takes is one good cold front to send these marine mammals swimming in search of their winter refuges, such as freshwater springs or canals near power plants. Event though an adult manatee may look a little blubbery and weigh up to 1,000 pounds, it is still susceptible to cold. Water temperatures of 68 degrees or lower can be harmful, and prolonged exposure may even cause death. That's why in many areas of the state, seasonal manatee protection zones go into effect on Nov. 15. As a result, state law enforcement officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are asking boaters to be vigilant about manatees on the move and cognizant of slow speed zones. Because of the seasonal migration, November has been designated Manatee Awareness Month. Boaters should post a lookout to scan the water for telltale signs of a manatee, such as repetitive swirl patterns, called a manatee footprint, a mud trail or a snout or fluke breaking the water's surface. Other steps boaters may take to ensure a safe manatee migration include keeping to marked channels, wearing polarized sunglasses to improve vision, obeying posted boat speed zones and using poles, paddles or trolling motors when traveling close to manatees. People can report sightings of injured, sick or dead manatees to the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at toll-free 1-888-404-3922, #FWC and *FWC on a cellphone, or with a text to Tip@MyFWC.com.
CAST A LINE: King of the Beach
For more than 20 years, the Old Salt Fishing Foundation has held what has become the premier tournament for weekend warriors on Florida's Gulf Coast. There are other high-dollar events geared toward the professional kingfish teams, but none draws the "everyman" like the King of the Beach. King mackerel is considered one of the Gulf of Mexico's most valuable resources. This migratory species, found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Rio de Janeiro and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, spends the summer months fattening up in the rich waters off the Florida Panhandle. But as soon as the water temperature drops, big schools of kingfish head down the coast and along local beaches on their way to their wintering grounds off the Florida Keys. Local anglers can almost set their clocks to the migration. When daylight saving time kicks in, you know the kings can't be far behind. The Old Salts, a fishing club that counts everybody from seasoned veterans to those new to the sport, has so much fun at the fall KOB that it holds another tournament in the spring when the kings head back north. The 22st Annual Fall King of the Beach & Mad Beach Food Fest runs Friday through Saturday at 200 Rex Place, Madeira Beach. Check out the Food Fest and live music from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and the Weigh-in and Food Fest from 2 to 10 p.m. on Saturday. oldsaltfishing.org.
HELP OUT: Save our Seabirds
Next time you head south over the bridge, swing by Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota where your admission will help rescue and rehabilitate injured wild birds. More than 150 birds that were unable to return to the wild now make their home in the Wild Bird Learning Center. Save Our Seabirds is next to Mote Marine Aquarium at 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway. The Wild Bird Learning Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 for adults and $6 for children ages 4 to 12.