Friday, December 15, 2017

The outdoors calls to us

In my line of work, you know you've had a good week when you sleep on the ground at least four out of the last seven days.

Some people might consider sleeping in a tent a hardship. Not me. I'm with Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, who in addition to being one of the biggest movie stars of the 1960s and '70s, was also a backcountry camper who once boasted that he "would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth."

Paris, London, Rome or Madrid … you can keep 'em. I'd rather have a patch of paradise in East Pasco. There's no place I'd rather be than in the Green Swamp, howling with the coyotes on a cool November evening.

You should try it. The weather's perfect. There's no better time to get outside than now. And if you are running short on ideas on what to do, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Take a hike: The Florida Trail stretches 1,400 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida to Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Alabama border.

The path is well-marked with orange blazes and signs. Side trails have blue blazes, and turns are marked with two blazes. Boardwalks guide backpackers through wet portions, and campsites are within easy walking distance of each other. In some areas, the trail is flat, but in others, it can be downright challenging.

Here in Central Florida, the trail segments that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest can keep an intrepid trail walker busy for years. With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge experts as well as beginners.

Pick up a paddle: The upper Hillsborough River may be located just a half-hour drive from one of Florida's largest cities, but it is still one of the most scenic rivers in the state.

The Hillsborough's 34-mile designated canoe trail runs from Crystal Springs to Tampa's Rowlett Park. The upper reaches, though wild, can be difficult to paddle. But in general, the river is kid-friendly, especially the section serviced by a local outfitter, Canoe Escape.

The section below Hillsborough River State Park, called Seventeen Runs, should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers. The last time I paddled that 6-mile stretch between Hillsborough County's Dead River and John B. Sargeant parks, it took more than five hours. Numerous deadfalls make for slow going, and if you do try to conquer this stretch of river, you will get wet and muddy.

Wet a line: Fort De Soto's twin fishing piers at the south end of Pinellas County have shallow artificial reefs within casting reach. These man-made structures support diverse communities of marine organisms, so it is not unusual for anglers to land even tarpon, cobia and king mackerel.

From time to time, these shore-bound anglers even hook fish far too big to land, including sharks. Like most piers, Fort De Soto's has a cast of regulars, most of whom are willing to share their secrets. If a fellow angler hooks a big one, don't be shy about asking what they used for bait. Follow the leader and cast away.

Another good local choice is the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. Located at the mouth of Tampa Bay on a structure that was once a bridge, the twin Skyway Fishing Piers are probably the most productive land-based fishing spots in the state. If it is a species that swims in the Gulf of Mexico, sooner or later it will pass beneath you if you dangle a line there.

Ride a bike: The Withlacoochee State Trail, 46 miles of fun for cyclists of all skill levels, is just an hour drive from downtown Tampa. The trail is ideal for triathletes and competitive cyclists looking for a long training ride. But for families, especially those looking for a "nature" ride, the Withlacoochee State Trail is must-see as well.

Safe and well-maintained, yet wild and unpredictable, you will get the best of both worlds. You can thank railroad magnate Henry Plant for clearing the land that eventually became the trail.

This trail is generally flat, but a handful of hills keep it interesting. The 12-foot-wide paved path runs from the Owensboro Junction Trailhead, 6 miles north of Dade City, through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, to the Withlacoochee River, just south of Dunnellon.


Captainís Corner: Drop in gulf water temperature means itís sea trout time

The gulf temperature has dropped significantly since our first real cold front last week. One day the water was in the mid 70s, then after the front, it fell to the low 60s. That caused speckled sea trout to become a reliable target. Redfish have bee...
Published: 12/14/17

Captainís Corner: Good time for shallow-water flats fishing

Shallow-water flats fishing can be very exciting this time of year. Trout and redfish are available in good numbers, and the opportunities to catch some gator trout have made recent trips very rewarding. Some of the largest trout have been in very sk...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/13/17

Captainís Corner: Seek clear water for bottom fishing as temperatures plummet

The great weather, calm seas and exceptional fishing we experienced at the end of November and beginning of December came to a screeching halt with the cold front that came through. Surface water temperatures plummeted from an unseasonable 71 degrees...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17

Captainís Corner: Sheepshead action lively in cooler weather

Conditions after the cold front are cool and are going to be for a while. That doesnít mean you canít or shouldnít fish. Many anglers get stuck on snook, reds and trout and forget how fun it is to catch sheepshead. Many reefs are already holding good...
Published: 12/09/17
Updated: 12/10/17

Captainís Corner: Fishing will return to normal, but when?

The severity of this cold front will determine the fishing forecast for the next several days. Bait that had been abundant inshore will scatter. Nearshore gulf waters will muddy, and water temperatures. at least temporarily. will plummet. How cold, h...
Published: 12/08/17
Captainís Corner: Planning around fronts can lead to productive days

Captainís Corner: Planning around fronts can lead to productive days

I canít believe we are in the last month of the year. And while this is one of my favorite months to fish, it will be controlled by weather. As cold fronts become more frequent and harsh, planning your trips around them will make the biggest differen...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/09/17

Captainís Corner: Strong results for redfish, speckled trout

This is a great time for variety. Combined trips for speckled trout and redfish are achieving excellent results. With the correct approach, great catches of both species are a reality now. The best anglers use the lightest tackle. Light rods and reel...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Captainís Corner: Take advantage of abundant gag grouper before season ends

Gag grouper fishing and spearing is hot. The season for these grouper in the Gulf of Mexico is winding down, with a slated closure at the end of this month. The cooler water has the gags moving closer, and they are happy when the bottom temperatures ...
Published: 12/05/17

Captainís Corner: Bait schools near shore drawing kings, mackerel, bonito

Nearshore fishing is still going strong in north Pinellas. Bait schools are roaming just a couple of miles offshore, attracting kingfish, Spanish mackerel and bonito. The beaches are still holding sardines for cast netting at sunrise. I like to have ...
Published: 12/03/17
Updated: 12/05/17

Captainís Corner: This is the month to target gag grouper

With our current regulations in the Gulf, this is the best month to target gag grouper. Although the gag grouper season opens in June they are hard to come by for most months unless anglers travel to depths of 240 feet or more. With each passing cold...
Published: 12/03/17
Updated: 12/04/17