Shell Island is a fish camp on the bank of the Wakulla River that has cabins, hotel rooms, and a small camping area. You will win no awards with your bride for taking her there, but for us fisherfolk it is just fine. There are a handful of seafood restaurants around, a café or two, and the typical gas station fast food eatery to keep you fed while on your adventure. It is just about a perfect place: clean, inexpensive, and close to miles and miles of rivers and Gulf Coast shoreline.
I actually have a hard time picking what I want to do when I go down there. I am a freshwater fisherman for the most part, so the chance to fish the salt should be an easy choice. It isn’t, though, because the fresh water that flows in the local rivers is spring-fed and crystal clear. This is totally unlike my normal river at home, and sight fishing for Florida bass is an incredible experience. To add to the pull, the rivers in the area are home to a scrappy subspecies of bass called the Suwannee bass. Just the chance to catch these beautiful tiger-striped fighters is worth the four-hour drive.
Anglers can launch right in the camp and fish the tidal river for reds and trout, or head to any number of launches right into the beautiful Gulf flats. One of our favorite launches is in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, about nine miles away. The refuge has a gate that opens in the morning at specified times, and requires a park permit that comes from a self-serve kiosk near the refuge office. Once in the park, you can launch into pristine flats filled with oyster bars and grass. The grass-lined shore is split by tidal creeks and isolated shallow bays. Knowing the tides will really help with targeting the inshore species. Be sure to carry a GPS because, other than the beautiful lighthouse overlooking the bay, everything looks the same.
Typical baits for the salt are no different than any other shallow Gulf areas. Topwaters early and late are always a fun way to catch fish in shallow flats. Soft plastics on jig heads or suspended below popping corks is another way to entice a hit. Live or cut bait is also effective, and we had no problem netting our own finger mullet along the shore. One note about using cut bait - there are plentiful toothy critters in the area, and they think nothing about swimming right up to you when you least expect it. That is one story my son never lets me forget!
One other critter to be aware of is the manatee. These gentle giants are all over in the salt and up in the rivers. Look for boils where they are swimming, and listen for them exhaling. If they are in the area, give them plenty of room; a startled manatee can flip a kayak in a New York minute.
Freshwater opportunities are plentiful in the area, and the bass fishing can be excellent. One bonus is that being spring-fed the temperature is constant, so even in the dead of winter the fish are active. The Wakulla, Wacissa and St. Marks rivers all flow within a short distance, and there are several landings that work great for kayakers. One launch on the Wakulla River is next to the T&T Hide-A-Way canoe and kayak shop. This shop is owned by friends of mine, and they know the area and the critters very well. Local knowledge is priceless on an out-of-town adventure!
When fishing these rivers, don’t be surprised to see saltwater species swimming through. All these rivers head to the Gulf, and it is not unusual to see mullet, sheepshead, and black drum swimming along next to bass and bream. The manatee head up into the warmer spring fed waters for shelter, especially in winter months. Remember my earlier warning about giving them plenty of room. The long waving grass fronds necessitate weedless lures, and a soft plastic worked over the grass is hard to beat. A heavy tungsten weight followed by a creature bait is another great option in the thick grass or pitched among the cypress stumps. The smaller Suwannee bass are super aggressive and will readily take a bigger bait meant for largemouth. Big chunks of limestone are excellent places to find the Suwannee bass, and a trailer-tipped jig will do the job well.
This area keeps me coming back again and again for many reasons. I love the ability to fish for multiple species in both fresh and salt with minimal travel. The wildlife in the area - from manatees to the myriad of bird species to otters and alligators - will keep you wondering what the next sighting will be. The lack of commercial growth is how this area came to be known as the “Forgotten Coast”, but for me it is a place I can’t forget. I cannot wait till I can load our fleet and head south to Wakulla again. The only question is, “Do I head to the fresh or the salt first…?”