||SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS
Captain Nick Angelo prepares to release a redfish that
fell for his fly.
By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
Florida is a land of adventures, both large and small.
The west coast is home to some of this states best
kept secrets, a region of spring-fed rivers, vast tracks
of undeveloped land and sweeping coastal scenery. Clinging
to the west central coast of Florida, just 65 miles north
of St Petersburg, the 31,000 acre Chassahowitzka National
Wildlife Refuge is a natural masterpiece of turquoise
springs, saltwater estuaries, palm hammocks and brackish
marshes. Chassahowitzka or Land of Hanging Pumpkins was
coined by the Timucua Indians who lived in the area when
the first Europeans arrived. The name referred to a vine
with pumpkin shaped gourds that eventually perished in
freezes at the turn of the century.
I fished the Gulf here for tarpon from nearby Homosassa
Springs beginning 15 years ago, but never explored the
region until I was invited by guides Nick Angelo and Bryon
Chamberlin, of Land of Lakes to fly fish for trout and
redfish in early March.
I decided to turn the trip into a mini-adventure by arriving
a day early so that I could canoe the Chassahowitzka River
with Tracie Conti, from the Citrus County Visitors Bureau.
Before I met Conti, I checked in to the Chassahowitzka
Hotel, where I met the proprietors Steve and Kim Strickland.
The hotel was booked with three generations of fishermen
from Tennessee, so I stayed across the street at Miss
Maggies House, a spacious private home.
David Strickland has lived in the small town his whole
life, and the property dates back in the family to the
Civil War. He fully remodeled the hotel recently, and
cooks for groups from eight to 30 by reservation. The
hotels accommodations are dormitory style, making
them ideal for a close-knit family or group of fishermen.
Guests wanting a bit more privacy can book Miss Maggies.
The hotel has an oak-shaded porch with rockers and a comfortable
common area with plush leather sofas and chairs.
I met Conti at the nearby Chassahowitzka Campground, which
has a canoe rental livery, store and boat ramp adjacent
to the head spring. We spent an afternoon on the river
exploring the creeks and springs that cut a sinuous path
through a soaring canopy of moss-festooned oaks, cypress
and pine. The river is clear, averages only two feet in
depth, and unlike most coastal watercourses, has few homes
or signs of civilization along its path. Contis
knowledge of the area, combined with her humor, made the
afternoon a special treat.
The next morning I joined Bryon Chamberlin and Nick Angelo
at the dock. We launched Angelos flats skiff and
headed down the river as the sun was just filtering through
the trees, casting a beautiful golden light on the canopy
of trees that lined the river. As we neared the coast,
the scene expanded to include vast tracks of marsh grass
cut through with winding creeks, oyster bars and palm
hammocks. The vista reminded me of the Everglades, one
of a handful of locations in Florida where no signs of
civilization could be seen from horizon to horizon.
Angelo has fished this twisted coastline for a number
of years and he and Chamberlin had been there recently
scouting for this trip. As we neared the Gulf, he dropped
the boat off plane and slow motored through limestone
outcroppings and oyster bars to a point where we began
working the shoreline. Chamberlin was up first and connected
with a fat sea trout on the third cast. Throughout the
day, we poled and waded shorelines and shallow bars where
we were able to sight fish for trout and redfish. We had
multiple opportunities and encountered large schools of
redfish along an oyster-studded shoreline as the tide
rose in the afternoon. During my turn on the bow I sighted
and made a cast to a snook that everyone estimated to
be in excess of 25 pounds. Although I made a good cast,
the fish, which was swimming in two feet of water, spooked
just as my fly was coming into range. A combination of
clouds and missed opportunities kept us from catching
many of the fish we encountered, but we still managed
three redfish and half a dozen trout.
The following morning we returned to the same point where
Chamberlin caught his first trout the day before and immediately
found a large school of redfish. It was a good beginning
to a great day of fishing. After catching four big reds
on Clouser flies, we returned to the shoreline where we
had encountered the redfish the day before and waded among
the oyster outcroppings. By the time we headed in that
afternoon we had landed a total of 15 redfish. Anglers
who fish this area need to be forewarned that a chart
and a keen eye are a necessity. The same limestone outcroppings
and oyster bars that attract the fish can be a disaster
for the unwary angler.
This was my first trip to the Chassahowitzka, but it wont
be my last. Besides the endless opportunities in the immediate
area, its just a short trip to Homosassa Springs
and Crystal River. Its comforting to know that Florida
still has wide open spaces, uncluttered with resorts and
rows of condominiums. Citrus County bills itself as the
"Water Lovers Florida," a name it lives
For information on the natural resources of the area contact
Conti at the Citrus County (800) 587-6667 or visit the
Citrus County web site at www.visitcitrus.com. For accommodations
contact David Strickland at the Chassahowitzka Hotel (352)
382-2075 or check out their web site at www.chazhotel.com.
Anglers wanting to fish this pristine coastline are encouraged
to make their first trip with a knowledgeable guide. Captain
Nick Angelo can be reached by calling 813-230-8473, or
through his web site at www.shallowwaterflyfishing.com.