Reel Time: Homosassa, river of fishes

Reel Time Homosassa, river of fishes
Captain Jim Farrior holds a jack crevalle that attacked a top water popper. Captain Jimmy Long signals his feelings. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

The great American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was enamored with Homosassa. Homer regularly traveled to Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba during the winter months and this wild, spring-fed coast was high on his list of destinations. The name itself is derived from a Seminole Indian name, “river of fishes.” Fortunately, the natural beauty that attracted his artistic talent and the fish that he pursued (another passion) can still be found there. In 1904, Homer painted at least 11 watercolors during a stay. In a letter to his brother Arthur, Homer described Homosassa as, “The best fishing in America as far as I can find.”

More recently the area was known as a fly fishing mecca for anglers who found large numbers of trophy tarpon in the late 60s, 70s and 80s. While the tarpon fishing waned in the latter part of the 1900s (it’s on the rebound again) the region runs deep with redfish, trout, cobia, grouper and hundreds of other species. A quick look at a map makes it clear why this region has been and remains such a magnet for gamefish and the anglers that pursue them. It’s still one of Florida’s most pristine areas with thousands of islands, clear spring-fed rivers and a habitat rich in marine life.

While the upland areas have not been spared the unavoidable development that is changing the face of large portions of Florida, the coastal habitat is protected by the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge comprises about 31,000 acres along the Gulf coast from the Homosassa River south to Raccoon Point, including the mouth of the Chassahowitzka River. Spanning 12 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, it was established in 1943 to protect waterfowl and migratory birds, as well as marine life including the West Indian manatee.

While there are well-marked channels that access the Gulf, the flats that line the Gulf of Mexico are not for the uninitiated or the faint of heart, being studded with limestone outcroppings that can break a motor in half or take the bottom out of a wayward boat. These same hard bottom flats and ledges attract a plethora of gamefish including a surprisingly robust population of snook.

On a recent trip I had the pleasure of fishing with two of the area’s top guides – Captain Jimmy Long whose family has been in the area for six generations, and Captain Jim Farrior a “relative” newcomer from Lakeland who has lived in the area since 1993 and fished and hunted the area since the late 70s. Both Farrior and Long are well-versed in the lore of the “Silver Mermaid.”

During my visit, I stayed at McRae’s on the Homosassa River. Alex “Gator” McRae, my host’s father, was born on the property and the family still lives there in the home (former hotel) where Winslow Homer slept when he visited. McRae’s is the perfect accommodation for visiting anglers, situated right on the river with an adjacent public ramp, restaurant, tackle shop, dock space and downstream from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park. The park is a mecca for cold-stressed manatees as well as tourists, divers and sweat and salt drenched anglers who can enjoy a cool dip in the spring’s constant 76-degree water year-round.

On our first day, we encountered large numbers of snook and small schools of redfish that refused to bite. Although the fishing was challenging the natural beauty of the area captivated this angler/photographer. It’s refreshing to find a place less than a three-hour drive from home where you encounter few anglers and miles of natural coastline that’s changed little since Homer’s time.

On our second day, our fortunes changed. While the snook still proved elusive the redfish and trout were eager to take a well-placed fly. During the afternoon we encountered large schools of 10-15-pound jack crevalle that viciously attacked our topwater poppers. The fishing was about as good as it gets as school after school of large jacks crisscrossed the flats. Making it even more exciting, the water was crystal clear allowing us to see and get positioned for the jacks well in advance. We had planned to fish a third day but the weather turned rainy and windy with an approaching front.

The experience left me eager to return and further explore the region’s bounty. The amenities and hospitality of McRae’s provided me with a “home port” for a return trip I’m planning this summer. If you want an experience of the timeless beauty of an area that’s aptly named the Nature Coast, Homosassa should be a top priority! Captain Jimmy Long can be reached at 352-422-1303 or check out his website. Contact Captain Jim Farrior at 352-422-1992. Book your stay at McRae’s of Homosassa by calling 352-628-2602 and check out their website and their live river cam. It’s a trip that you’ll remember and will keep you coming back.

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