Reel Time: On the Road – the Nature Coast

Reel Time: On the Road - the Nature Coast
This Withlacoochee Bay redfish appeared in the perfect place at the perfect time. - Submitted

Have you ever had a fishing trip that was so memorable you felt the need to pinch yourself to make sure it was real? I’ve been fishing a long time and I could count those times on one hand. Now I’ve started on my second hand. Allow me to explain.

I had traveled to the Nature Coast the second week in January this year and settled into a rental house on the Withlacoochee River in Yankeetown. About two and a half hours from Anna Maria, the Nature Coast is one of my favorite places to fish, photograph and explore. Over the years I’ve investigated the waters from Chassahowitzka to Crystal River, but last year at Captain Nick Angelo’s suggestion, I booked a couple of days with him north of Crystal River in Withlacoochee Bay. That trip enamored me with the wild beauty of the region and the redfish that were so willing to take a fly. The second day of my two-day trip started with an experience that I’ll never forget.

Angelo poled his flats boat through a channel and into a cove that had been inaccessible the day before. The sky was cloudless and the shallow water was clear and only 2 feet deep. As we eased towards the black-mangrove edge, Angelo pointed out a half dozen redfish silhouetted over the light bottom and positioned me for a cast. The first two presentations were ignored, but on my third attempt, a 28” red started tracking the fly as Angelo coached me on stripping the fly. The instructions worked and the red rushed and inhaled the fly as I strip struck to set the hook. The fish bolted towards the mangroves but turned as I applied pressure with the rod. Racing back towards the outlet that fed the cove, the red caused the line to “rooster tail” a thin line of water over the mirror-smooth surface. Applying pressure and alternately moving the rod from the left to right I was able to tire the fish after two more short runs. After a quick picture and video clip we returned the red to the water. We had been fishing a total of about 30 minutes when I turned to Angelo and said, “My day’s already made!”

This is a wild and unforgiving part of Florida whose shallow waters are studded with limestone outcroppings, shallow flats and oyster bars. While I always champion using guides in areas I don’t know, this is one place I would never consider bringing my boat. Even Angelo’s mud motor, a specialized engine, was churning up mud and bumping bottom as he took me to places where it seemed angels (or airboats) would fear to tread!

On the first day, we were on the backside of a strong cold front that plunged temperatures into the low 40s with north winds to 20 mph. After a cold run across the open bay, we were able to fish in the lee of a group of mangrove islands. The wind had blown the water out of the shallow bay and we were unable to reach some of Angelo’s favorite backwater haunts. Fortunately, we found groups of hungry redfish huddled on the Gulf side flats. In the low morning light, we had to move extremely slow, sometimes seeing fish almost under the boat. This required nothing more than a quick, short roll cast and made it necessary to shorten my leader and downsize my bite tippet. Once we had the fish “dialed in” we enjoyed a morning and early afternoon of sight-fishing singles, doubles and small groups of redfish.

In the afternoon as the tide rose, we elected to investigate deep into the creeks and channels that feed the vast expanse of marsh grass hammocks. At one point we beached the boat and hiked to an ancient grove of grey weathered cedar trees. The feeling while standing at the base of those twisted sentinels was one of being the first to stand in this spot, a rare experience in today’s Florida.

The second day the winds died and although the day dawned cold, it warmed up to be perfect for sight fishing with multiple opportunities for hook ups and a chance to explore the back bays and coves that had been inaccessible the day before. To top off the trip, just as we were about to “pull the plug,” Angelo spotted a large redfish close to a shallow oyster bar. On my first cast, I was able to hook up with what was the biggest and hardest-fighting fish of the trip. The big red made multiple runs into the backing with head-shaking appearances at the surface before finally tiring enough to be landed, photographed and released.

If you would like to experience one of Florida’s “last frontiers,” contact Captain Nick Angelo at 813-230-8473 or visit his website. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.

Rusty Chinnis, The Sun's Outdoors columnist, is a professional photographer, certified Fly Fishers International casting instructor, and chairman of the board of Suncoast Waterkeeper. Email