Vol 7 No. 25 - March 14, 2007

Chassahowitzka: Florida's best kept secret

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 state’s 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 Maggie’s 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 hotel’s 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 Maggie’s. 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. Conti’s 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 Angelo’s 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 won’t be my last. Besides the endless opportunities in the immediate area, it’s just a short trip to Homosassa Springs and Crystal River. It’s comforting to know that Florida still has wide open spaces, uncluttered with resorts and rows of condominiums. Citrus County bills itself as the "Water Lover’s Florida," a name it lives up to.

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.

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