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Summer Son


Summer Son

“Dig there!  Do you see them?  Wait for the next wave.  You’ve got them now.”

He is quick to learn.  I point a finger, cock an eye, and he fully understands what is expected.

The next wave washes the scene and the fleas are exposed to his amazed gaze.  Looking up from his work, his face searching mine for clues, I see joy, curiosity, and a little fear.  His face tells me his future.  I’m sure that he will succeed in all he attempts.

Having understood my quick nod and large smile he attacks the laughable creatures and plops them into the bucket.

“That’s it!  Good job!  Okay, try it again.  Go through the eye, around the line, 1, 2, 3, 4 times.  Now down and through the little hole.  Wet it.  Pull. Clip it. Done!  Very nice!”

Tenderly grabbing a flea he invents his own way to impale it:  mine being “too mean.”  He throws to his own spot, moves too much, smiles continuously, hopes eternally, and meets with no success.

He knows to shuffle his feet but the school of rays convinced him to keep his knees dry.

A big red sun squats on the water.  Puffs of air too warm to matter crawl past.  A trickle of sweat glides down his cheek.  He sighs and yawns, “Should we go home and tell Mom that I caught the bait?”

“Yes, let’s do that.  But first, let’s get some ice cream.”

Hans

There must be
Moments when we see right through.
Although we say we can’t.  I knew
A fisher who could lean and look
Blind into dazzle on the sea
And strike into that fire his hook,
Far under, and lean back and laugh
And let the line run out, and reel
What rod could weigh nor line could feel
The heavy silver of his wish,
And when the reel-spool faltered, kneel
And with a fumbling hand that shook
Boat, all bloody from the gaff,
A shivering fish.
— Archibald McLeish

Hans

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the grass flats of the Homosassa and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  In the last ten days a dog had been with him. (Hemingway)  To an unlucky fisherman, a dog is a great comfort.  The dog had always lived with him but the man had not thought there was room for two in an unlucky skiff.  Now that luck had abandoned him, the dog was invited along.

The dog took the early morning life seriously and each morning woke the man before daylight so as not to miss the sensations of the sunrise:  the scent of dark waters lightly covered with rising mist, the sight of orange flame contained in gray cumulus low over the cedars, and the touch of wind and spray in his gaping mouth and wide open eyes.

This enthusiasm was contagious and the man was eager to share his experiences with someone so interested.  The man would not raise an eyelash to help himself but would move the river channel for a willing pupil.  With a new partner, the man was hopeful that his luck would change; but, if it didn’t, it did not matter.

But the dog did not know this and did not care as long as the man was near and continued to pat the dog’s head and talk to him in reassuring tones.  Many days had past since the man had spoken harshly and the dog, always eager to please but often unknowingly provoking anger, lowered his wagging tail, dropped his head and rubbed it against the man’s leg to make sure the hurtful voice did not return.  This always worked.

On this day, the tide was strong and fast and the man had only an hour of prime fishing time on his favorite flat before the water was so skinny that even his skiff would not be able to float above the sand.  The full moon had just set and had pulled the water off the flat in a torrent that left the grass tips stranded on the surface, bent and twisted and brown and green.  The falling tide also left the fish looking for water in which to feed and in which to hide.

A skiff is a small boat with low sides and an open cockpit that is used by flats fishing guides everywhere.  The flat bottom and light weight of the boat’s hull allows the fisherman to push the boat with a long pole while standing in the stern while floating in four inches of water.  This slow, quiet movement is needed when the tail of a bull redfish has been sighted flagging above the water from within a twelve-inch deep pothole in the middle of a thousand acre field of rocks, sea grass, sand, and gin clear gulf water.

The man never used bait and held in low esteem all who did.  Not that using live or cut bait was really bad it was just easier.  Casting a shrimp or pinfish to a tailing redfish was an art in itself but was less an art than throwing a plastic jerk bait or a Clouser minnow pattern and all agree that the sight and sound of a redfish boiling on a top water plug is only surpassed by the exploding chaos created by a snook on the same lure. This was the technique of the old man and it had not worked for a long time.  With the sun in his face, a redfish tail in the air, and the push pole gently propelling the boat, the man moved within casting distance to try his luck, again.

Sensing the man’s excitement the dog worried that the harsh tones would return.  To prevent this the dog slowly walked, nails clicking on the hard deck, back to the stern where the man had taken a knee and was pushing the boat with one hand and holding his fishing rod in the other.  Licking his lips, a soft whine escaped, and the dog pressed his flank to the man’s thigh.  Tender words where spoken but the dog did not dare leave as the man’s tension was still high.

The old man knew the fish was feeding and would not see him; but, fish have senses humans can not fathom.  Very sensitive to sound and water pressure, the fish does not rely on its eyes for defense.  Instead, the fish knows that the dull clunk of a heavy foot fall on the deck of a boat, or the sharp clank of a push pole on a rock, or the crisp slap of small waves on the side of a boat’s hull means predators are near.  Sometimes even the silent, hulking, presence of the boat displacing water is somehow detected by wary fish – no shadow, no sound, just fish plowing the surface into furrows as they bolt in panic from an unseen, but definitely sensed, menace.

Almost within casting distance, the man calculated the wind and water movement, stopped pushing, and let the skiff drift the final few feet to within casting distance of the big fish.  Clipping the push pole onto its bungee leash, it trailed silently in the boat’s wake; the man dropped down to both knees and quickly loaded his rod tip and fired his lure toward the tailing fish.

Not yet experienced in catching fish, the dog had only known the man to make these casts and then utter harsh tones and then slowly relax and then rapidly get tense again.  The dog was confused as this behavior only happened on the boat and not when in the house where they lived in quiet and comfort and peace.  Why the man was tense when on the boat, the dog did not know.  But this time something happened even more frightening than the harsh tones.

The lure landed six feet beyond the fish and three feet to the right.  The man saw the fish stop feeding and drop his tail back into the water but it did not run.  Instead, the fish darted at the floating plug and smacked it with the side of its head.  The plug bounced into the air a few inches and settled back down.  The man did not panic nor did he even move until the ripples the fish and plug had made settled down.  With a steady set of quick snaps of the rod tip, the man worked the plug toward the boat.  The fish again noticed the plug and cruised rapidly toward the lure, water flowed over its back pushing a bulge of water that forced the man to focus more on his rod tip and less on the actions of the fish in order to maintain the rhythm needed to correctly walk the lure.

Pacing the deck in confusion, the dog whined and rubbed the man’s leg and hoped that the tension would end without anger.  Not knowing how to help the man, the dog started to slobber and whimper and shake his head while bouncing on this front feet and staring intently at the disturbance in the water that so consumed the man’s attention.

Striking the lure the fish caused the water to boil and foam before turning and swimming away with its new prize only to be surprised that the morsel was not what was expected.  Panicked, the fish stroked its powerful tail driving forward to the deep water and safety.  But the hooks had done their job and were deeply imbedded into the fish’s jaw.

Reeling as fast as possible the man rose from the deck and removed the slack from the line.  The feeling of pressure from the fish through the line, into the rod and into the man’s hands, was wonderful.  Line began to scream from the reel and further attempts to reel in more line were impossible as the fish muscled its way toward safe water.  Redfish are not fast but they are strong.  The man did not pressure the fish but knew if he could keep the line tight the fish was his.

Seeing the water boil, the man stand, and the rod bend, the dog was confused and concerned.  He knew that the disturbance in the water was causing his master pain.  The dog felt it necessary to end the man’s pain and return them both to their normal quiet existence.  Finally, the dog could see the problem.  In the water, a creature was slowly moving toward the boat. Action was required and the dog leaped into the water and loped  through the sea grass to within striking distance of the horrible creature.  The dog lunged keeping his head underwater for several seconds.  When his head reemerged, the dog had clamped in his powerful teeth the shivering, dripping, bulk of a twelve-pound redfish.

The man slowly lowered his rod. Laughing until his side hurt, he watched as the dog calmly walked back to the boat and dropped the now dead fish onto the deck.  Eighty-four days of bad luck had purchased, for the man, a little luck.  Good fishing partners are hard to find and the man would not let this one get away.

Salt River (Homosassa to St. Martin’s) Boat Trail

Disclaimer

Each BoatTrail is thoroughly tested by Wetsocks team members and the route is selected to provide the boater with the safest and fastest path to the selected destination.  However, safe use of any BoatTrail in this guide requires practice and good sense.   Rocks are everywhere!

Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) Map

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Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) Data Files

Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) Google Earth KML file
Load this file to Google Earth to view the best boat position while on your computer.

Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) GPX file
Load this file to your GPS receiver to help correctly position your boat while on the water.

Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) Description

The Salt River runs from the Homosassa River to the Crystal River.  The section between the Homosassa River and the St. Martins River is easy to travel and only has a single dangerous spot (see map note #2).

This section of the Salt River is an excellent route choice when putting a boat in at the Homosassa but wanting to enjoy the excellent rivers to the north such as the Little Homosassa, St. Martin’s, and Fish Creek.

Salt River (Homosassa River to St. Martin River) Map Notes

Match the note number to the number on the map for navigation warnings on a particular area.

1.  This is the entrance to the Salt River.  Watch for the island
on the east side of the entrance.  It is sometimes submerged
and could cause a navigation hazard.

2.  This is a tricky, shallow, and narrow spot.  The channel is
mostly located along the east bank of the river.  However
a couple tight turns are required to skirt between two oyster
bars.  Look for the private channel markers.

3.  The Salt River meets the St. Martins River and the channel
is a bit twisty.  Slow down and follow the private navigation
aids.

4.  This is the John Brown Park boat ramp.

Petty Creek Boat Trail

Disclaimer

Each BoatTrail is thoroughly tested by Wetsocks team members and the route is selected to provide the boater with the safest and fastest path to the selected destination.  However, safe use of any BoatTrail in this guide requires practice and good sense.   Rocks are everywhere!

Petty Creek Map

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Petty Creek Data Files

Petty Creek Google Earth KML file
Load this file to Google Earth to view the best boat position while on your computer.

Petty Creek GPX file
Load this file to your GPS receiver to help correctly position your boat while on the water.

Petty Creek Description

Petty Creek is the best route for traveling between the Homosassa River and Mason Creek.  This creek is easily traveled by small boats during most tide levels but does have several shallow bars and rocks that can cause navigation problems during low tides.

Read the map notes to locate these areas

Petty Creek Map Notes

Match the note number to the number on the map for navigation warnings on a particular area.

1.  Breakwater entrance is on the north side of the creek.
2.  Shallow bar before the Chass NWR sign.  Channel on south side.
3.  Dangerous bars across creek.  Look for private markers.
Stay centered between island and markers.
4.  North Channel is rocky and narrow but deeper than Mason Creek.
Look for the many bars that dot this area.
5.  Parallel bars run mostly north and south and have narrow cuts that allow boats to pass.
6.  Big rock directly in the channel.  It is flat topped and is only a problem at low tide.
7.  The south side of Porpoise Bay seems to have some rocks scattered about.
8.  The west end of Blue Bay is shallow and rocky.
9.  The entrance to Petty Creek has a long bar across 2/3rd of the creek.  Stay to the southwest next to the dock.
10. A bar completely crosses the creek.  Private markers show the channel but the deepest part seems to be on the east side of the channel within 8 feet of the marker.  The best channel is extremely shallow and may be impassable during a low tide.
11. A big and nasty rock sets in the middle of the creek.  Stay to the west side and do not go east of the creek’s centerline.
12. The entrance to Seven Cabbage Creek is shallow, rocky, narrow, and should be traversed very slowly.
13. The cut that leads to Blue Bay and the pass to the north that leads back to Mason Creek is very shallow and can not be traveled during extremely low tide.
14. This is the entrance to the Salt River.  Watch out for the small island on the east side of the entrance.  It is usually just barely above the water and has some grass growing on it.

Mason Creek Boat Trail

Disclaimer

Each BoatTrail is thoroughly tested by Wetsocks team members and the route is selected to provide the boater with the safest and fastest path to the selected destination.  However, safe use of any BoatTrail in this guide requires practice and good sense.   Rocks are everywhere!

Mason Creek Map

masoncreek

Mason Creek Data Files

Mason Creek Google Earth KML file
Load this file to Google Earth to view the best boat position while on your computer.

Mason Creek GPX file
Load this file to your GPS receiver to help correctly position your boat while on the water.

Mason Creek Description

Just to the south of the Homosassa River can be found the black waters of Mason Creek. This small creek flows out of a tidal swamp and quickly makes its way to the open Gulf of Mexico. Because the freshwater springs in this creek are of little note and because the salt marsh extends almost to the source, the waters near and upstream from the boat ramp are nearly black from mud and tannins. However, as the creek flows to the Gulf the waters quickly turn clear.

Fortunately, this creek is more lightly used than the better known rivers of the area and it is a favorite of birdwatchers and those seeking solace. Relatively easy to travel by small boat and with connecting creeks to the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka Rivers, Mason Creek provides access to the entire Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Mason Creek Map Notes

Match the note number to the number on the map for navigation warnings on a particular area.

1.  Breakwater entrance is on the north side of the creek.
2.  Shallow bar before the Chass NWR sign.  Channel on south side.
3.  Dangerous bars across creek.  Look for private markers.
Stay centered between island and markers.
4.  North Channel is rocky and narrow but deeper than Mason Creek.
Look for the many bars that dot this area.
5.  Parallel bars run mostly north and south and have narrow cuts that allow
boats to pass.
6.  Big rock directly in the channel.  It is flat topped and is only a problem at low tide.
7.  The south side of Porpoise Bay seems to have some rocks scattered about.
8.  The west end of Blue Bay is shallow and rocky.
9.  The entrance to Petty Creek has a long bar across 2/3rd of the creek.  Stay to
the southwest next to the dock.
10. A bar completely crosses the creek.  Private markers show the channel but the
deepest part seems to be on the east side of the channel within 8 feet of the
marker.  The best channel is extremely shallow and can be passed even during
a normal low tide.
11. A big and nasty rock sets in the middle of the creek.  Stay to the west side
and do not go east of the creek’s centerline.
12. The entrance to Seven Cabbage Creek is shallow, rocky, narrow, and should be
traversed very slowly.
13. The cut that leads to Blue Bay and the pass to the north that leads back to Mason
Creek is very shallow and can not be traveled during extremely low tide.

First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

After years of planning, the “Cross Florida MTB Challenge” finally happened. This first edition of the “Challenge” went off without a hitch: the weather was fantastic, the route was about 85% correct (which left plenty of room for route finding fun), and we didn’t get arrested for trespassing!

The main goal of the “Challenge” is to cross Florida on as much dirt as possible. The route was selected so that travel could be on bike trails, horse trails, hiking trails, forest roads, the occasional bushwhack, and unfortunately some paved roads. I know that it is wrong to use single use horse and hiking trails for an offroad bike event but to prove or disprove the feasibility of this project, rules had to be broken.

In fact, a large portion of the first day was spent trespassing on private land. This is nothing to be proud of and the risk of being ticketed or even arrested was very real. But crossing Florida on as much dirt as possible is a difficult task these days. Florida has experienced uncontrolled growth for thirty years and finding a non-paved section of public forest is always difficult. Taking a risk to fulfill a dream is what life is all about and since we traveled as quickly as possible, stayed on the maintained roads, and did not loiter, litter, or vandalize, I don’t think anyone minded us being there.

Here are the links to the .gpx and .kml data files created during this event.

atb_across_florida_2009.kml

atb_across_florida_2009.gpx

Here is the link to the MapMyRide website that has the .gpx drawn on a map.

ATB_Across_Florida

Below please find the play-by-play action report with a few photos for emphasis.

October 18, 2009 Trip to the starting point.

Sunday morning all participants met at the “River House” and loaded themselves and their gear into the caravan vehicle. Yes, only one vehicle was needed. Only two Wetsocks team members, Ken and Craig, where available to make the inaugural event. All the rest failed to show siting such poor excuses as, “I have a full time job,” “My hip needs to be replaced,” and “I’m not comfortable trespassing on a hunting lease during hunting season.” Lame!

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Loading up the caravan vehicle

The caravan rolled out and after stopping for a large meal of Sonny’s BBQ, arrived at the Ocean Crest Motel , our host hotel, in plenty of time to unpack our gear and take a walk on the gorgeous Atlantic beach. The Ocean Crest is a ’50s style motel in Ormond-by-the-Sea on a bit of lightly developed Atlantic Beach front north of Ormond Beach on A1A that reminded me of childhood vacations with the family. Our stay was brief but enjoyable and I would recommend the Ocean Crest for future events.

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Vacation '50s style

In the early evening the pre-race party was kicked off when team Wetsocks was picked up at their hotel for a trip to an Ormond Beach sports bar. Several pitchers of beer, piles of chicken wings and good company made for a great time.

After being dropped back at our hotel we decided that the liquor store was only a couple miles away and that a bottle of wine would be nice as we sat on the porch and listened to the surf. Ken was getting romantic on this cool clear evening but I made sure he knew we could only ever be friends.

The chianti finished and the sun set. We decided to call it a night.

Day 1 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 19, 2009 Day 1 – Ormond Beach to Astor

This says it all
This says it all

Not wanting to start such a long bike ride without a good breakfast we rode south on A1A to Alfie’s Restaurant. It is just a little breakfast place about three miles south of the Ocean Crest Motel. The food was the usual stuff but it filled us up.

Here is a picture of poor Alfie. Legend has it that he swam across Bulow Creek to get to the beach and the easy living found among the nesting sea turtles only to be run over by a vacationing Canadian! Hopefully this short allegory does not hold any predictions for our bike ride.

Poor Alfie
Poor Alfie

Now the challenge begins! We rode north on A1A until the entrance to North Peninsula State Park was located. Turning west we traveled through the park and into Bulow Creek State Park. Bulow Park has beautiful scenery along its only paved road. This road is often included in the route of this area’s bike rides.

Bulow Park was quickly behind us and we began to get into the dreaded and gated “Rich Yankee” communities. I am still wondering which is worse: poor trailer trash with the requisite broken-truck lawn ornaments, leaking septic tank, and bad attitude or the rich golf club member with the boring over-fertilized over-watered lawn, sense of entitlement, and bad attitude.

Happy in Bulow Creek State Park
Happy in Bulow Creek State Park
North Peninsula State Park
North Peninsula State Park

We connected to the Old Dixie Hwy., merged with US1, and briefly headed north until my GPS let me know that it was time to get off the pavement and enter the Relay WMA. Relay is a Florida wildlife management area but is privately owned by Plum Creek, Inc. Formally Georgia/Pacific Timber Company, they must have figured that polluting Florida’s rivers with dioxins from their paper manufacturing was too much for their good name and decided that a moniker as sweet as Plum Creek would be unassailable. It is ironic that almost all the recently acquired open patches of land in Florida are preserved not because of forward looking and persuasive environmental and recreational leaders but because private land owners, donated large tracks of land to the state in order to prevent inherited estates from being wiped out by taxes.

I had sought permission to legally cross the Relay tract from both Plum Creek and from the Florida Fish and Wildlife department. Plum Creek said it was okay with them if Fish and Wildlife agreed. However, Fish and Wildlife refused my request for a special use permit.

Crossing Relay illegally would just add to the excitement of the day. Many is the time I have crossed private property without permission but this is the first time that my trespass was premeditated.

We entered Relay as inconspicuously as is possible from the side of US1 at rush hour while wearing blaze orange and flouresent yellow jackets and breaking down enough branches to allow room for our bikes to be lifted over a five strand barbed-wire fence. Once over the fence a railroad track was crossed and then another fence had to be handled before we finally stood on our first dirt road.

At this point I realized that the two fence crossings had broken the strap on the ball cap I had tied to my backpack and dislodged the red lens from my spare flashing light. This was my favorite running hat and it should never have been packed as it was never needed. The flashing light was a spare but still it was annoying to lose it.

I don’t think we had been on the dirt for thirty seconds when Ken says, “Stop! Its a truck.” With fresh guilt from just breaking into Relay and with months to let our premeditated gall hollow out our pride, we did what had to be done and quickly scampered into the bushes and hid like the delinquent children we wished we could still be. But we quickly decided that hiding was not going to get us to Astor and since the truck “must be gone by now” we continued on down the road. Probably a mile later another truck appears in front of us but this time we play it cool and wave at the guy as he drives by and he smiles and waves back and we pedal just that much faster.

The planned route had us take a road that went through a fenced off cattle pasture. The gate was locked and slightly smashed down so we jumped it and continued on only to run into a heard of cattle guarding the one open gate into the pasture that contained our road. Not wishing to disturb the cattle or the gun toting cowboy that was potentially around the next corner, we did what Ken and I usually do in this situation and took the most obvious route around the obstruction. Below is a picture of our alternate path.

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The Ditch

So we had already jumped three fences why not crawl through a ditch. The forth fence was waiting for us on the other side.

Once over the ditch the road continued as planned but then suddenly petered-out into a swampy area. Before the ride I would have sworn that the road continued through the swamp but do acknowledge that planning a route via Google Earth photos is not completely safe.

Here is the beginning of our first “disappointment.”

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First Disappointment

We, actually Ken immediately sensed that this road was doomed, bushwhacked around looking for the road to pick back up but the swamp just got deeper and the brush just got thicker. This road looked so good on the satellite photo that no alternate was proposed but Ken pulled out his Florida Gazetteer cutouts and I scoffed at their huge scale and laughed at his confidence in their portrayal of roads on private land in the middle of no-where. But he quickly found a way around and I had to eat crow and admit that his maps actually had more roads on them than the 7.5 minute topos on my GPS.

At this point we finally started to move at a good pace and I was able to relax a bit until a giant spider that had been hiding on the top of my helmet decided to move onto my face. I slapped and swatted and cursed but never saw a dead spider; however, my sunglasses where completely destroyed and had to be abandoned in the woods.

Once we got out of the northeastern section of Relay the roads got better and the forest was less dense and had pockets of clear-cuts, bridges over ditches, power-line roads, some sand, a little mud. One powerline had such a large cleared area around it that the clearing looked like a wet prarie with fantastic flowers, tall grass, a cool breeze. It was worth a few pictures.

Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie

As we approached the Relay watchtower area, we feared that hunters and possibly game wardens would be there laying in wait for evil trespassers. But we pedaled past the camp, saw lots of cabins, trucks, and even a few people setting around enjoying the beautiful weather. A very cool old wooden bridge crosses Haw Creek at the Relay hunt camp.

Ken crossing Haw Creek
Ken crossing Haw Creek

After the hunt camp, we blasted down the good dirt roads and quickly found ourselves at SR40 and at the end of the great trespass of ’09. At the corner of SR40 and SR11 we expected to resupply and have a nice lunch but we were disappointed to find that no infrastructure existed at this intersection. Ken was promised a pork sandwich after we exited Relay but he was denied and is still bitter.

But getting off private land and onto the legal bike trails and dirt roads of Heart Island Conservation Area was its own reward and we took a much deserved snack break and looked forward to riding in areas both new and guilt free.

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Heart Island Entrance
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Heart Island Entrance

Nothing much happened in Heart Island Conservation Area except the usual wrong turns, back tracks, and explanations of why poor decisions were not stupid but actually the most obvious choice based on the information at hand. We cruised through this area with nothing to complain about but the tall trees, the soaring hawks, and the grass waving in the cool breeze. If Ken would just drop the pork sandwich miscalculation, all would be right with the world.

The trail dropped us back into civilization just south of Barberville on the intersection of SR17 and SR40. Seeing a convenience store at the corner we bolted to it and purchased food and water, both of which I was without. Gatorade, snickers bars, potato chip! Yum! Junk food is so good when tired, thirsty, dirty, and looking forward to many more miles of biking.

From this store we checked the maps to find the easiest way back onto the proposed route. When the route crossed SR17, it suggested a bushwhack that did not look fun and was completely unnecessary. As we explored the available options, Ken discovered “The Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts” (www.pioneersettlement.org). It had lots of recreated 19th and early 20th century buildings and some modern classroom facilities. It would make a great place for a school field trip or a vacation one-day stop over.

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Country Store

dscn2693Once we found our way back onto the route, we entered Lake George State Forest. This area supposedly suffered heavily from the wild fires of 1998 but the last decade has been good to the forest and everything looked great. Our route took us down Fawn Road until it intersected with Truck Trail 7 and we stayed on this well maintained limerock road across the entire forest. Many inviting and grassy trails and roads tempted us to stray but the sun was starting to get low and we forced ourselves to take the easy way.

Truck Trail 7 passes by Jenkins Pond where a covered picnic pavillion just begs to be used. Too close to the St. John’s river to stop, we completed the last bit of forest road and found ourselves on River Rd. To the north would be Astor, our day’s destination. To the south would be Bluffton Recreation Area. As is usual when Ken and Craig do anything, the original route and goal is just a suggestion. So we headed south to Bluffton to see what there was to see.

The Bluffton Recreation Area is small but nice. A floating dock sets in a channel of the St. Johns River that flows behind an island once used as a steamboat launch. Ruins of this launch are supposed to remain but none could be seen from our vantage point. A nature trail was available for hikers or for mountain bikers that do not mind breaking the rules. Since it was late in the day and no cars were in the parking lot, I did not think we would bother anyone.

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Bluffton Recreation Area
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Bluffton Recreation Area

The nature trail was okay and certainly worth a trip if visiting this area. There used to be a giant shell midden at Bluffton but it has been completely removed and used as road building base. I wonder for what purpose future generations will use our trash dumps?

Hungry and a bit leg sore we got back onto River Rd. and headed for Astor. Astor was funny in that it had plenty of motels, marinas, restaurants, and gift shops but none of them were open. I’m not sure when their “high season” might be but we definitely hit town at the lowest. Our host motel in Astor was “The Astor Bridge Marina and Hotel at the Port of Call Yacht Club.” I kid you not! With a name like that wouldn’t you expect a giant neon sign with some famous headliner’s name across the marquee? No, we rode over the Astor Bridge and searched the most likely looking places. We could not ask anyone since the town was empty and the stores were closed. The place could have been in a slasher movie or even a “Twilight Zone” episode. Crossing back over the bridge we did notice a small broken and faded plastic sign that said, “Astor Marina and Hotel.” Fortunately, the manager had left our key in the restaurant as he had promised and the restaurant didn’t look too bad. However, the motel was basically a concrete block prison cell.

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Outside the cell block
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Inside the cell block

At the restaurant we watched the sunset, stared at the “famous” Astor Bridge, ate a big pork-chop dinner, and drank several beers. Ken exchanged text messages with Ron and they both compared their day’s adventure: Ron shot a buck on his lease in Georgia and Ken risked being shot on a lease in Florida.

That night I fixed a tire that was beginning to deflate during the last few miles of the trip and then we dropped into bed at 8:30 PM.

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Astor Bridge

Day 2 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 20, 2009 Day 2 – Astor to Ocala

This morning was again a perfect day for any outdoor activity. We had no compelling reason to stay in our cell block any longer than necessary and quickly packed our stuff, left the key on the table, and hit the road looking for an open store to get some food.

Astor had nothing to offer for breakfast so we stayed on SR40 for the short distance to the equally small town of Astor Park. Once there we found an open BP station that had a built-in Subway sandwich shop that also served breakfast. Ken and I ordered a surprisingly good breakfast of eggs, cheese, muffins, etc. and then loaded up with water, ice, Gatorade, and candy bars.

We met two old guys setting on a bench in the front of the store and they volunteered directional information that was very useful for anyone driving a car or truck but a bit scary for anyone on a bike. We explained that we wished to stay off paved roads and planned to cross the Ocala National Forest on the forest roads or on trails. They did not seem too hopeful and repeated their paved road route.

From the BP station the planned route lay just south of SR40 and followed an old railroad grade that has been converted to a powerline. We made several attempts to get onto the grade but we always found our way blocked by either a fenced yard full of junk and bulldogs or by tall brush and horrible trail conditions.

We decided to move on and stayed on SR40 to CR445A and from there were able to pick up the desired route as it entered the Ocala National Forest on FR528.

Ocala National Forest Entrance
Ocala National Forest Entrance

Travel on FR528 was excellent. It felt great to be off the hard road and into the forest.

After a few miles we crossed SR19 and then arrived at Camp Ocala, a 4-H center on the shores of Sellers Lake. The place looked abandoned except for a guy kicking the side of a full-sized van. He didn’t look like a car thief but maybe we should have been more suspicous.

At the back side of the 4-H center the road ended at a fence with no-trespassing signs. We could see that the road continued on the other side of the this property but we didn’t want to make a 400 meter dash without the cover of trees.

So we backtracked to the nearest southbound trail and started searching for a way around. It didn’t take long to find the west-bound FR595-2. This road had a good clay base and I was confident that we would now get across the forest without trouble. However, we saw an interesting sign and had to explore.

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Getting very comfortable jumping gates

The sign told us that Buck Lake campground was down this road and that a reservation was necessary to use it. We had to crawl under the gate but since we were on public land I didn’t think anyone would mind. The campground was beautiful, the lake was gorgeous, and I would like to come back and camp here someday. Maybe, if we can get a larger group of riders for next years Challenge, we can reserve the campground.

The map showed that Buck Lake had lots of hiking trails around it and we planned to take advantage of them. Now that we had taken the road to Buck Lake we could not possibly backtrack to the nice clay road that we had left. Instead the new plan was to take the trails until a secondary forest road could be found that headed west and was not hip deep in sugar sand.

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Buck Lake
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Ken waiting for Craig at Buck Lake

At Buck Lake I noticed that both of my tires were going flat! Ken was forced to wait for me as I changed one tube and then discovered that my second tube was defective. Actually, the second tube had been in my bike bag for so long that it had a hole worn through it. I took one of Ken’s, fixed the problem and we headed down the hiking trail to the west of the lake.

These trails were fun and had good traction, lots of shade, and an occasional view of the lake. Alas, these trails quickly stopped heading west and we had to make other plans.

Ken on the Buck Lake Trails
Ken on the Buck Lake Trails

We hopped on a secondary forest road but found that it was too sandy for us to make any real progress. My topo map showed a few trails in this area and we figured that a trail would have less travel and therefore be less sandy. We did find less sand but also found that the less traveled trail, although interesting and beautiful, had a few hurdles to negotiate.

Very tired of hurdling the fallen trees
Hurdling the fallen trees

We lifted our bikes over a thousand blown down sand pines while the living trees, blown by the wind, popped and moaned above our heads. Finally, we broke out onto a trail that, although a bit sandy, could be rolled. In the sandy spots we could see an array of animal tracks: raccoon, opossum, deer, fox, dog, human, and even bear! No other sign of bears was found but it was discovered that raccoons tend to poop in the middle of all roads and trails.

Bear Track
Bear Track

We were now officially in the Big Scrub of the Ocala National Forest. Although we were not more than five miles from a paved road, this area had a very wild feel to it. The signs of human impact were everywhere but the place was dry and unforgiving and did not make you feel welcome. Getting this feeling has to be the best reason to do a ride such as this one and I did not have it anywhere else during the entire ride.

Fighting through the sand we finally made it back to the planned route on FR584A. This road was the expected well maintained clay based road that traversed the southern border of the Navy’s Pinecastle Impact Range. This range is the only place on the East Coast that the Navy can do live bombing practice. The area is unfenced but the signs posting warnings such as “Unexploded Ordnance,” and “Active Laser Ranging” are enough to keep me out.

The planned route had us leave the nice forest road and start to cross the western side of the forest using secondary roads and trails. The first trail we hit was terribly sandy and we had to push our bikes for the entire half-mile. Once back out onto a real road, we swore to never do that again.

But the next secondary road looked like it had a solid clay base and its temptations were too much to resist. It lead us down into what the map called “The Volusia Bear Hole.” How can you resist a road that takes you to a place with that name? The “Bear Hole” indeed had many bear tracks but at its center there was nothing but a dried up mud hole and the remnants of several weekend parties: beer cans, bottles, burned wood, and trash. However, the worst sight was that to the west of the “Bear Hole” the road had been destroyed by logging equipment that had recently clear-cut about five square miles of forest. The road was still there but it was a plowed up mess of clean, dry, powdery sugar sand! One point five miles of the stuff. We trudged through the shadeless clear-cut pushing our bikes wishing for death. But death never came and the sand did end. And this time, when we finally hit the next good road, our “never do that again” oath stuck.

Miles and Miles of Sand
Miles and Miles of Sand
Recovering from "Bear Hole" Sand Pit
Recovering after "Bear Hole" Sand Pit

The sand had taken its toll on our energy stores so we took a break to eat, drink, shake the sand out of our clothes, and I had to fix another flat tire.

Swearing never to get stuck in sand again, we bailed on the proposed route through the lakes of the western forest and just hammered down the clay and lime rock forest roads until we made to our first paved road in many hours. 182nd Ave Rd is a paved forest road on the west side of the forest but it was our only way out. Fortunately, we only had to stay on it for the three miles to the Sunnyhill Restoration Area.

I expected Sunnyhill to have water and at least a port-a-john but was sadly mistaken. Our water was getting low but since we knew that a store was probably only five miles away and that the route through Sunnyhill would only take twenty minutes, we stayed on the planned route. Or, we thought we were on the planned route. For some reason Ken and I were unable to reconcile the Sunnyhill trail map with our view of the world. We followed what was thought to be the Red trail and hoped something would start to look familiar.

At this point another of my tires went flat and I sat down in the grass and bitterly fixed the problem. It was now that my bitching and whining began and the flats were beginning to be not only a pain in my ass but also a legitimate impediment to the success of this ride. The sun was getting low and we had many miles until we reached Ocala. Getting a flat every three miles was not going to get us home in time for dinner!

Okay, flat fixed and we are off. Yes, off the trail! Why can’t we follow our own advice? And the irony is that Ken and I are the most conservative travelers of anyone in our little group of friends. No sooner did we give up looking for the trail shown on the map than we went off on another bushwhack to find it. Fortunately, this bushwhack ended quickly when our trail dead-ended into a nasty marsh on the edge of the Ocklawaha River. Once back on the main trail, we took it to its northern extreme and found we had the Ocklawaha Marsh to our left, a huge ditch in front, and a giant ditch to our right. Dude, we were screwed. But let me tell you that practicing the Golden Rule my entire life totally paid off on this day for just as I was about to call a retreat, Ken discovered a large oak tree conveniently growing over the giant ditch and it offered us its one big limb to use as a bridge.

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Ken uses the miracle tree to carry the bikes across the giant ditch

Once over the ditch, there was an easy trek out to 182 Ave. Rd. Still scratching our heads as to how we missed the trail that the Sunnyhill map so clearly showed, we rode to Moss Bluff and licked our wounds at Meador’s Corner Grocery. We topped up our Camelbacks with water and Gatorade, made sure we had enough energy bars, and ate a delicious bag of potato chips.

The only store in Moss Bluff
The only store in Moss Bluff

We took SR314A to the west but were quickly stopped by both of my tires going flat! I’m out of tubes so we pull off into the Moss Bluff Baptist Church parking lot and begin to patch all the tubes. Ken found a working water faucet and then two wonderful ladies came out of the church and gave us a bucket. With a bucket full of water, finding and patching the leaks was a breeze.

I finally realized that my flats were caused entirely by sand spurs and only appeared when I had been riding on a paved road. My theory is that the sand spurs stick into the tire while on the trail but do not puncture the tire and tube until the hard road hammers them home. My tire choice was obviously a poor one. Thinking that we would mainly be on well maintained dirt roads or pavement, I selected my best rolling but thinnest tires. Never ride offroad with mountain bike XC race tires!

After wasting about an hour between a food stop and fixing more flats, we finally got out of Moss Bluff and headed toward the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area.

The original plan was to explore the extent of the dike road and determine if a future ride would be able to cross the small ditch to the north of the Prairie and then proceed across Heather Island and through Marshall Swamp. But it was about to get dark and we had to modify that plan. We did find time to explore the Prairie entrance on SE 137 Ave. Rd. and visit the boardwalk that takes you out into the Restoration Area. This boardwalk stretched a half mile out into the prairie (actually more like a wet marsh). Since no other person was seen, we rode our bikes to the end of the walk, snapped a few pictures, and continued on our way. This day was starting to get very long and we were still had ten tough miles before it was over.

Ocklawaha Prairie Entrance
Ocklawaha Prairie Entrance
Ocklawaha Prairie Boardwalk
Ocklawaha Prairie Boardwalk

SE 137 Ave. Rd. is a very nice dirt road that has unexpectedly fine scenery. Besides the Ocklawaha Prairie, this road also borders the National Forest and a wildlife management area. Whether by bike or car this road is worth the trip. We did not tarry on this road and hammered toward the Marshall Swamp with hopes of getting across it before darkness made it more difficult.

When we hit Hwy 314 the sun was just barely above the trees; we crossed the Ocklawaha River at Sharp’s Ferry and dashed into the Marshall Swamp via the excellent hiking trail found where the Carr Greenway crosses Hwy. 314. This hiking trail is another must-see section of the Greenway but because we would be battling the coming darkness and the fact that biking on this trail is not very polite, it was difficult to enjoy.

Bridge over Ocklawaha at Sharp's Ferry
Bridge over Ocklawaha at Sharp's Ferry
Craig in the Marshall Swamp
Craig in the Marshall Swamp

But the lime rock path through the Marshall Swamp was enjoyable and the dense, wet forest has a spooky-old-tree feeling that is hard to resist and I soon began to see and hear the ghosts that must be living in this small remnant of Florida wetland.

Once finished with the hiking trail we had a little trouble finding the entrance to the Baseline paved bike trail area of the Greenway. With our usual luck and guess work we finally stumbled upon the hiking trail heading west and followed it until the paved trails appeared. This paved trail area is surrounded by neighborhoods and I hope the residents appreciate the treasure they have in their back yards. Even with darkness closing in, we saw many groups of people enjoying the cool evening. This was the first time in two days that we had seen more than three humans at a time and it was nice to have them enjoying the outdoors with us.

Now our problem was to find a place to sleep. At the Baseline Trailhead darkness became complete and we stopped to use the facilities, put on our bike lights, and plan our route through the streets of Ocala. To be assured that we could find a motel, we planned to head west to US301 but did not want to travel on the major highways. From the maps we had, it appeared that none of the secondary roads went through to US301 and we were all done with jumping fences and crossing railroad tracks. Using his strips of Gazeeteer maps, Ken found a sure-fire route that took us halfway back up the Baseline trails and exited at the Banyan St. trailhead. From there we could zig-zag to the northwest until 17th street could carry us to US301 in the middle of Ocala. It was a bit out of our way but gave us a 100% chance of finding a motel.

Before we even got to the Banyan Trailhead, my bike light started to dim and my front tire started to go flat! At the corner of Baseline and 28th St. we stopped again so I could sort out my light problem and fix my flat tire. It turned out that in my rush to leave the Baseline Trailhead and the stress of not knowing which route we should take, I had put a battery in backward. Once it was flipped around, my light was going full strength. Fixing the tire had become a dull routine and I’m sure Ken was sick of riding with someone who not only whined about flat tires but also delayed our travels. I’m fairly certain that my flats not only prevented us from exploring many of the areas we planned to explore but also cost us two hours of travel time.

Finally on the move, we hammered down the hard roads and quickly find ourselves on US301 and directly across the street from the Ocala Inn. The lady at the desk was briefly startled when I walked in but once she saw my smile and small stature, the dried blood on my legs and arms no longer caused her concern. We booked a room and thanked our lucky stars that Ken’s route took us through some nice areas of Ocala and not through the ‘Hood. The Ocala Inn is a dump and probably typical of low end hotels in Ocala. However, had the air-conditioner been able to keep the air quality at a level slightly better than “damp armpit”, I would have been very comfortable. After a quick shower and a change of clothes we walked to the “Ocala Ale House” for a very pleasant meal and a few beers.

We did not arrive at our hotel until 9PM and did not get to bed until 11:30PM. This was a long adventurous day only slightly spoiled by the constant chorus of flat tires.

Ocala Inn
Ocala Inn

Day 3 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 21, 2009 Day 3 – Ocala to Yankeetown

The stale air in our room made the day seem long in coming. Once up, we grabbed some dilute coffee and a stale bagel from the lobby and started to pack our stuff.

Problems started early as I awoke to the sight of both of my tires being completely flat. We had planned to ride to the Santos bike shop so I could buy more tubes, and some Tuffy tire liners or new tires. But now I was going to have to scramble just to get my bike to the shop.

Unfortunately I did not have enough patches to fix the several leaks found and had to run around the streets of Ocala in my flip-flops looking for a patch kit. The AutoZone and CVS where closed but I did find a patch kit at a locally owned convenience store. This kit was a bit odd as all the patches were very stiff and thick. Fortunately, I was able to patch a tube with this kit and had my bike rolling by 9AM.

Craig rushing to fix tires
Craig rushing to fix tires

Because we had decided to got into downtown Ocala to make sure of finding a motel, the Santos bike shop and the Santos bike trails were five miles to the south on US301. US301 had a sidewalk for a few miles but we where quickly forced to ride on the shoulder of this busy high-speed highway. After about 2.5 miles of US301 madness, Ken did find some side streets that could get us to the south. Just when we thought we were home free, the only street that seems to go through ended at a gate with a no trespassing sign! But again our luck held for as we paused to figure out our next move, a lady came out of her house to collect the little yapping dog at our feet and told us that the street did go through and that most people just ignore the gate and sign. So we did the same and quickly made our way to the Santos bike shop.

Arriving at the shop was such a relief, for even though I had put tremendous effort into patching my tires this morning, my front was slowly leaking the entire way down US301. I had to stop several times to add more air. Once at the shop I knew my troubles were over.

I bought six tubes, two patch kits, Tuffy tire liners, and energy bars. The tire liners where not the width I wanted but I thought they would work. Spending the next thirty minutes in the bike shop parking lot, I threw away all the old tubes, outfit both my tires with new tubes and liners, and restocked my bags with new tubes and candy bars. With the burden of flat tires removed, I was beginning to relax again.

The girl at the shop directed us to a trail that left out of the back of the shop and connected with the main Santos trails. This was news to us and it was much better than riding the roads back to a trail crossing. Since it was already 10AM, we didn’t bother to look for breakfast and decided to take the most direct route through the Santos and Greenway trails so that we could maybe make up some time and have a little sunlight for exploring areas unknown to us.

About to cross the landbridge
About to cross the landbridge
Land Bridge over I75
Land Bridge over I75

Being familiar with the Santos trails, nothing exceptional happened and we smoothly made our way to where the trails cross CR484, our previous furthest west on these trails. From here on we had never been on any of the Greenway trails and no actual bike trails yet exist. Hiking and Horse trails do exist and a limerock road is available. Not wishing to bother any hikers or sample the joy of riding on the sandy horse trails, we stuck to the limerock road. The road made for a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable ride. This road would make a great place to ride with cyclists of all levels and the scenery is worth the trip.

From CR484 we headed through the Greenway looking at the forest that clings to to ridge lines that border the old barge canal diggings and finally came upon sweeping views across Ross Prairie and SR200. At this road crossing we could see a convenience store to the north and rode up to get more food and water. We were not on the hard road more than 100 meters when both of my tires started to go flat. I did ride through a few patches of sandspurs and I guess the hard pavement pushed the thorns the final little bit into my tubes. By the time we reached the store, I was riding on my rim.

Craig at SR200 fixing tires
Craig at SR200 fixing tires

We purchased lots of food and water and while Ken patiently rested in the shade of an Oak tree, Craig fixed both of his tires, finding many sand spur thorns embedded in them. The tire liners had worked but since they were about a centimeter too narrow, the thorns were able to find a home on the outer edge of the tread. Why didn’t I buy new tires at Santos?

New tubes in and we are ready to go. Back onto the Carr Greenway and across the Ross Prairie, we initially had to search for the trail and we wiggled and weaved through the trees and dried up marshland until we stumbled back upon our limerock road. It is clear that the road hits SR200 south of where we hit SR200 when coming from the East. Once back on the road, we found one of the old canal digging areas had stayed treeless and was a very pretty prairie.

Pretty little Prairie in the canal diggings
Pretty little prairie in the canal diggings
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Ken on the prairie

The road now traveled over some amazingly beautiful areas with clumps of large oak trees, cypress trees in the low spots, and Slash pine on the canal ridges. Several spots had ancient live oaks forming cathedral-like clearings under their heavy branches.

Ken took this picture of a magnificent spot that has Live oaks growing over a shallow creek-like depression.  These oaks form long canopied tunnels with soft under growth that was tempting us to take a break and fall asleep for forty or so years.  This grove is something out of a fairy tale that could be part of Narnia or even Alice’s Wonderland.

Wonderland in Florida
Wonderland in Florida

We next stumbled upon a Stonehenge like memorial to a twenty-something Pruitt that had died in the crash of a small airplane.  A ring of boulders just off the road and under the canopy of several ancient live oaks, memorializes the young Pruitt whose promising life was cut short.  He must have been much loved as the Pruitt family has donated this property to the state for use in the Greenway Project.

Pruitt Memorial
Pruitt Memorial

After the memorial, the trees gave way to open pasture and to the end of the lime rock road at the Pruitt trailhead of the Florida Greenway.   The Pruitt trailhead is the most westerly Greenway trailhead on the east side of Dunnellon and is made up of a parking area, horse corral, port-a-john, and a trail notice bulletin board. This trailhead marked the point where we had a difficult choice to make.  Should we leave the Greenway and head into the legendary dangers presented by CR484 or should we try to work our way through the unknown roads and trails of the Halpata Preserve?  The SR484 route would be fast but not much fun and the Halpata route would slow and fun.  Or, at least it had some potential to be fun.

Unfortunately, all my flat tires and our underestimating how long it would take to get to the coast answered the question for us.  If we hoped to get to Yankeetown before dark, we had to take the fastest route and leave the Halpata route for another day.  So we got onto CR484 and the tremendous number of high-speed trucks, trailers, and cars did not give any relief until we arrived at the Rainbow River just east of Dunnellon.

Rainbow River
Rainbow River

At the bridge over the Rainbow we paused and took a few pictures of the beautiful blue waters of this marvelous spring fed run that during the summer is packed shore to shore with swimmers on inner-tubes drifting on the cold water in the hot sun.  We continued on for about a quarter mile but I again had a flat and we decided to retreat to the cool shade on the banks of the Rainbow so I could fix my tires in relative comfort.

While waiting, Ken distracted himself by studying the local teenagers as they beached themselves and he tried desperately to understand their not so subtle verbal and non-verbal attempts to attract the attention of the members of their peer group while simultaneously staying completely invisible to spandex wearing old men on the shore.

On the road again and we do not get out of Dunnellon before I have another flat!  At this  point I’m a crazed maniac and can just barely bring myself to fix the tire.  But we rode to the gate that guarded our best non-paved road, sat in the shade and again fixed my tires.  I was so mad that I would have been happy to jump the gate and trespass on this hunting lease and dare anybody to try to stop me.  Ken however was more calm and after talking with a local decided that we should abandon the “damn-it-all” route and stay on the hard road until we got to the next public access at Goethe State Forest.

Luck was on our side as we hammered down SR40 to the west of Dunnellon.  The traffic was light and not nearly as scary as CR484.  This road was the usual Florida highway with the usual oak and pine forest along its edges, pretty but nothing special.  Taking a turn to the north at CR336, we expected logging trucks and boat trailer but only got a few cars and pickup trucks.  Now we were heading into the “The Gulf Hammock” famous for moonshine, lumber, and good-ole-boy police and politicians.

We had no trouble finding the road that ran along the southern edge of Goethe State Forest and it was nice to be off the pavement and back into the woods.  This forest had a different character than those we had previously traversed.  Maybe it was the setting sun but the woods seemed more ominous, darker somehow, even a little bit mangled.   Somehow the forest did not seem natural but was more like an inadvertent result of man’s activities.  Probably all Florida forests are the result of man’s activities but, except for the wetland areas, this one had a twisted look and feel.

However, the road through the forest was straight and well maintained and we made good progress.    About halfway across the forest, we came upon a dark, dank, dreary hunting camp filled with old molding campers, trailers, and mobile homes.  It appeared to be inhabited and was tightly packed under the gnarled limbs of 80 foot pines and 200 year old oaks.  This decrepit collection of temporary shelters had not seen the light of day for many years and now it was too late for the light to do anything but make more obvious the grouping’s condition.  We pedaled faster in hopes of getting past the camp before any of the resident trolls noticed us.

My front tire began to slowly leak but I refused to fix it and just stopped every few miles to add more air.  :-(

As we began to get close to the west side of the forest, we could hear in the distance the noise from the vehicles on US19 and knew we would soon be done with Goethe.  However, the road suddenly became rough, narrow, and closely covered by overhanging limbs (not a good sign!).  Then the road ended at a gate with the requisite signage:  No trespassing – Trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  At this point I was ready to just jump the fence and get out of the woods before the sun set and the werewolf or whatever gave this forest its crooked vibes came out out to play.

Ken, as he is known to do, made an amazing navigational leap of faith that was both crazy and incredibly intuitive.  We had seen a small unmaintained road split off to the northwest about half a mile back and Ken suspected that this road would be forced to stay in that direction because on the west it had private property and on the east it had a tremendous swamp.   If it stayed in this direction, then it would surely intersect with a clearly marked road to our north that would lead us out to US19.  I again suggested that we just trespass.

Amazingly, the road did continue in the same northwesterly direction, it had been recently mowed by someone that probably uses it to gain access to his hunting lease, and it sure enough took us directly to the clearly marked road to our north.  Popping out of the forest at Cedars of Lebanon Cemetery we thanked the pioneers of long ago for build a cemetery in the woods that would later require private landowners to allow public access to the cemetery thus granting us a legal way to escape.

The proposed route had us staying on US19 for only a half mile before heading into Gulf Hammock on the many dirt roads that criss-cross it.  But having never been on these roads, and since a local told us, “Don’t go that way”,  and with darkness about 45 minutes away, we decided to just get this trip over with and hammer down the hard road into Yankeetown.  The trip down US19 was not as bad as I expected.  We had a wide shoulder and not much traffic.

Turning right onto SR40A we cruised that last few miles into Yankeetown without a problem.  I figured we would look for a bar and have a drink to celebrate but Ken noticed the entrance to the Withlacoochee Salt Marsh Park.  We had never heard of it before and it was a pleasant surprise and a great way to end our trip.

The park road carries you out into the saltmarsh and has a visitor center with facilities and a board walk.  At the end of the road is a observation tower and picnic area.  It is a beautiful park with great educational opportunities  for young and old.  It does an excellent job of showing off the transition from the freshwater tidal swamp into the coastal saltmarsh.  The sunset over the marsh from the top of the observation deck was worth the trip.

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Salt Marsh Park Observation Tower
Ken on the tower
Ken on the tower
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Withlacoochee Salt Marsh

After our visit to the park, darkness was complete.  We mounted our bike lights and started heading toward Inglis in order to meet up with our ride back to the real world.

No-Nonsense Flats Fishing

Crystal River, Florida November 16, 2007

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In fishing, as with most sports, it is easy to get carried away when buying equipment, learning new skills, and practicing with both. This post hopes to remove the mystery behind flats fishing in Florida and provide you with a simple and hopefully short list of the truly necessary, bare-bones, set of skills and equipment needed to be a successful flats fisherman in Florida.

Put down all the over-blown fishing strategies, casting techniques, and lure selection hype that you have ever used or read about and pick up the no-nonsense professional advice presented below.

Your Boat

Boat? Who needs a boat? All you need is a good pair of wading boots or old sneakers Sure, a boat can get you to many more fishing locations than can be fished from the combination of your car and your feet, but never think that the spot you can wade from the parking lot of the boat ramp is not a prime fishing location. Many times the good fish holding structures around boat launching areas are overlooked by boaters in their hurry to power over the water to find their favorite and probably over-fished spot.

Here are three of my favorite spots in the Ozello/Crystal River, Florida area that I often wade during an incoming tide and often catch Redfish and Speckled Trout.

Your Equipment

No-nonsense equipment doesn’t mean junky equipment and it doesn’t mean expensive equipment. No-nonsense equipment is high-quality, rugged, affordable, and functional beyond the fishing skills of all but the most demanding professional tournament anglers. For a day of wade fishing the flats of Florida you need the following equipment and only the following equipment. The only thing you could possibly need to add to this list is your personal medications. Of course, there are many different equipment lists that I could present to you but this is the exact equipment that has been proven to catch fish year after year.

The List

  • Shimano Carbomax 7′ one piece spinning rod
  • Shimano Sedona 4000FB spinning reel
  • Trilene XL 10 lb test clear monofilament
  • Trilene XL 20 lb test clear monofilament (leader)
  • Fingernail clippers on a retractible lanyard
  • Quick drying polyester shirt with chest pockets
  • Quick drying polyester shorts with pockets
  • Hard billed Sunhat
  • Polarized Sunglasses
  • Wading boots or old sneakers
  • Micro flashlight
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Bug spray
  • Small drybox for tackle, ID, and fishing license
  • Small Leatherman tool with scissors
  • Tackle selection
  • Snack food

Fishing Rod

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A graphite/glass composite rod is what you need. It is much more rugged than pure graphite and outlasts rods four times more expensive and casts and fights fish as well as any on the market. My all-time favorite flats fishing rod is the Shimano Carbomax 7′ medium action one piece spinning rod. Shimano’s part number is CMS70M.

I know what you are saying, “If this guy is such a good fisherman, why is he recommending a freshwater fishing rod for saltwater flats fishing?” Well, this is your first lesson in no-nonsense fishing and its equipment. Don’t believe the marketing hype of the equipment manufacturers. They almost all make excellent equipment but, without exception, they push the uneducated buyer into spending too much. A comparable rod from shimano that is categorized as “saltwater” will truly be an exceptional fishing rod but it costs three times as much as the Carbomax and it is not as rugged over the long haul because it is made of 100% graphite instead of the more reliable graphite/glass composite. The Carbomax rod is completely usable in saltwater and nothing, not even the reel seat, will corrode.

Fishing Reel

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A good quality properly cared for fishing rod usually lasts much longer than your fishing reel. I know it seems that it should be the opposite but it is not. Unless you intend to spend time having an expensive reel regularly serviced, do not waste your money by purchasing a spinning reel that costs more than the rod. The best no-nonsense spinning reel for flats fishing in Florida is the Shimano Sedona B Series SE4000FB with front drag.

When you are done fishing, gently hose off the reel with freshwater, let it dry, spray it with WD-40, and wipe off the excess. The life of your rod and reel is extended dramatically by this little bit of care.

The Line

Now add some good ten pound test monofilament fishing line and your rod and reel combination is ready to fish. Trilene XL clear is my favorite as it is very limp an rolls off the reel smoothly and is slow to twist up as is very common with line fished from a spinning reel. The new braided lines such as PowerPro are excellent but I do not recommend them for spinning reels because the line is held by the finger during a cast and the small diameter and low stretch characteristics abrade the skin from your finger tip after just a few casts. You also need a spool of twenty pound test monofilament fishing line to use for making leaders (we talk about leaders later). Although the flourocarbon monofilaments are very popular for making leaders and do work very well, I am not convinced that they have the “invisible in water” property that they claim. Since they are triple the cost of regular monofilament and have only marginal, if any, added benefit, they do not qualify as no-nonsense equipment.

The Clothing

Your clothing is needed to protect skin from sun exposure and to regulate your body temperature. In the summer select light-weight, long-sleeved polyester shirts preferably with large chest pockets and light weight polyester shorts with a built-in synthetic mesh liner and large pockets that can close with velcro. In the winter, simply add an additional layer underneath the light weight shirt. Some polyester thermal underwear is always nice when the north wind blows. Of course, wading in the cold winter time water is only enjoyed by the hardiest of individuals and I recommend switching from wade fishing to kayak or boat fishing during the colder months of the years.

Columbia has a large selection of inexpensive and functional models. But any brand works as long as it is light weight, loose fitting, and made from a synthetic, fast drying material. You can fish in a raggedy cotton tee shirt if you wish but for all-day trips on the water the superior comfort provided by a loose fitting, polyester shirt and short makes them no-nonsense choices.

Your wading boots need not be fancy armored anti-stingray boots or even chi-chi stylish bonefish boots. Just buy a pair of sturdy scuba-diver booties and fear nothing except oyster shells.

A hat is a must have accessory and I recommend a hard billed version instead of a floppy bill. In windy conditions the soft bill is annoyingly flippy-flappy. The hard bill provides stable sun protection and even doubles as a face saving rain shield in times of need. Again, Columbia has good models that are reasonably priced.

Never leave the house without your high-quality polarized sunglasses. Sunglasses are so important that you need to make sure you never forget them. If you do forget them, go home and get them or stop at a store and buy some new ones. I am not kidding! Polarized sunglasses are so important mainly because they allow you to see under the water even when the sun is producing significant glare on the water’s surface. But sunglasses also provide protection for the eyes just as your clothing is protecting your skin. Fishing all day in bright sunlight without sunglasses can cause headaches, fatigue, and irritability. Fishing all day in bright sunlight with good polarized sunglasses prevents all these maladies. My favorite glasses have always been ActionOptics with brown glass lens. The glass lenses are extremely durable and the brown color is useful in both the bright light of a summer day and the overcast gloom of a winter morning.

The Tackle

Choosing tackle is where most fisherman make the most mistakes. The number one reason they make these mistakes is because the tackle manufacturers know that fisherman are attracted to bits of plastic with flashing glitter and bold colors. Never expect the lure you like to be equally attractive to a fish. Sorry but fish the world over don’t care about the latest and greatest flashing chunk of plastic. However, years of trial and error by millions of fun seeking fisherman have found certain lure shapes, lure movement patterns, and lure colors that consistently attract fish. Just stay with these basics, learn to be confident in their time-tested effectiveness. Don’t be persuaded by your buddy’s constant talk about his mail-order super lure. Here is a list of lures your tackle box should not be without along with the several color patterns that always work when fished with confidence.

Lure Selection

  • Heddon Zara Spook
    • Saltwater super spook in “redhead” color
  • Mirrolure 52M
    • Classic Black Back/Silver
  • Culprit 6″ Jerk Worm
    • Albino Shad
    • Watermellon Pepper
  • BassAssassin 4″ Curly Shad
    • Chartreuse silver glitter
    • Candy corn
  • Owner Offset WideGap Worm Hook 3/0
  • Offshore Angler 1/4 and 1/8 oz. jig heads
    • Red deluxe shad head
    • Glow deluxe shad head

A Small Box

Let us put all this into a small box and see if it fits into your pocket. I recommend a Flambeau 3003 Tuff Tainer. It is big enough to hold your leader material, hard lures, jig heads and a few of each type of soft lure. It does fit in your pocket but I agree that it is not very comfortable or secure so I would advise a small waist pack that can be used to store your tackle as well as your snacks, water, sunscreen, micro-light, personal identification, fishing license, and bug spray. Choose a inexpensive model such as the High Sierra Passport Lumbar Waist Pack. Don’t spend big money on a waterproof pack. It is not possible to make it waterproof. Instead, spend time making everything in the pack waterproof by using plastic bags and small waterproof containers.

A Small Light

Quite often while wade fishing early in the morning or late in the evening, there is just not enough sunlight to properly tie a knot or find that last chartreuse curly shad. The answer is to bring with you a small flashlight that can clip onto the bill of your hat thus freeing your hands for more important duties. I have used a many different types but my current favorite is the Bil-Lite from Q-Lite, Inc. This light is sturdy and bright and has a lens that focuses the light into a clean circle with very little light wasted around the edges. The batteries are easy to replace but the light is not waterproof so be careful.

Your Skills

Now we have all the the equipment needed to make you a first class flats fisherman. But this equipment is of no use unless you know how to use it. The skills you must acquire and practice are as follows:

  • Cast accurately in both distance and direction
  • Tie strong small knots when attaching hooks and creating leaders
  • See fish under the water using your polarized glasses
  • Know the tide and how it effects the location you are fishing
  • Know the weather and how it effects the location you are fishing

Accurate casting is achieve no other way than with practice and the best way to practice is to go fishing. Don’t worry about your poor casts but do learn from them. Notice how the wind effects your casts. Notice how the lure type and weight effects your casts. Fish and learn and enjoy your lessons.

Seeing fish underwater is only possible when you have very good eye sight and have spent many days on the water. Even the best fisherman seldom actually see the entire fish but can tell you from just the way the water is moving over a swimming fish or the shape of a shadow on the hard bottom exactly what species of fish is being seen. After you have spent years fishing you also will have this skill. Until then, look movement in the water; look for water moving in a way inconsistent with the surrounding water. Cast in front of every movement and you soon learn from your trial and error.

Knowing the tide is as easy as looking up the high and low tides in a local tide chart. But knowing how the tide effects your chosen fishing location requires you to go fish that location. The most important thing to learn is that fish like moving water. They use that moving water to wash bait into an ambush or they use that moving water to signal that they can now swim up onto a previously dry mud flat or a previously too shallow grass flat. Once the water stops moving, the fish know to stop what they are doing and start to do something else. It is your job to know what the fish will do next.

A good rule of thumb is to fish a grass flat or mangrove shoreline during the incoming tide. As the water floods the flat or shoreline, the fish move further and further onto the once shallow area in order to find food. As the tide begins to move out, you can reposition yourself so you can cast into the deeper channels that drain the flat or shoreline. As the water moves off the flat, the fish begin to retreat to deeper water and use the channels on the flat to help ambush bait that is being washed out with the tide.

Knowing the weather is not easy. Wind can completely alter the tide prediction. Sudden changes in temperature seems to slow down the fishing action but Sudden decreases in barometric pressure seems to speed up the fishing action. It is just not possible to know all that the weather does to your favorite fishing spot.

The best rule to follow is to fish the morning and evening during the summer as the cooler temperatures and absence of direct sunlight make the fish hungrier and your presence less noticeable. In the winter, fish the few days before a cold front brings its high winds, cold temperatures, and bright blue skies. Once the harsh winter weather passes through, stay at home and clean up your tackle and wait for the next cold front.

Tying strong small knots is a must and next to casting is the easiest skill to acquire. No-nonsense fishermen need only to learn three knots: the Uni-Knot, the Spider Hitch, and the Surgeon’s Knot. There are many useful and wonderful knots that a fisherman can use but learning to tie these three perfectly, quickly, and in all weather is all you need to know.

The Uni-Knot – Attaching hook to leaderUniknotThe Uni-Knot is a knot tying system! If you learn the uni-knot you have learned the single most useful knot on the planet.
First, run the line through the eye of the hook for about six inches. Turn the end back toward the eye to form a circle as shown in illustration #1. With thumb and finger of the left hand, grasp both strands of line and the crossing strand in a single grip at the point marked just forward of the hook. Now, make six turns with the end around both strands of line and through the circle, as in illustration #2.

Maintaining the same grip with the left hand, pull on the end of the line in the direction shown by the arrow until all the wraps are snugged tight and close together. Snugging down tightly at this stage is essential for maximum knot strength.

Finally, slide the finished knot tight against the eye of the hook by dropping the tag end and pulling solely on the standing part of the line as shown by the arrow in illustration #3. The excess end can be trimmed flush with the knot after final positioning, as shown in illustration #4.

It takes just one slight variation to transform the hook tie into a loop arrangement, which provides more lure movement. When you get to the position specified in illustration #3, simply grab the tag end with pliers and tighten the knot without allowing the loop to slide through the eye of the hook.

The Spider Hitch – Creating a double line
spiderhitch.jpg

It is important to create a double line before tying your leader to your standing line. The reason is that your knot is much stronger when the line is doubled.

This knot is not as good as a Bimini Twist. But it is much easier to tie and just as strong for the short duration battles typical of flats fishing with light spinning tackle.

A. Double back the end of the line until you have about three feet of double line and grip the two strands with thumb and finger near the tag end, make a two inch diameter loop near the tag end and take the base of this loop in the same thumb-finger grip.

B. Wrap the doubled line around your thumb (and around the small loop too) for five turns.

C. Slip the end of the long loop through the little loop. Pull the entire long loop through, allowing the wraps to slide, one by one, from your thumb.

D. At first, tighten the knot by slowly and gently pulling the double line as one unit. If you detect that one of the lines in the knot are not tightening evenly, then just pull the single line that is causing the problem. Pull each line separately very gently until the knot is nice and smooth. Then, once again, pull all lines as a unit until the knot is as tight as you can make it with hand pressure and trim the tag end close to the knot.

Surgeon’s Knot – Connecting leader to double line

surgeon_knot.jpg
The Surgeon’s Knot makes a fast, easy and reliable connection for tying a heavy monofilament leader, or double line, directly to either monofilament or braided fishing line.

1. First, lay out the leader parallel to the double line made using the Spider Hitch, letting the end of the line and the end of the leader overlap for six or eight inches.

2. Tie a simple overhand knot in the doubled section, making sure that both the short end (line) and long end (leader) are pulled completely through. Do not tighten the knot at this point.

3. Next, simply go through the same opening a second time, with both strands exactly as before, again making certain both ends are pulled through.

4. Finally, draw the knot tight by gripping both strand on either side of the knot, and drawing down with steady pressure. As with the Spider Hitch gently tighten each line separately until the knot is smooth and tight. The ends of this knot may be trimmed flush with the wraps.

Go Fishing

That is all a no-nonsense fisherman needs to own and needs to know. Now you must practice. Work on your knots while watching the television. Don’t be satisfied until you can tie them with your eyes closed. Work on your casting by going fishing or if you are completely bored, go in the backyard and cast a jig into a bucket of water from 100 feet away. Read the tide chart for the area you wish to fish and take note of the difference between the high/low tide published and the actual tide at your fishing spot. This difference is going to be about the same every time and can be used to plan your trip. Keep your hooks sharp and change your fishing line as often as you can afford. Have fun.