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October 08, 2009

Homosassa's Crystal Waters

Trout and redfish share the spotlight along Florida's Nature Coast

"There you go, right on cue," Capt. William Toney said as my fishing partner, Keith Grimes, skillfully played the hefty trout thrashing on the surface. "These fish have been holding on this bar for the past several days on this tide. There's plenty of bait, and potholes for them to hide in."

Moments later I felt a familiar thump and quickly set the hook as another mottled beauty pounced on my lure. On light spinning outfits, these 3-pounders were worthy matches.

Toney, a fourth-generation guide, had met Grimes and me an hour earlier at the public ramp on Florida's scenic Homosassa River. The subsequent nine-mile run through the surrounding salt marsh and palm hammocks toward the open Gulf of Mexico was eye-opening, to say the least. Markers were scattered and several jagged rock formations were barely exposed outside the traffic lane.

"Yeah, you don't want to stray outside the channel," Toney explained in response to our raised eyebrows. "Limestone and fiberglass don't play well together. But after you've run the river a few times, it's not difficult to navigate, and once you do, there are a lot of quality trout and redfish waiting."

Located on Florida's Nature Coast about one hour north of Tampa, Homosassa has a long maritime history. Early Native Americans called the area the "place where peppers grow," but the spring that pumps 64 million gallons of crystal-clear water daily into the Gulf also makes the maze of coastal barrier islands a prolific estuary. In recent years, world-class tarpon fishing has put Homosassa on the angling map. But it's the routine opportunities for speckled trout, redfish and other inshore game fish that have kept it there.

"Homosassa is a shallow bowl, so it floods well after Crystal River to the north and Chassahowitzka Bay to the south," Toney says. "This whole coast is extremely shallow. The depth drops an average of 1 foot per every mile offshore, and the bottom is a mixture of turtle grass, sand, shell and hard limestone. I either drift or pole to reach the flats that hold fish."

Toney says mid-20-inch trout are trophies for the area, although true "gators" are boated occasionally. As we quickly discovered, there is no shortage of quantity, however. Toney uses solely artificial lures for trout. Fluorescent glow jerkbaits or shad tails on light jig heads get top billing, with new penny or root beer the backup choices.

After we boated the limit on a waning tide, Toney took us a couple miles north to search for redfish. The reds typically hold around the rocky points on the outside of the barrier islands, especially St. Martins Keys, during the fall months. Toney watches for wakes or the white lips of feeding fish to pinpoint the cruising spottails.

"In the fall we often find schools of 600 to 700 redfish," Toney says. "They range from slot to the mid-30-inch size. If you go out in the late afternoon or early evening, you can just murder 'em."

Gold spoons and noisy topwater plugs that mimic finger mullet are effective for Homosassa reds. Toney also favors fluorescent glow shrimp suspended under a clacking cork in overcast or low-light conditions. On clear, sunny days, he'll switch to soft jerkbaits, also in glow.

As we cast to a rocky shoreline, a spunky red, again on cue, slammed the bone-colored plug I had tied on. After a brief tussle, the 25-incher was digitally preserved and set free. We boated a few more trout as the tide started falling before an ominous thunderstorm chased us back to the dock.

The next morning we met another Homosassa native, Capt. Dan Clymer, at a marina on the nearby Crystal River. Located less than 10 miles north of Homosassa, it offers similar habitat and conditions, albeit with a more defined channel. We launched there because of the shorter run to Clymer's grouper spots, in light of the forecast wind and choppy conditions.

Following Clymer's usual game plan, we released several grouper before making the brief cruise south to "the bombing range." This large expanse of craters, formed by military ordnance in the 1950s, has become reliable habitat for a number of species. The pockmarked limestone bottom with scattered grass holds trout, Spanish mackerel, sea bass and mangrove snapper.

"I like to drift and cast this area after we catch our grouper limit," Clymer says. "The first couple hours of the incoming tide are the best. Trout from both the backcountry and offshore collect here to spawn in the early spring through fall. The depth varies between 4 and 8 feet, so you can work it effectively with light jigs. Ninety percent of the time I'll throw glow lures on -ounce chartreuse jig heads. But root beer is a good color too, and for real shallow water, pink is best."

After my initiation with Toney and Clymer, I'm convinced that legend about the growing peppers is pure nonsense. Crystal waters, natural beauty and cooperative fish. That's the true meaning behind the name Homosassa.