Keeping it reel in the Florida Panhandle.
As the small plane slips under the thin cloud veil on its approach to Tallahassee, I look out my window and see nothing but trees below, a green, rolling forest that stretches to the horizon. My destination is the tiny village of Shell Point, Florida, where I was going to spend a couple of days fishing for redfish and speckled trout in the shallow channels of Oyster Bay with local guide Jody Campbell. "Skinny water," he called it, and during our conversation by phone the night before, he'd said I needed to hurry up and get there, because the fish were biting.
I've fished Florida's Panhandle from Pensacola to Panama City dozens of times, and I've wet a line or six in the Keys and offshore around St. Pete and Naples, but this trip would open my eyes to a different kind of Florida experience — one that now eclipses the others in my memory.
One look at my newly purchased gas station map solves the mystery of the endless woodlands I saw from the plane. Highway 319 South skirts the eastern edge of the Apalachicola National Forest, at 565,000 acres, the largest National Forest in Florida. It's also simply beautiful. As I turn east onto Highway 98, the Panhandle's coastal highway, I keep looking for the Florida I know, the one with countless tourist souvenir shops and miniature golf courses and chain restaurants with funny names and tacky T-shirts. But it never comes.
My hotel, The Inn at Wildwood, is quiet and remote, and about 10 miles north of Shell Point. There is no lodging in Shell Point, I'm told by the desk clerk, and I believe her. The Wildwood is a nature-centered, "green" hotel, with recycling bins near the elevators and non-smoking rooms. A golf course behind the facility is free to those staying here. But I didn't come to frustrate myself on the links. I came to fish.
Shell Point is on a thumb of land jutting between Goose Creek Bay to the east and Oyster Bay to the west. It's about a 15-minute drive on well-worn backroads from the Wildwood. Eventually, I see a sign that says "Welcome to Shell Point" and assume that I've found the place. But it's just an assumption. There's no apparent downtown or business district, no high-rises, no souvenir shops. No shops at all for that matter. No restaurants, either. A small Century 21 realty office appears to be the only business. At Shell Point, what you see is what it is. All of it. There are a few dozen homes, many of them pastel vacation spectaculars, but many are modest — and modular. But every residence, large or small, seems to have a channel out back or nearby bay access with a boat tied up.
Campbell's a tanned, blue-eyed fellow with a brushy moustache, who greets me with a grin as I pull up. "Come on back to the boat," he says. We don't have to walk far. It's resting in the water a few feet from his back porch.
I figure it's always a good conversation starter to ask a boat owner about his boat, so I do. "It's 26 feet long," Campbell says. "It's got a v-hull, but it has a real shallow draft. And once we get out there, you'll see why. They've got a saying around here," he continues. "If you haven't run aground in Shell Point, you haven't had your boat in the water."
Skinny water, indeed.
After we leave the protected inlet, Campbell revs the engine and we hit cruising speed, weaving a braided wake as he swerves to follow the narrow channel. The sky is big, and a faded, late-afternoon blue. No other boats are in sight. Soon, the houses disappear and the world is nothing but distant forest, sky, and seawater.
Campbell finds a spot to his liking, though to me it looks no different from the water we've been traversing for the last 20 minutes. It appears to be about five feet deep and the bottom is covered with waving sea grass. My guide hands me a slender, six-foot rod with a lightweight Penn spinning reel. I've used heavier equipment on freshwater bass. "This will bring in anything we hook tonight," Campbell says, perhaps noting my skeptical look. "Of course," he winks, "if it's real big, we might have to chase it a little bit."
The line has a large bobber set about four feet above the hook. Atop the bobber are several plastic beads loosely stacked on a wire stem. "What is this?" I ask.
"It's called a Cajun Thunder bobber," Campbell replies. "Watch."
He puts a soft plastic bait on the hook and flings the bait and bobber 60 feet off the starboard bow. Every few seconds, he snaps his rod upward, causing the bobber to emit a distinct and surprisingly loud click.
"The trout are attracted to the sound and come to investigate," Campbell says. "When you see it go under, set the hook."
It's an awkward combination of weight and line to throw, but I manage to get the rig out fairly close to Campbell's cast. Before I can try the clicking method, the bobber disappears. I set the hook and am immediately into a nice-sized trout.
"You must have hit him on the head," Campbell says, as he releases the fish.
"Beginner's luck," I reply.
And perhaps it was. After the initial bite, things slow down. We land a few more fish, but Campbell is disappointed. "We're kind of between tides," he says. "It's better when it's coming in or going out."
After a couple of hours, we decide to head back in. It's a pleasant trip. Four dolphins swim alongside for a few minutes, emerging and disappearing and emerging again. A lopsided V of pelicans cruises by, skimming the water with their wingtips. The sky is pink in the west and a thin crescent moon hangs over Shell Point. There are worse places to be, I think.
"Now, let me tell you where you need to eat tonight," Campbell says, as we disembark at his dock. "It's called Posey's Beyond the Bay, and you will love it."
Posey's is just east of the delightfully named hamlet of Panacea, Florida, down Highway 98 a few miles from my hotel. It's a nondescript-looking place, but the parking lot is filled with pickups, which I always take as a good sign when choosing a restaurant in small-town America.
If there's anyone in the restaurant who doesn't know Jody Campbell, I didn't see him. The amiable guide walks from table to table, chatting about local politics, Florida State football, and fishing. Every table in the place is packed.
We get icy-cold Budweisers from a waitress dressed in what is apparently the unofficial Posey's uniform of T-shirt, short jean shorts, and white rubber boots. (This, too, may have something to do with the popularity of the joint, I suspect.) Campbell practically insists that I try the grilled flounder, and I do. And it is a good recommendation — a thick slab of crusted, seasoned fish, deeply crosshatched and grilled to a perfect golden hue. It was one of the best pieces of seafood I've ever eaten.
i get up early the next day in order to drive to Shell Point and catch the falling tide. A thick, foggy mist shrouds the road. When I get to Campbell's house, he's already lowered his boat into the canal. The fog is even thicker on the bay. Through the mist, I spot a pelican sitting on a piling, but otherwise everything is a deep, endless shade of gray. We head west through the soupy air, headed across Oyster Bay to the mouth of Spring Creek. Campbell confidently threads his way through the fog, swerving this way and that. I ask about the possibility of running aground. He doesn't seem worried. He's done this before a time or two, I suppose. So I sip my mug of motel coffee and stare into the fog.
Off to the right a cormorant dives, the only visible break in the fuzzy line where sea and sky meet. After a half-hour, the fog begins to lift and we can see patches of land off the starboard bow. Campbell says we're going to fish the area where Spring Creek pours into Oyster Bay. It's a tapestry of small, sedge-grass covered islands, sliced by shallow, narrow channels of tidal water. The falling tide has reduced passage between islands to a narrow strip of two- to three-foot depths of water. Campbell slows the boat to a crawl as we work our way through the maze. The bottom is covered with oyster shells, easily visible in the shallows.
"Woodstork," Campbell says, pointing to the west. The huge bird slowly flaps its way across the gray morning sky, like something out of a fairy tale. In the distance, through the remaining mist we can see lollipop-shaped palms and a few bare cypress trees. A deer splashes through the shallows, oblivious to our presence.
"Time to catch some redfish," Campbell says.
Apparently, I fished well enough the day before to convince Campbell that he didn't need to burden me with too much instruction. He shows me how to put a live shrimp on the hook, walks to the front of the boat, and makes a long, quick cast. I look into the live well and see a few dozen shrimp swimming around. I reach in and try to grab one. They're quicker than they look, but I finally get one of the squirmy things in my hand, only to have it wriggle out and fall back into the live well. My sleeve is wet, my hand is cold and smelly, and I'm thinking this is harder than it should be. Then I notice the little dip net hanging inside the live well.
That would make it easier, I think. I glance at Campbell, wondering if he's seen my little shrimp-fishing faux pas, but he's focused on his bobber, clicking away. I dip the net, scoop up a few fat shrimp and slide one onto my hook. Campbell looks back, nods, then says, "You might want to put those shrimp back in the live well. They're not real fond of air."
I'd left the dip net, with its load of shrimp, lying across the top of the live well. Oops. Net loss of fishing cred.
I make a decent cast off the back of the boat and commence to clicking my Cajun Thunder. Within minutes, I've hooked my first redfish of the trip. It's not large, but it's a good sign that the day is about to turn.
Campbell quickly hooks another, a little larger, maybe 17 inches. As if on cue, the sun breaks through and the bite is on. Seemingly every cast brings a fish. I land a big sheepshead and a feisty bluefish and several more nice redfish. Even a speckled trout takes the bait.
Campbell is an excellent guide, funny and good-natured, and he's done the most important thing a guide can do: Put his client on some fish. But as I watch him cast and retrieve with a steely-eyed concentration, I realize he is at heart a fisherman, a man who figured out what he wanted to do with his life — and found a way to make a living at it.
By mid-afternoon, we've taken maybe 50 fish, including some memorable big reds that taxed our light tackle to the max. But Campbell's not ready to quit. I set my rod down, pull a cold beer from the cooler, and savor the moment.
The sun has fallen behind broken clouds in the western sky. On a small nearby island, a large cluster of great white pelicans, the largest bird in North America, brightens the beach. Clouds of ducks fly in formation overhead. There's not a house to be seen, just trees and water and sky. The silence is broken only by the sound of Campbell's clicking bobber and the cries of circling birds. As I watch, a translucent curtain of light breaks through the thin clouds, turning the water below a bright silver — a magical sight. I want to take a picture, but I know a camera won't truly capture this light, this moment — this Florida.