If you could imagine about a million acres of protected backwater and seagrass flats fed by countless springfed streams and one of America's largest and most beautiful rivers with miles and miles of protected and undeveloped shoreline and all of it with some of the finest backcountry and flats fishing to be found anywhere, then throw in many thousands of acres of state and federal refuge and wildlife management areas with great deer, hog and turkey hunting opportunities….. you would be imagining a place called Florida’s Big Bend region. From St. Marks NWR to the north and traveling south to Chassahowitzka NWR and anchored by the great Suwanee River and barrier islands of the Cedar Keys. There simply isn't any wilderness like it in Florida or the continent for that matter.
Now imagine a beautiful blue skies November day where you can backcountry fish and hunt all in the same day and all within minutes of one another. That's what happened a couple weeks ago thanks to an invitation to go fishing with my close friend Bob. It started when Douglas and I helped load our gear on Bob's airboat as the tide was still falling under perfect early morning weather conditions in Cedar Key. As Bob's house and the Cedar Keys disappeared from sight the wilderness shoreline of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge opened up. The Big Bend at low tide in the backcountry is sensory overload. There's just too much of interest to look at. The oyster bars, mud flats, creeks, islands, birds, sky is overwhelming. I snapped a few photos on our way to our fishing grounds however, the none of them seem to do justice to the experience.
When Bob brought the airboat to rest perfectly positioned on a sandbar in a creek no wider than about 20 feet across we baited our hooks with cut mullet or mud minnows and cast to the rock formations that are found in many of the creeks in the region. There are countless creeks with countless areas where the current has scoured the bottom and ledges exposing craggy, swiss cheese-like limestone formations where the redfish often reside during the low winter tides. Some of these spots are coveted and held in confidence within a close knit group of trustworthy men. It goes without saying that experiencing this type of fishing is a privilege.
Within a very short time we had each caught our limit of legal sized redfish with a couple of them pushing towards the upper size limit. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon Bob expertly piloted the airboat into creeks where we continued to catch many redfish. In those few hours we caught and released over 50 fish. Bob is one of those rare individuals that has earned the skills and expertise necessary to navigate the backcountry and handle boats of all types and sizes with expert precision and its all coupled with his great attitude.
By midafternoon we had our fish cleaned boat washed and Douglas and I were on our way to spend the last few hours before sunset hunting. After a quick switch from fishing to hunting gear we set off into one of our favorite swamp and hammock areas. We each went separate ways and set up approximately a quarter mile from each other with a fairly thick swamp between us. I chose a palm tree in this swamp with a view of the edge of a hammock to climb. Not long after I was set up I heard that familiar rustling of palmettos that a hog will make when he's looking for acorns or tubers. In a minute or two a large black boar hog came into view about 40 yards away. With the density of trees and brush I was only afforded temporary and narrow shot windows. As soon as the hog entered one of those windows and turned broadside I squeezed the trigger of my rifle. The shot was well placed and the hog fell over in place.
When I fired, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a buck running away from the sound about 50 yards further than the hog. Perhaps the buck had come into my grunt call but hung up about 70 or 80 yards away as the younger bucks will often do? I don't know how long he'd been there but he stopped his run at just the right moment and just the right place to give me a narrow window of opportunity. I put the crosshairs on his vitals and squeezed the trigger. That shot found its place also and the buck fell over in his tracks. The bullet had hit a shoulder and passed through his heart, an instant kill.
This is a short video clip of the expert air boat piloting that Bob did to maneuver through the mudflats while avoiding the oyster bars. You can also get an idea of the pine and palm hammocks that grow in the salt marshes on this section of the Gulf Coast. Spectacular scenery!