Wild Florida in the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park
Salty gulf waters lapped against the side of the boat. We had moored in the mouth of a small creek. Around us salt marsh grasses stretched for miles like prairie fields in the midwest, bending and swaying in the morning chilly breeze. A lone tree reached from the golden grasses; sun-bleached gnarled branches pointed towards a cloudless blue sky like an elderly woman’s fingers. A great white egret perched among the limbs, preening and fluffing his feathers.
My husband cast his line into the blue waters where the brilliant colors mirrored the sky. He had high hopes of landing a redfish today, and every swirl in the water around us raised his hopes.
I aimed my camera at the egret in the tree as the boat rocked and waited for him to take a break from his self-grooming so his head would be in view.
Fishing in Waccasassa Bay
This autumn Sunday found us alone in Waccasassa Bay near the mouth of the Waccasassa River. It is part of 20 miles of coastline of the Waccasassa Bay Preserve, a Florida State Park that encompasses over 34,000 acres on the Nature Coast. The preserve coastline stretches from south of Cedar Key to north of Yankeetown and can only be reached by water. Today we had this isolated slice of wild Florida completely to ourselves.
We had set out early that morning from the boat ramp on the river. The air was crisp and the outgoing tide swept us out to the Gulf of Mexico faster than we had intended. Now we were trying our luck in the little coves and creek mouths in the bay, but the brisk breeze worked against us. Even in our little inlet, sheltered from the expanses of the open bay, the wind, coupled with the tide turned our boat in a complete circle.
“Let’s try somewhere else,” my husband said.
As if on cue, the great egret abandoned his perch in the tree and soared into the sky. He made a loop around our boat and alighted among the black needle rush that lined the shore.
“No, wait,” I said, motioning towards the water bird. “He knows where there’s fish.”
The egret waded into the shallows and stopped, still as a statue. Then, sure enough, he plunged his head towards the water and pulled away, a fish waggling in his orange beak.
Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park
The Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park has over 19,000 acres of tidal creeks and salt marshes. Its lack of land access makes it one of the more remote state parks in Florida. But this preserve plays a vital role – providing refuge to endangered animals such as the Florida Salt Marsh Vole, manatee, Florida panther, and indigo snake. Black bears, deer, otters, turtles, and American alligators can also be found within the preserve.
My husband’s pole bent and we both switched gears into excitement mode, speculating on the catch until he hauled a blue crab out of the water. It let go of the bait, dropped into the boat, and scuttled into a corner on the floor, raising its claws, ready to fight. With a little difficulty, we caught the renegade and released it back into the bay.
“I think we need to go,” I finally said. The great egret still fished from the shore, but the embankment beneath the grass showed different layers of sediment- unseen to the eye when we had first arrived. The tide was going out – fast – and we were well away from the marked channel.
Oyster beds stretch across portions of the sandy bay in this area, and boaters must watch the tides or risk getting stranded until the tide turns.
We lifted our motor and slowly made our way back to the deeper channel. A seagull hunkered down between the marker signs on one post, away from the chilly breeze, while a lone coot bobbed in the bay waters, enjoying the wintery gusts.
On the Waccasassa River
Once back in the channel, we headed up the Waccasassa River. Cabbage palms on small islands at the end of the Waccasassa stood bare stumps- their tops completely obliterated. What trees left were up-rooted and over-turned- all signs of hurricane damage. The Waccasassa Bay Preserve acts as a natural buffer, taking the full brunt of Gulf storms before they reach inland communities.
The 29-mile Waccasassa River runs through the middle of the preserve, dividing it in half. The headwaters begin in the Waccasassa flats and the river is fed by the fresh waters of Bronson Blue Spring and Wekiva Spring, along with several other springs and groundwater sources on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The fresh waters are vital for maintaining a healthy wetland ecosystem.
Going up-river from the Waccasassa boat ramp is only navigable for 3-4 miles for paddlers, and downriver is ruled by the tides. It’s a 4-mile run from the Waccasassa River boat ramp to the mouth of the river at the bay.
We pass a sign warning of protruding rocks in the river. We had not seen the obstructions on our way out earlier but now spotted the rocks with the lower tides. A 7-foot alligator swam down a nearby side creek from the river earlier in the day. This was not a place to wreck your boat.
Hydric hammocks and island stands of cabbage palms broke up the swaths of salt marsh cord grasses and black needle rush. Hidden tidal creeks along the river beckoned to be explored. Paddlers venturing up the 40-or-so creeks in the preserve must keep track of the tides or risk getting stuck in low tide.
An eagle stood sentry on one treetop and an osprey on another. The Waccasassa River is prolific with migratory birds during the fall and winter months.
The blue sky stretched around us like a dome over the preserve. We were the sole humans on the river, yet around us, the preserve teemed with life. We were but a speck, floating on the water, ruled by tides, palms towering around us in the great Florida wilderness of the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park.
Things to Know Before you Go:
Although you can reach the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park via the Gulf from the Bird Creek Boat Ramp (Yankeetown) and Cedar Key Boat ramp, the closest ramp is Waccasassa River Boat Ramp in Gulf Hammock, Florida.
- Head north on US Highway 19 from Inglis and look for a boat ramp sign on the left.
- There is no launch fee and there are toilet facilities.
- There are also no stores, gas stations, or bait shops between Inglis and this boat ramp, so plan accordingly.
- Know your tides before you head out and keep track of the time.