Forgotten Florida

Visit a Historic Fishing Village Where the Deep South Transitions to the Tropics

Capt. Mike Genoun November 3, 2015

When it comes to forgotten coastal towns in Florida, Steinhatchee is one for the record books, with human habitation dating all the way back to 1200 BC. Today, thousands of years later, this riverside settlement with just over 1,000 full time residents remains true to its roots and the locals refuse to have it any other way.

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Photo: FSF Mag

In case you aren’t familiar, Steinhatchee is tucked away along the coast of Northwest Florida and is located in the heart of the Tide Swamp Wildlife Management Area and the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve. This sleepy little fishing village is one of those places you don’t just end up at because you made a wrong turn. The only way you would get there is if you were going there, and once you arrive you’ll either love it or hate it.

This sleepy little fishing village is one of those places you don’t just end up at because you made a wrong turn.

I love it and have fished the area’s tea colored waters on multiple occasions. For me, Steinhatchee is the ideal destination to enjoy a relaxed getaway, especially when desperately needing to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. This is one of those specks on the map where everyone knows everyone, and no one is in a hurry to do anything. It’s also a rare Florida destination that actually experiences a noticeable change of seasons.

Even with rapid modernization and development of coastal towns around the state, in Steinhatchee there are no big box retailers or drive-thru restaurants, no traffic lights and no familiar hotels. As the years tick by, very little changes around here, partially because of the local residents who fight tooth and nail to keep it that way, and partially because there isn’t much to do in Steinhatchee unless you truly appreciate and enjoy spending time outdoors. The town is so disconnected that once you exit the Steinhatchee River by boat you can travel 15 miles in either direction along the coast and never see a single structure. Where else in Florida can you say the same thing?

What you will find in Steinhatchee is serenity, an authentic Old Florida lifestyle, remnants of salt works and logging operations from decades past, and miles of unspoiled grass flats and coastal marshlands home to abundant wildlife and extremely productive light tackle fishing. By bay boat, flats skiff or kayak, limit catches are almost too easy.

Steinhatchee was first identified on Spanish maps as Deadman Bay. Conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez came through the area in 1529, followed by Hernando de Soto only 10 years later. Pirates also inhabited Deadman Bay from the 15th Century through the 18th Century.

In the early 1800s, General Andrew Jackson and General Zachary Taylor crossed at the Falls on their way to dispatch the Seminole Indians who were raiding settlements. During the late 1800s, James Howard Stephens, a local pioneer, offered land for a post office and changed the name to Stephensville before the community was finally renamed Steinhatchee in 1931 after the tannin river that runs through it. The name was derived from the Native American esteen hatchee, meaning river of man.

Traveling to Steinhatchee is an experience in itself. For those accustomed to concrete jungles and rush hour traffic, once you exit Interstate 75 in Ocala expect to mentally shift into low gear as you traverse rolling hills with sod farms and open meadows stretching as far as the eye can see. Horses, cattle and sheep herds graze just yards from the roadside, with historic farmhouses and equestrian ranches completing the picturesque backdrop. Really, it’s like stepping back to a different time and place.

When planning a trip, visiting anglers have limited options regarding lodging, ranging from super affordable retreats to my personal favorite Steinhatchee Landing. This well kept community with Spanish moss trees and cracker architecture style homes located just two miles up river offers a variety of accommodations for groups both large and small. There is ample dockage and trailer parking directly on property, with fish cleaning station and outdoor grills beckoning your call. Your kids will especially appreciate the swimming pool, park and petting zoo, and there’s even a fitness center, conference rooms and non-denomination chapel on site.

Regardless of where you choose to rest your head, visitors can trailer their own backcountry boat, rent a well-equipped Carolina Skiff from one of the local marinas, or charter an experienced inshore guide. In any case, once you venture outside the main channel leading to open water, navigating these tricky near-shore shallows can be challenging. This is especially true if you plan on fishing Dallus Creek to the north or Pepperfish Keys to the south—both popular hideouts for big numbers of trout and redfish. For first timers I recommend at least a half-day trip with a local guide to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land before venturing out on your own.

From experience I’ve learned Steinhatchee draws two types of crowds. The first are hungry anglers from Georgia and Florida looking for daily limits of trout and redfish. The fishing here can be as technical or as easygoing as you like. You can up the ante by poling your way into ultra-shallow tidal creeks and onto super skinny flats and sight fish with fly rod in hand if you so choose, or you can take the relaxed shrimp and popping cork approach while drifting across vast grass flats. In either case it’s not hard to find success, especially if you make good use of a spinning outfit with soft plastic twitchbait.

Near-shore waters sustain a solid cobia run, with king mackerel and sharks always a possibility. For those looking for tasty sheepshead, a popular reef lies just ten miles from the mouth of the river and consistently yields big numbers of these bucktooth bandits. Wary hogfish make an occasional appearance, especially for those fishing with shrimp. Steinhatchee is also famous for exceptional grouper and sea bass fishing. Those who are willing to burn some fuel generally start their grouper hunts about 30 miles out and seldom return disappointed.

And then of course there are the families and friends who visit Steinhatchee solely for the scallops. During July, August and September, the vast grass flats only minutes from the mouth of the Steinhatchee River yield countless numbers of the shelled sensations for those willing to dive down a few feet and pick them out of the grass. Limits are common—just be prepared to shuck until your hands hurt. Just so you know, scalloping is an extremely popular pastime over the summer months and visitors often reserve their accommodations and rental boats a year in advance.

To enjoy the fruits of your labor Big Bend style, both local restaurants situated directly on the north side of the river, Roy’s and Fiddler’s, will cook your catch and accompany it with their famous hush puppies and traditional fixings. There are also a couple of gas stations in town, bars, a well stocked bait and tackle shop, and Maddie’s, which is a small supermarket that carries everything you need for an extended stay. However, don’t expect to find much else. Really, it’s the remoteness and separation from the real world that make Steinhatchee such a special place.

If you aren’t already convinced a visit to this hidden gem is worth your while, head to one of the last remaining unspoiled pieces of angling paradise and experience Old Florida for yourself. You’ll thank us for the advice later.

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