The perfect vacation in Florida? Some would choose a white, sandy beach. Others might go for a glitzy theme park. But for my family, few things can rival a trip to Steinhatchee in the state’s Big Bend area. Perhaps because our native roots extend for five generations, we avoid the usual tourist spots and cannot stomach long lines, snarling traffic or overpriced food. Instead, we head for oft-overlooked places that reflect the “old” Florida where nature is still dominant and majestic.
The first thing you should know about Steinhatchee is how to pronounce it. My rule has always been to follow the locals so in this case, it is STEEN-hatch-ee. Located about 1 ½ hours west of Gainesville, this small town is built along the shores of the same-named river, a sluggish, tannic waterway that winds its way into the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, its brown waters dilute to create one of the most productive estuaries in the state. Estuaries are the nurseries of sea life and those in the Big Bend are nurtured by miles and miles of shallow grass flats. No beaches here, but the treasures abound – rich fish life and wonderful beds for edible scallops – the true test of healthy waters.
For the last 15 years, we’ve spent Labor Day weekend in Steinhatchee, loading up our boat with kids, fishing rods, snorkeling gear, and high expectations for daily trips into its enchanted waters. Following the appropriate tides, we hunt for redfish and trout (or anything else that will bite) and then drop anchor to search for scallops. The sneaky bivalves usually sit on top of grass in anywhere from 3 to 9 feet of water but once they see you snorkeling toward them, they scoot away, making collecting them a challenge at times. When the fishing and scalloping disappoint (and that is rare), we still find magic – huge whelks, starfish, curious baitfish, circling bald eagles, soaring frigate birds, and bobbing sea turtles. All are there to share in the bounty.
The next best thing to a day on the water in Steinhatchee? Dining that evening on fresh scallops and redfish. It doesn’t get any better.
Info: Scalloping season July 1- September 10. Saltwater fishing license needed to scallop and fish. Some closed fishing seasons during the year – check with state guidelines. Many marinas available for boat rental or dock space: See www.seahag.com. Several restaurants and hotels available in town.
Leslie Kemp Poole
Mary Kathryn Rains