During my recent travel to Central Florida where I attended a Florida Outdoor Writer’s Association board retreat, I took the opportunity to have a little adventure along the way. While driving the back roads, I passed and noted numerous promising fishing spots as well as captivating locations. As the miles passed beneath my jeep wheels, I observed the remarkable change in scenery that differs from the coastal beach area in which I live to the vast prairie lands prevalent around the interior of the State.
This is cattle country, populated by cowboys, ranchers, and some folks living under the radar…Old Florida, where crossroads and ghost towns dot the landscape and you can drive for miles before seeing another soul. Finding myself in Osceola County, I made my way to the hunting camp where we were staying. As I pulled into camp, I noticed several turkeys and deer milling about, seemingly unaware of my arrival. The wildlife here receives little pressure compared to other areas. After settling in, I headed over to Lake Marion with fellow writer Debbie Hanson.
We drove our Jeeps down a little off-road trail through beautiful wooded areas and pastures until we reached the south shore of the lake. The resident cattle did not appreciate our presence, but we made our way to the water nonetheless. With shallow waters and grasses covering the area quite far out from the shore, casting in the windy conditions became all the more difficult. We fished for a while and, eventually stopping for the day, we made our way back to camp.
The group, which included Tom Van Horn, Kathy Barker, Butch Newell, Eric Johnson, Bob Wattendorf, Debbie and myself, talked into the night about craft improvement, networking and the challenges of being an outdoor writer in the age of social media. The following morning, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast from our hosts and talked further, finally finishing up around 11am.
When I left camp, I had the 67 fish project on my mind as I remembered all the fishing spots I observed during the drive up. I wanted to increase the probability of catching fish since my time was limited, so I picked up a box of night crawlers from a local feed store and headed back to Lake Marion’s northern shore. Passing through nearby Kenansville, I stopped to check out a couple of restored historic buildings. Kenansville was named for Henry Flagler’s wife, Mary Kenan, after the railroad was built through the area. A small town was built, including the Heartbreak Hotel. It’s rumored that Elvis Presley once passed through town and stayed at the hotel, afterwards penning the song by the same name.
Heading west, I eventually came to a public boat ramp and fishing pier. I was the only one present on this windy day and had the area to myself. I knotted on a small hook and float, impaled a night crawler, and began fishing around the pier. It did not take long (about five minutes) before hooking a small bluegill. I quickly released the fish and headed back to 441 south, beginning my journey back to Lee County.
Driving down this lonely stretch of highway reminded me of my college days in North Florida. I would take off on weekends and spend my time exploring the backroads and fishing while camping in the back of my truck. These were simpler times when I did not have a schedule. While reminiscing about the places I have seen and meeting many interesting folks, I found myself in Yeehaw Junction.
The crossroads, known as Jackass Junction in the 1930s, is a place where cattlemen riding donkeys would visit the brothel that was once here. Now the Desert Inn, the historic building remains as a testament to Old Florida’s travel routes. It now houses an eclectic restaurant and hotel that will bring visitors back in time.
Still heading south, I entered Okeechobee County. I passed what appeared to be a good fishing opportunity, Taylor Creek Conservation Area on 441, which is located just outside of Okeechobee City. I instead opted to drive through Okeechobee along the historic Flagler Park area and head west on Highway 70 toward the Kissimmee River. It was another few miles before I arrived at River Bluff Fishing Resort.
Situated on an original oxbow of the Kissimmee River, this little resort offers overnight cabin rentals as well as boat rentals. I pulled up to the boat ramp and tossed my bait near some dock pilings. I noticed hundreds of suckermouth catfish all over the boat ramp and along the river’s edge. I was not renting a room nor did I check in at the front office, as I preferred to wing it. While hooking a small bluegill, I heard a voice behind me asking, “You belong here”? “Nope” I said, as I tossed the little fish in the water and walked directly back to my Jeep.
Soon I was headed South on Highway 27 to what would be my last fishing spot of the day. This was a long stretch of road to Palmdale and Fish Eating Creek. The campground and wildlife management area there had been taken over by the State many years ago, and I hadn’t been there since it was privately owned and in a sad state of neglect. I stopped in to get a drink and a day use pass, then drove around the place to check it out.
The camp was very different than I remembered it, and was clean and inviting. I headed back to the campsites situated directly on the creek and found one unoccupied. I casted along some low hanging branches and, after a minute or two, reeled in a warmouth. Exhausted, I packed the fishing gear up and headed for home.
I reflected on the time I spent exploring the backroads and less travelled highways of central Florida, the places I visited and the fish caught, and decided it was a productive and successful day. Marking off another four counties leaves me with only sixty fish to catch!