Though Florida's wild country is under siege from the tremendous population growth, the state continues to maintain vast areas of woods and waters in its robust state park system incorporating literally hundreds of thousands of acres.
The parks are found all over the state, totaling 174 that span some 800,000 acres, including 100 miles of coastal beaches. And many of them have special features, such as incredible spring outflows or cabins right on the beach, which make them truly unique. The Florida Park System is the first three-time Gold Medal winner honoring the nation's best state park system; pretty impressive for a state with more than 20 million humans packed into its boundaries.
Among the great things about the Florida park system is that accommodations are exceptionally reasonable in most areas, and they're often just minutes from prime fishing and hunting spots.
BAHIA HONDA STATE PARK
At Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, anglers can slip on a pair of wading booties, head straight out on any nearby grass flat to connect with barracuda pretty much any time the tide is knee deep or more by fast cranking small spoons or tubes on a No. 3 wire.
Most of these inshore barracudas are little guys, a couple feet long, but the speed of the strike, the first run and the arching jumps they make is stunning, especially for folks who have been limited to freshwater angling.
Those with more patience and skills can even go after an occasional bonefish by traveling to mangrove flats away from the shoreline in kayaks or paddleboards.
Live shrimp tail-hooked on a size 1 hook will get them by placing unweighted baits at least 10 feet ahead of them and up current, allowing the fish to find the bait, rather than cranking it toward them. It's also possible to get them on flies and tiny jigs, but the best chances come with using live bait.
It's also possible to catch lane and mangrove snapper, jacks and maybe even a young tarpon by anchoring up on one of the many deep channels on strong tide flows, chopping up a dozen shrimp and putting them out as chum. Those looking for adult tarpon can spool up heavy — 50- to 65-pound braid — and cast around the piling under the Overseas highway bridges with mullet, pinfish, crabs and other live baits. However, don't be surprised in a giant hammerhead shark, as they hang around channels in the summer waiting for opportunities to eat these silver kings.
It's just 37 miles down U.S. 1 to Key West if the family wants to go for a day of shopping and sight-seeing, and key deer, whitetails about the size of a German shepherd, are everywhere on nearby Big Pine Key. Those tired of fishing around the park, can drive in either direction to another bridge and new angling opportunities.
Folks can even spend some time snorkeling on the coral reef that is just a few miles offshore — dive boats are available at Marathon — book an offshore charter to try and connect with dolphin, sailfish, king mackerel and blackfin tuna, depending on the time of year or charter a flats guide to learn how to connect with bonefish, tarpon or permit.
36850 Overseas Highway, - Big Pine Key, Fl 33043 - 305-872-2353
Cabins: 80 sites, $120/night to $160/night
Camping: $36/night, includes water hookups
Onsite Amenities: bicycling, swimming, boat tours, gift shop, snack bar with some gear rentals
Nearby Amenities: Marathon and Key West, with shopping, dining and more
TORREYA STATE PARK
Torreya State Park, in north Florida, is built on a bluff high above the Apalachicola River, making it a good home port for both fishing and hunting. The Apalach has one of Florida's few natural striped bass fisheries, but is better known for the hybrid stripers stocked by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The lake holds the state record for both species, with most caught directly below Woodruff Dam in February and March as they stack up in the swift water to spawn. White jigs, lipless crankbaits and live shad work best. There's a ramp inside the park, but it's accessed via a dirt road.
Torreya is also a short distance from Apalachicola National Forest, which sprawls for 632,890 acres across lowland swamps, palmetto flats and rolling woodlands. This is true wild country, complete with an excellent population of whitetails, turkeys and wild hogs.
One way to hunt the big woods is to drift the Ochlockonee River, which comes out of Lake Talquin and flows for many miles through river swamp inside the forest. A flat-bottomed johnboat is the best tool for this float, as there are plenty of shoals, blowdowns and other obstructions. A canoe will also do the job, but be sure to arrange a down-river pickup. This can even be conducted during waterfowling season, allowing hunters to put a few wood ducks into the bag.
Spring turkey season is maybe the best time to do a float hunt, as the silent passage of the boat along the river allows folks to listen for gobblers, before easing in to set up and call. Spring also happens to be a good time to fish for stripers and bass.
As this region is one of the largest wild areas in Florida, be sure to take a cell phone, a GPS unit and a map and compass, as it is easy to get lost, especially in low-light conditions. It's also wise to carry an emergency position locator, because there are places in the woods where a cell phone will not get service.
The park also offers Florida's only state park "yurt," a 20-foot domed tent with flooring, electricity, a lockable wooden door and three large screened windows with flaps that open and close.
2576 NW Torreya Park Rd, Bristol, Fl 32321 - 850-643-2676
Onsite Amenities: hiking, historical site, geocaching, birding, boat ramp
Nearby Amenities: Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, Tallahassee Museum
CAYO COSTA STATE PARK
Cayo Costa State Park, located on a barrier island northwest of Fort Myers, can only be reached by boat. It may be a little inconvenient to get to, but this quiet little getaway sits astride perhaps the best inshore saltwater fishing in all of Florida.
The north tip of the park juts into Boca Grande Pass, which is hands-down the world's best tarpon spot. From early May through mid-July, literally thousands of giant silver kings can be seen rolling in this deep green flow. While the pass itself is no place for a kayak, due to strong currents and huge sharks chasing the tarpon, it's very possible to get at these fish as they move out on the beaches from a kayak — simply set up about 100 yards off the beach at dawn and watch for rolling fish, then put a live scaled sardine, pinfish or threadfin in front of them.
Folks can also catch some really nice snook, from May through September as the fish gather to spawn and feed, by wading or from small boats. Snook are easiest to fool with live scaled sardines, which can be caught with a cast net on the grass flats behind the island by chumming with a mix of wheat bread and canned jack mackerel. It's also possible to get some nice linesiders on noisy topwaters at dawn and dusk, and on swimbaits and jigs about 6 inches long at other times.
There's also great seatrout and redfish action in Pine Island Sound, which runs between Pine Island and Lacosta Island. The area contains a lot of turtle grass flats, where trout roam when there is a good currently flow, especially in the mornings. Reds show in the same areas, even prowling up shallower, where they can be spotted "tailing."
Just to the north, Charlotte Harbor stretches away for miles, where trout can be caught by casting a 1/4-ounce plastic-tailed jig along the edges where there's visible grass. Spanish mackerel can be found a little deeper by working the jig faster.
The park cabins are rustic — no water, no electricity or toilets, but toilets and potable water are available close by. Staying here in mid-summer can be a test because of the heat and the bugs, but during other seasons, it's great. A ferry service provides access, but it is much better to bring a boat if possible. Those with a cabin boat can dock on the east shore and stay aboard, as there is a restroom adjacent, but no electrical hookups.
Four nautical miles west of Pine Island, Cayo Costa, Fl - 941-964-0375
Cabins: $40/night primitve
Jug Creek Cottages: $90/night
Boat Camping: $20/night per vessel
Onsite Amenities: amphitheater, restrooms with showers, beach, wildlife viewing, concessions, hiking
Nearby Amenities: very few, only by boat