My recollections of past story assignments often begin with visual scenic images, but my recent trip with Captain Kyle Messier on the Crystal River seems to have changed that pattern. The spinning Lazy Susan wheel of memories is now made up of diverse game fish — lots of them. The main reason for this magical shift is that I'd never fished a Florida coastal city where fresh water springs and the nearby brackish rivers and salty bays teamed up to create such a huge ability to house so many different finny fighters.
I'd have never thought that one hour I'd be fishing for huge largemouth bass and 50-pound gar and only a short boat ride away I'd be jigging for big gator trout mixed with school redfish and topped off with fat mangrove snappers. And yet another quick 30-minute boat trip on Kyles' easy-riding 21-foot tower-topped Carolina Skiff would find us pounding big Spanish mackerel on light tackle and battling big marauding sharks at the same time. May I humbly say, "Wow!" It's rare for any locale to be blessed with such diversity of environs, wildlife and game fish.
The Miami-Crystal River Jaunt
I basically became acquainted with Captain Kyle through his thorough fishing reports. Even the first reading had me thoroughly intrigued in the offering of an obvious and broad array of inshore/nearshore fisheries that differed so much from my home waters of Biscayne Bay. Though it's great to have years of action with bonefish, tarpon and permit, there's nothing like taking to the open roads and traveling to a place where the game fish are different and novel; a place where the numbers of schooled fish can be in the hundreds and even thousands. Even as I write this, I'm hoping to make another trip in the depths of winter to experience the huge run of monster black drum and take a few of these fish on fly and plug tackle.
So Kyle and I finalized a story trip on the Crystal River fishery — he was anxious to let more anglers know about his backyard and I was ready to fish there and write about it. At first blush, a car trip from Miami to this region north of Tampa might seem long and suggest a plane flight and car rental as better venues. But the sheer simplicity of an oblique cross-state run on the Florida Turnpike to Wildwood took care of the bulk of it in short order, lasting about 4 hours. The remainder of the trip was west on Highway 44 for less than an hour and north on Highway 19 for just two miles and then you're right at the front door of the Crystal River Resort where captain Kyle launches his vessel — simple!
And, yes, though the night before the trip was full of wakeful anticipations, the dawn finally rose on a gorgeous sunny-kissed calm day. After an excellent breakfast at the resort, my wife and I quickly found Kyle already tied off at the first pier next to the ramp. It's a rare pleasure when your captain and vessel are literally steps away from your room. But it's even a greater pleasure to step aboard an inshore/offshore "platform" that is brimming with room for up to four anglers — on a 22-foot vessel this is a rare treat.
A quick review of his rig showed a well-oiled fishing machine with everything in its' place. The bow featured hatched massive storage under a huge casting deck as well as a sturdy electric motor and a livewell sizzling with wild shiners. There was a small ice chest filled with large fresh shrimp next to the casting deck. The baits were respectively targeting big largemouth bass in the fresh water canals and any reluctant redfish in the brackish flats and bays not far in the distance. The natural baits stood in contrast to the arsenal of spinning rods on the tower rigged with braid and a variety of weighted and non-weighted plastics.
Our fishing plan was to capture and release as large a variety of gamesters in a day as possible- an experience that would reflect one of the best aspects of Crystal River fishing. Though we had barely idled a few hundred yards from the dock, Kyle was ready to deploy to the nearby canals to nail some big bucketmouth bass. While this opportunity was something I'd never had in an inshore fishery, I declined this first "shot" in favor of hitting the abundant seatrout to the west on topwater plugs. I'm afraid I did not make his task any easier when I made that choice, but the plan evolved into hitting the bass on the way back.
As we idled on, I reflected on this magic fishery passing by under his boat where freshwater springs caused some fascinating gatherings of manatee, gars, bass, mangrove snapper, tarpon, and even at certain times, redfish. As we idled toward the "normal operation zone", Kyle mentioned he'd recently caught a big cobia last week in the canal we were now traversing- just amazing.
Soon we were on plane and shortly arrived in an area polka-dotted by numerous mangrove islands over a carpet of grass-topped limestone flats. Kyle cut the motor, and lowered his "electric" and eased us towards a small canal mouth draining out of the mangroves. Within our first few casts on topwaters, Kyle and I were both hooked up with fat gator trout. We released a few more, then switched to plastics and shrimp-adorned jigheads when no redfish were attracted to the plugs. This did the trick as we quickly caught a few small redfish.
Those species having "gone into the books", I asked Kyle to take us into the open Gulf in pursuit of other species. A ride of about thirty minutes took us well offshore along some sandy spoil islands. We instantly saw an area sizzling with bait and skyrocketing mackerel and we motored the 100 yards right alongside the action. A quick look over the side revealed big mackerel in huge schools below. We instantly hooked up on jig heads adorned with plastics or fresh shrimp. The action was non-stop as long as we wanted. If we cast to the edges of the action, big ladyfish and fat blue runners hammered us.
And then we saw a chunky blacktip shark cruising the edge of this action. Kyle quickly hooked a fresh mackerel fillet to his shark-rigged spinning outfit and handed it to me. I made a good cast and the shark struck savagely. The fight was fierce with long runs, lunges, and vicious headshakes. After an hour we eased the fish into the shallows. Kyle wanted to pose the release in the water and we lassoed the fish, kept the leader pressure extreme, and hoped the fish was as tired as it seemed. I took a quick few shots and Kyle let him go. I'm not sure I would do that again.
By midday, I asked Kyle to search for cobia and tripletail- neither species ever a sure thing. When it became clear this was eating up the clock as well as the daylight with no sightings, Kyle suggested we move to a nearshore reef for other species and I readily agreed. In a quick run of fifteen minutes, we were tied into hard-biting bluefish, and under them fat, silvery seatrout. After catching a dozen fish, Kyle said we'd be moving closer inshore to try for flounder. We stopped at a rockpile with channels going through it — it took two casts to get our flounder — hardly doormats, but sized just right for the plate!
Kyle wanted to get back to the bass while there was still enough sunlight to cast to the fish. So we headed back towards the resort area. But the no-wake zones made it impossible to get the speed to traverse the space to be on time. We'd have to do it the next day.
Day 2, Redemption
I was back on Kyle's boat by 7 a.m. He first idled over to the nearby springs and we quickly racked up some fat mangrove snappers not at all far from the corralled manatee area.
We had enough sun by 8 a.m. and eased into a nearby canal for the bass. Kyle cut his engine and eased into the canal on his electric. He quickly spotted two big bass in the center of the water and dropped his PowerPole. Kyle deftly hooked up a live shiner on a spinner rigged with a tiny cork and handed me the outfit. I made a good cast, and the cork plowed under the surface with a whooshing pop. I struck hard and two minutes later we had a 6-pound bass in the livewell for posing pictures. On the next cast, I did the same with a 5-pounder. I quickly caught a few more, and asked Kyle to motor out of the canal and towards some open water reeds so we could pose the fish in what was left of the soft morning light.
On the way over to the reed bank, I saw big gars and tarpon rolling. I looked up at Kyle and he said, "Sure, we can give them a try after you get your pictures." I thought to myself what a rare and wonderful place the Crystal River fishery was...and will continue to be.
Crystal River Resort
The Best Western Crystal River Resort is a full-scale waterfront destination with so many amenities and offerings that it can handle anything from hardcore traveling anglers to fun- loving families. Consider these items- Cabbage Palm Gift Shop, swimming pool and whirlpool, full-service dive shop and dive tours, boat docks with slips and a ramp, airboat and pontoon rides, guided manatee encounters, boat rentals, and the Nature Coast Fly Shop.
The rooms are spacious, clean, and ideally, literally steps away from the boat ramp. In-room safes and coffee makers add to the features of each unit. Each morning before meeting Kyle I enjoyed a solid Continental breakfast that included waffles, fruit, yogurt and good coffee. There was also an excellent selection of breads, bagels, cereals, and condiments as well as boiled eggs.
I never did dine at the well-known Crackers restaurant adjacent to the Crystal River Resort. I can report, however, that the dinners at nearby Vintage on 5th Restaurant could hold its' own alongside any of Florida's best gourmet venues. The excellent wines, crab soup, and yellowfin tuna steaks were wonderful ways of topping off the great days of fishing.