Travel Log: Crystal River, Fl - The Fisherman

Travel Log: Crystal River, Fl

Bonnie Hutchinson with a solid redfish taken during a winter excursion to Florida’s Nature Coast.

A Jersey snowbird settles in for the winter along the Nature Coast. 

On her first cast with a live shrimp, my wife Bonnie landed a keeper redfish. Her second attempt hooked an out of season snook that was quickly released. Two of her next three casts resulted in a sheepshead and a small black drum.  As I stared wide eyed, our guide said, “Let’s go where we can get some steady action.” We traveled a short distance where we landed sea trout one after another on both plastics and live shrimp.

This was last January while shallow water angling on the west coast of Florida near the small community of Homosassa, just a few miles south of where we were staying in Crystal River.

When anglers think of winter fishing in Florida, thoughts almost instantly turn to legendary locales on the east coast of Florida like Miami Beach or the Florida Keys. Visions of leaping sailfish and tarpon come to mind. Flocks of “snowbirds” leave the New Jersey, Delaware Bay region in winter traveling south for warmer climes. My wife and I spent two months last year in the sunny south, but what we wanted was warm sunny weather and good fishing without the crowds of people and bumper to bumper traffic.

We found what we were looking for in Crystal River in Citrus County on the “Nature Coast” of Florida. We saw few sandy beaches, but we did find miles and miles of unspoiled wilderness areas on the Gulf of Mexico.  From our home in Manahawkin, it was roughly a 16-hour drive down Route 95.  For those who prefer to fly, there are two large airports within a relatively short drive of the area. The airport in Tampa is 70 miles south while Orlando Airport is about 85 southeast.

Capt. David Maki of Finntastick Charters put the author and his wife on a future fish fry aboard his 24-foot custom Carolina skiff.

Florida Friendly

Lacking recommendations for a fishing guide in this particular area of Florida, I turned to Google.  A couple of clicks later we found Capt. David Maki of Finntastick Charters who fishes a 24-foot custom Carolina skiff with a very shallow draft of 1 foot. He says his main objective is “making other people happy.” He supplied top of the line gear, both lures and live bait, and even had an ice chest filled with cold beverages.

Maki has been officially recognized as a “Florida Friendly Fishing Guide.” Florida-friendly guides apply science-based practices to minimize the environmental footprint of fishing. His knowledge of the wildlife on our trip through miles and miles of unsettled marshland made it an adventure.

We met him at the dock at MacRaes Restaurant in Homosassa. He was there picking up live shrimp for the day. Although we were in Florida, we knew to dress warmly with hooded sweatshirts. Even though the afternoon temperatures would reach into the 70’s, riding in an open boat first thing in the morning can be chilly.

After a 15-minute trip into the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge through a variety of channels and creeks, we reached our first spot. A couple of times Capt. David maneuvered the boat through water not much more than 12 inches deep.  This is where Bonnie got the day off to a great start with the redfish and snook. Once we had our daily limit of redfish, we headed for some deeper water where the trout were schooled up.

Using jigheads tipped with either live shrimp or plastics produced hits on almost every cast. We didn’t always hook up, but the fish liked what we were throwing. A large portion of the fish we brought to the boat were shorter than the 15-inch minimum size, but there were enough keepers to put all the fish in the cooler that we wanted.

When fishing this area in January and February the primary targets are trout, redfish, and mangrove snapper along with sheepshead. Capt. David also fishes some rock piles a mile or so into the gulf where there are good concentrations of snapper and grunt. Bonnie and I prefer to fish only half days, more than enough time to get all the fish we wanted. Back at the dock, Capt. David filleted the fish for us as a small group of onlookers admired our catch.  We headed home with enough fish fillets for several dinners. We fished with David twice again on our vacation including once with my daughter and her boyfriend. Both trips produced action much like our first.

Hutch, Sr. exchanges his favorite Graveling Point oysters in the winter months for fresh Apalachicola oysters in the Crystal River region of Florida.

Out & About

We did research before deciding on a stay in the Crystal River area. One quick way to do this is to contact “Discover Crystal River Florida” which is part of the Citrus County Visitors Bureau.  I asked Terry Natwick, a representative of that group, what makes the area more attractive to visitors than other more well-known areas. “Citrus County is a shining example of what Florida was like before Mickey Mouse showed up,” Natwick said with a bit of a laugh, adding “We are original Florida, and you will feel it the moment you pull off the main roads.”


Finntastick Fishing Charters

Ed’s Tackle Shop

The Port Hotel and Marina


Seafood Seller and Café

The Crab Plant

Vintage on 5th Street

This area is called The Nature Coast for good reason. There are literally miles and miles of hiking trails. There are many parks to observe nature such as the famous Three Sisters Springs with natural springs and excellent manatee viewing in the winter.  There are guided glass-bottom kayak tours and a few businesses that offer airboat rides. A big attraction in the summer is catching scallops. Capt. David takes parties out snorkeling for these delicious bivalves.

In addition to the saltwater fishing along the coast, I learned there is some great bass fishing on freshwater lakes just a few miles inland from Crystal River including the Tasala-Apopka chain of lakes near Inverness. There are guides available for that fishing also.

We used VRBO to find a waterfront house to rent for 2 months in Crystal River. There is also a lengthy list of motels in the area. When we first scouted the area, we stayed in the Port Hotel and Marina. This is located on the water with great sunset views, a ramp, and boats for rent.

There are many restaurants in the area, but our two favorites were Seafood Seller and Cafe and The Crab Plant. They are casual with great fresh seafood.  Located in a strip mall, Seafood Seller and Cafe has super fresh seafood with a New Orleans slant. They have some great deals on fresh Cedar Key clams, oysters, and crawfish brought live from New Orleans. The Crab Plant, a combination restaurant and fish market, is on the water and buys directly from local fishermen. We made quite a few trips for fresh stone crab claws to take home.

We also found a restaurant in Crystal River where we could dress up a little for more of an upscale meal. Vintage on Fifth offers gourmet-type meals and is a great place for a special occasion.

Located along the Gulf Coast roughly 85 miles from Orlando (Google Map), Florida’s Crystal River region is more bayou than theme park as evidenced by a quick look at your Navionics charts.

An Old Charmer

I did not do any shore fishing last year but noticed the Fort Island Trail Park a few miles from Crystal River. I checked in with the folks at Ed’s Tackle Shop in Crystal River for info. They told me that Hurricane Idalia last summer caused extensive damage to the fishing pier and ramp at the park. As a result, they are out of action for a while.  Ed did tell me of the Inglis Dam and Island Recreation Area some 10 miles north in Inglish. This is where the Cross Florida Barge Canal was originally started but never finished. I plan to check this area to see what I can catch from the shore.

Crystal River is a historic village with a small downtown and interesting shops. One business is familiar to us from New Jersey. A new WaWa with its gas pumps and convenience store is a reminder of back home. As a baseball fan, I was also intrigued to learn that baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams retired here after his career with the Red Sox. Williams was known for his love of fishing.

The Crystal River area may lack glitz and glamor, but it is all about old Florida charm and darn good fishing.  For more information on the Nature Coast region visit the Citrus County Visitors Bureau online at



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