I’m fortunate to have fished much of Florida’s shallow shoreline, and have noticed one big difference between our Big Bend and the rest of the state’s west and north Gulf coast—a decided scarcity of wading spots that are accessible to those without boats. The advantage that non-Big Benders have is barrier islands and their beaches. Drive coastwise anywhere south of Tarpon Springs or west of Panacea and you’ll find an island with a beach, a bridge or causeway to get you there—and some pretty good wade fishing.
“No beaches” means no beach sand, and on the Big Bend that means mucky bottom, and it’s no fun when your wading shoes get sucked off in the bog. But there are some other “park and wade” options. You can get good footing behind the Hot Dog Stand at Keaton Beach or at Hagens Cove on CR361 north of Steinhatchee. Both places are known for good catches of seatrout, reds and even a few flounder. You can also wade south from the county park next to the boat ramp at Horseshoe Beach. The “channel” between the shore and the oyster bars is only knee-deep in places and the flats outside the bars hold bait fish and predators, laying in wait for an early-morning or late-afternoon topwater lure to pass overhead.
Although it’s not technically “wading”, there are seawall or roadside options at other Big Bend coastal communities. At Suwannee, try fishing in Salt Creek on the north side of CR349. At Cedar Key, rig D.O.A. 3-inch shrimp under popping corks and toss them to the outside of the oyster bars that line the road to the airport. At Yankeetown, fish some cut mullet or pinfish on knocker rigs into the Withlacoochee River alongside CR40’s western end near the boat ramp.
Of course, if you have a boat there are numerous wading options. Any Big Bend sand, shell or oyster bar is liable to hold fish or attract them to their edges. Oyster bars are excellent choices as they are habitat for small fish and crustaceans. Shell and sand bars are structures that alter tidal flow, and the currents and eddies they create help set up ambush points for bigger fish. Remember to approach any bar you want to wade slowly, using your boat’s trolling motor or your push pole, if you have one. Then, don’t splash around once you’re overboard. The advantage of wading is to reduce the distance between you and your prey, so don’t get this far and mess it up by being noisy. I prefer anchoring my boat to the “down-tide” side of bars and fishing the “up-tide” side, where predators more often face into the current ahead of my casts. And be sure to take along a pocketful (or wading belt full) of whatever lure you’re using, as well as some spare leader, a fish gripper and a pair of pliers. Many wade-fishermen carry an extra rod, too. There’s nothing worse than having to leave an active bite to slog back to the boat to get something you’ve forgotten.
Finally, a few cautionary words regarding wade fishing. One, wear appropriate footwear. Sand bars and grass flats are running shoe friendly, but oyster bars will cut through them like butter. If you plan to do lots of wading over oysters, buy a pair of high-top neoprene wading shoes. They’ll protect your ankles from nasty oyster cuts. Two, learn to do the “sting ray shuffle”. Don’t step or stomp when you’re wading as that usually irritates rays and can result in painful puncture wounds—and a shorter-than-planned outing. And three, if you’re in waist-deep water, think twice before you drag a stringer of fish behind you. Just think “shark bait”.