For those who love white sand and “fun in the sun” the St. Petersburg/Clearwater beaches of Pinellas County are fantastic! To the west, the Gulf of Mexico washes up on 35 miles of white, sandy beaches from Anclote Key at the top to Mullet Key at the bottom. The eastern side is framed by Tampa Bay, but despite all of this visible beauty, what is not seen by most visitors are the real treasures of these clear waters…the great fishing, birding, history,and natural possibilities.
Lighthouse at Treasure IslandTampa Bay contains Florida’s largest open-water estuary covering almost 400 square miles at high tide. In these fertile waters, seven out of ten of all fish and shellfish found in this part of the United States spend time in the bay and in nearshore Gulf waters. Therefore, shallow water anglers using light tackle can easily wade while targeting gamefish such as tarpon, snook, redfish, permit, cobia, sharks, pompano, speckled trout (spotted weakfish), sheepshead, Spanish mackerel, bonita, shark, and flounder. The Pinellas County flats and beaches probably provide more accessible, productive fishing places for wading anglers than anywhere else in Florida.
The grass flats of this area are sea nurseries where many of the saltwater fishes of the Gulf of Mexico are born and raised. Also, the sea grass flats provide food and shelter for many small marine organisms including minnows, crabs, scallops, conchs, and shrimp. Since the roots filter water, mangroves are equally important to the health of this estuary. The branches and leaves provide habitat for hundreds of species of aquatic creatures, birds, and insects.
Nature-based attractions range from wildlife preserves, to the largest wild bird hospital in the United States, to a marine rescue facility, and one of the most extensive park systems in Florida.
In a state noted for theme parks, Pinellas County has two major environmentally related attractions…Brooker Creek Preserve and Weedon Island Preserve. Brooker Creek is an 8,500-acre wildlife preserve in the northern section of the county near Tarpon Springs. Currently, the preserve offers free nature hikes on weekends and features a scenic 6-mile horseback trail.
Weedon Island Preserve combines a wonderful nature experience on a site with fascinating historical significance. The recently opened Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center keeps the areas Pre-Columbian Native American culture alive for future generations. It features classrooms and exhibit areas designed by anthropologists, historians, and Native Americans to reflect the art and history of the areas first people. Weedon Island Preserve is a group of low-lying islands in north St. Petersburg whose history goes back 10,000 years when early peoples such as the Timucuans and Manasotas made the island their home. These early dwellers developed an elaborate culture including burying their dead in sand mounds along with ornate ceremonial pottery. Evidence of this life has been found throughout the preserve and is featured in the Learning Center. The center combines a look at artifacts excavated from the site by the Smithsonian in the 1920s, as well as the chance to experience aspects of Native American culture, including dance, cooking, art, crafts and more.
Weedon Island also features a 4-mile canoe trail, boardwalk, and observation tower. A 9-mile hiking trail and additional boardwalk showcases and protects the natural beauty and wildlife aspects of the preserve, along with a fishing pier and waterfront picnic sites.
Pinellas County’s most abundant natural resource is water, and practically every water activity imaginable is available including: deep-sea fishing; backwater salt flats fishing; boating and sailing; canoeing and sea kayaking; SCUBA diving; wind surfing; shelling; and exploring some of the top-rated beaches in the entire country.
New Bridge at St. PetersburgThe Old Gandy Bridge has undergone a $7 million transformation into a recreational park called the Friendship Trail Bridge. This 2.6-mile trail is open for all types of non-motorized activities, including biking, walking, running, roller-blading, and fishing.
Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island provide nearly 1,000 acres that appear much as they did in the 1500s when the Spanish first explored the area. The Dunedin Causeway connects the mainland with Honeymoon Island, but Caladesi, rated among the top five beaches in the United States, is accessible only by boat. Hourly ferry service is available from Honeymoon Island. The island beaches face the Gulf of Mexico and the bay sides have mangrove swamps, offering refuge for wading and shore birds. Both islands have ridges of virgin pine and oak hammocks. Nature trails wind through the interiors allowing visitors to observe dozens of native plants and animals, including osprey, brown pelicans, snowy white egrets, armadillos, and raccoons.
One of the unique aspects of fishing in Pinellas County is that anglers can use the same kind of lightweight spinning and casting gear that are utilized in freshwater. In fact, many of the same lures like stick baits, floater-diver plugs, vibrating crankbaits, jerk baits, jigs, and plastic worms are quite productive. However, Mirrorlures seem to be the most popular artificial lures in this part of Florida. Live bait anglers can use shrimp or minnows on free-lines or under a float for best results.
The Tampa Bay area usually has two high tides and two low tides each day and the water generally rises and falls between 2 and 3 feet with each tidal change. Game fish are more likely to feed when the current is moving. They will typically face into the current so they can prey on smaller fishes and minnows struggling in the moving tide.
On low tide, especially with a north wind, many shallow flats lose their water and become exposed. Wading birds love it when that happens because that provides more places to feed, and hundreds can be observed. They feed on oysters and worms, small crabs, and unfortunate minnows that get trapped in little potholes on the falling tide, but when the tide comes back in, the gamefish are also anxious to feed on the same grubs, minnows, and shellfish not eaten by the wading birds.
In addition to the great fishing and beautiful scenery, Tampa Bay provides habitat for the West Indian Manatee, Florida’s official State Aquatic Mammal. About 60 manatees spend the summer near the Bay and more than 350 manatees find their way here during the colder months. That’s about 10 percent of the total manatee population in the USA. Therefore, if one notices a slow-moving, dark spot in the water about the size of a small car, its probably a manatee. Also, Tampa Bay is home to about 400 bottlenose dolphins, which can be seen in numerous locations.
The Tampa Bay, Clearwater, St. Petersburg area has plenty of other attractions, great restaurants, and diverse lodging possibilities, including my favorite, the Trade Winds on St. Pete Beach (727-363-2215). For more information, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau toll-free at 1-800-822-6461 or go to their web site at: www.FloridasBeach.com.