No more than twenty miles south of Florida’s Capital city, Tallahassee, one enters a world that has stood still for more than fifty years. No huge condos or perfectly manicured golf courses dot the horizon of this Panhandle paradise. St. Marks is still an old fishing village that has always survived from the fruits of the Gulf of Mexico and the abundance of its marshes, trees, and wildlife.
Though commercial fishing is still a popular vocation in this part of Florida, recent seafood harvesting laws tend to favor sport fishing enthusiasts. Therefore, much of the fishing today is done with rod and reels for the many schools of spotted sea trout and redfish from the fertile estuaries in the area. Also, crabbing and scalloping have become very popular over the past few years near St. Marks, which is where the spring-fed Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers join before emptying their clear waters into the Gulf of Mexico.
St. Marks LighthouseOne of the highlights of any visit to this section of Florida’s Panhandle is a unique refuge that was established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. It is one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, and encompasses 68,000 acres spread out between Wakulla, Jefferson, and Taylor counties along the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida. This refuge includes coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries of seven north Florida rivers, and is home to a diverse community of plant and animal life. The refuge also has strong ties to a rich cultural past, and is home to the famous and picturesque St. Marks Lighthouse, which was built in 1832 and is still in use today.
Though Indian tribes occupied this area for more than ten-thousand years, Spanish explorers came here in the 1500’s and established a port and fort at St. Marks during the 1600’s. Limestone from the Wakulla River was used to build both the fort and the foundation of the St. Marks Lighthouse.
Throughout the year, one can sample both fresh and saltwater fishing of some type in this beautiful refuge. In fact, freshwater fishing is available in refuge impoundments along Lighthouse Road and in Otter Lake at the end of State Rd. 372A with some seasonal restrictions. However, only boats with motors up to ten horsepower are permitted. Refuge impoundments are open to boats, including canoes, from March 15 – October 15 of each year.
Saltwater fishing is available from the levees, the Lighthouse Area, the Aucilla River, Wakulla Beach, and Porter’s Island boat ramps. Boat Launching is only permitted during daylight hours. Launching of commercial or sport net boats, airboats, or personal watercraft at the Lighthouse saltwater launching ramp, however, is prohibited.
Probably the most reasonable place to stay on the water in the St. Marks area is at the Shell Island Fish Camp. They have numerous two-bedroom, air-conditioned, rustic cottages and motel rooms with cooking facilities, and offer both boat and tackle rentals as well as experienced fishing guides. The camp has a boat ramp and fork lifts to launch any boat, and have a complete bait and tackle store. Contact them at 1-850-925-6226 for more information or reservations.
St. Marks offers something for everyone who loves and appreciates nature and the outdoors, and the diverse fresh and saltwater fishing opportunities has to top the list of things to do for anglers. Regardless of one’s reasons for coming to this out-of-the-way, Gulf Coast paradise, however, the trip is guaranteed to be memorable!