Lose yourself (and maybe a few flies) in the tangly wilderness of Cedar Key.
For working the Cedar Key shallows, a conoe is ideal.
Cedar Key is flyfishing central for Big Bend waters. The island offers access to a sprawling salt marsh complex of tidal creeks and channels, Spartina grass, oyster bars, and islands covered with pine, cedar, and cabbage palm.
In this quiet corner of the state, anglers pursue redfish, seatrout, sheepshead, big black drum and the occasional flounder–all of which can be taken on flies at various times of the year.
A good starting point for fishermen learning these waters, whether by canoe or shallow-draft power boat, are numerous oyster clumps.
Colonies of live oysters harbor lots of crabs, a favorite redfish food. They also provide better cover for finger mullet. Add a rising tide into the equation and you get prime territory for gamefish.
Fly casting around this gnarly, abrasive structure calls for some specialized tactics. The first time I fished here, I found sheepshead and black drum tailing on the crown of an oyster bar. For several hours, I tried to catch them, but all I did was lose flies to the oysters. In season, an oyster is a choice picking for the seafood lover, but they put up a lousy fight on a fly rod.
Flies with wire weedguards are of immense value, and a floating fly line is crucial. Leaders, too, should be extra abrasion resistant, and you should check tippet sections frequently.
The best time to fish the clumps is when the water is deep enough that the fish can get close to the oysters, but before the water covers them and obscures them from view.
On a recent trip with Cedar Key’s Capt. Lloyd Collins, my companion Joe Mulson boated a 5-pound seatrout at the edge of an oyster bar on a rising tide.
As we learned, even when the water covers these clumps completely, redfish and seatrout still stay on their edges, seldom moving over the clumps themselves.
“I’ve fished here for over 50 years and have never seen a tailing redfish,” confirmed Collins, a true Florida cracker and a Cedar Key native. “Plenty of cruising reds, sure. But the only fish I see tailing here are sheepshead and drum.”
Besides the crunchy shell bars, the waters around Cedar Key are well known for vast Spartina marshes. Since the water tends to be murky here, flies that are flashy, noisy, weighted, or that push water are preferred. On low water, the fish congregate in holes, especially around the points of bars where the current comes ripping through. Unlike fishing the oyster bars, you’ll want a sinking line. Make long, probing casts and retrieve slowly.
When the water temperature dips into the 60s or 50s the fish often won’t chase a fast moving fly. Besides, you want that fly right down near the bottom, where the fish will be.
“Fish get thick in these deep holes back here when it’s cold–bone chilling, finger numbing cold,” said Capt. Jim Dupre. “When it’s good back here in some holes you can catch a fish on almost every cast.”
Dupre is something of a Cedar Key flyfishing ambassador, having popularized his Dupre Spoonfly, which has found statewide applications. The flash and vibrations this epoxy flyrod spoon (more spoon than fly, some would say) allow fish to find it without trouble. It works especially well on a sink-tip line.
Other good choices include weighted Rattle Rousers, Clouser Minnows, Whistlers, and Sea-Ducers, both weighted and unweighted. What was mentioned earlier about weedguards and oyster bars also applies to the edges of Spartina marshes, where snags are imminent.
With so much water to cover, it’s hard to pin down a starting point for the visiting angler.
Mostly undeveloped, much of this watery wilderness is part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge or the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Access to most of the area is only by boat. And while you can fish some of it in a skiff or a johnboat, exploring and fishing this marsh in a canoe makes a great deal of sense.
Canoes allow you to get into skinny water and over bars and other obstructions that keep other boats out. Canoeing anglers can reach areas that receive very little fishing pressure. If you’re willing to get out and walk on top of the bars you can really work over promising or productive areas. Canoes let you touch the past as you explore the area the same way that natives did hundreds or thousands of years ago.
One place you can launch a canoe is at the public boat ramp found at the first bridge you cross when you travel toward Cedar Key down S.R. 24, the Channel Four bridge. Use the wind and currents to determine your direction of travel. Your best tactic involves catching the tide one way, fishing as you go. You wait for the tide to turn, and then catch the flow back to the launch site, again fishing as you go.
While you can find plenty of fish going in either direction, both Dupre and Collins suggest trying around Corrigan’s Reef, east of the Channel Four bridge. This “reef” is actually a huge collection of oyster bars, between two and three miles long. One end pokes up into the salt marsh. The other extends well out into the Gulf. You could spend several days exploring this one area alone.
You’ll find another good area around Rattlesnake Key, west of the S.R. 24 bridge. An extensive system of oyster bars surrounds the key, giving the angler plenty of promising spots to try. This expedition is best saved for a nice weather day. The island is only about two miles from the boat ramp, but lies at the edge of the marsh and the open Gulf.
Also check out the waters around Shell Mound, north of Cedar Key. Take S.R. 24 from Cedar Key back and head toward Gainesville. Take the first left on C.R. 347 and then follow the signs.
Gainesville flyfisher Dana Griffin spends a lot of time here in a canoe, working the shorelines and creeks near Horse Island, Hog Island and Buck Island. There’s a maze of oyster bars, passes, islands and islets giving the fish plenty of good hunting areas. Consequently, you’ll have to move around to find them. Dana has best luck on the incoming tide at Shell Mound. When working shallow areas he prefers an orange-and-yellow Sea-Ducer with lots of silver flash tied in. As the water increases in depth he changes to a Clouser Minnow or a hybrid of a Whistler and a Sea-Ducer called a Whistleducer. His best fish to date was a 32-pound black drum, caught on the orange-and-yellow Sea-Ducer.
Yet another large piece of this salt marsh system presents itself for exploration to the east and south of Cedar Key at Waccasassa Bay State Preserve. The 31,000 acres here have no public access other than by boat.
You can run a skiff to the preserve from Cedar Key, or launch a canoe at the boat ramp in the preserve itself. To find this ramp from Cedar Key take S.R. 24 to US 19 and go south. Go right on C.R. 326 when you reach the town of Gulf Hammock. The ramp is at the end of the road on the Waccasassa River. If you take a motor skiff here use extreme caution navigating this treacherous creek. Searching the creek mouths and flats for reds and trout right at the mouth of the Waccasassa River will keep you busy for a long time.
Whether you prefer guided trips or the do-it-yourself variety, the salt marsh complex around Cedar Key presents a wealth of opportunities for the flyfisher. Spend a day, a week, or a lifetime exploring the fly fishing and the natural beauty of this Gulf Coast paradise.
What to Bring
Fly casters heading to Cedar Key should carry at least two rods, one rigged with a floating line, the other with a sink-tip. Seven- and 8-weights are ideal. With the sinking outfit you’ll be ready to fish places with fast currents or deep holes or both. The floating line is used to work the edges of oyster bars or other structure.
Leader length will vary with the type of line used. On sinking lines use a short leader, between two and three feet. A single length of 15-pound-test monofilament works well. On the floating line use a 9- or 10-foot leader tapered down to a 15-pound tippet. Check these tippet sections frequently for abrasion, as the oysters will shred them in short order. Be sure to bring extra leader material, and plenty of flies!
Accommodations and Diversions
Cedar Key has a long and interesting history which the visitor can learn about at the Cedar Key State Museum. Most of the residents there now make their living by fishing, by catering to the tourist trade, or by creating art. You’ll find many interesting small galleries in town.
If you like eating seafood, a walk around town will be an adventure. Restaurants line the streets, most serving freshly caught seafood. The town boasts of many excellent accommodations for visitors. One of the nicest is The Island Place, right on the Gulf and a one-minute walk from the town boat ramp. Call them at (352) 543-5307. For more information about lodging or restaurants in Cedar Key call the Chamber of Commerce at (352) 543-5600 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.
First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, March 1998.