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Wild Side column: Where tides set the stage

A tidal salt marsh along upper Salt Creek near Suwannee on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Photo by Dan Wilcox

There's not a lot to do in Suwannee, Fla., that doesn't involve going out on the water and fishing. Each evening we consult the tide chart to see when the low and high tides will be the next day. We are staying on the Suwannee River-side of town so our dock is in fresh water. The tidal range is 3-4 feet. The first night we were here, our boat was pinned under the dock on a rising tide. When I went out to check it at night, water was nearing the starboard gunwale. I pried the boat out from under the dock and it flopped back to its normal floating position. The old boat house at the place we are staying doesn't have a working lift for our boat so I rigged dock lines with weights to keep the boat centered in the slip as the water level goes up and down.

We motor out onto Demory Creek where turkey and black vultures roost for nights in the tall cypress trees. They look like an undertakers' convention so we try to look alive. In a few hundred yards we are out onto the Suwannee River. The main channel goes out into the Gulf of Mexico through Alligator Pass. Suwannee Sound has miles of shallow sand flats and is bounded on the west by a long series of oyster bars. Just a mile or so upriver, the East Pass is a distributary channel that also flows out to the Gulf. We enjoy fishing in the East Pass where there are deep holes with limestone bottom. We have caught nice red and black drum, speckled sea trout and sheepshead in the East Pass.

The Suwannee River conveyed sandy sediment down onto the shallow Gulf Coast for millennia, forming an extensive delta with cypress floodplain forest that is bounded by miles of salt marsh. Salt marshes are nearly level expanses of grasses that are tolerant of salt and anoxic sediment. The meadows are interspersed with tidal creeks that are biologically rich from the abundant supply of organic matter and the protected habitat they provide for many species of macroinvertebrates, shellfish, fish and birds.

Salt marshes in the southeast U.S. are dominated by Spartina alterniflora, cord grass. Upon germinating from seed in a mudflat, the grass spreads asexually by rhizomes. The grass captures fine particulate sediment and organic matter, creating a raised sediment surface of salt marsh peat. There are a number of sedges, grasses and other plant species that occur along the elevation gradient, giving way to cabbage palm trees, palmetto, eastern red cedar and pines on the higher ground. Many of the islands along the Gulf Coast were built by Native Americans from oyster, whelk and clam shells. They must have eaten a lot of oysters!

Turning into the salt marsh on the west side of Suwannee, we have enjoyed fishing in deeper holes in Powerline, Salt, Harris, Double Barrel and Bumblebee creeks. Salt marsh creeks flow in two directions, so unlike alluvial freshwater rivers, they have an unusual geometry. Deep holes often occur on the inside of bends, rather than the outside of bends like in a freshwater river. Oysters armor the bottom in places, creating rock-like bars that are hard on boat propellers. At low tide, the banks are much exposed, riddled with fiddler crab holes and an occasional marsh hen.

You really don't want to hike around in a salt marsh. There are swarms of sand gnats that bite, alligators with a much larger bite, wild pigs and boot-sucking mud. Going in at low tide is recommended to avoid being stranded up a creek and being forced to wait up to six hours for the water to return. There are stories of anglers stranded up a creek drained of blood by sand gnats and mosquitoes, feasted on by vultures and alligators, their boats corroded away. But those are legends like the pirate Jean Lafitte's buried treasure up the Suwannee River.

We have really enjoyed our six-week stay here on the Gulf Coast, the natural beauty, the company of good friends and some great seafood dinners. Now we will make our way back home in the frozen north.

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