Where land and rivers meet the sea
Large floodplain rivers and salt marshes are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. There's an explosion of life where the Lower Suwannee River meets the sea on the Big Bend on the west coast of Florida. The historic Suwannee River flows about 246 miles from the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border to the Gulf of Mexico. The Suwannee is one of the wildest and most undeveloped river systems in the country. It meets the shallow Gulf in a broad salt marsh estuary with two main outlet channels and dozens of tidal creeks, sea grass flats, islands and oyster bars.
After enjoying nearly a month in Cedar Key, we moved last weekend to the village of Suwannee at the mouth of the river. It's 12 miles by boat from Cedar Key but 65 miles by road. The first bridge over the Suwannee River is far inland at Fanning Springs. The village of Suwannee is a quiet community, a fishing camp town. Most of the houses are on stilts and have boat lifts to accommodate the 3- to 4-foot tides.
There was ice on the boat deck when I was getting ready to launch this morning. The Floridians are chilling in one of the coldest winters in memory. I was wearing long pants and a hooded sweatshirt, muttering under my breath about how many layers of clothes I had to wear. We enjoyed many 70-degree sunny days during the same time here last year.
After launching the boat I went a short way up the Suwannee River and then downstream on the East Pass, one of the two main outlets. It's easy to imagine that you are on a branch of the Amazon or that you are following the track of French pirate Jean Lafitte in search of the gold booty he buried up the river.
The transition zone from river swamp to salt marsh is gradual over several miles. It's a spooky-looking place with tall cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss, cabbage palm trees and spartina grass marsh. Sea level rise is killing off the cypress trees and palms that need fresh water, leaving a lot of gnarly dead trees. Hurricane Irma blew the tops off many of the palm trees. The dead trees are perches for vultures, ospreys and cormorants. The trees full of big black birds look like an undertaker's convention.
Passing around the point at the river mouth and dodging sand bars, I went up Barnett Creek, the next large estuary to the south. A stiff north wind made fishing a bit uncomfortable but I caught some nice sea (speckled) trout. Sea trout are in the drum family like freshwater sheephead. I managed to crunch onto an oyster bar while drift fishing downwind. The oysters grow quickly, filtering the particulate organic matter from the water and armoring the otherwise sandy shallow coast. The oysters in turn, support a number of crab species, elegant oystercatcher birds, red drum and saltwater sheephead.
In addition to all the oysters, clams, crabs, ducks, wading birds, pelicans, alligators and feral pigs in the salt marsh, the shallow sea grass meadows provide grazing for manatees and many species of fish. Bottlenose dolphins hunt in pods, herding schools of mullet in the shallow water. You can hear them breathing from a distance.
There's always something going on where the rivers and land meet the sea. It makes for memorable days on the water and some good fish dinners.