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Wild Side Column: Back to the Suwannee River Delta

An alligator basking in the sun along a trail in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Dan Wilcox

We left our home in Wisconsin on Nov. 26. It was 20°F with a strong northwest wind. That cold front travelled with us south for several days. It was 20°F when we stopped in Nashville, Tenn. It finally warmed up to 60°F in southern Alabama.

We drove on smaller roads south into the Florida panhandle. The destruction from Hurricane Michael in October was widespread from Marianna to nearly Tallahassee along Highway 10, nearly 60 miles inland from the coast where Mexico Beach and Panama City took a direct hit. The power of that hurricane was incredible.

After arriving in Cedar Key, Fla., and repeatedly lugging a truckload of stuff up 17 steps into our house, we were happy to be back. It was good to see our Cedar Key neighbors and to visit the quiet town. The weather has been mostly pleasant with cool evenings and days in the 60s and 70s.

My friend Matt is a fine musician and an avid fisherman who now uses a wheelchair after an accident when he was guiding a pack horse trip out West. He has a house in Cedar Key, a van and a fine fishing boat. Matt invited me to go fishing with him last week.

We went past the islands west of Cedar Key about 10 miles out into the Gulf. Even that far out it was only 20 to 30 feet deep. Matt has a number of spots marked on his GPS where there are piles of limestone rock and coral that attract fish. We trolled big plugs and caught a number of groupers. Groupers look like big smallmouth bass and are really strong fish. Matt caught a red grouper about a half inch short of the 20-inch legal size for that species so it went back into the Gulf.

We stopped to do some bottom fishing with large jigs and pieces of cut bait. We caught some nice sea bass and I caught a legal-size gag grouper over 2 feet long on a light spinning rod; quite a battle. We came back to town with a cooler of tasty fish on ice.

On days we don't go out on the water, Carol, our dog Jack and I enjoy taking hikes in the Lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge. The Suwannee River starts in the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border and flows 246 miles to the Gulf, about 12 miles north of Cedar Key. The Lower Suwannee is a big river with a wide river swamp floodplain. Once heavily logged for cypress and pine, now much of the area is within the 53,000-acre Refuge.

There is a 9-mile long Nature Drive on the Levy County side of the refuge north of Cedar Key. There are miles of old logging trails that are mowed and great for hiking, bird watching and viewing wildlife.

In the Suwannee River delta where the river meets the sea is a fascinating variety of habitats. From tidal creeks and vast salt marshes, to cabbage palm, red cedar and palmetto lowlands, to river floodplain forest with bald cypress, tupelo gum, stately big live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and bromeliads, to pine-palmetto savanna and oak scrub uplands.

Many wildlife species including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, black bears, bobcats, bats, alligators, turtles, raccoons, armadillos, wild pigs and river otters live in the refuge. On a 4-mile long hike last week we saw several armadillos, a couple alligators and a wild pig. Our dog Jack investigated an armadillo that surprised us all with a high vertical leap followed by a fast escape. It was cool enough that an alligator near the trail just watched us walk by without moving. That was fine with us.

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