A Peninsular Paradise

By: Terry Tomalin

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T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has received its fair share of press since Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach", declared it "America's Best Beach" in 2002.

But while it might be one of the nation's most private beaches with public access, it also has some of the best inshore fishing in Florida.

Bounded on one side by the Gulf of Mexico and the other by St. Joseph Bay, the narrow spit of land extending like an arm, elbow bent, into the Gulf looks much the way it did when Native Americans used it as a base from which to gather shellfish from the surrounding waters.

The locals told me that St. Joseph’s was an ideal place to fish out of a kayak, and as I slid my craft into the shallows near the park's picnic area, I knew they were right. Moving silently across the meadows of sea grass, I watched as a large herd of redfish drum moved ahead of my kayak like cattle.

Paddle fishermen have two choices. They can explore the park by day and when the sun goes down, head back to the full service campground for a warm shower. But if you're like me, and can forgo the comforts of home for one night, you will pull a backcountry permit and camp down the beach where the stars and comets will provide the only entertainment.

You’ll have to carry everything you need, including water, and pack out what you don’t use. But it's well worth the effort. This is one of Florida’s finest wilderness camping areas and should be a must for every bucket list.

And if you are there in the fall, you might see thousands of monarchs as they pass through here on their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico. These butterflies live only 10 weeks, yet each one knows where to go when the first cold front rolls through -- even if it has never been there before.

Hawks don't like to fly over open bodies of water if they can help it, so when they hit the Gulf of Mexico, they turn and continue down the coast. Since the St. Joseph peninsula averages only a third of a mile in width, the hawks get bunched up, which is what makes this a favorite destination for birdwatchers.

It's not uncommon to see 200 of these free-flying raptors -- including the sharp-shinned, Cooper's and broad-winged hawks -- soaring above the scrub on an autumn afternoon. More than 240 different types of birds have been recorded within the boundaries of the 2,516-acre park.

These are all added bonuses for the kayak fishermen who comes for trout and redfish. The water is generally clear, so you site-cast to individual fish with artificial lures or, if the wind allows, even fly fish, which is just one more reason why this state park should be on every angler’s must-see list.

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