Yesterday afternoon, a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I crossed the Loxahatchee River behind a bus full of elementary schoolers pressing their noses to the windows to look out across the river.
As soon as school let out, mom would take my sister and me canoeing and fishing on the Loxahatchee. It was our favorite local adventure, and those outings served up memories that have made me almost territorial about protecting Florida's first federally designated Wild & Scenic River. A lot of fellow locals feel the same way, and we've done a pretty good job making sure that the river lives up to that lofty designation.
My favorite float plan for exploring the Loxahatchee is to put in at Riverbend Park, on the uppermost navigable stretch of the river. The park itself is an awesome story involving a community's determination to restore a large part of the river's hydrology and protect the hammocks that buffer the river from urban Palm Beach County. You can rent a canoe or kayak right there and paddle/fish the restored river branch and in a series of connected ponds. Some days, I just bring my bike and one light fly rod to tour the honey holes via the park's bike trail.
Depending on water levels, the river moves at a pretty quick clip. You spend the first five miles or so slipping quickly beneath towering cypress. The deeper bends and the pools below the weirs are full of small largemouth bass, snook, tarpon and a rare Florida native, the bigmouth sleeper.
Bring a short, light fly rod or an ultralight spinning rod. Fly anglers do best with small poppers and Wolly Buggers for bass, and small streamers for the snook and tarpon. Spin anglers, make sure you bring some four-inch plastic worms and a Beetle Spin or two for the freshwater fish. Small jerkbaits work best for snook and tarpon.
The freshwater system gives way to a vast mangrove estuary about at the point marked by Trapper Nelson's Historical Site. Trapper Nelson owned a fish camp on the Loxahatchee, and he became a legend known as the "Wildman of the Loxahatchee River" for his gator wrestling and other antics. The site has preserved his cabins and docks, and the docks make a great place for a great lunch stop.
The lower river's mangroves teem with tarpon, snook and snapper, among many species of fish that tolerate wide swings in salinity. Work the banks carefully with medium-action fly, spin or plug tackle. Bring weedless flies and lures.
The river widens as you get closer to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which offers great campsites as well as rental canoes, kayaks and motorboats, if you prefer to access the river there. If you're paddling, try to time your float so that you return to Jonathan Dickinson on the falling tide. That will make the final miles a much more enjoyable paddle, and the fish tend to bite better on that tide phase anyway.
June is offically America's Great Outdoors Month. During Great Outdoors Month, we are encouraged to rededicate ourselves to experiencing and protecting America's unique landscapes and treasured sites. What better way to show our national pride in our conservation legacy and enjoy the longest days of the year than fishing in a Florida park?
I can't think of a better South Florida adventure than an outing on the Loxahatchee River. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Palm Beach and Martin Counties, which the river divides, I hope you'll take some time to explore this river. It is, after all, yours, thanks to America's legacy of conserving special places.