Dock-to-Table Destinations for Shellfish in Florida’s Big Bend
By Nancy Moreland
Seafood lovers, start your engines: the Big Bend Shellfish Trail is the road trip of your gastronomical dreams. The longest shellfish trail in the U.S. and the first in Florida, it highlights northwest Florida destinations where you can eat your fill of fresh clams, crabs, scallops, shrimp and oysters.
Why is the Big Bend so big on shellfish? “The large collection of estuaries, swamps, forests and marshes that define our landscape are the most productive ecosystem in the world,” said Andrew Gude, manager of the Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges.
Covering four rural counties, the Trail passes through fishing villages where people structure their lives around tides and seasons. Quiet coves reveal edible underwater delicacies. Wild rivers run to the sea. Miles of country landscapes pass by your car window without a single traffic jam.
Traveling on the quiet side of Florida, you’ll find long stretches without gas stations or grocery stores. GPS is not reliable and Wi-Fi not ubiquitous. Keep your tank topped off, pack snacks and a map and free yourself from the clutches of constant connectivity, if only for a few days.
Here’s a taste of what you’ll find:
Sandwiched between the Lower Withlacoochee River and Gulf of Mexico, Yankeetown offers a laid-back version of “an underwater Easter egg hunt,” according to local Helen Ciallella. Bring your snorkel, mask and fins and book a summer scalloping excursion with Captain Rick LeFiles. The good captain transports you along the scenic river to the happy hunting grounds near Crystal River. He even cleans the scallops for you. Back on land, Chef Chris Wakeman of Yankeetown’s newly opened Black Water Grill will cook your catch.
Next stop: Cedar Key, a working waterfront community where clams are part of the culture. Try them steamed, atop pasta or in award-winning chowders. “It’s our bragging right to say that the clams on our menu were plucked from the water today,” said Chef Kim Cash of the Island Hotel Restaurant. She also serves locally raised oysters and, if you’re lucky, sunray venus clams. The larger, pink-fleshed sunray is more difficult to raise than hard clams, and therefore, less common.
For a glimpse of the island’s farm-to-table industry, tour Southern Sea Cross Farms Fridays at 1 p.m., May-November. You’ll see clams from larvae to seed stage and finally, after growing to market size in the Gulf, being processed and shipped. An onsite market sells local seafood.
Several boat tours explore the waters surrounding Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, but none are quite like the Original Cedar Key Clam Tour. Traveling through the Gulf on Captain Bobby Witt’s boat, you observe the craft of clam farming at its source.
On your way out of town, stop at the Shell Mound Archeological Site to better understand how shellfish shaped this coastline’s history. While there, drop a line at the fishing pier and contemplate the ancients who fished here before you.
Further north, where the Suwannee River meets the Gulf, the tiny town of Suwannee offers vast vistas and recreational opportunities. Situated within the 53,000-acre Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, it’s a mecca for nature lovers. “With saltwater and freshwater access, sport fishing is our biggest activity, but there’s also swimming, kayaking and canoeing. And kids can learn where food comes from by fishing, crabbing and oystering,” said Carol West, whose father developed the community in the 1960s.
If you’re after redfish (most locals are), Gateway Marina will recommend local guides. Those who prefer to leave the catching, cleaning and cooking to someone else may dine on the deck at Salt Creek Shellfish Company. If the scenery inspires exploration, contact Russ and Kay McCallister of Suwanee Guides & Outfitter. The friendly, knowledgeable couple coordinates kayak and canoe outings for paddlers of all skill levels.
To fill your cooler with edible souvenirs, stop by Demory Creek Seafood. Tucked away on the river bank behind Bill’s Fish Camp, it’s just what you would expect to find on a road trip through rural Florida. The Pleiman family sells oysters and crabs fresh off the boats. Call ahead, 352-213-9878, to reserve your share.
Traveling up the coast to Steinhatchee, you arrive at the epicenter of scalloping. All summer long, legions of snorkelers scan these waters, bagging scallops as they go. Fishing guide Troy Charles suggests visiting early or late in the season to avoid long lines at boat ramps.
Ninety percent of Taylor County’s coastline is undeveloped, which contributes to healthy shrimp, oyster and crab populations. All three are served at Roy’s Restaurant, where shellfish and sunsets go nicely together.
Situated in a beautiful back pocket of the Big Bend, nearby Keaton Beach consists of a handful of vacation homes, a serene stretch of shoreline and a public boat ramp with ample parking. Here you’ll find tranquility, local crabs, fish and shrimp.
The Weeks family sells live blue crabs, stone crab and “by-catch” like flounder from their outpost in the Florida outback. “We’re usually back in from the water by 4 p.m., but it’s best to call before coming over,” said Danielle Weeks, the sixth generation of her family to run Horse Weeks Seafood.
Jason Madison considers himself “A farmer cultivating the ground out in the Gulf.” He keeps six boats busy stocking live, wild-caught shrimp for Madison Seafood. “It doesn’t get any fresher than that,” he said. Like other working fishers, he advises calling ahead, 850-843-7126, to reserve some of the “boat run” for your cooler.
Rounding the curve of the Big Bend, you leave the coast behind. Before you do, go birding, hiking, biking or fishing in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Part of Jefferson County’s eight-mile sliver of coastline is within the refuge. “If you want to see what this coast looked like when the first Europeans arrived, this is it,” said David Ward, a local outdoorsman.
Even as you travel inland, you sense a river-to-sea connection, especially if you paddle the Wacissa River to the Gulf. To pick up the pace, book an airboat tour with 5 Rivers Adventures. Guide Bradley Cooley designed his boat to run quieter than the average airboat. Well versed in nature and Native American history, he travels to river and Gulf locations most boats can’t navigate, even pointing out sites where Indians once camped.
Strolling Monticello’s oak-canopied streets, it’s easy to lose track of time. When the historic courthouse bell rouses you from your reverie, you realize it’s time to leave. Back home, as you shuck oysters or boil shrimp, the scents, tastes and memories of the Gulf flood your senses, like the rush of the incoming tide.
SHELLFISH BY THE SEASONS
Availability varies, depending on location. For more information on recreational shellfish harvesting, call Marine Fisheries Management, 850-487-0554 or visit:
Info: The Big Bend Shellfish Trail website features a downloadable brochure, map and itineraries to help plan your journey.
Reach Nancy Moreland at ConveyMore.com