Families find easy pleasures down by the Steinhatchee.
By Chelle Koster Walton
The 10 or so families in Jim Henley’s Steinhatchee neighborhood own one wheelbarrow. Collectively. It’s not that they can’t afford their own: Steinhatchee is home to both affluent residents and hard-working folk.
“We decided we probably only needed one wheelbarrow in the neighborhood,” says Jim in his transplanted-Georgia accent. “So whoever needs it, uses it and keeps it until someone else needs it.” Some of his neighbors are citified weekenders with “real jobs,” says Jim, a fishing and scalloping charter captain. Jim and the other neighbors keep the weekenders’ lawns trimmed for them so that they can relax and have fun when they visit.
The big draw to this small town of about 2,500, set alongside the Steinhatchee River where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico, is the summer scallops. Jim and a battery of other guides take people a mile offshore to find scallops in the shallow waters around Florida’s “Big Bend” region, where the state begins its spread westward.
Great historical figures like Panfilo de Narvaez, Hernando de Soto and Andrew Jackson all crossed the Steinhatchee River at “The Falls,” where flatbed rock accommodated many a horse-drawn wagon back when the town was known first as Deadman Bay and later as Stephensville. Today, a pleasant park marks the Falls spot, between U.S. 19 and today’s Steinhatchee (pronounced STEEN-ha-chee).
Water is central to Steinhatchee, and the town is best enjoyed from the river that runs through it. Homes with boats parked at their docks, salty seafood restaurants and low-impact resorts such as Steinhatchee Landing and Sea Hag Marina & Motel line the river on the Steinhatchee side, which is in Taylor County. Across the water, the town of Jena in Dixie County has more lenient building codes, and a few medium-rise condos have cropped up. But as a whole, this away-from-it-all town remains pleasantly mired in Old Florida, and that’s the way its residents like it.
Two of the local favorites for dinner overlook the Steinhatchee River. Roy’s Restaurant lays out a sumptuous salad bar in a bright, windowed space where fried seafood is prepared the way it should be and without apology. It also affords a view of the Gulf.
Fiddler’s Restaurant has the worn-in look of an old-time fishing lodge and a menu that showcases the area’s history as a commercial fishing center. Try the fried mullet or bring in your scallop catch to have it cooked up scampi style. You’ve never tasted scallops so sweet as fresh from the shell. Any number of signs throughout the scant downtown advertise folks who will clean your scallops for you. Take them up on it – it’s a labor-intensive job. The limit is two gallons of whole bay scallops per person, or up to 10 gallons per boat.
Scallop season runs July 1 through Sept. 10, and on summer weekends, a battalion of charter boats lines up along the eel grass flats to drop off their snorkel-geared patrons. Kids get a snorkeling lesson, and everyone learns the best way to find and nab the shellfish. It’s like an underwater Easter egg hunt.
Year ‘round, the confluence of fresh river and salty Gulf waters assures a wide variety of finned catches: redfish, grouper, sheepshead, cobia, king mackerel, snapper, sea trout, flounder, mahi mahi and more. Local resorts can hook your family up with a knowledgeable fishing guide.
Steinhatchee Landing rents bicycles, canoes and kayaks, and can arrange kayak fishing tours or a shuttle up to Steinhatchee Falls, about six miles away, for a serene paddle back downriver. Perfect for family vacations (the Jimmy Carter family has held three family fishing reunions here), Steinhatchee Landing resembles an old Southern neighborhood, complete with chickens, goats, rabbits, ducks and koi fish to feed. The Landing's 39 cottages include one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom options to accommodate any size family.
Plus there is archery, a swimming pool, croquet, horseshoes, badminton, a children’s playground and tennis to keep everyone entertained and outdoors. Bring along some marshmallows for roasting over a fire pit come nightfall.
In case you forgot anything, head to Maddie’s Market in “downtown” Steinhatchee, which consists of a half-mile stretch on First Avenue. It stocks everything from brooms, bananas and “Butt Rub” (barbecue dry rub) to wine, fried chicken and deli sandwiches. A hardware store, water tower and produce stand selling boiled peanuts adjoin the general store.
On Riverside Drive, the other major road through town, you’ll find a Baptist church, tiny post office, hair salon, seafood market and a place that rents kayaks. No big-box stores. No theme parks. No fast-food chains. Not even stoplights.
This is the Florida that the rat race scampered by. This is the Florida where casting a line and drinking lemonade on a porch create the kind of family memories that you remember from your own childhood.