By Terry Tomalin
Jim Henley came to Steinhatchee – and Old Florida – more than 20 years ago on a fishing trip and never left.
“I knew this is where I had to be,” the Georgia native said. “I found my piece of paradise.”
Henley traded a lucrative career in the financial industry, which had taken him all over the world, for the helm of a center console fishing boat.
Now, decades later, the Harvard-educated fishing guide spends his days chasing trout, redfish and the occasional scallop off the coast of what could be the best-kept secret in the Sunshine State.
“This is Old Florida at its best,” said Henley. “If you come, you might just fall in love with the place and end up staying like I did.”
This town of fewer than 2,000, about three hours north of Tampa, was one of Florida’s first settlements. Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto and President Andrew Jackson were visitors. Today, Steinhatchee caters to the outdoors crowd.
The first thing you learn when you visit is how to say the name. Locals pronounce the “Stein” in Steinhatchee as “Steen” which rhymes with “steam.” The name is Native American in origin. “Esteen hatchee” means river (hatchee) of man (esteen).
Fishing & Nature
For most of the year, Henley and the dozen or so charter boat captains who work the coast cater to tourists who come to fish the rich grass beds for trout, redfish, sheepshead, black sea bass, mangrove snapper and tarpon.
However, when June rolls around, the local fishing guides break out the Bimini tops for their boats off the Keaton Beach marina and switch to scalloping in Steinhatchee.
Steinhatchee, along with Homosassa and Crystal River, counts itself among the state’s prime scallop grounds. In these small communities along the Gulf of Mexico have one thing in common – they’re all located on the banks of freshwater rivers that flow into the ocean. This perfect mix of salt and fresh water is just what’s needed for the scallops to thrive.
Scallop season along Florida’s Gulf coast typically starts in late June or early July and runs through the end of September – but check before you make travel plans, because the dates may vary from year to year. You can catch scallops north of the Pasco-Hernando (Aripeka) county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
But Steinhatchee, and the Big Bend region in general, has more to offer than just scallops, crabs and fish. Nature lovers will enjoy the quiet country roads, abundant wildlife and quaint Victorian-style homes. Head upstream from the tiny fishing village and the Steinhatchee River provides great paddling opportunities for the canoeist, kayaker and stand-up paddleboarder.
During the cooler months, you can break out the hiking boots and explore one of the many trails that meander beneath the live oaks and Spanish moss. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and check out Steinhatchee Falls, a peaceful place where the river pours of a three-foot waterfall. The spot was historic crossing point for Native Americans and the area’s first settlers.
Steinhatchee Marina & Keaton Beach Marina Options
Steinhatchee is also a popular way stop for mariners. Located about 15 miles south of Keaton Beach, boaters and anglers cruising up or down the coast will find several full-service Steinhatchee marinas and bait shops, as well as a grocery shop and hardware store. Sea kayakers paddling the Florida Saltwater Paddling Trail will also find Steinhatchee a convenient place to stop, rest and resupply.
In terms of lodging, the laidback luxury of Steinhatchee Landing Resort, village of quaint rental cottages, is worth the trip. Complete with its own dock, pool, playground and neighborhood goats, you will find it an excellent base for any adventure.
“We have guides up and down the coast,” said Henley, whose company YKnotFish.com helps fishermen hook up with licensed charter boat captains. “It doesn’t matter if you want to fish inshore or offshore, or both in the same day, you can do it right here in Steinhatchee.”
There are a variety of rentals, from hotel rooms to houses, available for the night, week or month, but be sure to book early if you’re planning to come during peak tourist season, which is when the scallops “are in,” or any holiday including the Fourth of July.
“You can come and fish, paddle or scallop,” Henley said. “Or I have one customer who sends her husband out with me, because she just wants to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair and relax.”
Photos by Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA