Fun and Adventure on the Withlacoochee River!

Have you ever asked yourself, “Who invited Murphy?” You know Murphy… that old fellow who likes to throw a stick in every wheel, and usually at just the wrong time? Yeah, that guy. He certainly came along for the first evening of our first day fishing the Withlacoochee River and bay.

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Let’s take a walk down memory lane… We arrived on a Wed about mid-day to B’s Marina and Campground in Yankeetown, Fl. It was a warm and beautiful day in May. Michelle and I towed our boat to Yankeetown with plans to camp for two nights in our 8 x 12 tent and to fish for three days.

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The person in that tent was kind enough to move it left a little bit so we could get into our reserved spot.

When we arrived we found another tent camper had put a little squeeze on our reserved tent site, but the camp owner assured us the person would be happy to slide over when they returned, and that was the case. The tent site was fantastic! The campground has six tent sites, and they are the best spots in the campground in our opinion. That being said, anyone looking to tent camp at B’s should be sure to check expected tides. When we were there the water at high tide was probably a foot or so below the grass-line, but I was told by a boater that the tide has been  known to come up onto the grass. B’s Campground also offers RV slots if that is what you are looking for, but as far as I could tell none are directly on the water.

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The owners were nice and accommodating but didn’t trip over themselves checking on us. That’s a good thing in my book. When camping it’s good to get what you need but to have some degree of seclusion if you want it. Ms. B’s is a family owned business with the owners living on-site.

B’s Marina and Campground offers a small Tiki on the property called the Chikn’ Butt Cafe’ that sells food and non-alcoholic beverages. The food was good and reasonably priced. The breakfast burrito special was great if you like a little spice in your life. They had kick! If spice is not your game there are other burritos and traditional breakfast items one might choose. It looked like the couple who owned the Tiki lived on-site as well. The small office store sells beer if you are looking to toss a few back. This campground is not an early rising place by most fishing standards, so if you are a break of dawn person for any reason and want breakfast or bait at that time of morning, think ahead and have something ready to go. They open at about 7.

The Marina at B’s Marina

The marina in B’s Campground and Marina consisted of a few small boat slips inside a small calm alcove, and several dock spots directly on the river. Some appeared to be occupied by long term residents working and in some cases living on their boats. The main dock on the river has power outlets, the inside slots do not. The owner will let you stretch a cord if needed, so bring a few if you will need to charge a boat battery overnight. Expect a wide tidal swing to deal with at the dock. Michelle is about 5 feet tall and was unable to climb out of our 16 ft boat onto the dock. She had to cross a neighboring boat moored on a lower section of dock to return to shore. The boat ramp was smooth and easy to access, with clear, deep water.

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The marina offers fuel, but again the place doesn’t stir early, so unless you want to stop elsewhere on your way out, plan your fuel needs the afternoon or evening before you want to get on the water. Same deal for bait. None is available at B’s, but there is a bait shop just a couple of minutes away by car and that shop is also accessible by water on the trip on the way out of the Withlacoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico and Withlacoochee Bay.

Withlacoochee River and Bay

Okay, let’s get back to Murphy now that I have provided a basic picture of the campground and marina situation. Michelle and I normally try to get to our destinations early enough to take a sunset cruise in the boat, or maybe even get in an afternoon of fishing if we’re really lucky. On this particular trip to the Withlacoochee River, we did plan to go fishing as soon as possible after we arrived to B’s Campground. We did some satellite research on-line in order to get a general feel for the area. The campground is close to the mouth of the river, Withlacoochee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Be aware the ride to the mouth of the Withlacoochee River is a slow one for much of the year due to manatee restrictions. Keep that in mind when planning your runs to the open water. It takes about 20 minutes or so to get to the channel in the Gulf of Mexico, depending on your boat’s idle speed.

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After getting the basics unpacked in camp we took the boat out to the bay north of the river mouth. The Withlacoochee Bay  is beautiful with scattered tree covered rocky islands, shallow sandbars and oyster bars spread about the area. Shallow may be the spoiler word in this whole story. We knew the area was about eight feet deep at high tide and we knew the tide would be dropping throughout the afternoon. Charts showed much of the area at about one foot deep at low tide. We expected to watch the sunset and slowly make our way back to a deeper channel that was visible by satellite before the water became shallow enough to cause us a problem. My boat can easily float and even idle in 1 foot of water. Nice plan! Looked good on paper anyway… Everything up to the point of sunset was amazing.

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As we started back at about 1/4 maximum speed it didn’t take long to start making contact with the bottom of Withlacoochee Bay. When we can get up to planing speed my boat will run in less than a foot of water, but there was not enough water to get the boat on plane. I need about 1.8 feet for that to occur. We idled toward the channel for as long as possible as darkness fell. We hit the light switches and… the front running light was not working. We had never had even a hint of a problem with that light before, but Murphy decided it didn’t need to work that night (turned out to be a small amount of corrosion on a connection.) As the tide dropped it was clear that the big motor would have  to come out of the water and the trolling motor would have to go in. The trolling is only a 35 lb thrust motor, which is just enough to move us around if we aren’t fighting a stiff wind or current. Making any forward progress required me to use a cheap push pole along with the trolling motor running at full speed as the tide turned and a stiff southwest wind blew in our faces.

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Michelle was understandably nervous, and I was understandably frustrated with Murphy, myself, the wonderful world of saltwater marine electronics, and the curse of shallow water at night. To top the night off, both of our phones died and our spotlight was in the rear floorboard of my truck. Sinking wasn’t a concern in 8 inches of water and a hard bottom, so that was nice. Had I known the condition of the bottom I could have walked the boat back to the channel. Unfortunately, having no previous experience in the area, that didn’t seem like my best option.

After almost four hours of pole-trolling we made it back to the channel in front of the boat ramp at the end of highway 40 where it meets the mouth of the Withlacoochee River. In total that was probably about a 2 1/4 mile journey. My shoulders and back were pretty much toast by that point. It was a huge relief to drop the main motor back into the water, but the fun wasn’t quite over. There was no moon that night, and the ride back up the river was really dark and without lighted channel markers. There are some serious rock hazards on the trip in and out of the Withlacoochee River, so caution is seriously advised. I at least had a basic idea of how the Withlacoochee River meandered through the coastal marsh  from the satellite imagery I studied previously and was confident we were on the right track back to B’s Campground. Seeing the lights of the first houses as we rounded one of the final curves before getting back into the populated areas of Yankeetown, Florida was fantastic! We started our trip back at about 8:30 pm and made it to camp at about 12:30 am. Like I said, what an adventure!

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The rest of our trip, including on the water,  was much smoother. I fixed the running light the next morning before we pulled out. We had our spotlight back in the boat for the weekend, fully charged phones and no other little “Murphy” issues arose. We also had much better tidal conditions for the remainder of the trip with an incoming tide to work with for much of the day, and then a good deal of  the  early outgoing tide to get back to deep water as we wrapped up our fishing in the early evenings.

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We made some 5 – 6 mile runs north of the Withlacoochee River mouth to check out spots that were indicated on a commercially available chart of the area.  At least one of the islands we visited was for sale! I wish I had that kind of flow, but unfortunately not. Maybe you are better situated. If so please shoot me an invite when you build your new fish camp!

Where you see the white areas on satellite images, there are often oyster bars. In some cases there are clean, white sand bars but they were the exception rather than the rule. Most were oyster bars. We trolled around a few of each of those and saw other boats doing the same. We caught a few fish here and there, but nothing to brag about. A few decent sized Redfish, Spotted Sea Trout and Sail-cats were in the mix. We had a few take our bait, run and never stop before breaking us off. In a place like the Withlacoochee Bay it could have been just about anything that swims so I won’t even offer a guess as to what it was or could have been.

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Take old shoes that you can get wet. Not just flip-flops, but real shoes with decent soles, reasonably thick sides and be sure they will stay on your feet if you need or want to get out on or around the islands. You also never know when you may break down or encounter some other kinds of “Murphy” problems that could require exiting the boat. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. The rocks are sharp, there may be a little muck in some areas and the oysters are plentiful. If you’ve never had the joy of slicing your feet on oysters, take it from me; they are sharp like razors and can be dirty like little portable sewers. Oyster cuts can develop some nasty infections. Shoes are your friend.

Once you make it on to the accessible islands they offer some great views and you will clearly see that people camp on them. It was nice to see waste receptacles on the islands in the form of 5 gallon buckets hanging on trees. It appears people  in the area are taking the time and effort to clean up and to empty the buckets that are left on the islands for refuse. Cheers to you friend(s)! I was pleasantly surprised at the limited amount of litter in the area given the world’s issue with plastics in general and the amount that I normally see in other areas.

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Back to the Campground

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The B’s Campground and Marina restrooms are nice as camping facilities go. They appeared to have been recently remodeled, were nicely tiled, with hot and cold water at the sinks and in the showers. There is an open air shower that accommodates one or more persons along with restrooms with solo showers. There was at times a mild sulfur smell so I assume the restrooms use well water. That was not an issue for us. We’d take those restrooms at a campground any day. The restrooms also had jokes written on small chalk boards that changed daily. We thought that was a cool touch.

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Solo option.
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Large Shower if group hygiene is needed or preferred.

The Chickens

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Be sure to check out the chickens while you are there. When we visited B’s Campground and Marina the chickens were probably about  or 7 weeks old, so when you get there they’ll be big girls and boys and if you’re lucky you may be eating some of their eggs at the Chikn Butt Cafe!

Wildlife Encounters

You’ll see all kinds of wildlife around the Withalacoochee Bay. We saw many types of birds, fish, and a few alligators basking, but by far the best encounters we had were with the manatees and dolphins. We had some really close encounters with both!

We see dolphins in the river, marshes, and near the boat at home and on our various vacations. I’ve had some seriously close encounters with them while surfing as well, but the experience in the boat this time around was different than any before. In this case we were cruising across the Withlacoochee Bay in about 6 feet of water as several dolphins started riding the bow waves of our 16 foot Bass Tracker boat! I could feel their presence as the feeling of the boat against the water changed from their body pressure as they hugged close to the boat. It was so cool to see them riding so close to such a small boat relative to their own size. We continued to see many dolphins from a distance, but none as close as those.

The second night brought us a manatee fest just in front of the boat ramp at the end of Highway 40. The ramp was under construction at the time and the manatees seemed to be taking advantage of the lack of boat traffic. As we fished the evening away, we watched them toss and turn in balls of several animals in the shallow water. Some came near the boat to check us out, and one gave us a little bump before moving slowly away. It’s cool to hear them exhaling, or to see the occasional young calf floating at the surface as the adults get social.

Michelle and I agree that this was a trip to remember. While if we had it to do all over again, we would probably do things differently that first night, but since that isn’t possible we will always have some great stories to tell, and will always have something to laugh about. We’re thinking that we may head a little further south in the future to the Crystal River area. We can’t wait! So many places to see and so little time.