Fishing and Sightseeing Indian River Lagoon

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Sunrise on Indian River Lagoon.

Finally! We visited Indian River Lagoon, a place I’ve personally wanted to see for years! Almost bucketlistish! Let’s make that a word. Indian River Lagoon and the nearby Mosquito Lagoon are world renowned for the fishing opportunities they afford. Specifically both areas are known for world class Spotted Sea Trout and Bull Redfish. Michelle enjoys the sport of fishing as much I do, so when we decided to make a quick weekend trip for her birthday, she chose Indian River Lagoon! How could I refuse?

We rented a small two bedroom one bathroom cottage on a canal in Edgewater, Florida just off of Indian River. The rent was less than $100 per night plus a few reasonable fees. We managed to make it to town early enough to get a first night sunset run in the boat.

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The canal! Headed to the home away from home.

It was beautiful, but we also quickly learned where the area got its name. The mosquitoes were out in force! Thankfully we brought along bug spray thinking that flying bugs might be a problem, and the spray was definitely needed that night in the Indian River Lagoon.

Fishing

I’ll start by saying, we didn’t exactly have a record weekend when it comes to the number or size of fish that we caught in the Indian River Lagoon. We caught a few, and had a few big ones break us off. The highlight of the fishing was probably the two nights we fished the well lit waters around local docks. You could see Snook and Sea Trout hovering in the current around the docks. It was a great time watching them strike our baits and fighting them to the boat. So, while we didn’t land any record fish, we definitely enjoyed the fishing.

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Time for a little night fishing action in the backwater  and the docks!

Sightseeing

This was the best part of our trip, and certainly the part that left us with the most entertaining stories! The views were beautiful as soon as we left the canal, with the mangrove back-country directly east of us. The sunsets were beautiful with rain showers falling in the distance.

 

A short run with the outboard motor allowed us to spend most of our time using the trolling motor in waters averaging one to three feet deep. When we weren’t actively fishing we took some sightseeing runs along the eastern shoreline down to the wide open main body of the Indian River Lagoon, along with many of the backwater areas in between.

Prior to going on our trip we reviewed satellite imagery that showed a parking area connecting the lagoon shoreline to an ocean access. We thought this was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds. We planned to fish most of the the morning, run down to beach the boat on the lagoon side, walk to the beach side for a swim, then return to the boat to run back home for a late lunch. The plan worked out perfectly! Well, almost…

We beached the boat on the east side of the Indian River Lagoon as planned, and started walking across the beach and lagoon access parking lots. The signage suggested pretty clearly that we were in a public area. As we walked across the lot, a grey haired gentleman gave us a little giggle. I just thought he was feeling friendly… We walked down the boardwalk beach access toward the water and all was well. As we stepped onto the sand, we were both focused on the water in front of us and looking forward to sweet relief from the blazing hot day.

It was then that my eye panned slowly left, only to see a rather large, naked man walking toward me down the beach. I thought, ” Well he’s bold. Pretty sure he is going to get a ticket.” Then I panned my eyes right, only to see two more men walking toward me in their well tanned birthday suits. Okay then, there wouldn’t be any public indecency tickets passed out on the beach that day, because clearly… we were on a nude beach! I looked over at Michelle and told her what I had just discovered, and it was then that she also looked around to take in the view. Happy birthday babe!

We weren’t the only ones wearing swim suits though. That being said, on this particular beach, the men seemed to be the only ones feeling particularly “free”.  The ladies seemed to keep their suits on. After a moment of laughter about our unexpected surprise, we took our swim in our swim suits, as an older guy with a long grey beard surfed naked about one hundred yards to our north. Hang five brother. There are so many directions I could go with jokes right now… but this is a family blog! We swam for about ten minutes and then went back to the boat to return home for our planned late lunch with a funny story to tell!

The Wildlife

The wildlife in the Indian River Lagoon was plentiful. Manatees seemed to be everywhere. We saw them every time we stopped the boat, and dolphins were pretty much the same. The difference is that the Manatees don’t hurt your fishing. Not sure I can say the same about the dolphins. They were like aquatic stalkers at times. But first the Manatees. I’ve seen them plenty of times at home, so they aren’t new to me at all, and I have seen them interacting the same way in my home range as we did in the Indian River Lagoon. I have never seen them interact in the way that you’ll see in the video for such an extended period of time. Mating? Maybe. It went on and on, so we eventually just went on our way. Below is a short clip of the Manatees.

Now, back to the dolphins. We saw them during the day frequently but they didn’t hang out close to us. The nighttime excursions to the brightly lit local docks were a very different situation. Those dolphins were on to us as soon as we started fishing, and they followed us to every dock. I wish I owned a better camera that would have been able to show them in such low light, but no such luck. You could hear the dolphins exhale through their blowholes, and what started as slow, relaxed breaths became more frequent, louder, and more abrupt sounding. It was as if you could actually feel them getting more excited at the thought of stealing a fish. At least, that was my impression of what they had in mind. People fish those docks all the time, and I’m guessing the dolphins have become efficient Indian River Lagoon fish thieves.

There were seabirds abounding in the area. We saw Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Herons, Egrets, Ospreys and more. No doubt the experienced birdwatchers out there would see many more.

Food!

We ate at the Florida Roadhouse, which was good, but didn’t exactly wow us. We also ate at a local seafood spot called Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House that you may never find unless you know to look for it. The food there was good as well, and we would go back, but again it didn’t leave us wowed. It was right on the water, but it was pouring rain while we were there so we sat inside.

A little strip mall breakfast place called C’s Waffles was the highlight of our food experience in Edgewater. It was a small family owned place that has been there for many years, seemed to have a solid clientele, a great staff, and fantastic breakfast food. We stopped in for breakfast on our way out of town. Michelle had the waffles and I had hash-browns, eggs, bacon and toast. It was all delicious. Michelle said the waffles were up there with the best waffles she’s ever had. Bravo C’s. You made it feel just a little OK to be leaving our short vacation behind. Until we meet again…

 

 

 

Camping at Hillsborough River State Park

Hillsborough River State Park covers nearly 3383 acres, 1040 of which are upland, with the remaining acreage being submerged or mostly wet. The park is located off of Highway 301 about 15 minutes North of Tampa. Hillsborough River State Park is composed of Pine Flat-woods, mature hardwood hammocks, and low floodplain swamp. The park was opened in 1938 and was one of the earliest Florida “New Deal” projects according to the Florida State Parks website.

Camping

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This looked like a small pond the next afternoon.

All types of camping are available at Hillsborough River, from primitive camping to RV sites with full hook-ups. You have to hike in to reach the primitive camp, but maybe that’s the idea if you really want to get the full experience of primitive camping. We didn’t personally walk to the camp so can’t offer any specific details as to what it’s like. The main campground looks to have taken some damage from Mathew and Irma the last couple of years, but nothing that would interfere with camping now. Many of the sites had large sections of oak or pine trees bordering their edges. I’m guessing it was easier to use them than move them after they came down. A few buildings had tarps on their rooftops.

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Camp while it was dry.

The camp sites were for the most part pretty level. One fairly significant issue you’re likely to encounter at this campground in the summer rainy season is minor flooding. Being from Florida ourselves, we know to expect summer storms in the afternoon, but the layout of this particular area seems to exacerbate the situation a little. The sites that sit to the inside of the camp site loops probably held the least water while it was raining, but they also have the fewest trees, shade, etc.

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The water had come down some by this point.

If privacy is an important aspect of your personal camping experience, the outer sites may be your best bet. You may have to make a concession one way or the other. Either deal with the water buildup on the outside when it rains hard, or deal with the lack of privacy on the spots with better drainage on the inside.

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Waterfront property!

Our site had water up to about 4 inches deep thanks to rafts of leaves creating dams. We cleared the dams and created a small trench to drain the fire pond… I mean pit… that looked like a pond… The site drained fairly quickly thanks to our efforts. We kept our wood covered and elevated so we had a fire going strong before the rain had even completely subsided.

Trails

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Love this!
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Short trail to the rapids.

Approximately seven miles of trails meander through the old growth woods and along the river’s edge. We didn’t have the opportunity to explore the trails, but these particular trails along the river appeared from the canoe to be more suitable for hiking than biking. The wetlands trail is said to be appropriate for mountain biking, but as a result of our short stay there wasn’t time to check it out. A bike lane runs the entire look of the paved road in the park.  The area around the campground has some fairly open woods that looked ripe for exploration on foot, but if you do so I advise taking precautions against ticks, chiggers and as always watch for snakes. There are fitness stations at some of the viewing platforms around the park, so as you make your way around to check out the natural sights, you can enhance your workout at the same time.

Wildlife

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This thing was as big as it looked! Probably three inches or even a little more from tip of one leg to the tip of leg on opposite side.

As you can see, Florida always offers a large supply of crawly critters, but Hillsborough River State Park offers opportunities to view a wide range of wildlife. Bird watchers might see large read-headed woodpeckers, wading birds, hawks, and many other species of birds. Feral hogs abound on the property, to include the campground areas. Sows with babies can be very aggressive, so steer clear if you see them. There were clear signs of fresh hog rooting a few camp sites down from our own, so no doubt they are there in the evenings. Alligators are a possibility in any of the bodies of water on the property, so keep an eye out and never feed them.

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Hello Alligator!

If you walk, bike, or drive around the park loop in the early morning or late afternoon, you may find a rabbit, deer, or feral hog feeding just around the next corner. We caught a pretty little doe feeding in the median around the parking area near the pool, and had a quick sighting of a rabbit as it darted back into the brush.

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Don’t think I don’t hear you back there…

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Fishing – Canoeing – Kayaking

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Beautiful old Florida.

The park has canoe and kayak rentals at the park store, or a small launch area for those who bring their own.

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Public kayak launch area.

The supply is limited if you do want to rent canoes or kayaks, so earlier is better to be sure to get a ride. There seemed to be more kayaks available than canoes. They actually ran out of canoes while we were on the water, and when we returned with ours someone else was in line waiting to take it. The canoe’s are just a little “tippy” at first, but we got used to it and stayed upright the entire ride with only one close call. I have seen many couples canoeing or kayaking together over the years, and for some it seems to truly test the relationship. Luckily, Michelle and I are great boat companions and seem to stay pretty well in sync when on the water. So far we have come out of our aqua adventures largely unscathed mentally and physically!

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Really smooth float.

The ride down was calm and slow. We mostly drifted with the current for the two miles you can travel with park equipment. We threw a couple of lures around along the way but didn’t have any luck. Obviously the trip back against the current is more challenging, but it wasn’t that bad. The store employees told us that we couldn’t paddle north from the launch because it gets too shallow, and the rapids, which are said to be Florida’s only Class 2 rapids, are protected.

The river offers a number of freshwater fish species for those who enjoy fishing. Large-mouth bass, catfish, pan fish, gars, and the ever aggressive Shoepick, a.k.a. Bowfin, a.k.a. Mudfish. We caught a Shoepick of about 3 or 4 lbs in a small shallow stretch of backwater right behind our camper. If you aren’t looking to eat everything you catch, they’re a great fight. If you’re a Cajun you just might have a family recipe for them! Michelle and I saw a fish chasing bait along the opposite bank from us at the public kayak launch in the late afternoon. I threw a floating frog lure about six inches off of that bank, and in the blink of an eye a fish absolutely crushed the lure! The fish was so large that when I attempted to set the hook, I cracked my rod in half and the plastic frog came flying back at me! I’m guessing it was a fairly large gar.

Hunting

No hunting allowed.

Foraging

Hillsborough State Park is not open to foraging. You are free to explore and identify, but items can’t be removed from the park. There were numerous mushrooms and other forage foods to look for and identify around the area. I found several types of mushrooms in the campground alone, some of which are edible or medicinal, but as stated couldn’t take them. Below are some the the more visually appealing mushrooms we came across.

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These looked a little like oysters but not convinced they were.
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Gymnopolis sp. Toxic.
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Clamshell Polypore
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Favolis brasiliensis.
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Favolis brasiliensis. top view.
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Schizophyllum commune.
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Neolentinus lepideus a.k.a. Train Wrecker – edible if you are somewhere where you can keep them. Never eat wild foraged foods without the advice of a local expert.

Pool

The campground has a large pool that serves 261 guests. The pool increases gradually in depth from the outside toward the center from about six inches deep to five feet deep in the center. The pool does require a separate fee of $4 per person per day. There are additional fees for lawn chairs, and no outside food or drink is allowed in. There is a small dining area and kitchen in the store at the pool that serves basic sandwiches and sides. Lunch would probably average about $10 or $12 per person. Park admission is $6 per vehicle.

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History

Many of the original facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group who built this and other state parks as part of the “New Deal” works in Florida, remain on the property today. I love the idea that since the day the park opened, everyone who has gone through the gates at Hillsborough River State Park has seen largely the same sights, just as the designers intended them to be seen. There is a replica of Fort Foster on park grounds that is open to the public. The fort was used during the second Seminole war and is said to have protected an area of the river frequently used for crossings. Paid tours are available on weekends or by reservation.

Location and Links:

Hillsborough River State Park – 15402 U.S. 301 North Thonosassa, Florida 33592

Contact Info

813-987-6771 or 813-326-5867 Open 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year
Fort Info
https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/fort-foster-state-historic-site

Pool Information

Information on pool operations and closures is available at the National State Park Concession office: 813-986-6772. Park entrance fees are not refunded for patrons unable to enter pool once capacity has been reached.

Trail Map Link – FloridaHikes.com

Hillsborough River State Park trail map

Osceola National Forest – Camping and Recreation

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Osceola National Forest covers nearly 200,000 acres of land and is located northeast of Lake City, Florida and is bisected by Interstate 10.  Osceola is a “Flat-woods” forest composed of low pine ridges with Cypress and Bay Swamps riddling the area. The forest was named after, and in honor of the well-known Seminole Indian warrior, Osceola and became a national forest in 1931 by Herbert Hoover’s Presidential proclamation. The area helps to protect Pinhook Swamp, the Southern end of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Camping

There are camping sites on the area to suit most tastes. Ocean Pond Campground, Cobb Camp and Hog Pen Landing are the three main camping sites, but there are other designated hunt camps. All three of these camping areas are located just south of I-10, or about an hour west of Jacksonville, Florida. This trip was planned on short notice and ocean Pond camp was full, so we stayed at Cobb camp this time around.

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Cobb camp has quite a few sites, and I don’t recall ever seeing the campground full. There is a Civil War re-enactment event that happens at the nearby Olustee Battlefield in February every year, and the campground is in more demand during that week. Things pick up again during the early weeks of deer hunting season, and again in the Spring for turkey hunting season, which happens to coincide with Spring Break season. We camped during this busy period and were still able to get the camping sites we wanted at Cobb. The Cobb Camp sites range from sitting beside the main forest road, to sites further back into the trees. During hunting seasons, camping anywhere other than  marked sites is prohibited. During non-hunting seasons you can camp anywhere in the forest that is not closed to public access.

Two of the campgrounds sit directly on the shores of Ocean Pond, a 1760 acre natural lake. The largest is the main “Ocean Pond Campground” that offers 67 campsites, with 19 offering electric hook-ups and some sites sitting waterfront. The Ocean Pond camp also offers shower and toilet facilities. A dump station is provided near the entrance, but the sites themselves do not have sewer hookups. Ocean Pond camp sites range from $8 to $18 per night. The other is “Hog Pen Landing”. This campground does not offer hook-ups or amenities, and spaces are quite limited.

Fishing and boating are allowed in the lake. I fished ocean Pond once before and didn’t do very well, but I’m not going to pass judgement based on one day of poor fishing, so I say have at it! The campground and lake offer great scenery, to include large old cypress trees with their Spanish moss dangling like jewelry above the water.

Trails

Approximately twenty-three miles of the National Scenic Trail meanders through Osceola National Forest, so if nature watching is your game, this might be a great place to go! There are miles and miles of 4 x 4 trails that can be used by licensed and unlicensed vehicles alike. There are some rules for off-road vehicles, such as no late night trail riding, and you must remain on numbered roads but otherwise you are free to explore. The forest service offers trail maps, but I’ve tried to save you the goose chase. You can find Osceola trail maps in the “Links” section below.

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Cross-roads.

The basic WMA map will not provide you all of the info you need to navigate the four wheeling trails, so if you have a poor sense of direction or just like to have an insurance policy, take the trail maps along for the ride. Also be aware that there are some deep mud/water holes along the way, and trees do sometimes fall across the trails. There is also a very real chance you will encounter other riders coming in the opposite direction. On this trip I came head on with a side by side on a blind curve and had to take it into the palmettos to miss them. Caution is encouraged even on familiar trails!

Many of the deeper holes seem to be where swampy areas surrounded by pine and palmetto flats cross the Osceola Forest trails. During wet seasons the water in some of these spots can be several feet deep, without considering the depth of the mud at the bottom. It is not uncommon to see a second trail bypassing some of these deeper holes. In other cases, you either go through, or go back. Your choice! I’ve seen an Exterra 4 x 4 club and a Jeep 4 x 4 club out riding the trails more than once, most of them sporting snorkel kits on their trucks. If you are going to make a serious run at the trails in a vehicle and don’t intend to backtrack, I would say the snorkels are a good addition to your equipment. During some times of the year the area is bone dry, so just pay attention to what the weather, be prepared, and go have fun!

Wildlife

The area offers a wide array of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. Alligators are an ever-present possibility in any Florida body of water, so be smart and be aware. Never feed wildlife! Black bear populations are on the increase in Florida. Years ago I never saw bears in Osceola, but over the last three years I have seen bears on three occasions.

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Bear talk.

The most recent sighting was a mother with two cubs, and is featured in one of our previous blogs. Check it out! The “no feeding” rule goes double for bears. Feeding a bear is likely to eventually end in the bear’s death when it becomes a “nuisance bear.” Florida held a bear hunt a few years ago as an effort at population control, but activists were successful in their efforts to have the next planned hunt cancelled before it occurred. No matter your position on hunting, the growing bear population and the likelihood of more human/bear interactions will mean the issue will have to be addressed at some point. Your guess is as good as mine on how the issue will ultimately be addressed. Personally, I suspect that the bear hunt will return in some form.

Keep an eye out for trees with white-painted rings around them. These are known nesting sites for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker. I see these large woodpeckers frequently in Osceola, and if you don’t see them, you are likely to hear the rather loud sound created by their pecking on trees. Once you know the sound of that and their call, you’ll always know when Red Cokaded woodpeckers are around. You may also be able to catch sight of endangered Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, or Florida Panthers. You can see a baby Gopher Turtle in one of our other blogs. Check it out if you have time. Don’t touch these animals if you do see them. They are protected for a reason. The forest is also home to more common animals such as skunks, coyotes, foxes, opossums, wild turkey and squirrels. Bobcat tracks were in abundance during this trip. Watch for snakes! I have personally seen some very large Timber Rattlers, Copper Heads and Water Moccasins in the area, along with an assortment of non-venomous species.

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Bobcats on the prowl!

Feral hogs are becoming more common in Osceola Forest. Prior to about 3 years ago, I had only seen hog sign in one area. Now I see it in most areas I frequent, and each year the sign becomes more abundant and obvious. The amount of damage a few feral hogs can do is amazing and sad at the same time.

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Feral Hog Damage in another North Florida Wildlife Management Area.

Fishing-Boating-Kayaking

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Ocean Pond boat ramp.

There is of course Ocean Pond. The pond holds many species of fresh water fish, to include Large Mouth Bass, catfish, and several popular pan fish. The Ocean Pond campground offers a boat ramp for campers, as does Hog Pen Landing. This camp does not have amenities. Cobb Camp has a couple of small ponds nestled in among the campsites which hold a few fish. I saw a few bass along the edges of the pond as I explored the area. I’ll be taking a rod and reel with me next time I go!

Hunting

As stated earlier, the area hosts  hunts from September through March. During these times camping is allowed only at designated campgrounds. Throughout the remainder of the year camping is allowed anywhere in the National Forest open to public access. When camping during hunting periods, be cautious, and personally I advise that if you are going to be using the trails even as a non-hunter, I would wear brightly colored clothing. Blaze orange would be ideal.

Foraging

Unlike most state parks, foraging in a National Park is allowed, but only for personal use. Please don’t ruin it for others by trying to forage for products to sell. There have been issues in Florida with people collecting Saw Palmetto berries by the truckload to sell to vitamin makers and the like. Taking wild forage on this scale creates a hardship on animals such as deer and bears that rely heavily on these foods for their basic survival.

As previously stated the forest area is expansive, and offers a number of different habitat types to explore. There are hardwoods scattered here and there, often along the edges of the more swampy areas, as well as cypress bogs, pine woods, and a few large planted food plots.

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A strip of flooded mixed woods amongst the pine.

As with almost anywhere, there are both mushrooms and greens to forage. The most recent trip was a bit mushroom deprived. We found a few both nothing highly prized.

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Clam Shell Mushroom

Greens such as Bull Thistle, Smilax, False Hawksbeard and Japonica were plentiful. I introduced several family members to Bull Thistle stalk, sautéed with salt and pepper, and they loved it! I gathered up a nice serving of Smilax for my own consumption and gave it a quick steam on the grill with some salt, pepper and butter. Again, they were very tasty!

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Bull Thistle. Wear heavy leather gloves and use a long blade!
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Peeling the stalk. It’s a lot like celery,
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Grilling it up! It can be eaten raw though.
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Smilax. I love this stuff. As good or better than asparagus in my book.

Biking/Hiking/Horseback

While the trails in the forest do not appear to have been designed with biking in mind, there is nothing preventing a person from using the forest roads to bike. The main forest roads are “improved” with limestone gravel. The unimproved roads would be a tough bike ride during wet periods given that there is more flooded road than dry during those times. The Ocean Pond campground has paved roads perfectly suitable for more leisurely family type rides around the immediate camping area and entry road.

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Ride the loop.
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The other side.

You could hike the 4×4 off-road trails, but bring tall waterproof snake boots and wear long pants in case you have to bust brush to get around deep spots. Throughout much of the year you are likely to need them.The Western portion of the forest offers approximately 50 miles of equestrian trails.

Osceola offers a wide array of activities for outdoors enthusiasts, is in easy reach of historical sites and the city of Jacksonville. Go out and give it a try!

Links:

Osceola National Forest Camping Reservations: https://floridastateforests.reserveamerica.com/

https://.myfwc.com/hunting/wma-brochures/

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd573704.pdf

Off-Road Vehicle Guide Book: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/content/download/31616/769009/Florida_OHV_Guidebook_2017.pdf

Where to Ride Guidebook: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Recreation/Off-Highway-Vehicles-OHV/Where-to-Ride#nationalf

1991 Coleman Pop-up Camper Remodel

So… sometimes I have a tendency to get deeper into a project than might actually be required to solve the problem at hand. Recently I’ve gone that direction with our Coleman pop-up camper. The camper needed one new bed-rail slider when I bought it and the other rail worked okay but had a slight bend that needed to be bent back into position in order to slide comfortably into the receiving guide rail when stowing the beds. The dealer rigged the broken rail so that the bed could be set up and returned to the stowed position for travel, though not smoothly or easily. I used it that way for about three years, then when it fell apart I fashioned a home-made replacement that worked reasonably well for another year’s worth of camping. I’ve always intended to replace that damaged rail with a new unit and to bend the other rail closer to where it should be while I was at it, and about two months ago that little project finally rose to the upper end of my to-do list.

The bed rails were a simple project since I already knew how the system operated. Luckily there are still parts and parts manuals available for this and many other older pop-ups, so I was able to buy a brand new slide assembly complete with all installation hardware. Upon closer inspection it was clear that the rivets on the bent but functioning bed rail assembly were starting to loosen, so I replaced those while I had the bed separated from the camper.

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I had to bend the aluminum on this side to get it off of the wheel so the rail would slide more smoothly. Removing those two pins at the top and bottom of the rail are the key to removing the slide rail from the guide rail.

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As you can see, no rail on this side. You can still see metal shavings from the two home-spun solutions the dealer and I came up with.

As one might imagine, time, temperature and our wonderful Florida humidity have all taken a toll on the interior of the camper. It was usable, and far from a piece of junk, but the particle board had disintegrated around many of the cabinet screws and the interior looked dated and tired. Several of the screw holes holding the long piano hinge into the stove cabinet base were completely stripped, and I really need this piece to function properly for the sake of easy set-up and take-down.

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Dated!
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Tired!

Demo

I started by removing all of the screws to the bases of the cabinets, bench seats, etc. Then I removed the screws holding the benches to the walls, as well as the screws holding the countertop to the long storage cabinet on the left in the picture below. Next, I removed the piano hinge screws that attached the stove and sink cabinet to the base section. The other side of the hinge is riveted to the upper metal cabinet, and since I planned to repaint and use the cabinet, I left the hinge attached on that side. I removed this section of cabinet in one piece. Later I separated the stove, sink and faucet into their individual pieces so that I could make a new countertop and paint the various parts.

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You can see the original bench layout in the picture. Notice the long wall extending into the floor space. It is now even with the front of the cabinets.
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You can see some of the peeling on this cabinet door.

The Floor

I pulled the old linoleum up, which was easy. Much of the paper backing remained on the floor. Trying to remove this from the strand board would have probably created more issues than leaving it, so I didn’t attempt to do so given most of the surface was really smooth with the paper remaining on. The corner areas and a few edges near the walls were a different story. Moisture had affected those areas over time and the paper backing came up with the rest, leaving exposed particle board.

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That’s a stylish floor!

IMG_20190218_132627495There’s one of the ugly corners I was talking about. Leaving brackets on the wall when possible made it easy to line everything back up.

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The floor turned out pretty well after painting.

I picked up two boxes of light grey oak vinyl planks at a local store while on a camping trip several months ago thinking maybe I would use it for something at some point. When I decided to do the camper it was clear I didn’t have enough to do the whole camper floor so I bought more of the same brand on-line thinking it looked like a product of sufficient quality for a project like this. The planks went down easily, and the glue seemed sticky enough to do the job. Looks great right?

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Looked good at this point.

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Then it happened… before I was even finished installing the furniture a few edges and corners were lifting. At that point with a planned trip coming up soon and rain in the forecast, I had to correct the issue or have a mess on my hands so I spent a little more money on higher quality planks from a major retailer and had a little do-over party. Good times! I installed the new planks over the first planks with the seams overlapping to lock the old ones in and it worked out great! Moral of this story is: READ REVIEWS BEFORE YOU PURCHASE! I didn’t and it wasn’t until the stuff started coming up that I did so and saw that most people who bought this product seemed to be having the same experience no matter what surface they laid the planks over.

Making the new pieces of cabinetry was relatively easy given that I had all of the factory parts to use as templates. Using 1/2 inch sanded and primed plywood I made sure to trace out each new cabinet door from the original doors rather than tracing new patterns from whatever new door I had just cut. I hoped to avoid amplifying any deviations by doing it this way.

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Everything getting a coat of primer and quality paint.
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New countertop not yet sanded or painted.
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New base top for stove and sink cabinet.

I used the original cabinet hinges and other hardware, but did have to pick up a few new screws, as it appeared rust had done a few of them in. I was never a fan of the factory floor plan and thought I had an idea that would open the space up, but that would still allow us to use the bench area as a bed should we need to sleep five. I left the furniture wall brackets up where I could, which made putting the furniture back in really easy. Luckily I was able to design the new benches in such a way as to allow the use of the factory bench frames and front panels. We have never used the folding table that came with the camper, so I removed it from the equation. It was probably the piece of furniture in the worst shape. I plan to make a new top for it, and if we ever need it we can take it along.

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Mock-up of the folding bench base section.

I only had to design and build one piece of the furniture from scratch. I needed something that would fold down to form the base for the couch cushions, make a bed, and to act as the couch seat, arm, and back. I came up with what I thought was a cool idea, and it actually worked out well. What do you think? You saw it here first. Call me Coleman. Call me…

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Folded down for travel or bed set-up.
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Folded up to act as couch.
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I bought a new piano hinge much like the factory hinge used on the stove and sink cabinet.

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I am really happy with how this piece of the project turned out. It really opens things up when the camper is in use, and can be set up as a couch, a bed, or a lounger of sorts, while fitting like a factory piece when it comes to take-down and travel.

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The new couch in the open position.
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Lounger anyone?
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A bed when needed.

The cabinet doors were pretty simple to install using the same holes in the cabinets and drilling new holes in the new cabinet doors. Be sure to either screw them in by hand or set your drill at the lowest setting so as to not strip the holes out. I set my cordless 20 volt drill on 1 and 1 1/2 and it worked great. None of the screw holes stripped.

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New countertop for the sink and stove.
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Bottom view of water faucet. Center feed is city water. The other goes to the reserve water tank.
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This is the piece the long piano hinge screws into. The screw holes were in terrible shape on the factory piece. I shortened the side panel since I turned the bench sideways against the wall. Now the floor is wide open when couch is set up.
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The vinyl was already coming up here, but you can’t tell in the picture.

 

My factory stove lid was peeling and rusting in spots, so I removed it from the cabinet, stripped the paint, sanded and primed with high build primer. I wasn’t worried about taking all of the deep pitting off but I do want a reasonably smooth, durable surface. I spray painted the lid ivory-white then coated with a moderate coat of a heavy urethane that you may have seen on some restaurant tables. I’m hoping it makes the surface as durable as we need it to be. We often sit things on the lid, so I know spray paint alone would be ruined in no time. I forgot to take a picture before I closed up the camper, but maybe I’ll get one later and update this blog. It turned out well. Sorry!

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This is with the new vinyl planks. Similar color but thicker and more color and grain variation.
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The wall paint was something I picked up along the line and just happened to work out for this project.

I have done a few maintenance tasks on the camper previously. Those included taking off the front panel to tighten the chain (watch for wasp nests if you do this!), replacing the tires and rims, lubricating the lift system, and fixing the leaking corner caps. I still need to repaint the roof, which will also require removing the AC unit and gasket so that I can get to the entire roof surface. If you need to know how to do any of the other tasks I just named on these Coleman campers, shoot me a question. Happy to help if I can.

In all, this interior remodeling  project didn’t take up too much time. I probably spent about 4 weekend days, sun-up to sun-down working on it. Outside of the issue with the floor, I couldn’t be happier with the rest. This pop-up should now last my family throughout the rest of my camping years, and hopefully will continue on with them when I am past my camping prime!

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park – Camping With the Family

Hanna Map

Hanna Park is a 400 + acre city park in Duval County on Florida’s northeast coast. The park lies just South of Mayport Naval Station in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Atlantic Beach is part of the incorporated city of Jacksonville. Hanna Park is a rare treasure. A piece of mature, accessible oceanfront coastal hammock that has a little something for just about anyone who loves the outdoors.

Camping

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Hanna Park offers a beautiful campground that showcases great old Live Oaks, Sweet Gums, Palm trees, and many other coastal species. The campground has full camping hook-ups for tents and RV’s and other smaller campers. Some spots are more desirable than others. Checking the park map before you go helps, and while you camp for the first time be sure to look around for spots you might like to try in the future. The kids love meeting new friends around camp.

There are showers and restrooms but user be warned, they are kind of gross. They were probably fantastic in 1562 when installed by a small group of French Huguenots, but since then they have gone way downhill. Ok, I may be exaggerating on their age a little. Some of the trees and palmettos inside Hanna Park may have been around since the French landed in the area we now call Jacksonville, but pretty sure the French weren’t calling it Hanna park and the third tree on the left was the restroom. So bottom line, if you’ll need to use the facilities, bring shower shoes and some sanitizer! They do at least hose the restrooms down. Seriously… they hose them down. The campground has a small store where you can pick up a few basics and rent equipment.

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You’ll see lots of beautiful mature oaks, palms and other majestic trees.

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Mature trees in the campground itself.
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Hammock views are the best!

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One of many beautiful old oaks in the park.

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The sea fog looked cool wafting through the campground lights.

The campground provides easy access to all of the following activities.

Biking

Bring your own or rent one in the camp store. If you are going to ride the trails, a mountain bike is recommended. The technical trails are challenging, and you will need a bike that is up to the challenge.

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Hanna Park has biking opportunities for all skill levels. Whether you enjoy a leisurely ride down the hard-pack sand on the beach at low tide, riding the paved roads throughout the park, or the more technical mountain bike trails, there is something at Hanna Park for you. The mountain bike trails are marked with skill level and the direction of travel. With people riding the courses at speed, you definitely don’t want to be traveling in the wrong direction. Helmets are required for youth and advised for all.

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Nice spot to stop and smell the roses.
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Headed up the road to the lake and the next trailhead.
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Plenty of paved roads if trails aren’t your thing.
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Another cool old oak tree.
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Can you find this “Hanna” sign carved into a tree on one of the bike trails? Let us know if you do!
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The red trail is technical!

Hiking

Hannah Park offers great hiking trails that are intertwined with the bike trails, but separate from them. Unless someone is riding where they shouldn’t be, you are unlikely to run up against bikers when using the hiking trails. The hike around the Wellness Trail is approximately 6 miles.

This time of year is great because the mosquitoes are minimal, and the temperatures are relatively mild. This year has been an exception with mid to upper 70’s on NewYear’s Eve and New Year’s Day. If you’re going to be in the woods or campground, take precautions to protect yourself from ticks and be sure to check yourself occasionally, especially before bedding down for the day. Michelle and I both found one each on our legs. Hers was from camp, and I believe mine was from the trails.

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Fishing

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Hanna Park has several fresh water lakes, as well as the beach itself. You can catch an array of fresh and salt water species. Personally I wouldn’t recommend eating the fish from the lake. You can fish either salt or fresh water, but be sure that you obtain a Florida Fishing license if you are a non-resident, or if you are a resident who will be fishing from a boat, kayak, etc. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse or two of the otter I saw this weekend!

 

 

 

 

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Kayaking and Canoeing

Rentals are available or you can bring your own. No motors allowed! The lakes hold a few alligators, but as far as I know of there have never been any issues involving the gators at Hanna and humans. Just keep your distance and don’t feed them if you do see them.

Wildlife

You’re not likely to see large mammals such as deer or pigs here, but there are a lot of raccoons and squirrels. A raccoon walked directly into our seating area as we sat by the fire on New Year’s Eve. There has been a recent increase in coyote sightings around the beaches and Hanna Park. As with many other areas facing an increase in coyote populations, vigilance is required to ensure people and pets remain safe. Be smart and don’t feed wildlife. The park provides food and shelter for birds of many kinds. We saw a big group of birds roosting on the small island in the middle of the lake.

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Birds roosting on island in the sea fog.

Invasive Species

Be aware of the dangers of spreading invasive species. The park asks that you not move firewood from areas outside the region, or that has been elsewhere. Firewood is available for purchase on-site if you want to purchase it there. There is information available in the campground about specific pests of concern and tips on helping prevent the spread of invasive species.

Fungal Finds

We’ve had a few wet weeks, and the first couple of days of the trip brought heavy sea fog, so there were of course plenty of fungi to be found in the campground and along the trails.

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Oyster mushrooms on Magnolia cone.

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Lycoperdon – Puffball Mushrooms
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Pisolithus tintorius – aka “Dog Turd” fungus, aka “Dye Maker’s Puffball”
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Dog turd… I wonder why they call it that?
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Clathrus columnatus Stinkhorn in egg form.
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You can see the columns developing inside the “egg.”
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Beautiful edible Pleurotus mushrooms.
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Oysters from the underside.
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Oysters growing in a rosette.
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May be a hygrocybe of some kind. Honestly not sure.
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Mushroom, possibly Tramates lactinea, exuding water droplets.
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Nice shot of Pleurotus – aka oyster mushroom and mycelium on wood.
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Spongipellis pachyodon – considered inedible. New mushroom hunters often think this is Lion’s Mane or some other edible toothed mushroom. This mushroom actually has a pore surface that quickly break down to look like teeth.

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Pachyodon being attacked by slime mold. Slime mold for the win.

Play Areas and Public use Facilities

The kids will enjoy playing in the small campground parks or taking a cool splash at the water park during summer months! There are water cannons, jets that shoot up from the ground, and several other cool things for the kids to play with when the weather is warm.

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The water park is all shut down this time of the year. Looks like it has truly gone to the birds! Can you see the large vulture in this picture?
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Now can you see it?
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Main campground park.
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Indoor gathering area. May need permit. Call park for details on this and other sheltered areas.
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Lots of outdoor picnic areas and open space around lake.

The Beach

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Heavy sea fog rolled in all day.
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Shells were plentiful Sunday up above this tide line.

The beach  at Hanna Park is beautiful. The sand is clean, and on days when the wind and waves work together to uncover them, Hanna’s beaches provide some of the best shelling around. Sharks teeth are plentiful, with large specimens being found on occasion. Are you one of those people who says they can’t find shark’s teeth? Believe me; you can! They are there by the thousands. If you believe you will find them, you will. If you believe it is impossible, then I’ll come behind and find them for you!

Surfing

Hanna Park holds one of North Florida’s premier surf spots, know as the “Poles”. Thanks to the way our St. John’s River jetties build the sand up around the inlet, the Poles provide what most locals describe as the best break in our area. The jetties offer great wind protection on good days, making the form of the waves that much better. If you are a surfer, bring your board and join me at the Poles!

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Surf Gators!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Hanna Park. Let us know how your experience goes there!

Resources

Hanna Park Trail Map – http://www.coj.net/departments/parks-and-recreation/recreation-and-community-programming/docs/preservation-(1)/kathryn-abbey-hanna-park-trails-maps.aspx

Florida Invasive Species Lists – https://www.fleppc.org/list/list.htm

Freshwater Fishing Regulations  http://www.eregulations.com/florida/fishing/freshwater/

Florida Freshwater Fishing Regulations http://www.eregulations.com/florida/fishing/saltwater/

Mayport Poles Surf Report & Forecast – Surfline
https://www.surfline.com/surf-report/mayport-poles/5842041f4e65fad

Park Information – http://www.coj.net/departments/parks,-recreation-and-community-services/recreation-and-community-programming/kathryn-abbey-hanna-park.aspx

Park Information – http://www.coj.net/getattachment/Departments/Parks-and-Recreation/Recreation-and-Community-Programming/Oceanfront-Parks/Kathryn-Abbey-Hanna-Park/Hanna-Park-Brochure-2-Apr-2018.pdf.aspx?lang=en-U

Mushroom Forage and Sightseeing Near Middleburg Florida

It’s been raining hard the past few days, and we have the mushrooms to show for it! There were too many types of mushrooms and other forage to share at once, so I’ll go over some of the best. It needs to be very wet for Exidia recisa, or the Jelly Roll fungus to be noticed in the woods. IMG_20181215_101449808A trained eye might find it when it’s dry, but it wouldn’t be easy. Several fungi are bundled into the common name of Jelly Roll. Exidia recisa is brownish to amber in color and looks like small ear like appendages when wet. They can grow closely together but don’t usually joining into one large mass. The fungus can be found on oak and possibly other hardwoods in Florida. This is an edible fungus though reportedly without a great deal of flavor of its own. The mushroom expands impressively when wet, so it can absorb whatever flavors or liquids it is cooked in. You’ll look for this fungus on fallen wood when the ground is wet.

Yellow staining milk cap

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Notice the milky yellow latex?

Milk caps are mushrooms that exude a latex when cut or damaged. Many are quite tasty, but some are toxic or too bitter to be edible by all but the most desperate. The taste and color of the latex are significant clues to edibility in this group of mushrooms. This yellow staining milk cap is one of the toxic milk caps. We won’t be eating it!

Deer Moss

 

This is a lichen, not a mushroom but is edible when processed correctly. Processing involves boiling and disposing of used water multiple times. If you needed carbs badly enough, you could get them from this. These are reported to be slow growers, and some that I saw were as tall as six or seven inches.

Cortinarius (Cort)

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Not and edible mushroom, but beautiful just the same. There are said to be over 2000 types of cortinarius. Some are said to be lethal, and as a general rule many foragers don’t eat cortinarius of any kind.

Lactifluus paradoxus

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I love the colors of paradoxus.

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These are beautiful mushrooms. They boast a number of different colors, often showing several colors on one mushroom. Blues, greens, greys, pinks, peach and salmon are all commonly seen. The salmon colored gills are distinctive. These are edible but require care to get back home in one piece. They are delicate and break into pieces easily.

Baby Gopher Tortoise

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If I head, nobody will see me!

No, this isn’t forage, but it is too cute and rare not to share! Saw this little one twice in a week’s time. Tiny little thing. Probably just dug one of its first of many tunnels in its hopefully long lifetime. These are endangered so look but leave them be when you see them. Take one of these for a pet, and it may be one of the costliest pets you ever get!

Lentinus

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This is the most beautiful lentinus I have ever seen! Not generally eaten, but beautiful to look at. Shiitake mushrooms are a part of this group, and they ARE eaten.

Russula (Possibly Murrill’s hixonii, a rare mushroom)

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The hixonnii russula were first noted around Newnan’s Lake just outside Gaineville, Florida. I camped there frequently while attending school. They are described by mycologist Arlene Bessette as “rare and beautiful.” The “Pepto” pink is a giveaway, as is their large size. Bessette reports that they smell like cake when drying. They may be found frequently in some areas, but overall are considered threatened. I find them in several areas from about 25 miles northeast of Gainesville to Pumpkin Hill Preserve southwest of Fernandina, Florida.

Coral Mushrooms

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You really must know these well to chance eating them, and I don’t know them well. I saw a lot of them, so I wish I was able to make a positively ID.

Turkey Tail Mushroom – Tramatese versicolor

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Look for white pores. If they aren’t white, it isn’t Turkey Tail.

We’ve written about this wonderful mushroom before. It has compounds which are currently used in the treatment of cancer and is said to be medicinal by many. Full disclosure, I know of no scientific studies that support that assertion and have read posts by experts saying the same. Don’t shoot the messenger. In the absence of proof that they do help, I don’t know of any that say they can’t help if you want to give them a try! I’ve made tea with them and found it quite enjoyable. You can find preparation methods online.

Clathrus columnatus, Stinkhorn

 

The first person to give these a common name didn’t need much creativity. They truly stink! They produce a smelly substance that stinks, which attracts flies, who carry the mushroom spores on their feet to new and exciting places. This particular variety looks really cool. These start out in an egg form underground before bursting from the sack to extend above ground. If you can find them in egg form, some are said to be edible. You can just see one busting out of its egg in the photo.

Amanita persicina

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Motherload of Amanita Persicina. Hundreds of them.

IMG_20181216_203402277This is a local variety of Amanita mushroom that is related to the Fly Agaric known in northern regions. It is the red mushroom with white spots on the cap that you see in so many pictures. Our local variety comes in shades from red to nearly tan when old. It is important to understand; the Amanita group contains some of the deadliest mushrooms known! When people imagine deadly mushrooms, they are often thinking about an Amanita even if they don’t know it. If you are not an expert, leave anything in the Amanita group alone! That being said, for the experts this is one of the Amanita mushrooms is toxic but tat can be prepared so as to be made relatively safe for consumption. I say relatively because this is also one of those mushrooms that reportedly sends some into an altered state of consciousness. The experience is reportedly not something to be taken lightly, and can include fits of projectile vomiting, sweats, and other less than pleasant physical symptoms. Some reportedly experience little to no physical effects, so I guess to quote Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, the question is “Do you feel lucky?” Not me! I’m guessing law enforcement would have something to say once you began processing for that purpose. If you are a binge tv watcher, this mushroom also plays a role in the Amazon series “Fortitude.” Great series if you haven’t seen it!

Please follow us on our blog, as well as Facebook and Instagram @ outdoorfamilyfunandforaging

 

Thanks!

Referenced Arelenne Bessette et.al. “Mushrooms of the Southeast”

Pine Island Florida

IMG_20180518_113443346Great news! We made it to our first wedding anniversary! I know, that shouldn’t be such a big deal, but these days it seems like maybe it is. I tend to agree with a former co-worker that the first year of any long-term endeavor is a bit special, and marriage is certainly no exception. Having loved the solitude we found on the water in the Keys, Michelle and I decided that we wanted to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path and a bit less expensive to celebrate our first anniversary in hopes of finding a similar yet unique experience.

While we considered several locations, including going back to the same home where we were married in Tavernier, Florida in the Florida Keys, we eventually settled on St. James City on Pine Island in southwest Florida. We enjoy getting in the boat and finding places where it is just us and Mother Nature. Pine Island appeared to offer just that kind of experience. It is of course tough to completely escape the sights and sounds of our city lives, but we sure like to try!

Pine Island is just north of Sanibel Island on Florida’s southwest coast, with access to the same fishing and boating areas but fewer people to compete with in town. If seeing Sanibel itself is your goal, then Pine Island may not be the ideal place for you. You can get to Sanibel by boat if you like, but the trip by road would be pretty long. We took my 16 ft. bass boat across the bay to the where the Sanibel Bridge meets the island one day just to do it, and the trip only took a few minutes. Unfortunately, it was getting too windy that day to make a run around the island to see the famous Sanibel beaches, so we went back to the mangroves near the house and spent the rest of our day there. With less wind it would have been easy to make the run.Pine Island

The length of Pine Island can be driven in about a half hour or so. There are a few boat ramps on the island that are available for public use. Each has its own hours of operation so be sure to check those out in advance if you visit the island. We stayed in St. James City at the southern end of the island. The one public boat ramp in St. James offers 24 hour a day launching and loading. There is a fee for use of the boat ramp that can be paid at a fee box. The boat ramp is monitored by camera to help encourage those who don’t do well with the honor system, so be warned if that is you!

We rented a recently upgraded double-wide mobile home on a canal which also had a new boat lift. Many of the neighborhoods are composed mostly of mobile homes, so unless you are willing to spend top dollar, be prepared for that. Ours was very comfortable, and for $99 per night I have zero complaints!IMG_20180518_072118606_HDRIMG_20180518_165506771_HDR

The scenery on the water around Pine Island was amazing. We were able to motor out about 100 yards or so from our dock before turning north into the preserve and trolling the beautiful mangroves. We did take some longer trips, but it was windy for much of our week there so most of the time we kept close to home base in the calm water of the mangroves. One of the great things about the island is that you can pretty much always find a spot on the downwind side of some cover to fish. Just getting inside the mangroves helps immensely.IMG_20180518_201602476

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Pelicans looking for a handout.

We managed to catch a variety of nice fish, and even cooked a few up at the house. Some of the best fishing we found was within eyesight of our own dock! Save yourself some searching and pick up a nautical map that shows depths and local fishing spots. The maps aren’t exactly cheap but can be helpful when visiting new water. We had dolphins and manatees swim directly under our boat while cruising in and out of the canal. The water was so clear in the canal that we saw one of the dolphins rolling over under the boat and looking up at us as it passed below. It was a new experience for me, and I see dolphins all the time at home. The sunsets were second to none! One of the few things we took pictures of that week.

 

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Pine Island Sound
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Sunset over Pine Island Sound

 

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Mangrove sunset
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Colorful sunset in the mangroves
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Purple mangrove sunset
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Storms brewing
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Golden sunset over Pine Island Sound

 

Restaurant Reviews

Low Key Tiki
3135 Stringfellow Rd, Saint James City, FL 33956

Menu – http://www.lowkeytiki.com/

We really enjoyed our time at Low Key Tiki (LKT). The atmosphere was laid back as one might expect given its name. The food was fresh and tasty, and the service was friendly. Michelle and I tried the Po-boy and fries. They came with a sauce on them which was ok, but both of us ordered with sauce on the side when we went back. The sauce was good, but we wanted to maintain some of the shrimp’s crispiness. Obviously, they were good enough that we had them twice!

Woody’s Waterside Island Rum & Grille • 3051 Stringfellow Road • St. James City, FL 33956 • 239-283-5555

Menu – http://woodyswaterside.com/waterside-menu.html

A.K.A. The Drunkenmost Point – Being at the southern end of Pine Island, this is one of their claims to fame. Bouy

Our Selections:

Here we tried the most amazing Blue Crab balls we’ve ever tasted. Don’t blame me for the name of the dish and get those dirty jokes out of your mind! Think of crab cakes about the size of a healthy hush puppy. They were exactly as we fans of crab cakes like them to be… more crab than bread crumbs! We also had the Coconut Fried Shrimp and they were crisp and delicious. The Mandarin Orange Sauce was a great accompaniment. The second time around we ordered the appetizers once more, but I also ordered the pulled pork sandwich, which was fantastic. Woody’s was the closest place to our home away from home, at only about 3 blocks. We loved the place! We recommend you stop by and say hi to the staff at Woody’s when you visit Pine Island. We think you’ll be glad you did!

Saltwater Smokehouse

Menuhttp://nebula.wsimg.com/ab421adf330ddeba807f9c480c608dfb?AccessKeyId=DF7F2D2E2BCA45BA76B8&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

This place will offer you much more than the appearance would suggest. The building is a small blue building with a dusty parking lot on the side of the main road running North/South across the island. You might not stop if somebody didn’t give you the heads-up. Heads-up!

Our Selections:

Surprise, we ordered Coconut Shrimp again as we so often do, and they did not disappoint. The BBQ was good, as were the sides of slaw and fries. I ordered a brisket sandwich plate and we really don’t remember what Michelle had there because the real star of the meal turned out to be the dessert! Although there are no desserts printed on the menu, they were offering a special of Apple Pie topped with vanilla ice cream, which was topped with candied bacon. Sound crazy to you? It was amazing!!!! We regretted only getting one to split between us. Do over?

Pine Island Getaway Cafe
5281 Doug Taylor Circle, St James City, FL 33956
(239) 283-3602

Menu – https://www.facebook.com/Pine-Island-Getaway-Cafe-1021500157986400/

If you are looking for a great breakfast stop, this is your place! It is off the beaten path and it is small, but the line that forms soon after opening tells you that it is known and loved by the locals. We stopped by twice.

Our Selections:
Michelle is a pastry lover, so she was on cloud nine! She tried the chocolate croissants one day, and we both had a breakfast sandwich on a fresh roll on our second trip. The bread was so fresh and crusty I just wanted more! Most of the items are limited availability, so get there early for the best selection. Once they are gone for the day, that’s that!

No doubt there are quite a few other great places to try on Pine island, and if we get to go back to stay in Matlacha on the north end of the island, we’ll try to let you know!

Cary State Forest and Campground

Recently Jake and I spent a weekend at Cary State Forest and Wildlife Management Area. We’ve been to Cary before, but hadn’t really been all that impressed. At first glance, you might feel the same. Driving through the main roads, which are mostly sand, you’re likely to think the place is just young pine flat woods and scrub. This year, we found out that is not the case. One just needs to know where to look to find some beautiful woods. While it is true that the area is mostly pine and cypress bottoms, it is the transition zones between the mature pine and swampy areas that we really enjoyed. The cypress bottoms here are not as thick as I have seen in other swamps, and can be walked when dry. This was the case on the weekend we recently spent there. Find some of those transition areas between the two types of woods and you won’t be sorry. I found that once I knew what to look for we were able to find great spots that were open and provided great views.  These woods were different from any we normally spend time in, and we really enjoyed the novelty. As with most places off the beaten path, protect yourself from biting insects such as ticks and mosquitos and watch for venomous snakes.

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During rainy periods this would be a swamp bottom. 8 inches short on rain, and you can walk it.
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More of the bottoms.
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View of transition area. The pines got larger a little further in.
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View of transition area. We really loved this spot. You could have walked quite a distance through the pines. There were game trails crossing in all directions here.

There is always a possibility that you will see wildlife when you visit a forest. There is a healthy population of feral hogs at Cary, as well as deer, turkey, gopher turtles, etc. Watch for sows with piglets, as they can be very aggressive. The area hosts management hunts through the fall and spring but remains open to other uses. If you are hiking or spending time in the woods during hunt periods, it would be wise to wear some hunter orange. You can find some cool plants on your walk, like the Sundew carnivorous plants I there.

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Little piggies running the road.
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Fox tracks in the mud.
Cary Sundew
Beautiful Sundew specimen. One of Florida’s carnivorous plants.

Although we weren’t camping, Jake and I did check out the campground facilities, and everything appeared to be brand new. There are full shower and restroom facilities, along with powered and primitive campsites. Although I don’t recall reading anywhere that walk-up sites are available at the Cary campground, there was signage on some of the sites stating that they were walk-up sites available. All the camp sites were spacious relative to other camps I have seen and were well spaced offering a good deal of separation from the few fellow campers inhabiting the seven available spots. That weekend it looked like only two or three were taken. There is also a dump station on site. Campsite Welcome SignFee Area Sign

Primative Campsite
Primitive camp site.
Hook-up campsite
Site with full hook-up. Brand new concrete pads.

Michelle found a page on the web that talked about a little girl who haunts the forest and hangs out at the camp. Jake and I had to go check that out! Jake found her sitting on the bench in front of the restrooms. IMG_20181103_191522614She seemed nice. Pretty sure all that stuff about her killing people is nonsense. Or is it…

 

Chicken of the Woods (Southern Style) Laetiporus…cincinnatus and gilbertsonii var. pallidus

Okay, so this week I’m going to talk about what has become one of my favorite finds in the woods. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see them from quite a distance, and if you’re like me you’ll get a big smile on your face when you do!

At least two varieties occur in my area:

Laetiporus cincinnatus which usually grows at or near the roots of Live Oaks and causes butt or root rot.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus is said to be pale pinkish orange to nearly white and is considered common on dead oaks in the Gulf states. They typically grow higher on the tree in the form of overlapping shelves or brackets. These mushrooms also cause a brown rot. When I’ve found them, I’m pretty sure they have been on dead or dying Live Oaks. Dead oaks? For what it is worth I have seen what I believe to be examples of each within a mile or two of one another near my home in Northeast Florida.

The common name for this group of mushrooms is “Chicken of the Woods” and as mentioned above they seem to grow primarily on Live Oaks in Florida. Our Florida varieties of Chicken of the Woods can go from light yellow, to a much deeper yellow with hints of orange. The inside of the mushroom is white and has a stringy texture like chicken breast when cooked. I know people say lots of things taste like chicken, but seriously… these taste like chicken! I think Chicken of the Woods could make the most convincing vegetarian chicken tacos one could hope for. Unfortunately, mass production would be an issue, so I wouldn’t go out anytime soon looking for “COW” taco specials at your local eatery. Of course, if you are a forager and your local fast food place is a park, forest or property that allows collection, while holding the right trees, then get you some!

COW
The Chicken of the Woods from the pictures below getting the wok treatment.

The inner part of the mushroom closest to the tree can become tough or dry in age with a brittle, mealy texture. The outer edge of the mushroom is where the good stuff is found, so if you find them focus your efforts there! Of course, how much you can harvest from that outer edge depends on the size of the whole specimen, and they can get big. Many pounds of big. You’ll feel the difference between the inner portion of the mushroom and the outer edge when you find one for yourself. If you take only the soft outer edge with a sharp knife, you may be able to come back later for seconds if the conditions remain conducive for growth. If you don’t frequent an area often and you see one I vote for taking it if you are allowed, because if you don’t get it something else probably will. I can say with great confidence that you aren’t the only one in the woods that is looking to capitalize on this delicious resource. The mushrooms will become infested with maggots and/or beetles when the weather conditions are poor for mushroom growth, and I sometimes find these mushrooms with the outer two or three inches of the edges eaten away by squirrels when they are fresh. Squirrels giving us lessons in sustainability? Maybe. I don’t mind sharing with the squirrels, but I hate seeing great food go entirely to the bugs!

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It was growing at base of dead live oak and is a rosette, so should be cincinnatus.
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Nearly this entire mushroom was soft enough to eat!
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Notice two different colors of the Chicken of the Woods in this picture. Not all of the other mushrooms in the basket were edible, or desirable if technically edible.

David Arora states in Mushrooms Demystified that the Chicken of the Wood mushroom is one of the “foolproof four” – an unmistakable mushroom. I have his book and use it for reference, but I don’t know if I’d go that far because there are multiple varieties of chicken, and anything can happen. Then again, I don’t have my own book nor his years on knowledge about mushrooms, so… These are quite distinctive mushrooms so once you have identified them correctly once, you’ll probably be good to go.

According to Kuo on mushroomsexpert.com the group of mushrooms known as Chicken of the Woods are now known to contain at least five different varieties which can act as parasites on living trees or saprobes feeding on decomposing trees. Like bounty hunters in the old west, they’ll take them dead or alive. These mushrooms produce various forms of brown rot, and if you see it on your trees there is not much you can do but monitor the tree for safety hazards. I think you should assume that eventually large branches or possibly the whole tree will become unstable. Your own environmental situation will have to be considered when assessing safety concerns. If you decide that you can allow your tree to die a natural death, enjoy your harvests to come!

There are also northern varieties of Chicken of the Woods that look a bit different from our Florida varieties and I have zero personal experience with them, so I can’t really offer much on those. If you live in the Northeast I have seen it mentioned that you should be wary of Chicken mushrooms growing on conifers. If you live up there, I recommend doing research on that variety so that you recognize it when you see it.

Be safe and as with any edible wild plant or mushroom, eat only a small amount the first time you try. Only try mushrooms or other wild edibles you have researched and feel 100% confident on ID of, and always be sure that you have your specimen identified by an expert before you try it yourself. Even better if you can see them eat it themselves and live to tell you how it was! Occasionally people do show sensitivity to southern varieties of Chicken of the Woods. If you aren’t sensitive, you’re in for a treat! If you live in my area, and see what looks like Chicken of the Woods on your trees, I am happy to check it out for you!

Enjoy your hunt for Chicken of the Woods!

 

 

Reference:

Arora D. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (2nd edition). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. ISBN 0-89815-169-4.

Kuo, M. (2017, November). The genus Laetiporus. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/laetiporus.htm

 

 

Tavernier, Florida, and the Upper Keys

 

When my wife and I met, neither of us was in a position that provided us a great deal of disposable income. When we became engaged, we knew that coming up with the money to get married would be challenging. As I’m sure many of you may know, there is really no such thing as getting married inexpensively once you decide to hold the ceremony somewhere other than a courthouse lobby.
My opinion from day one was that we should go to the Keys to get married, as we really didn’t have the money to get married at home and still afford to have a honeymoon. In my opinion combining the two in some fashion was the way to go and I felt I could afford to make it happen. Initially Michelle felt differently and wanted to marry close to home where she believed as many people could make it as possible, so we agreed that we could take a serious look at having the wedding near home. We looked at many venues, and all were well outside what we had available to spend if we also wanted to have a honeymoon trip. Decisions, decisions…
We decided to explore having our ceremony at Michelle’s grandparents’ home that had the space and a nice view, as well as the emotional bonus for the simple fact that it was her grandparents’ home. Over the first few weeks of planning my wife cried nearly every day (I have come to understand since then that this is common) as she tried to satisfy the opinions and suggestions of her fellow wedding planners. I became frustrated at seeing my wife crying so frequently and again pressed for a destination wedding. My thought was that this would reduce the size of the wedding somewhat, lower the overall expense, and still allow us to have a great wedding and amazing honeymoon. There will always be some people who can’t attend a wedding no matter where it is, and if you are unsure how many times you will be able to take such a trip I say that as a couple you do what is best for you during this special time in your life, and hope that everyone understands. After a few difficult discussions about what we could and could not afford and discussing whether the people who absolutely had to be there could be there we agreed to change direction and start looking more seriously at getting married in the Florida Keys.
To prevent a blog from becoming a novel, we settled on renting an amazing home in Tavernier, Florida on the bay side that was able to house us, our parents and the wedding party. The home was on a canal with access to the bay, had the space we needed for the wedding ceremony and had a great feel to it. We managed to have an amazing wedding thanks to help from Michelle’s parents and a couple of their best friends, along with an amazing vacation for about the same amount of money that the wedding alone would have cost us at home. Those memories will live on with us for the rest of our lives. Winner, winner chicken dinner!
Now with the back story complete, on to the reason we are writing this blog entry. We want to kick off our vacation destination and restaurant reviews now as we await our next camping trip in December. I hope you’ll find some reviews of the amazing restaurants we visited in Tavernier and the Keys useful, or maybe they will just remind you of the amazing times you spent there yourselves. If so, please feel free to comment! You may notice that we tend to be appetizer people. Both of us really like to have a variety of flavors available, and this allows us to satisfy our tastes. Coconut shrimp was a thing for us in the Keys, so if you like those, we may have a few places for you!

Anglers Cafe & Live Bait Islamorada – 90515 Old Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070

Anglers Cafe Storefront

First, let’s talk about a little place called Anglers Café & Live Bait. Islamorada. Unless you fish, you would probably never see it despite driving right past it on your way through Tavernier. It’s a small place with a limited menu. The building is divided in half between the bait and tackle shop and diner. Customers can pass freely between the two when inside, and don’t let the idea of it being a bait shop throw you off. There are no foul odors or anything gross. All the bait is handled outside. There are just a few small tables to sit at on the diner side of the building. Since we were visiting early in the day we had the BLT’s. If you like mimosa’s, rumor has it that those are pretty good as well! The bread was fresh and crusty, and the lettuce and tomatoes were cool and crisp. We went back a few times for breakfast throughout that week before taking our boat out on the bay. The owners/operators were friendly and provided great service and a little free local fishing advice. We’ll certainly stop again if we go back to Tavernier.

Our Food Selection:

BLT – $6.99

MEAT Eatery & Tap Room – 88005 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

MEAT storefront

 

MEAT, what can we say about this place? Want to know what they’re known for? MEAT! Yes, if you are a fan of some delicious, juicy, meaty goodness, this is the place for you! What’s that you say? You also enjoy fried food? Then oh my gosh, a day that involved a meal at MEAT would be a lucky day for you! Now to be honest I have never been a big fan of pimento cheese and burgers are not a food I crave very often, but this Inside-Out Juicy Lucy burger was A-Mazing! The cheese is stuffed inside the burger and the burger was cooked perfectly to order. The cheese mixing with the juicy burger was delicious! Being a fan of onion rings and bacon, they were in my opinion the perfect topper for this burger. You could add more, but why? Some things are great just the way they are, and outside of a dip in some ketchup I didn’t add anything else to mine. But you do you! The fries were crisp and tasty. I hate a soggy fry, and these were not at all soggy. We both enjoyed the flavor that little sprinkle of parmesan cheese provided.
The establishment has a selection of adult beverages, and of course sodas and tea. If you spend any time in Tavernier, this is a great choice for the meat loving crew! This is another one that we visited more than once. We ate in and picked up carry-out for the house on one occasion.

Our Food Selections:

Inside-Out Juicy Lucy Burger with fries on the side  – pimento cheese and bacon stuffed Angus burger topped with American cheese, lettuce and tomato served with house fries – $12.00
Truffled Bistro Fries with parmesan and rosemary a la carte – $7.50
Fried Onion Strings with beer cheese dipping sauce $4.50

Marker 88 – 88000 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070Marker 88 Bouy

 

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Marker 88 was a beautiful place to have a meal. The bayfront tables were fantastic, and we loved the food. As with several of the other places we visited, we earned at least a couple of frequent flier miles with this place. The coconut shrimp was amazing. If you’re a fan of Bloodline on Netflix, you’ll recognize the scenery and tables at Marker 88. Michelle and I saw the exact table we sat at in one episode. We stopped here on the way back from Key West and picked up a carry out order to take out on the boat to eat as we watched the sunset carry us into one of our last nights in the keys. That night we were also treated to an amazing lightening show from a thunderstorm that was out over the Gulf Stream. It was such a great way to close out our week.

Our Food Selections:

Crab Cakes – $17.00
Hot Blue Crab dip – $16.00
Coconut Shrimp – $16.00

Hogfish Grill – 6810 Front St, Stock Island, FL 33040Cool Hogfish signsHogfish front

You’ll wonder where you’re going as you’re following your GPS to this hidden treasure. Luckily, they have signage to help you out! This isn’t in the upper keys, but we took a day trip to Key West and I imagine most people do the same so I’m sharing a place or two from the day trip that we really enjoyed. Hogfish is well off the beaten path in what I would describe as a keys fishing village. You’ll see lots of work trucks and some residential areas with flavor, but when you get to Hogfish, you’ll know it. The building is eclectic and seems perfectly suited to its location. Parking is slim, but we lucked out and found a spot right in front of the building as soon as we pulled up. Upon entry, it seemed as if there were more locals than we tourists, which is a good thing. We just had one appetizer at Hogfish. The fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa. The shrimp was crispy, and the sauce was sweet and spicy. The food was great, and it was worth the trip off the main drag to get there.
On our way out, we stopped at their t-shirt stand and bought a few things, including a t-shirt for each of us. Michelle absolutely loved her Hogfish t-shirt, but unfortunately soon after returning home she accidentally splashed a small spot with bleach, and of course it was in the front where it was highly visible. I hated seeing her upset over her shirt so I checked the Hogfish website in hopes they would have an on-line store, and unfortunately, they did not. Unwilling to give up I called Hogfish a couple of times over the next few days until I was able to catch a manager there and asked if I could purchase a new shirt over the phone and have it mailed to our home. He agreed to help me out, sent me pictures of the shirts they had available (not the same ones they had when we were there previously), and accepted my payment over the phone. He even went out on his own time to mail the package to me. I am so appreciative of these guys. If you find yourself in the middle or lower Florida Keys, go check them out.

Our Food selection:

Fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa – $13.95

What’s the Fish? Rolls and More – 90775 Old Hwy Unit 6, Tavernier

What's the Fish logo

This was a small location that was easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Don’t let the small size fool you. The flavor is anything but small. We split a blackened fish sandwich. While it was not blackened New Orleans style in a white-hot cast iron skillet, the blackening seasoning was flavorful, and the fish was cooked perfectly. We enjoyed a cold soda and our sandwich outside in the tiki area. It was a nice light lunch and the service was great which is as much the reason for our positive review as the tasty fresh food. Give them a shot if you are in town, and tell them we sent you. They won’t know us, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it anyway!

Our Food Selection:

Fresh Catch Sandwich with coleslaw and fries – $17.00

Islamorada Fish Company – 81532 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

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Nurse Sharks and tarpon

It was cool to watch the tarpon and Nurse sharks being fed right off the deck where the tables are located! The little spit of land that sticks out and is lit up at night is beautiful, and offers up some great photo opportunities.

Our Selections:

Neither of us really remembers what we had there. The fish tacos and crab cakes look familiar, but that’s about all we can say about the menu, except that we know we didn’t have a bad food experience and the view alone is a good reason to stop so we don’t mind sharing.

We could offer a few other suggestions of cool things to see, but exploring is half the fun so maybe it’s best we don’t. Food isn’t cheap down there, so at least we can point you in the direction of a few places that it just may be worth it. Enjoy!