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They’ve Got Gills

Five family fishing adventures & guides who make memories

by Jennifer A Sheffield | Photography by Jeremy Davidson

The Apalachicola Bay and River area is brimming with an exciting fresh catch of independent fishing guides offering innovative, family-friendly, and simply epic outings. The long-trusted explorers are offering more all-inclusive trips too—including eco-tours and fly fishing.

So, corral your adventurers small and tall, young and old, novice or an expert and head down to the Panhandle to experience wild new places. Trips are your choice among these anglers, and it’s all fun!

Living by the Line

Captain Jeremy Davidson is a Florida-raised outdoorsman building a lifestyle and his business, Southern Salinity Guide Service, on the things he loves most: fishing and photography. “My clients gravitate to that,” he says. “It’s not about just a ride. Let’s make it an epic experience.” He specializes in custom sight fishing, river cruise photography and inshore light tackle adventures. Operational yearround, he calls his approach “filling in the gaps.”

Tours with this guide are never the same, who never backs down from a shot at the ninth inning of a trophy catch, but will slow down to enjoy the camaraderie of dolphins can feature tarpon, or be as tame as a photo shoot with the kids. “Nine times out of ten something else happens,” says Davidson. “That’s the beautiful thing.” He delights in designing trips this way and his passion for photography is supported by his enthusiasm for capturing people as part of the spectacular works of art nature provides. “The environment has mind of its own,” he says. “People get pictures of things that really happened!” If you like, “Fishing is a bonus!”

Davidson’s fishing experience spans his childhood hooking snook under the stars at Gasperilla Island, catching largemouth bass on River Lake and topwater redfishing the Forgotten Coast at Econfina and Aucilla. He has been coming to St. George Island (SGI) with his family for 18 years and mastered slaying the elusive tripletail. “I didn’t know how I was going to be here,” he says about his leap of faith, “but knew there was more to this area.”

He launched his concept in April 2017. His relationship with Bonefish Boatworks provided a Rocky Creek T18 for his first season, while Davidson customized a Sabalo 21 to fish state waters in. Photographers benefit from a console tower for capturing bird and wildflower shots over the salt marsh.

Getting people that never thought about a boat ride is his goal—like a trip designed for Apalachicola artist Jenny Odom and her family. “I wanted a day trip,” Odom says, “and Jeremy was flexible and courteous.” Odom got an experience that offered everything the uninhabited shores do and that a stormy day allowed including time spent swimming, playing Frisbee, hiking and shell hunting on St. Vincent near Bird Island, on Little St. George and at Sikes Cut.

Davidson makes sure visitors confiding their experience in him feel brought back in time, but also in touch with what’s new to discover about each day on the water. It is his mission to make certain your vacation, or special occasion, exceeds epic. Find him at: https://www.facebook.com/southernsalinity/

Technical Lessons

Kevin Burdette, PhD., is pushing the Panhandle onto the rise of a growing in-shore saltwater fly fishing movement hoping to encourage the next generation to take up the art of tying, spin casting and sight fishing. Burdette, whose geology studies were conducted in St. Joseph Buffer Preserve moved to these woods with wife and business partner, Chantal. He employs six guides with his specialty shop, Forgotten Coast Fly Company in Apalachicola.

Burdette was not always a fly guy. For ten years, “I fought to not get into it,” he admits. He grew up fishing in bass tournaments with his father, but with a night job monitoring wells, he started tying commercially for locals to keep him awake. He began offering them online, and in July 2016 opened for business.

Begining in 2017, the shop kicked off charters and runs one out of Cape San Blas, two at St. Marks and Alligator Point and three out of Apalachicola Bay. Joey Sposato is from Tallahassee and began fly fishing small ponds and has been offshore for Grouper all over Florida. Scott Burgess is also a Tallahassee boy and covers Keaton Beach to Mexico Beach. His spots include the shallow flats south of Tallahassee, which are closest to town and not as well known. John Sherrel will let you out of the boat to wade if the fishing’s good on the Cape, and according to Burdette, “No one knows it better,” adding, “One day, he saw 17 species.”

Burdette also actively fulfills his duty to keep local fisheries healthy as a founding member of the Fly Farm Coalition, promoting small batch American material producers. Fly hardware you find here is not limited to buck tail, alpaca, yak hair and chicken feathers. “It’s a craft store,” he jokes. In addition to synthetics and all tools, Burdette sells apparel and gifts. “The beauty of the fly industry,” he says, “is there are lots of American small businesses and big ones make top-of-the-line stuff.”

“There’s a lot to do get people involved,” Burdette admits. “We have fish here no one targets for fly,” he points out. The shop also offers four-hour casting classes for up to six participants that include lunch. Private lessons are by request. Make this shop a stop on a Panhandle fish tour, and you might get hooked on something you weren’t expecting. Find him at: https://forgottencoastflycompany.com

Big Fish, Big Smiles

Captain Larry LD Hatfield is a big kid with a boat, which makes him much more kid-friendly since he takes entertaining the whole family seriously. Hatfield began guide fishing after serving in the US Army and National Guard. He is a Franklin County native who grew up doing schoolwork with his dad on commercial shrimping vessels and holds two Florida federation tournament titles.

Hatfield’s trips provide years of experience, whether it’s your first fish or coveted prize. The habitat here is his. At first, he spent so much time in salt waters the only things he found enjoyment in were bass and baseball. That all changed when he met a legend in these parts, Captain Jr. Holland.

He admits, “I’m a hard-core fisherman, but families are great and they appreciate it more. It makes my job a lot more fun,” adding, “I’m a 44-year old kid and I’ve got kids (ages 19, 18 and 3) so I try to stay on their level.” Three hour trips are broken up to keep things moving. “When you expose kids to things, it comes natural to them,” he says. “I’m from a different generation, it’s old fashioned and parents respect that I get onto them like my own, but it lets kids know I care about them on my boat.”

Tours up to Lake Wimico and down the East River show off where the tupelo trees grow, and he has dropped guests off at the historic Fort Gadsden site. He also enjoys showing his riders the logjams left over from the 1800’s on the East side of Apalachicola Bay.

Hatfield’s relationship with Red Pirate Bar and Grill in Eastpoint is also pivotal to his fishing business. He is part of its Friday night band and long-time friend of the owner. “This place works out great,” he says. “Music and fishing is my niche, and for clients it is part of their vacations and the Grill will cook your fish.” It’s how Hatfield keeps business personal and supports his home base.

“I’m an attraction,” is how he views his job. “You have to do it all here,” he says, “We don’t have Disney World, just fishing and live music, and I want you to enjoy coming back.” That’s why Hatfield encourages folks to relax by listening to music on his “disco boat” and at the Pirate playing arcade games or mini-golf. “I couldn’t live another way,” Hatfield says. He wants you to feel that way, too. Find him at: http://www.tidelifecharters.com

Family Roots

The Fortunas family—Samantha, Dan, Andrea and Scamp, their dog (named after the fish)—is in the business of living on an everyday vacation. Building one for families of all sizes is not unlike how theirs has lived on SGI for five generations. Fortunas Family Charters also employs an extended family of three experienced captains with kids of their own and the same vital awareness of the eco-system they share.

This family’s history in the area started when Samantha’s great-grandfather emigrated from Greece to work in the sponge diving trade in Tarpon Springs. The family also owned a piece of Little St. George Island. Samantha came to SGI to start a yoga and paddleboard business, IslandFitSUP, in 2012 and shortly after hired Dan (who moved from Tallahassee) and they took their captain licenses together. The business then grew to include fishing and eco-tours.

This business is about teaching the basics and keeping trips low-maintenance. The menu is not too specialized and offers a full spread. In addition to Bay and deep-sea trips, there are paddleboard excursions, Dog Island tours and sunset cruises. “We want visitors to enjoy one another’s company and have access to the islands,” Dan says. Bird watching trips are also popular.

“We really appreciate the beauty of our fragile eco-system and want to spread our stewardship,” says Dan, who is also a Steward with the Audubon Society. Don’t be surprised either if your trip includes safety lessons or a beach clean-up—two things this family is serious about! Repeat clients learn new skills like knots and cast net, and can explore more. As Dan points out, “We haven’t done it all and we’ve been here our whole lives!” His blackwater trips take place on Kennedy Creek, and Samantha’s runs on Scipio Creek always show off alligator sightings.

Andrea adds, “Dan also has the patience with and ability to accommodate special needs and children with social challenges.” Dan is more modest and says, “As long as the kid’s fish is bigger than Dad’s, and Mom tells us it was the best day ever, we did our job.”

SGI is a family vacation destination and the Fortunas know it. “We grew up coming here building sandcastles,” says Samantha. “My son will grow up on the water.” Another cool thing about signing up for a Fortunas trip is that you may not know your fellow adventurers, and find new friends to make memories with next year! Find them at: https://www.fishforgottencoast.com

Never Too Young to Fish

A passion for teaching kids to try fishing, plus advanced skills for a future on the water, lives in Captain Krista Miller’s heart and business, Island Charters on St. George Island. Miller’s goal is that a beginner angler gets hooked on a lifetime of the sport. Case in point: a father of two 14-year-old girls who has fished in the area for 15 years credits Miller that his teenagers now ask—when they can go fishing again?

Miller, in every way, fishes like a girl and keeps light-up pink poles aboard for kids as young as two. Her comfortable style that celebrates camaraderie has broken the seal on a fraternity of area guides, but the reason she became one is her lesson in self-esteem for young people. While fishing pompano, Miller got frustrated with a guide who wouldn’t let her niece catch. “The reason I became a guide” she says, “is because some mean boy told me I couldn’t.”

This spirit has snaked through Miller’s Creek Indian and Italian heritage since the 1800’—in the seafood industry of Apalachicola. Miller and her mother were Seafood Festival Queens and today her entire family continues to fish and hunt. In Miller’s view, “It’s cool to have family out there.”

It was her grandmother’s illness that brought Miller back to SGI, after working in sales from Fort Lauderdale to the Keys. Starting out, “I couldn’t tie a hook,” she says, “and didn’t know how to get my boat off the trailer!” On her first charter, “I didn’t know where I was going, but asked my clients, ‘Want to go out with everyone else?’ We took a boat offshore, and limited out on King Mackerel. We had a blast.”

Miller also enjoys staying out late and schedules trips around the tide changes and moon phase, claiming the best results. Her “Fish and Fun” charter is a combination near shore fishing, dolphin excursion and shelling tour. This trip satisfies the most inattentive child, and includes time to play on the beach or fish a simple trout spot.

Miller says she now enjoys repeat business. “One four year old fished with me in my first year,” she recalls, “and I’ve watched him grow up!” Her 22-foot Twin Vee holds six but Miller prefers your group include a mix of kids and adults if bringing more than four. She also pairs with other guides so that large families can stay together. “Clients are family,” she says, and hopes yours will start a tradition very soon! Find her at: https://www.stgeorgeislandcharters.com

Whichever adventure calls you to the water; there is a guide for that! All are US Coast Guard licensed and insured and fishing licenses are included. Just bring sunscreen, bug juice, cameras and water, and they will get your family out and back with smiling faces.

Jennifer Sheffield pursued journalism at Boston University after working in media relations for the US Olympic Committee. Her stories have been published in The Forest Hills Times and Apalachicola Times, Must See Magazine and Sports & Spokes. She lives in Apalachicola.

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