By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
The Chassahowitzka may be difficult to say, but this beguiling river scarcely an hour’s drive from Tampa is impossible to forget. The Seminole Indians gave the river its tongue-tying name, with Chassahowitzka meaning “pumpkin hanging place,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But the roughly seven-mile long waterway usually is simply called The Chaz.
The river has not been spared entirely the effects of development, pollution and water diversions, but it remains a remarkable natural sanctuary, offering crystal clear springs, abundant wildlife, and excellent fishing, though boaters must take care with the rocky bottom.
My wife and I recently canoed the river and saw alligators, countless wading birds, a wood duck with ducklings, kingfishers, and numerous ospreys and hawks. Turtles sunned themselves on fallen tree limbs. Bass, bream and huge schools of mullet were visible in the clear water.
In my past trips, it had not been uncommon to see otter and manatees. Deer, hog, bobcats and even bear populate the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a 30,000-acre refuge that surrounds the lower river. The refuge is also a winter home for the endangered whooping crane.
We launched at Chassahowitzka River Campground, where a friendly young couple provides efficient service, and the wise counsel to use bug spray.
Just upstream from the launch is a large spring in the river that has already attracted swimmers, and nearby is the Seven Sisters Run, a series of shallow but gorgeous clear-as-glass spring vents.
Further upriver are homes and a rustic marina, but downriver is mostly natural. A popular stop for locals is “The Crack,” a spring-swimming hole at the end of Baird Creek, a tributary on the north side of the river less than a half hour down from the campground.
The narrow creek winds through lush swamp land – keep an eye out for water moccasins on fallen trees – before hitting Blue Springs, marked by a rope swing. The late Terry Tomalin in his excellent book, “Everyday Adventures: A Florida Outdoors Guide” (available at the Aquarium’s gift shop), says Blue Springs is usually crammed with mullet. We see plenty of mullet elsewhere, but Blue Spring is not very clear on the day of our visit, and we only see a few.
A little past Blue Springs, the creek shallows, and we beached the canoe and waded a few hundred yards, trying not to trip on roots and rocks. But the creek then opens up to “The Crack,” a sight that is worth a tumble or two. The spring is probably less than 50-feet long, but spectacularly clear and invites immediate immersion.
To enjoy The Crack’s natural serenity, arrive early. As the day progresses, it can attract dozens of visitors, some of whom like loud music.
We returned to the river and headed downstream. A few stilt homes appear along the swampy shoreline, but they do little to diminish The Chaz’s wild ambience.
While it is an easy drive from our Lutz home to the river, we planned to visit my aunt in Sugarmill Woods the next day and spent the night at the comfortable and homey Chassahowitzka Lodge, thoroughly enjoying our stay.
The hotel was built in 1910 and has been run, with a few interruptions, ever since by the Strickland family. It definitely possesses the Old Florida charm it advertises, but it has been remodeled and also has all the modern conveniences, including Wi-Fi. We found, to our surprise, most guests come to golf at a nearby course, not visit the river.
We had dinner at The Freezer in Homosassa. It is packed with locals and, if you can find a seat, offers delicious smoked fish and shrimp and relaxing waterfront view.
The next day we had a wonderful visit with Aunt Evelyn Fee at the Greenhouse Bistro & Market in Homosassa. We are seated next to the indoor butterfly garden and found the intimate setting and locally produced food to our liking. And a conversation with Aunt Evelyn, who has lived in Washington, Australia and London, is always a special reward.
There was no fishing on this trip, but through the years I have fished The Chaz and environs numerous times, having good luck with trout and redfish, particularly on the flats outside of the river. Once I had a large bull shark bite off half a ladyfish at the side of the boat. I know others who have caught cobia and snook.
The Chaz’s rocky waters can quickly claim a prop. Fortunately, on most of my fishing trips I have accompanied Mickey Newberger, a former federal marshal who owns a stilt home on The Chaz and has been fishing and exploring the river since he was a Boy Scout in the 1950s. I doubt if anybody knows The Chaz better or loves it more. Mickey remembers when migratory ducks virtually covered the sky during the fall, but the flyway has changed and the Chassahowitzka is no longer a duck-hunting mecca.
When The Florida Aquarium was being built, Newberger guided its scientists up The Chaz tributary, Crawford Creek, so they could study its ecosystem in developing the Florida Water Story theme.
Newberger has continually fought for the Chassahowitzka’s welfare, leading the campaign to stop the use of polluting septic tanks by homes around the river and provide access to a public sewer treatment system. Now he worries the pumping of ground water for municipal use in the watershed is dangerously diminishing the river’s fresh water flow.
Southwest Florida Water Management District officials say regulations are carefully crafted to maintain the “minimum flows and levels” necessary for the river’s health. A skeptical Newberger says he has seen the water quality and aquatic vegetation decline dramatically through the years.
One hopes the district’s regulators seriously attend such concerns and rigorously monitor any changes in the river.
However, some Chaz changes through the years have been for the better. In his 1957 publication on Florida Rivers, “Outdoors Afloat on Florida’s Wonderful Waterways,” fabled outdoors writer Rube Allyn wrote of “hate-bordered signs, embellished by skull and crossbones.” The racist signs, Allyn thought, contrasted man’s love for “natural beauty and hate for his brother with skin of another color.”
Such messages, fortunately, are long gone.
Allyn also wrote of encountering “seacows,” not manatees but dwarf cattle, about half the normal size, that spent most of their time in the river. The seacows swimming and frolicking in the river must have been a fascinating sight but could not have been good for water quality.
The Chaz still may face environmental challenges, but it endures as an enchanting wilderness oasis on the bustling Gulf Coast, one where Florida’s native wildlife and natural beauty are on spectacular display.