SUSAN COCKING / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
You’re planning to visit St. Petersburg on business under a tight schedule that allows little time for play. You wonder if there are any short excursions that might get you into the wild and back in a couple of hours.
Your best bet is a visit to Weedon Island Preserve, a 3,700-acre wilderness on Old Tampa Bay within a shell’s toss of downtown.
At Weedon Island, you can: fish, canoe, kayak, hike wilderness or boardwalk, or soak up Old Florida’s natural history in an air-conditioned interactive museum.
I recently went kayak fishing with guide Neil Taylor in one of the preserve’s many shallow, mangrove-fringed ponds on an early morning incoming tide. Fishing was slow at first, but I eventually caught and released a redfish using a red Cotee jig head with a grub tail. You could see and hear snook crashing minnows all along the shoreline, but by the time you paddled up to within casting distance, they had scattered or laid low in the prop roots.
Still, the trip was great fun and full of surprises.
Scanning the shore for activity, I could have sworn I saw some kind of fish tail directly in front of me. But when I paddled closer, I saw that what I thought were tailing fish actually were the noses of two baby manatees barely poking the surface.
All around me, mullet jumped, birds squawked and in the distance, two bottlenose dolphins cruised the surface.
Later that day, I accompanied Russell Farrow, co-owner of Sweetwater Kayaks; Bill AuCoin; Pinellas County parks naturalist Grant Craig; and a host of local planners and politicians on a paddling tour of the park’s south trail, a four-mile loop through scenic mangrove tunnels.
Craig told the group how the overwash islands created by the water trees and the rich mud bottom that anchors them support an enormous amount of productivity.
As if on cue, a blue heron squawked in agreement.
Said Farrow: “Once you’re back in there, you could be 80 miles out in the Everglades.”
Farrow, AuCoin and I let the Craig’s tour group paddle ahead as we wound through the shady natural cathedral. We passed a night heron, a couple of ibis and countless mangrove crabs.
Weedon Island was not always this wild. It was settled about 1,800 years ago by American Indians who made tools from shells and were known for distinctive pottery with a punctuated design.
It was purchased after the Civil War by a local family who used it as a weekend retreat. In the 1920s, the Weedons sold the property to a developer who promoted its archaeological significance.
Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution excavated the site, finding remnants of the ancient pottery, and published a report, which added to the island’s notoriety. It later became a speakeasy, a movie studio and a regional airport.
Today, the preserve is owned by the state and managed by Pinellas County, with outdoor recreation and cultural appreciation in mind. There are more than four miles of paddling trails, nearly five miles of hiking trails (boardwalks and dirt paths), a fishing pier, observation tower, picnic areas and the Culture and Natural History Center.
If you check it out, your brief sojourn likely will lead to a return trip.
Neil Taylor runs kayak fishing charters in the greater Tampa Bay area, including Weedon Island and can be reached from his web site: www.strikethreekayakfishing.com