Spot the tarpon tail-walking in Boca Grande Pass, trying to escape the bite. Throw up the “Diver Down” flag and go searching for scallops in Crystal River. Tow friends in a tube across Lake Isleworth. This is Florida: the land of endless waterways. Whether you’re a salty dog or a green newbie, there’s a sliver of sea for every personality. So untie the cleat hitch and chart a new course.
1. CENTRAL FLORIDA
- Known For: Surprisingly, the center of the peninsula is dotted with hundreds of lily- and bulrush-lined lakes, many chained together by streams and canals. Expect smooth, warm waters perfect for skiing and wakeboarding.
- On a Recent Trip: I like to arrive early on these mostly residential lakes and keep the stereo low. Heron and egret are wading for fish in the shallows, and I don’t want to disturb them—or the residents. Several PGA golfers and Orlando Magic ballplayers own homes along these quiet shores. After fishing the waters, I swap my rods for another set of sticks—skis—or better yet, an inflatable tube. It’s a great workout at the end of the rope and a laugh a minute at the helm trying to fling riders of their tubes. When fatigue sets in, I cruise the shorelines—binoculars in hand—looking for eagles and osprey.
- Where Boaters Stay: Waterfront lodging is rare along these lakes, but friendly hotels of every popular brand provide quiet quarters for evening repose nearby. It’s worth the splurge to stay at nearby Bay Hill Lodge, Arnold Palmer’s place, or at a Walt Disney World resort. Ask about parking a boat and trailer when you book.
- Best Ramps: In Windermere, launch your watercraft from the R.D. Keene Park & Boat Ramp (407.876.6696) into Lake Isleworth, which connects to the Butler Chain of Lakes. There’s a pay box that takes a $5 fee. Go early, as trailer parking is limited.
- Where to Rent a Boat: Boatclub.com will deliver a pontoon or fishing boat to the boat ramp at R.D. Keene Park. Disney World will also get you on the water. Rent anything from a spunky mouse boat for two to a pontoon at their larger resorts like the Contemporary or the Grand Floridian. The hotel’s concierge will book it for you.
- Gathering Spots: Mud Island on the Butler Chain is the prime hangout for Orlando boaters. The sandy shore of the cypress- and moss-covered island is ideal for beaching or anchoring alongside fellow boaters.
- Coolest Boating Activity: Central Florida lakes are the seminal ground for towed water sports thanks to year-round temperate waters that let wakeboarders and skiers maintain their edge through daily practice. Hotshot national competitors hone their skills here, and international riders come to train.
- Insider Tip: Parking slots at launch ramps go quickly. Arrive early, launch swiftly and bring everything you need with you—that way you won’t have to move your vehicle and risk losing your parking spot.
- Known For: These southwest Gulf waters are the stomping ground of novelist Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford thrillers. An avid boater himself, White often places his protagonist, a retired-operative-turned-marine-biologist, on the inky waters that surround Captiva and neighboring Sanibel Island and then weaves a story of mystery and intrigue through the Gulf of Mexico and its islands.
- On a Recent Trip: Boats bristling with rods and crawling with anglers congregate in the Boca Grande Pass to the north of Captiva. Last spring, hundreds hung together like the school of 20,000 tarpon hanging below them in pods 20 feet thick and acres across. While chatting with other anglers in the flotilla, something yanked on my rod. I leaned back and set the hook while my friend grabbed the helm to chase the powerful fish as he charged for the surface, leaping and tail-walking to escape the hook. Other boats parted as if by magic—or at least by courteous skill—and it was an hour before I saw my trophy leap and throw the hook. A hippy guide once told me: “Oooh, Randy! You jump a tarpon; you git the best of him. You boat ’im and he gits the best of you!”
- Where Boaters Stay: South Seas Island Resort scores points for its new marina and the Harbourside Bar & Grill (order the fish chowder and grilled black grouper). For more intimate accommodations, ’Tween Waters Inn offers waterfront suites and classic cottages. The marine facilities here include gas, bait and sundries dockside.
- Best Ramps: A public ramp on neighboring Sanibel Island next to the Sanibel Causeway is the closest public facility. Launch here to explore the waters surrounding Captiva.
- Where to Rent a Boat: Find rental boats of varying styles and horsepower at South Seas Island Resort. Choose your game: fishing, touring or cruising. Pontoons are forgiving for novices and carry large crews. If distance cruising is your goal, you’ll need more horsepower and a center-console or runabout.
- Gathering Spots: Cayo Costa State Park’s long sugar-sand beach draws boaters and beach- combers to the uninhabited island. The only access is by boat. Drop a hook of the bow, back to the shore and drop another anchor on the beach to hold your spot. Plan on a couple of hours to explore.
- Coolest Boating Activity: There’s plentiful fishing in the rich estuary where the Peace River empties into Charlotte Harbor. Fish for snook, redfish or trout; then head to Cabbage Key, six miles northwest of South Seas, along the Intracoastal Waterway. The island is a shell mound made from the Calusa Indians’ cast-off clam, oyster and conch shells. Don’t let the narrow moorings intimidate you. Just do as the dockmaster says, and you’ll make the most professional landing of your life.
- Insider Tip: Green water is usually deep enough to handle most boats. Brown water is a sign of shallow, weedy flats. Navigate cautiously until you understand the channel markers—and pick up a $20 navigation map sold at local marinas or tackle stores.
3. CRYSTAL RIVER
- Known For: On the Gulf of Mexico, boaters find both freshwater and saltwater routes in the Crystal River area—along with manatee sightings and a scalloping season. July 1 to Sept. 10 the shallow bars and flats at the mouth of the river become the epicenter of Florida’s recreational scallop harvest. Thousands of boaters arrive ready to dive for the mollusk.
- On a Recent Trip: I merged into the flotilla moving single file toward the scalloping grounds. When we cleared the mouth of the Crystal River, the line of boats dispersed, each to its own spot in the crowd of boats already surrounded by snorkelers. Idling into the outer edge of the fleet, our crew scanned for the ideal bottom—a marly mixture of sand, rock and grass. After dropping anchor and raising the “Diver Down” flag, everyone splashed in the tepid bay armed with mesh collection bags and propelled by swim fins. Soon we went bottoms up, fins in the air, hands on the bottom, grabbing the scalloped mollusks. Sometimes you fill a five-gallon bucket in an hour, and sometimes it takes all morning to find enough to make a good pasta dish. But in the process, we spotted manatee, dolphin, tiny octopuses, stone crabs and puffer fish.
- Where Boaters Stay: Crystal River’s Plantation Golf Resort & Spa sits on a canal that leads to King’s Bay, where the 72-degree water pretty much guarantees manatee sightings year-round. Guests can dock their private watercraft on the resort’s seawalls or rent a pontoon boat at the marina. In Homosassa Springs, the homey Last Resort offers stilt-house bungalows (park your boat trailer underneath). Plus, there’s a big L-shaped dock and boat ramp on the Homosassa River.
- Best Ramps: Riverhaven Marina on the Homosassa River charges $10 to launch and load. It’s a 40-minute ride to the scalloping grounds, and on the return trip, your boat gets a free freshwater flushing.
- Where to Rent a Boat: Pete’s Pier (352.795.3302) in Crystal River rents pontoons. Most of the marinas don’t allow customers to leave the river with their boats, so the best thing is to hire a guide or book your crew into a snorkel boat if scalloping is your goal.
- Gathering Spots: Boaters congregate at the mouth of the river over grassy flats. Ease into the crowd quietly, keep your distance and anchor so your drift doesn’t take you into the next guy.
- Coolest Boating Activity: Manatee watching (or better yet swimming with them) is a seasonal craze here. The enormous, docile mammals ply the river slowly, bobbing up and down for air. The best sightings are during cold snaps from October to March. But you can always find a year- round resident or two in King’s Bay. Book a pontoon trip with Bird’s Underwater Manatee Tours. Private boaters should remain a safe 50-foot distance from the endangered mammals—and don’t swim with them. To observe, cut your motor.
- Insider Tip: Pay careful attention to the navigation markers—everything outside them is unforgiving rock. No-wake zones are strictly enforced for the protection of delicate shorelines and the endangered manatee population. When piloting about the scalloping fleet, keep your eyes on the water for stray snorkelers.
4. FLORIDA KEYS
- Known For: Dangling off the southern tip of the peninsula, this archipelago seems to float on incredibly clear blue waters. The tropical setting will convince you to swap shoes for flip-flops and head out to sea.
- On a Recent Trip: I drifted spread-eagle eight feet above the isolated coral head, peering at it through my mask. Three pairs of telltale “wires” protruded from under it as I took a final breath and knifed down to the bottom. The wires were antennae attached to three enormous lobsters, all glaring at me, daring me to lay a glove on them. (You need gloves to protect your hands from their spiny exoskeletons and the encrusted caustic coral rock they inhabit.) I poked a long stick behind one, tickling its tail and forcing it out in the open where I placed a small hand net behind the lobster. You’d think they would swim frontward, flapping their tails behind, but they curl it under their belly, flapping furiously to escape—in-reverse. In this case, though, it zipped right into the net. As I reached for the crustacean, the optical illusion of the sea’s magnifying powers gave up its secret—the lobster was barely big enough to keep. Lobster divers are required to carry a measuring device that hooks on the horns between their eyes and extends to the back of their carapace. This one barely made the three-inch minimum length—but he was a keeper!
- Where Boaters Stay: Both Coral Lagoon Resort & Marina on Marathon Key and Dove Creek Lodge in Key Largo offer new waterfront condos and bungalows just minutes from lobster-rich waters. You can slip your boat right in front of your lodge, and freshwater pools make them the ideal home base.
- Best Ramps: One of the first public ramps you’ll come upon when entering the archipelago is in Harry Harris Park in Key Largo at mile marker 92.5. Launch from here and head south to discover the other islands.
- Where to Rent a Boat: Sailors who need a GPS navigation system in their rental boats will find them at Dove Creek Lodge, where runabouts and bay boats are available. Ask the staff members where the fish are biting; they know the hot spots.
- Gathering Spots: In Key West, idle off the city pier north of Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park to get a view of the sunset from the southernmost point in the United States. Sandbars along the inlet at Marathon Key, 45 miles east of Key West, draw boaters for impromptu splash fests.
- Coolest Boating Activity: The hunt for lobsters draws boaters in by the thousands. Keep your sense of humor and a friendly smile to stay on the good side of the many who compete for a choice lobstering rock. The mini season is always the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July, followed by the regular season, August through March.
- Insider Tip: Water depths change quickly in the Keys. Polarized sunglasses help scout the green deep water and avoid the brown shallow water. Smart boaters keep a chart on hand and even invest in a dual-personality GPS that offers highway turn-by-turn and sea-navigation charts (we like the Garmin GPSMap 640).
5. NEW SMYRNA
- Known For: The Sinking Islands—a nickname for the series of sandbars just inside the Ponce Inlet—turns into a broad, sandy flat, attracting boaters to this Atlantic outpost east of Orlando.
- On a Recent Trip: There’s a public ramp under Highway 44; from there I usually cruise north (you can go all the way to Jacksonville). No-wake zones make it slowgoing, but there’s no better way to get a feel for the life of the waterfront gentry. If I stay close by, I’ll turn south from the ramp and motor past Ponce Inlet and tie up at J.B.’s Fish Camp on the east side of the waterway, a great spot for a fish sandwich. With a cooler of drinks, a handful of CDs and a boat-load of friends, it’s pretty hard to beat the Sinking Islands for a day in the sun. We normally spot dolphin here and continue south of the inlet, past the Coast Guard Station, and follow the Indian River all the way to Oak Hill. Keep inside the channel so you don’t ground your boat in the shallows. If you have time, keep going south to Haulover Canal. You’ll spot Cape Canaveral and the launchpads.
- Where Boaters Stay: The elegant Old Florida Night Swan Intracoastal Bed & Breakfast has a pier for mooring your boat. Find it two miles south of the inlet and J.B.’s Fish Camp.
- Best Ramps: North Causeway Ramp on the mainland side of the causeway is a trailer-friendly spot to park and launch.
- Where to Rent a Boat: A pontoon, with its shallow draft and rugged structure, is great for these waters. Rent one at Backwater Marine Boat Rental (386.427.4514).
- Gathering Spots: At low tide you can barbecue and play bocce ball on the Sinking Islands. On the incoming tide, lawn chairs sit seat-deep in the warm waters, while the social scene motors on, and at high tide, you can wade in waters that reach your waist. It helps to have two anchors: Drop one from the stern on your approach, and after you push the bow up on the sandbar, walk one onto the bar and set it by hand.
- Coolest Boating Activity: Slowly cruise the Indian River, which runs north to south inside the barrier islands on the Atlantic Ocean. Keep a lookout for dolphins, manatees, eagles and ospreys. Just don’t feed them—it’s illegal.
- Insider Tip: Follow the channel markers on your way out (or into) the inlet. “Red Right Return” is the rule coming in. Green going out!
6. ST. JOHNS RIVER
- Known For: Traveling from Central to Northeast Florida, the St. Johns River is one of the few North American rivers that flows north. Ancient cypress trees trimmed in Spanish moss outline the river as it weaves through marshes and major lakes, traveling 310 miles across 12 counties. Besides amazing opportunities for spotting gators, herons, eagles and osprey, some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the nation is found here.
- On a Recent Trip: When I launch at the Lake Monroe Wayside Park in Sanford, I push downstream toward Jacksonville to the Wekiva River. Most of the Wekiva is designated no-wake, which is the ideal way to enjoy the wildlife that surrounds this crystalline botanical labyrinth. For a burger and live music, I’ll make port at Gators Riverside Grille (407.688.9700), which is practically right across the river from the mouth of the Wekiva. Another 45 minutes north by car, there’s a public landing in Astor. Turn left from the ramp and head into Lake George. Just a few miles on the left is one of Florida’s wonders: Silver Glen. Crystal-clear water pours from this spring. On weekends, boats moor side by side for hundreds of yards.
- Where Boaters Stay: Your best bet around here is to sleep surrounded by nature at the St. Johns River Campground. Log cabins come with screened-in porches and full kitchens.
- Best Ramps: Launch into Lake Monroe from Lake Monroe Wayside Park in Sanford. Another choice is to set off from Astor. Home to outdoorsmen, the town is nestled between the Ocala National Forest and the river. Find the ramp in the town’s center (just south of Highway 40 on County Road 40 at Butler Street); it’s near waterfront burger spots and convenient fuel.
- Where to Rent a Boat: Pontoons are available at South Moon Fishing Camp (386.749.2383). From here, you can pilot as south as Lake Dexter or as north as Silver Glen Springs.
- Gathering Spots: Florida’s translucent underground aquifer bubbles from the ground at Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area. The peaceful surroundings here warrant dropping the anchor, but the bonus is the snorkeling. Small caverns lure explorers who can hold their breath long enough.
- Coolest Boating Activity: Many boaters seek out waterfront camp-sites or anchor out on pontoons and camp afloat. Leave an anchor light on all night if you do; it’s the law.
- Insider Tip: Each body of water in Florida has alligators. Locals who know the risks swim confidently in open water during midday hours when the sun is out. If you choose to do so, watch for snouts and beady eyes at water level.
*For a rundown of the best places to launch a boat and all the info you need to do it right, please visit: floridabywater.com.