“Wild horses”

May 11, 2017

by Randy Reagor

Wild horses—and alligators—couldn’t keep me from cycling the Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail-to-Trail.

I’m sure you’ve seen the viral video of the horse stomping the alligator, right? Well, about two miles from that social media sensation my friend, Mike, and I began our journey near Payne’s Prairie State Park in Gainesville which would take us on a 16-mile, scenic bike trip to Hawthorne.

I’ve been biking for many years, so but I’d been looking forward to doing the trail since I did the first five miles from the Hawthorne end about 11 years ago. I wasn’t disappointed, especially since I had my reliable friend accompanying me. In fact, last summer I bought an extra mountain bike just for these occasions, since my outdoor companions either: 1) have lame bikes (that would be Mike). 2) live out of town. 3) or just cycle to humor me, so they shouldn’t have to spend several hundred dollars on one.

Borrowed bike, new bike, no bike, just go there, even in the middle of summer, because 90-95% of it is shaded, even at mid-day, although you might want to take it easy (if you’re well into middle-age like me) the first few miles because there are some serious hills and 90-degree turns from around Mile 2 to Mile 4. Since there are some intense cyclists on the trail going up to 30 mph make sure you stay to the right… always.

The trail passes through several swamps, grassy plains, pine forests, and over three wooden bridges, and you only have to cross one major highway. There’s also a couple small towns along the way that reminded us both of “Old Florida”, and if you don’t know what I mean, just picture The Yearling. Since we were taking our time it took us about two hours to reach the Hawthorne trailhead, located at the north end of the Lochloosa Wildlife Conservation Area.

On the way back I reminded Mike there were a couple stops we needed to make, a side trail that leads to a view of Alachua Lake and the La Chua Trail, where the horse/alligator battle occurred (there are also several non-paved trails that I plan to investigate next time). The paved trail to Alachua Lake, which is only about a mile, is well worth taking because the viewing platform offers an elevated view of most of Payne’s Prairie.

About two miles west we parked our bikes at the beginning of the La Chua Trail, and I was surprised with how many visitors there were—several were international judging by their accents. I assume the viral video spawned many new visitors for this area. When I visited this area 5 ½ years ago there was only about 30 people there, mostly bird watchers, and there was no raised platform around the Alachua Sink. On my previous visit I also ran down the trail by the sink and almost stepped on a water moccasin I didn’t see because of the high grass. However, now the area is sandy and you can see where you’re walking. There are also several signs warning about the wildlife there, which I’ve seen more frequently since the fatal alligator attack of a toddler at Disney last year.

The platform continues for about a ¼ mile, and when it ends you can continue walking on a sandy road with the creek feeding the sink on your left and the prairie on the right. In the water and on the banks I saw at least 40 alligators, with more likely hiding in the hundreds of lily pads. The largest alligator was about 10 feet long, about the same size as the one that got stomped on in the video, which made me wonder if it was the same reptile. Then, I found the area where the attack occurred. It was a part of the trail far from the water and where I doubt the wild horses see any alligators. Why the gator was on the trail at all is a mystery—since the creek embankment is about five-feet high. Alligators are notoriously lazy, so it had to go to a lot of trouble to get near the horses, and there was also no water on the other side of the road.

We walked for about another 10 minutes when we encountered three wild horses blocking the road, and since several tourists were on the other side of them we stopped so we wouldn’t scare them.

Being the pragmatist that he is, Mike said “We might as well head back.”

“Wild horses couldn’t drag me any farther,” I replied.

For more information about visiting the Gainesville area go to: www.visitgainesville.com or call ( 352) 374-5260.

Nature Coast Fishing for Youth program hosted this summer in Cedar Key

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is offering a free Nature Coast Fishing for Youth program in Cedar Key for youth between the ages of 5 and 15. Programs will be held every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., beginning June 6 and extending through July 27 (except for July 4), at the Senator George G. Kirkpatrick Marine Laboratory, 11350 SW 153rd Court. Advance registration is required; no walk-ins will be accepted.

All participants of the free program will learn fishing basics, the importance of habitats to fish species, proper fish handling and release techniques, and fish identification. Participants will spend time fishing on-site. An adult chaperone is required to attend the entire program with children age 8 and under. Youth and chaperones should bring their own lunch, sunscreen, hat and any personal fishing gear desired, although fishing gear will be provided for those who need it. Upon completing the program, participants will receive a rod and reel donated by Fish Florida.

For details and to pre-register, contact Hannah Healey at 352-543-1079 or Hannah.Healey@MyFWC.com.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Division of Marine Fisheries Management wants to hear from you. In an effort to keep stakeholders informed and to gather public input on upcoming issues, a new webpage has been created: MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments.

Keep track of items expected to be discussed by the Commission in future meetings and provide your thoughts on fishery management in state waters (shore to 3 nautical miles in the Atlantic and shore to 9 nautical miles in the Gulf) by visiting the new webpage.

Currently, staff are collecting comments on the statewide management of cobia, sheepshead and tripletail, as well as goliath grouper, flounder, spotted seatrout, trap fisheries and shrimp. Staff are also collecting comments on gray triggerfish and gag grouper in Gulf state waters. To comment, fill out the form at the bottom of the commenting page. Comments can also be emailed to Marine@MyFWC.com or submitted over the phone at 850-487-0554.

Have a question instead of a comment? Email Marine@MyFWC.com, call 850-487-0554 or send your question in via Ask FWC.

Several commercial and recreational changes to king mackerel management in Florida state and federal waters will take effect May 11. These changes are consistent with federal regulation changes that are effective the same day.

Approved changes include:

  • Setting the Gulf/Atlantic state waters management boundary line, which used to shift from the west coast during the summer season to the east coast during the winter season, to be at the Monroe/Miami-Dade county line year-round.
  • Increasing the recreational bag limit in Gulf state waters and Monroe County from two to three fish per person.
  • Clarifying that commercial harvesters taking king mackerel must adhere to federal commercial vessel limits when fishing in state waters.

For more on these changes, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater Fishing” and either “Recreational Regulations” or “Commercial Regulations,” and then “Mackerel, King.”

The 2017 Lionfish Challange incentive program starts May 20, but you can register today.

Visit http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/challenge/  to register in the commercial or recreational category.

Grouper fishing reopens May 1 in Atlantic, Monroe County waters

Anglers targeting grouper in Florida state and federal waters of the Atlantic, including state waters off Monroe County, will be able to take home some of their catch starting May 1, when the season for several species reopens to recreational and commercial harvest. The following species will reopen to harvest May 1: gag, black, red, yellowmouth and yellowfin grouper; scamp; red hind; rock hind; coney; and graysby.

The harvest of these species of grouper will remain open until Jan. 1, 2018. These species are closed annually from Jan. 1 through April 30 each year as a measure to ensure the long-term sustainability of Atlantic grouper species. State waters in the Atlantic are from shore to 3 nautical miles out.

Recreational anglers targeting these species may not take more than three groupers per person, per day. Within this three-fish limit, anglers may possess only one gag or black grouper (not both).

Dehooking tools must be aboard commercial and recreational vessels for use as needed to remove hooks from reef fish, including Atlantic grouper.

More information about grouper bag and size limits, gear restrictions and fishing seasons, including a map of the Atlantic and Gulf grouper fishing boundaries, is available online at MyFWC.com/Fishing; select “Saltwater Fishing” then “Recreational Regulations” and “Groupers.”

FWC discusses creating additional fishing opportunities for gag grouper in Gulf 4-county region 

At its April meeting in Tallahassee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discussed the future management of Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and approved a draft proposal to extend the recreational season in state waters off Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties.

State waters off of these four counties are currently open from April 1 through June 30, but FWC has received stakeholder requests for a longer season. Gulf state waters outside of that area and all Gulf federal waters are open June 1 through Dec. 31.

The Commission’s draft proposal would keep the current April 1 through June 30 season and add a fall open season from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. This proposal will be brought back before the Commission at the July meeting for a final public hearing.

To comment on proposed gag grouper management changes and more, visit MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments.

For more information or to view the presentations given at the Commission meeting, visit MyFWC.com/Commission and select “Commission Meetings” then click on the link below “Next Meeting.”

FWC approves 78-day recreational red snapper 2017 season in Gulf waters

At its April meeting in Tallahassee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) set the 2017 Gulf state waters recreational red snapper season.

The 78-day Gulf recreational red snapper season will be as follows:

  • Open Saturdays and Sundays in May starting the first Saturday in May.
  • Open daily starting the Saturday before Memorial Day (May 27) through Sunday following Independence Day (July 9).
  • Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in September and October, plus Labor Day (Sept. 4).

“We are once again able to provide and maintain fishing opportunities for Gulf recreational anglers and provide stakeholders with spring, summer and fall fishing options for this economically important species,” said Commissioner Chuck Roberts.

The federal seasons for private recreational anglers and federally-permitted charter boats and head boats in Gulf federal waters have not yet been announced by NOAA Fisheries.

Learn more about red snapper at MyFWC.com/Fishing by clicking on “Saltwater,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Snappers.”

For more information on these changes or to view the presentations given at the Commission meeting, visit MyFWC.com/Commission and select “Commission Meetings” then click on the link below “Next Meeting.”

At its April 20 meeting in Tallahassee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved closing Gulf state waters to recreational harvest of greater amberjack for the remainder of 2017, starting April 22. This is consistent with the amberjack closure in Gulf federal waters that went into effect March 24, 2017. Both state and federal waters will reopen Jan. 1, 2018.

“While there are not a lot of amberjack caught in state waters, this is a chance to take a step back and see what is happening with the fishery and help ensure future fishing opportunities,” said Commissioner Chuck Roberts.

These closures were put into place because NOAA Fisheries estimates that the annual federal recreational quota was met. The quota is the amount of fish that can be caught each year while maintaining a sustainable fishery. Closing state waters for the rest of 2017 will help minimize chances of a quota overage. Federal rules require that any harvest in excess of the amberjack quota must be deducted from the next year’s quota, which can result in a shortened federal season.

To learn more about greater amberjack, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater Fishing,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Amberjack.”

Families invited to free Outdoor Experience at Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center

Enjoy fun outdoor activities April 29 at the 2017 Outdoor Experience, a free family event hosted at the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center. The Outdoor Experience provides a safe environment, expert instruction, and gear and tackle so attendees of all ages can try activities such as archery, fishing and shooting sports stations. The event, hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Outdoor Experience also features hay rides, bounce houses and guest performances by nationally-known target shooters. World champion Randy Oitker will demonstrate his archery skills at 11 a.m. and world record holder Patrick Flanigan will showcase his shotgun shooting at 2 p.m. In addition, the FWC and its partners will host hands-on activities and educational programs about fish and wildlife conservation.

The Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center is in Jefferson County on U.S. 19 just north of Highway 27 (9194 S. Jefferson Highway in Lamont). Johnston’s Meat Market will be selling food and beverages during the event with a portion of the proceeds being donated to support the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network. Attendees also may bring their own snacks and drinks.

Advance event registration is not required. For more information about the Outdoor Experience, visit BTYCC.org.