Lunch with the Riverman
Homosassa Guide Shares An "Old Florida" TraditionArticle by David A. Brown
A fourth-generation Homosassa guide, Capt. William Toney says he knows the river like the back of his hand.
I recently invited a couple of buddies to lunch and it’s safe to assume they’ll not soon forget this one. The grub was neither fancy, nor expensive, but those are feeble qualifiers for something memorable.
Indeed, ours was a very special meal with a colorful individual – Capt. William Toney, a Homosassa, Fla., fishing guide and a man whose life not only revolves around, but inextricably coexists with the Homosassa River.
The day’s objective: Catch a bunch of speckled trout and then cook them on one of the river’s many desolate islands. Joined by longtime friend Tom Loughlin and my daughter’s main dude, Matt Gibney, we launched from MacRae’s Marina on the Homosassa’s north shore around 8 a.m. By noon, we were well into what I’m certain was the freshest seafood meal anyone in the state had on that day. Known simply as a “shore lunch,” this al fresco dining experience is perfectly suited for the Homosassa’s natural splendor and “Old Florida” ambiance.
Capt. William Toney holds a speckled trout, the featured entre in his Homosassa shore lunch.
A relatively narrow artery, this Citrus County river rambles some nine miles from its 45-foot-deep first magnitude spring to the Gulf of Mexico. Its course traverses a couple miles of residential and commercial waterfront property, but west of the county boat ramp, buildings become fewer and the river’s latter half winds through a labyrinth of rocky islands and shell banks sprouting pines, oaks, cabbage palms and low brush.
If you like wildlife, you’ll love the Homosassa’s assortment of small game and diverse bird species. Maybe a mile from our launch site, Toney stopped at a small island outside the main channel and pointed out several pairs of nesting herons, along with multiple groups of yearling cormorants sticking close to home. Dolphin sightings are nearly an assumption here, and while we watched a pod chasing mullet, Toney explained one of the thrills of running the river nearly every day.
A plank of plywood serves as a cutting board to filet the fish.
“I’ve noticed that these dolphins have figured out a strategy for catching mullet,” he said. “They’ll chase them around an island until they get them going (frantically) and then the dolphins will reverse their direction, so the confused mullet run right into them.”
Now, you can learn a lot about a man’s interests while chatting over a casual meal – especially one prepared on a tiny limestone island about the size of a basketball court. We heard tales of everything from scalloping over the shallow grass flats at the river’s mouth to collecting and cooking swamp cabbage and the commercial fishing boats that family members had built. Most enjoyably, we saw firsthand how Toney carries on a local custom with decades of briny tradition.
A River Runs Through Him
A fourth-generation Homosassa guide, Toney never tires of seeing what he’s seen the most. “Over my lifetime of growing up on the river, I’m in love with it. I know it like the back of my hand and you’re always comfortable with what you know.”
Of course, knowing the Homosassa River means recognizing and respecting the ever-present hazards of its rocky bottom. A well-marked channel makes cautious navigation completely safe, but drifting even a foot past the designated lane can spell disaster in certain spots.
Examples? At Marker 58, the channel passes so precisely between unforgiving limestone edges it’s called “Hell’s Gate.” And take a look at the Riverhaven Marina lawn – those three palm trees are made entirely from propellers salvaged from the Homosassa’s brutal bottom.
“Cruising west on the Homosassa you really have to watch where you’re going,” Toney said. “The channel is marked, but there are some new buoys in the river that are anchored that tend to walk. When you have the big crab boats coming in and the wake of (recreational) boaters on the weekend, the markers will not be exactly where they need to be.
“Anywhere you’re not sure of when you come visit our area, slow down and take your time. You’ll find the rocks the ‘easy’ way and not the fast way.”
Even beyond the river’s western terminus, rocky concerns persist. The coastal shallows lay strewn with random limestone outcroppings that demand respect, especially at low tide. However, many of these structures attract game fish such as trout and redfish on the shallow stuff, while cobia, grouper, sea bass and mackerel haunt the 10- to 15-foot range.
Toney works both depth zones, but our day found us dodging a 15-knot wind by fishing a shallow bay inside the river. Drifting broad flats, we fished jig-and-cork rigs baited with plastic shad tails and soft stick baits. The rig comprises a wire stem with a float and rattle beads in the center and swivels on either end. Toney affixes his main line leader to the top swivel and ties another leader dangling the jig below.
The idea was to first attract trout audibly and then close the deal with a visual display. Each time you jerk the rig, the cork chugs, the beads rattle and that sounds a lot like a trout crashing something at the surface. Envious and ever competitive, other trout instinctively investigate one another’s feedings, so those that responded to the chugging sounds found faux prey hopping vulnerably below.
Most of our bites came over the darker strips of bottom where sea grass grew in dense meadows. This habitat harbors countless baitfish, crustaceans and invertebrates, so finding hungry trout patrolling this briny buffet was no surprise. On higher tides, Toney finds similar success by easing up to the bay’s dominant rock bars.
Hook It And Cook It
Around 11:30, we iced our eighth keeper trout and Toney said it was time for lunch. Homosassa guides have access to privately-owned islands with docks, cleaning stations and picnic tables that make for comfortable dining. This day, Toney opted for a little piece of paradise where a friend was building elevated lodging platforms to complement the covered picnic table where we’d enjoy our fish.
Preparing food outdoors requires some basic coordination and, as Toney notes, it all comes down to awareness of your process. “If you have everything organized before you start frying, you’ll keep your grease at the right temperature. If you get sidetracked, your grease will get too hot and you’ll burn your food. With a shore lunch, you’re on limited supply so if you burn your grease, that may be it.”
Toney starts by stirring up a bowl of hush puppy mix while vegetable oil heats in his grandfather’s cast iron skillet atop the Coleman camp stove his parents gave him in high school. Next, he’ll season his oil by frying a pound of bacon, which also provides an appetizer. A melon scoop keeps hush puppies uniform in size and shape.
And that brings us to the Homosassa tradition that Toney demonstrates for all of his shore lunch guests: Breaking a hush puppy in half, he slathers on a generous layer of guava jelly, tops it with a piece of crispy bacon and pops the whole deal in his mouth.
“I know you’re not supposed to talk with your mouth full, but this is delicious,” he mumbled.
Toney uses House Autrey Fish Breader with a few shakes of black pepper. He likes to salt his fillets prior to tossing them in the mix and dropping them into the hot oil. Cooking whole filets makes for easier handling, but with larger trout, or say, a redfish, he’ll cut filets into chunks about two inches wide for even cooking. Coleslaw, along with baked beans, seasoned with sautéed onion, bacon and a dash of hot sauce, rounded out one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
Much To See
After our lunch, Toney took us to another small island where he quickly located an arrowhead and several pieces of primitive pottery, relics of the prehistoric Indian culture that thrived on the river’s finned, feathered and furry resources. Tides constantly scour the island outskirts, he said, so each day is like a new excavation.
Earlier in the year, Matt had joined my family on another William Toney trip – this one to see the manatees that pack themselves into the Homosassa’s freshwater spring headwaters each winter. Wisely keeping his distance from the dive boats that allow folks to swim with these gentle giants, Toney put us in perfect position to enjoy multiple intimate manatee encounters – several surfaced at boatside and leisurely floated on their backs while all aboard rubbed their bellies and scratched their blubbery heads.
One point of interest on the Homosassa River is Monkey Island, complete with lighthouse.
Complementing any trip out of MacRae’s is an upriver idle to Monkey Island. Managed by nearby Riverside Resort, this rocky refuge complete with an elevated shelter, shade trees and its own lighthouse is home to five spider monkeys who’ll often come right to the water’s edge and gawk at those who gawk at them.
First time I met Toney, he patiently indulged my ecotour request and put me in position to photograph a variety of local avian population from red-wing blackbirds to bald eagles. Afterward, we visited one of the river’s historic Indian mounds and poked our way through a forested island to find the opening to a long-abandoned well site.
I’ve spent enough time with this man of the water to know three things to a certainty: First, he truly does know the Homosassa River well enough to run its treacherous course in the dark. Second, a lifetime of working these waters hasn’t dimmed the river’s halo for him. He still gets a kick out of pointing out local wildlife and picking through shells for historic fragments. But most importantly, Capt. William Toney deeply appreciates the opportunity of introducing a new visitor to his beloved river.
Capt. William Toney enjoys pointing out and slowing down to observe wildlife.
“There are so many people who come to Homosassa and enjoy it the way I see it and love it also,” he said. “For me, taking people out to see special places like a cool island with a shell beach or an old Indian mound and doing shore lunches, or putting them on big fish, that’s what I really enjoy about where I live and where I’m from.”