North Florida Paddling
The Withlacoochee can be found on maps in the extreme southern section of Sumter County as a tiny stream wandering through the Withlacoochee Swamp. It becomes a clearly defined waterway after leaving Green Swamp in the Richloam Wildlife Management Area of the Withlacoochee State Forest, and flows north to the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.
The diversity of the vegetation and wildlife is a reflection of the constantly changing terrain of the river. Beginning in cypress and hardwood swamp, it progresses through upland hardwood and pine forests, past cypress ponds, palmetto hammocks and landscaped backyards. The Tsala Apopka Lake region is a miniature. Everglades with an abundance of birds and reptiles, hammocks of water weeds, and multi-faceted channels. Fishing is excellent along the river but game animals are now scarce except in isolated pockets. Certain sections of the river are easily accessible and are heavily populated during the warm months of the year. Other sections appear to have been abandoned to an occasional air boat and the canoeist.
Coulter Hammock Recreation Area to State Road 50 (A-B): 12 miles
Counties: Pasco, Hernando
Access: From Lacoochee, travel east on S.R. 575. Turn south on Lacoochee Park road and continue for about two miles to the entrance to the state forest. Continue for less than one mile to the river.
Trip Description: For the first two miles, the river flows through a remote and undeveloped part of the state forest. At S.R. 575 there is a rough access on the right bank above the bridge and just below the bridge on the left bank is a canoe livery.
The river is usually shallow in this area, about 35 feet wide with a slow to moderate current. The banks vary from 6 to 15 feet high and there are a number of small, rocky shoals across the river. There are houses scattered along this section and campsites are scarce. The canoe camper should watch carefully for the few small sandbars that will accommodate one or two tents.
There is a railroad trestle shortly below S.R. 575 and there are accesses at U.S. 301 and at U.S. 98. From U.S. 98 north to S.R. 50, U.S. 98 is seldom more than one mile from the river on the right side.
State Road 50 to Silver Lake (B-C): 7 miles
Access: From Brooksville, travel 12 miles east on S.R. 50 to the river. The access is on the southwest-side of the bridge.
Trip Description: There are a number of houses during the first mile below S.R. 50, but they decrease in frequency as the river enters the Croom Wildlife Management Area of the state forest. The banks began to be lower and the frequency of sandbars increases. The banks are primarily covered with highland hardwoods and pine forest, but some small swampy areas begin to occur as well. The river continues to be shallow with little current. There are three large state forest campgrounds in the vicinity of Silver Lake with electricity, running water, and showers. The Little Withlacoochee enters from the east just before reaching Silver Lake and as a result, the river widens to 50 to 75 feet.
Silver Lake to State Road 476 (C-D): 9 miles
Counties: Hernando, Sumter
Access: From Brooksville, travel east on S.R. 50 for about eight miles. Pass under Interstate 75 then one mile further to the first paved road to the left, a state forest road. Continue on this road for about three miles to just before reaching the interstate again. Turn right on a graded road that parallels the interstate that leads to a boat ramp on the river at Silver Lake.
Trip Description: Silver Lake is three-quarters of a mile long and one-half mile wide. Interstate 75 is visible as soon as one enters the lake and since the river flows under the interstate, one should paddle toward it. The water is very shallow at the dual bridges but deepens as the river narrows to about 40 feet wide on the other side. The banks are three to four feet high with numerous campsites under the trees. The color of the river darkens in this area and it is said to be a good section for fishing. After reaching Hog Island, the banks become lower. The river splits around Hog Island, but is navigable either way. Houses become evident again just south of S.R. 476, the water becomes shallow and choked with water weeds, and the river widens to 150 feet.
State Road 476 to State Road 48 (D-E): 9 miles
Access: From Brooksville, travel north on S.R. 45 (U.S. 41) for about five miles to the intersection of S.R. 476. Turn right and continue for four miles to the river. The access is on the southeast side of the bridge.
Trip Description: One-half mile below this access the river divides with the left channel leading to Nobelton Park. The crossing of the old Fort King road is on the south side of the river, just east of Nobelton Park. The fort, built in 1837, was named for Major Francis Langhorne Dade. It was an observation post and supply depot for troops stationed in the area. On March 6, 1837, the Seminole Indian leaders, Jumper and Alligator, met with General Thomas Jessup to sign a treaty that ended one of the longest and bloodiest Indian wars in American history.
North of Nobelton the river undergoes a drastic change as it enters a series of large lakes. These lakes are shallow and clogged with water weeds, but have abundant bird life and numerous alligators. On the higher ground, a few houses are scattered but it is a reasonably remote section.
State Road 48 to State Road 44 (E-F): 15 miles
Counties: Sumter, Citrus, Hernando
Access: From Brooksville, travel north on S.R. 45 for about eight miles to the intersection with S.R. 48. Turn right and continue to the river. The access is on the southeast side of the bridge.
Trip Description: This section of the Withlacoochee flows through the Tsala Apopka Lake region, a series of lakes and swamps that continues for some 18 miles. There is seldom any current to follow; the river often wanders off among small channels, islands, and hammocks. It is one of the most beautiful and the most remote part of this river. The number and variety of bird life is astonishing and the cypress-ringed lakes and swampy hammocks provide a true wilderness experience. Campsites are scarce and road access to the river is very limited.
Just north of S.R. 48, the river enters Bonnet Lake which is over a mile long. There is a private landing on the southwest side of the lake and at the northwest end a boat rental and camp appropriately named Trail's End. The river deepens and is 50 to 75 feet wide when it leaves the lake. A mile north of Bonnet Lake is Board Island. Reputed to be the last highground available as a campsite for many miles. Watch carefully for what looks like a small creek entering from river left to access the Island.
After leaving Board Island, the river turns east and opens into a small lake with an arm reaching to the south. About one-third of the way down this arm on the east bank is a shack on pilings and a concrete boat ramp. There are about four acres of highground here with huge oaks and some old orange trees. This property is now in private ownership and has no public access by road. Shell Island is not an island surrounded by water, but a large swamp known as The Wanderings. Persons with permission to cross private property use this area for camping and fishing.
After leaving this small lake, the river widens to 150 to 200 feet with a meandering channel about 30 feet wide that is not choked by weeds. Another mile of paddling reveals a larger lake with an arm to the south where Jumper Creek enters the river. This creek is canoeable but originates in swamp and has no access. Past Jumper Creek, the stream turns north and one should stay on the east side of the three small islands in the river. Soon, a pasture appears on the west side that continues for over one mile and there are occasional canals and rough tracks that indicate that houses may be nearby although they are not visible from the river. Soon another large, shallow lake begins and the overflow from Lake Panasoffkee comes in from the east. The channel is less clear as the river is overgrown with water weeds. Going west, the lake narrows and some houses are visible, set well back from the water line. This wide, shallow area used to be the site of the Ruff Wynsong Dam and Navigation Lock. It has been completely removed and presents no hazard to canoeists.
There are a number of houses and a small community at this site. The shallow lake continues for another two and one-half miles. This is one of the shallowest sections of the entire river and during very dry weather it may be necessary to walk the canoe in some areas.
State Road 44 to State Road 200 (F-G): 16 miles
Counties: Citrus, Sumter
Access: From Inverness, travel six and one-half miles due east on S.R. 44. The access is on the southeast side of the bridge.
Trip Description: North of S.R. 44, the river becomes deeper and is 150 to 200 feet wide and lined with hardwood swamps. The river will occasionally narrow to 100 feet and there will be short stretches of high ground, but there is little current. Scattered homesites as well as small communities of riverside homes are evident all along this section, and campsites are few. There is a public access at the boat ramp off S.R. 581 with boat rentals and a store. Immediately north of S.R. 581, on the east bank is the entrance to the Gum Slough. This slough flows into the Withlacoochee from Gum Springs, about five miles to the northwest. Gum Springs are a group of at least seven individual springs located on private property and are not accessible to the public. Gum Slough has been fenced shortly above the point of its confluence with the river. This fence is currently the subject of litigation (1984).
The confluence of Gum Slough adds a little current to the river and it continues at about 100 feet wide for another mile. It then begins to divide around hardwood islands that are low and swampy. The canoeist can stay on the west side of these islands and enjoy a beautiful and remote hardwood swamp filled with wading birds, osprey and alligators, as well as very tall pond cypress trees.
As the swampy area decreases, houses begin to appear on the west side of the river and are scattered along at irregular intervals until S.R. 200 is sighted. There are very few campsites in this entire 16-mile section since the terrain that is not swampy tends to be posted private property. It is possible to find an occasional spot for one or two tents, but one should watch carefully, take advantage of a site when one is spotted, and not plan to camp a large group.
State Road 200 to U.S. 41 at Dunnellon (G-H): 15 miles
Counties: Citrus, Marion
Access: From Hernando, travel six and one-half miles north on S.R. 200 to the river. The access is from a wayside park and boat ramp on the northeast side of the bridge.
Trip Description: The modest current continues north of S.R. 200 and the banks are from 4 to 10 feet high, with houses scattered along the way. There are numerous campsites along this section, but they are obviously accessible by road and tend to be littered. The river is 75 to 100 feet wide and twists through gentle curves and high banks for about five miles before opening into a large swamp again. This wide swampy area, with water weeds and fingers of water reaching into cypress stands, is very beautiful and should be relished as one enters the final miles of the canoe trail.
At the northeast end of the swamp, small hills appear and the houses begin again. The Blue Run from Rainbow Springs enters from the north just one mile before reaching Dunnellon and the take-out.
Take-out (H): The take-out is located at the public wayside park in the town of Dunnellon. Below Dunnellon the Withlacoochee becomes Lake Rousseau, a man-made impoundment created by the dam at Inglis Lake. After leaving Lake Rousseau, it winds its way to the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown. The lower section of the river is highly developed and heavily used by large motorboats.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication