By Paul MacInnis
Where else can you combine bass fishing, wild monkeys, and a 400 year old Spanish rowboat all in one vacation? Back in August, my daughter Anna and I joined several other members of the outdoor media at the Ocala Hilton for the Florida Outdoor Writers Association annual conference. Our hosts, the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau, gave us four days to sample the region’s best outdoor recreation. Four days was not nearly enough.
The first adventure for Anna and I was a canoe trip down the Juniper Run which is listed as one of the 14 best places to canoe and kayak in America by the National Forrest Foundation. The seven mile run takes four to five hours and starts at Juniper Springs Recreation Area (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/ocala/recarea/?recid=34064). We rented a canoe at the park which includes a shuttle service back to your car. The run certainly lives up to its billing. The crystal clear creek, with its stunning white sand bottom, winds its way past towering cypress trees, through dense, jungle like forest and verdant prairies. It is definitely not a trip for novice paddlers with swift currents, downed trees, narrow twists and turns and even a rollicking stretch of shoals near the end. They take great pains in keeping the river litter free and the Juniper Run is one of those exceptionally rare destinations where you can paddle for miles without seeing a single sign of human activity.
Next we visited Silver Springs State Park (https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Silver-Springs), touted as Florida’s oldest tourist attraction and one of the largest artesian springs in the world. We took a cruise on the iconic glass bottom boats, a must for anybody’s bucket list. Silver Springs is actually a collection of several springs and the glass bottom boat tour takes you to many of them while your boat captain entertains you with stories of the rich history of the area and the many movies and television shows that have been filmed in the springs. One spring called Spanish Springs contains the remains of an ancient Spanish rowboat, its cedar planks still well preserved after over 400 years under water.
We returned to Silver Springs to explore the beautiful Silver River by canoe. Our quest was to find some of the estimated 200 wild rhesus macaque monkeys that inhabit the area. We found them about a quarter mile downstream from the main springs. Unfortunately a lot of people feed the monkeys so they will boldly gather along the shore in anticipation of a handout. They are certainly entertaining to watch, but if you go to see the monkeys, I caution you to keep your distance as they sometimes get brazen and aggressive. If you happened to be bit or scratched by one seek medical attention because many of these monkeys carry the Herpes B virus which can be lethal in humans if left untreated.
On the third day of our trip Captain Tom Van Horn and I met up with local bass pro Jim Smith at the Buck N Bass Sports Center (https://bucknbasssports.com/). We launched Smith’s boat at the Salt Springs Run Marina & Landing. Mid-August is probably not a prime time to go bass fishing in central Florida, but Smith kept us on fish. Van Horn used a D.O.A. four inch C.A.L. jerk bait and I fished a Rapala Original Floating Minnow. Although we caught nothing particularly big, numbers were good for both of us and Smith, a retired firefighter with many interesting stories, made for a fun trip even if the fishing wasn’t on fire.
For the final day of our Ocala adventure Anna wanted to float tube down the Rainbow River. We rented tubes from KP Hole (https://www.kphole.com/) a Marion County Park. The rental included a return shuttle back to the park from a take-out point 3.3 miles downstream at the 484 bridge in Dunnellon. The float takes about four hours to complete. We were there on a Saturday and the whole river took on a party like atmosphere. Families and friends clustered together in little floating armadas. Kids snorkeled (make sure to display a diver down flag) while adults drifted nearby. Many folks brought coolers in their own floats and turned the trip into a floating picnic. I don’t think I need to tell you the scenery along the Rainbow River is gorgeous, but I couldn’t help but look down into the water most of the time. There are a lot of fish in that river, especially bass and I saw one that was enormous. Next time I float the Rainbow River it will be from my kayak with a fishing rod.
Anna and I barely scratched the surface of all the things to do around Ocala. There are horse farms, springs, mountain biking, zip lining, a cool drag racing museum and more. At only two hours from the Space Coast, Ocala makes for a nice destination for a weekend getaway. For more information about things to do around Ocala visit http://www.ocalamarion.com/.
By Paul MacInnis