One of my favorite places for fishing, boating, and enjoying nature is Hontoon Island in the St. Johns River in Volusia County. Accessible only by private boat or the park ferry, the island offers something for everyone, including the fisherman, canoer, hiker or archaeologist. A walk through the park or a stop in the visitor center can tell one about those who inhabited the island hundreds of years ago, for example Native Americans.
The parking lot for the park’s ferry, which operates daily from 8 a.m. to right before sunset, is six miles west of Deland off State Road 44. The boat ride takes just a few minutes, but takes one into a world that seems little changed for hundreds of years. The 1,650-acre island has over three miles of hiking trails and cabins for rent for those who want to spend even more time fishing and swimming and exploring the river. One may learn in the museum there how the island once functioned as a center for commercial fishing.
As in many places along the river, fish caught near the island and in the river waters offshore include bass, bream, catfish, crappie, perch and sunfish. What I have particularly enjoyed is boating the side streams around Hontoon Island, where one can find a wide variety of fish hiding in the grasses along the edge of the water.
Nearby Lake Beresford, which is two miles long and a half-mile wide, is the site of the Stetson University Crew Boathouse, near which one can see boat crews racing along the waterway. South of Hontoon Island is the very popular Blue Spring State Park, which has the largest spring on the St. Johns River and is a designated manatee refuge.
The most amazing finds on the island by archaeologists include wooden effigies called totems. They include what early visitors called a large owl totem carved from a log, a smaller carving of a pelican, and one of an otter holding a fish. One can see replicas of the totems on the grounds, whereas the so-called owl totem is at Fort Caroline National Monument Museum near the mouth of the St. Johns River north of Jacksonville and near Mayport. The replica on Hontoon Island may represent the largest wooden effigy ever found in a North American archaeological site and the only totem of its kind in the eastern United States.
All in all, a visit to Hontoon Island can satisfy the angler in the family as well as those interested in one of the jewels of the St. Johns River. Whenever I walk the really old paths around the island, I can picture how Native Americans lived and fished there. The island still retains much of the charm of a pristine wilderness in the midst of the river that was the lifeblood of those who lived in Central Florida over a thousand years ago.
Kevin McCarthy, the award-winning author of “South Florida Waterways” (2013 – available at amazon.com for $7), can be reached at [email protected].