The Choctawhatchee River flows all the way from Alabama spanning some 170 miles, making it one of the longest rivers in Florida. The river has a large basin that covers approximately 5,350 square miles, including Choctawhatchee Bay, and even parts of the southernmost portions of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a significant source of fresh water for this region, feeding into Choctawhatchee Bay and ultimately flowing out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Choctaw Nation were some of the first people to inhabit this area, and the name Choctawhatchee roughly translates to River of the Choctaws. Even today, the Muscogee Nation of Florida still embraces the Choctawhatchee River Banks as their rightful home.
100 years ago, the Choctawhatchee River was vital to this region’s economy, supporting industries such as logging, turpentine, harvesting, and fishing. Today, the vast undeveloped river basin is ideal for boating, fishing, hunting, and wildlife expeditions.
Meet Captain Andy Coleman. Captain Andy’s been exploring and fishing this complex network of tributaries for 50 years. His company, Backwater Tours, specializes in introducing this special place to locals and visitors alike. Today he’s taking us to a very special place indeed, hidden far upriver. Strangely though, the best part of your voyage with Captain Andy might not even be the final destination, but the many colorful stories that you’ll no doubt hear along the way.
“I moved here in 1976. I came upon a river, the Wando River, just north of Charleston, South Carolina, and I always felt like I needed to be around a river. A lake won’t quite do it for me. I want to be able to sail around the world. Now, I’m probably not going to do it, but I want to have that ability,” Captain Andy said. “If you go up to the Northern Cities, 10 and 15, 20-story skyscrapers in 1900, they used wooden water tanks on top of them for the cooling and the water. And they were made out of deadhead cypress or first-growth cypress from here. The old culture on this river was to supply those boards for repairing that. Now Outten and I got into it, his nickname was Swamp Bunny, so he knew the river pretty damn good. And I bought brands from the heirs to the Timber Farm. For some rivers, I had all the brands. We did historical restoration. We made tongue groove floors. We did some of the first houses built in Rosemary Beach. We did all right with that.”
“Everybody down here says, ‘You want to be like it was in the old days,’ and this, that and the other. Well, when I got here, and I’m a pretty good fisherman, and a man just about couldn’t catch a 13-inch trout. Mullet fishermen would swing 1,000 yards of saying that out several times a day. And they’d catch all the mullet and all the bobcats. They were making a living like that. They hated the net ban, but it sure helped the fish. And then they can get a dollar and a half a pound for mullet instead of 15 cents,” Captain Andy explained. “That river has cleared up a lot since when I first gave it here, when it would rain up around Hartford, Alabama, close to Dothan, and then there, all that red clay would come down the rivers and the bay. The old people would say, “It looks like you can plow the bay, it looks so red and muddy. A lot of that’s been mitigated now. There are more paved roads. There’s no straight dumping into the river, and the river has improved greatly,” said Captain Andy.
There’s wildlife here, a lot of it. Bears, alligators, deer, bald eagles, osprey, bobcats, otters, and even endangered species such as the prehistoric-looking Gulf sturgeon.
“When I was first here, you didn’t see sturgeon,” revealed Captain Andy. “And then we started putting up signs that sturgeon are endangered species. And they got so plentiful they went from endangered species to a hazard to navigation in a year. The biggest alligator I’ve ever seen was killed by another alligator. That was big. I don’t know whether it is just a tougher alligator or not, but the biggest one I saw had a 100-pound chunk of meat cut out of his back. That was pretty. That scared me, and I wasn’t there close to when it happened.”
Continuing his incredible stories, Captain Andy further revealed, “One time, Outten and I was going down the river and Outten had me running the boat, little 12-foot wooden boat out of first growth cypress. It was a nice boat, a little 15-horse motor. And we going down the river and there’s a mink swimming in the river. And Outten and said, ‘You ever looked at one close up.’ And I said, ‘Well, no, Outten, I have not looked at a mink close up.’ He said, ‘Well, run me over there.’ And I got this dip net, which is for bream and bass. And that mink came out of the net like a wombat. It looked like a mongoose bite out. And they got super sharp teeth and they puncture one, bam, bam, bam. He’s screaming and hollering, ‘Help me, Andy, help me.’ I said, ‘One of us has got to not bleed because you bleeding pretty bad. I think I’m going to let you take care of that damn mink.’ And I sit back in and run the motor. Anyhow, the moral of that story is it takes you a lot longer to release a mink than it does to catch him. Don’t mess with minks. They don’t need our mess.”
You are likely to witness a variety of creatures and critters on this heart-of-darkness-like journey up the winding river, with each turn revealing a new story from Choctawhatchee’s past.
Sharing another of his captivating tales, Captain Andy recounted: “There was a doctor over across the intercoastal with a big house at the end of the bay. We come up there, ‘How you doing, doc?’ And he said, ‘I got this stuff figured out in the detail.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get me some goats and have them clear all this brush so I can see the topography of my land and see how I should develop it.’ He buys them. Best we could tell 300 goats and he turns them loose over there by the Bunker Cove. He did not figure in the alligator population. And we went back in there and Outten said it was worse than Vietnam. And he’d been to Vietnam. And there were goat hides and goat heads and goat skulls everywhere. As Outten said it was a massacre. And so, we always called it the Great Goat Massacre. And I’ve always figured that they had to call their cousin alligators from up the river to come down there and feast on those goats. And I believe that the lower Choctawhatchee tribe has a spiritual program that’s when the Lord fed them goats falling from heaven. And they had a big festival and they were the special alligators chosen by God to get really fat and big. And that’s my story and I’m pretty well sticking to it!”
As it’s said, this is a pretty wild place. But assuming you survive your epic journey churning upriver, there is a reward. And well, it’s a jaw-dropper. Choctawhatchee River is just one more extraordinary Walton County treasure explored by so few but appreciated by all that do.
Embarking on another tale from his treasure trove of experiences, Captain Andy began, “We had logged all year and we sitting. It’s drizzling rain. And we sitting around a potbelly stove and it’s warm. And Outten said, ‘I’m going to show you something.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to see nothing. I want to stay right here because it’s warm and it’s cold out there and it’s drizzling rain. And that river’s in the flood.’ But anyhow, we got in there, and every animal that was on that 6,500-acre island that didn’t swim to the other side of the river was on top of that a toll. There were big barrel hogs, there were deer, there’s one old scraggly bear, a bunch of raccoons, a bunch of otters. We started watching them and it was really strange because nobody was attacking anybody. And you could see as you watch, the deal was, boys, this is a major catastrophe and let’s have some reason here. And you could see, I believe I could feel it – the deal was if nobody ate anybody, this water would go down some time and we could get back off and go to our lives. And I thought the world was a divided place back then, and I’ve kept going back every time it floods like that, they do the same thing.”
“And it gives me great faith that something will work out. I think we have to realize we are in a bad mind right now. And don’t shoot one another and we’ll get through this. And I’m hopeful of that. And that’s what I love about that river. It gives me hope and gives me faith that it’ll work out.”
“Maybe not all of us will make it, but a lot of us will. And who knows, it might get better and better, you know.”
You might decide to explore the Choctawhatchee River for the jungle, the fishing or the wildlife or the clear water springs. Or maybe you just want to ride along to hear some great stories, but if you’re lucky enough, maybe, just maybe you’ll leave this adventure with a few stories of your own.