I guess it started a few years back when I just wasn’t excited about winter anymore. I remember the younger version of me, the guy that used to watch the winter radar and cheer on the storms that moved east across the Snake River Plain to deliver snow by the feet to my little corner of the world.
This was the guy who happily donned layers of fleece, Neoprene waders, heavy jackets and gloves and hit the river, even when one of those storms was in the forecast. If I wanted to fish, this was the routine. And, I knew, we paid for our glorious eastern Idaho summers with winters that often compared, at least on the thermometer, to more celebrated frigid locales, like Anchorage or Dead Horse.
But I got older. My back hurt after I took a tumble while trying to boulder-hop a small trout stream in my 30s. And then, as years passed, it hurt all the time. And then, three years ago, it all came to a head, and I went under the knife. The daily pain is blessedly gone, but, it turns out, so is the desire to bundle up and laugh into the face of a blizzard and fish anyway. Today, I can feel a storm coming in my fused and screwed back. And, when the snow flies, I hibernate — I tie flies. I might drink more than I should. I just wait it out and improperly treat a sometimes-acute case of seasonal affective disorder.
When I can, though, I travel to places where the snow doesn’t fly so often. Places where I don’t need coats or gloves. Or socks.
I leave my beloved trout at home knowing they’ll be there when I return. In the last 20 years or so, I’ve chased everything from redfish to bonefish. I’ve hooked up with tarpon and jungle perch, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel and permit. A few years back, I put a small skiff on the skinny, black waters of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and tangled with the unsung bowfin, a native prehistoric ambush predator that fly rodders in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard have largely ignored.
The bowfin, as it turns out, was my motivation to seek out somewhere else to spend the winter. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this particular fish — a swamp creature that’s likely so undervalued by anglers because folks haven’t figured out a palatable use for it — is my angling muse. That’s an overstatement. Rather, it was the wakeup call one late March morning as I motored quietly among the cypress and the moss and the alligators.
There I was, in a truly wild place, casting gaudy, bright yellow streamers to big fish that just crushed the hell out of my flies. At home, it was snowing. And it would snow again, off and on, for the next six weeks or so. I relished the slight sunburn I got on the swamp that week in south Georgia and north Florida. I showed off my flip flop tan lines to my friends when I got home.
And I wanted more. Not just a week here or a week there. I wanted to find a place where I didn’t have to sprinkle ice melt on the sidewalk just to make it to the truck. I wanted to be someplace, even semi-permanent, where being outside in the winter wasn’t synonymous with my nostrils freezing shut.
And, as of now, I’m a north Florida land baron. I own four acres of wooded, high-and-dry rural land with ample public access to three blackwater rivers and more than two dozen natural springs that feed the rivers in the Suwannee basin. In time, I’ll have a house and some room to roam when the snow flies in Idaho. I’ll be able to fish without socks in months that have Rs in them. I’ll be able to go outside. And, while it wasn’t easy, it was doable.
If you’re like me, and you’re ready to become the snowbird you’ve always ridiculed, here’s a primer.
Pick your spot
Yes, the big bowfin of the Okefenokee provided the motivation, but I really didn’t know where I wanted to end up when the icy grip of winter tightened on my fragile psyche. The low country in north-central Florida offered a few things I was after — mild winter weather, lots of water and excellent fishing (and not just for bowfin, mind you — the land I now own comes with a partial ownership stake in a modest bass lake). But a lot of places sport these benefits. It’s up to you to figure out what makes your angling heart beat.
For me, it was all about the sweet spot, the middle of the Venn diagram where fishing, climate, access and affordability all converged. And the first three were easy — there are lots of warm-in-the-winter (or warm-ish) places in the South where the fishing’s good and public access to rivers and lakes is plenty. Finding the right price point? That was tricky, and it took me the better part of two years to hone in on the right location.
Do your research
If you’re a trout angler (or any angler who dreads the next Arctic blast after Halloween) who wants to find a fishy place to spend the crappy months, spend some time getting to know the Zillow platform and look around. Believe it or not, there are affordable (and I realize that “affordable” is a relative term these days) properties on the market right now, but you have to balance out the price point with other factors that come with risk.
Well, when I was sleuthing out the perfect winter hideout, I realized that, unless I just rented property for half the year (which isn’t what I wanted to do — part of the appeal, at least to me, was the generally dependable investment that real estate provides), I needed to understand what I’d be up against all year long, not just the four or five months when I’d be there. I had to consider things like hurricane frequency, flooding, freezing and other acts of God. There are other factors, too, that ought to be considered, like the community in which your chosen snowbird get-away is located, local politics, crime rates, the cost of living, access to amenities like good restaurants, a nice-sized city, health care, etc
I wish it was as easy as just finding good fishing. It’s just not.
Know what you want (and be willing to change your mind)
When I first started looking for a place to go to escape the frequent below-zero January and February days (and that dreaded “feels like” portion of the forecast — your weather app is nice enough to point out that it’s minus-12 outside, but, with humidity and wind, it’s also kind enough to tell you that it “feels like” minus-24), I was actually considering a two-bedroom condo on the south Texas coast. Prices were reasonable. I was familiar with the fishing and confident I could enjoy some success once I got it dialed in.
But, not one to be satisfied with just one or two portions of the Venn diagram coming together nicely, I kept looking. At one point, I was “this close” to making an offer on a park model mobile home on a Laguna Madre canal. And then a hurricane blew in, and I realized that living in even a well-built modular home right on the water was not a choice I wanted to make. Insurance rates in Idaho are cheap. In a storm zone? Not so much.
So I kept looking. And then the real estate market went nuts in Cameron County — that park model with the nice little dock for my kayak went from $85,000 to $145,000. Now, in that same little stretch of mobile-home paradise, a 2,000-square-foot patch of bare land without access to the water is well over $100,000. The condos I first started looking at? Well out of reach for a “second home,” and the homeowners association forbade the use of the condos for short-term rentals (again … research!).
So, I punted on Texas. It’s OK. I can’t stand Ted Cruz anyway.
Pull the trigger
Eventually, after fits and starts and hours of scrolling and pinching my way across the Gulf Coast on my phone, I found what I was after — and what I could afford. Bare land with the potential for a modular home (or two — I eventually bought two adjacent lots) that can serve as both a winter retreat and, when I’m not working from home and chasing bass and bowfin in rural north Florida, a potential asset on the short-term rental market. The idea of the place helping pay for itself was — and still is — huge.
But I had to put in the time and change not just my mind, but the location. And not just once. I went from coastal Texas to the shores of Lake Seminole to rural Mississippi to the outskirts of Savannah. There were a few close calls. But in January, after noticing yet another not-so-subtle uptick in real estate prices, I bought two acres of high-and-dry land in far northern Florida. And a couple months later, I bought the neighboring two-acre lot when it came up for sale. Now, with a down payment on a modular home officially out of my savings account, I’m that much closer to winters spent outside, chilling beneath live oaks draped in Spanish moss instead of winter spent bundled up inside, desperately clutching a bottle of Irish whiskey and watching calendar slowly creep along.
And yes, the modular choice was a tough one. But again … research. Today’s modulars are built to exacting standards and, in Florida, they must be built to withstand the winds that come with named storms that push ashore in the summer and fall. I also deliberately did not choose a location near the coast — being 100 miles or so from the beach puts a little buffer space between my house and the next Category 3 storm. Also, the home can be ready in half the time when compared to a “stick built” house — by the time Florida and Florida State play next November, the house, which is ideally situated about halfway between Gainesville and Tallahassee, will be an oasis for football fans (shameless plug — if you need a place to stay before and after the game, this place will be perfect!).
Final lesson: It’s one thing to dream about escaping the cold and finding someplace that’s warm and inviting and fishy. But doing it is something entirely different. It can be scary, taking on additional financial obligations, even if your investment can offset those obligations (or, with some luck, actually make some money!). You just need to decide. Are you a dreamer? Or a doer.
If you’re going to do it, do it. I did a lot of research into the regional real estate market. I read forecasts and dove into the history of the market. Finally, I had to block out all the noise. I made the offer, sent the money and invested. And that’s where my head is. It’s an investment, both in terms of my personal finances and in my mental health. It’ll get me out of the snow, and on the water, fly rod in hand.
I’ll never really leave Idaho. For a lot of years, I was a vagabond. It took me in some 25 years ago and it’s taken pretty good care of me since. But I’m ready for a winter break that actually lasts the winter. So I found a fishing retreat worthy of a snowbird.
And I’m getting ready to fly south.