Hooked 

In South Walton County, nature gamely hangs on.

The redfish, like the folks who come to chase them, have figured out how to get comfortable around Florida's Choctawhatchee Bay. The fishermen relax off the water at fancy hotels, white sandy beaches, high-end restaurants, golf courses, and spas. The redfish, in the winter, come in from the ocean to spawn and dine in the warm, shallow waters of the bay.

The fact that the redfish found a warm spot under a state highway bridge takes a moment to get used to. One might long for the quiet, forested inlet of the magazines and imagination, and such longings might not jibe with the sound of traffic overhead or trolling as close to the concrete pilings as one can.

But the first time a 13-pound redfish attacks the lure and the captain swings the boat dramatically away from the bridge, the fight is on, and exuberant contact with nature has been made. Seeing the beast emerge from the waters confirms not only nature's bounty but also its toughness. A wave of construction and tourism in South Walton County has perhaps made peace and quiet a little tougher to find, but nature and its various entertainments have not been chased off entirely.

In fact, my guide for the day is a perfect example of the adjustments of nature -- in this case, human nature. He owns a small boat and contracts with the Sandestin resort. He used to live in Panama City with his family, and now, like many of the locals around Fort Walton, he works for the tourist industry and lives across the bay, in cheaper hotels. He considers it a good life, cruising around chasing big fish and the occasional tourist's daughter, and one doesn't feel disposed to argue with him -- even as he's tying on another spinner under the shadow of State Route 293.

Some 25,000 acres, or about 40 percent of South Walton County, is divided into parks with hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, and kayaking opportunities. Seventeen lakes dot the area. More than half a dozen endangered species inhabit the forests, streams, and beaches, including alligators, sea turtles, and snowy plovers.

While some (including myself, at times) might call it a marketing-oriented effort to distinguish themselves from nearby wackfests like Destin and Panama City, the truth is, the people of South Walton have made a concerted effort to save as much of this nature as they can. The local Tourist Development Council is the only one in Florida to engage a coastal scientist full-time. A volunteer program protects nesting turtles in the summer. A state-appointed board developed a plan to manage growth, set building codes, and engage in restoration projects like replanting native sea oats, which stabilize the native sand dunes.

So even as developments spring up wherever they can, there remain retreats such as Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, with more than 1,100 acres of pristine coastal vegetation and Western Lake to paddle around on. Topsail Hill State Preserve is another 1,600 acres with more than three miles of walk-in-only beaches. Point Washington State Forest has nearly 20 miles of hiking trails through forest, prairie, beach, and swamp.

Coming back to the harbor at the end of the day, my guide and I decide to cast for fish along the docks. Apparently little redfish like to hide under the docks and eat shrimp, so we baited our hooks with live shrimp. We didn't catch a thing. And we didn't care.

In one direction, I could see the towers of Sandestin's hotels and condos, and I could just make out the sound from the dueling pianos at the Jimmy Buffet-style bar in The Village.

But looking the other way, I saw the sun setting over the bay, and with the boat gently bobbing, a cool breeze coming off the ocean, and the promise of a hungry redfish, I let out a sigh and cast into nature again.

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