When Winslow Homer first arrived in Homosassa, Fla., to fish in the winter of 1904, he wrote to his brother Arthur: “Delightful climate here about as cool as our September — Fishing the best in America so far as I can find.”
The artist would stay to paint some of his most luminous watercolors: of fishing along the junglelike banks of the Homosassa River; of black bass jumping from the water; and of the Shell Heap, an ancient refuse mound left by early Native Americans.
Homer worked in watercolor overseas and up North as well as in many parts of Florida and the Bahamas where he traveled to escape the harsh Maine winters. The Florida works had a fresh, light quality, quite different from the oil paintings for which the artist is still best known.
Homer, who died in 1910, made four trips to Florida between 1904 and 1909 and it was there he would paint some of his last watercolors: often works where the dense jungle quality of the shoreline played against the glistening waters.
But the trips to Homosassa, which sits on the West coast of Florida two hours north of Sarasota and about an hour north of Tampa, seemed to have offered not just the opportunity to paint and to fish, but to socialize with other devoted fishermen who had also discovered the small town. Among those who are said to have fished the Homosassa River were the former president Grover Cleveland and John Jacob Astor, the financier.
Though the medium of watercolor was not highly regarded in the early part of Homer’s life, after 1873 when the American Society of Painters in Water Color held an international exhibition of works by American and European artists, it helped give the medium visibility.
Homer seems to have developed a particular fondness for watercolors, telling the artist George Sheldon in a letter: “I prefer every time a picture composed and painted outdoors. This making studies and taking them home is only half right. You get composition, but you lose freshness.”
Sarah Burns, who collaborated with the author Patricia Junker on the book “Winslow Homer Artist and Angler,” said of Homer’s letter to Sheldon: “That was one of the rare occasions when Homer expressed his view about art and truth and reality.”
Today Homosassa is still a lure for fishermen who come hoping to catch trout, red drum and grouper among other kinds of fish. I made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Sarasota, past Tampa on long flat highways that seemed surprisingly uncrowded for Florida.
Decades ago, Homosassa was a mecca for tarpon fly fishing, as the sportswriter Monte Burke pointed out in “Lords of The Fly,” his book about that period. Mr. Burke, who has written on a variety of sports, wrote that some of the greatest tarpon fishermen congregated there in season, including Thomas Mellon Evans Jr., son of the famous financier, who spent virtually every May chasing the tarpon that migrated north up the coastline to Homosassa.
In fact, the biggest tarpon ever recorded on a fly rod was set in Homosassa by James Holland Jr., then a mere 25 years old, when he scored a 202 pound 8 ounce monster in 2001, Mr. Burke wrote. Today there are still tarpon fishermen casting for the fish but fewer tarpon visit Homosassa Bay than did historically.
The Homosassa river, about 8 miles long, runs west from Homosassa Springs to the Gulf of Mexico and as it moves inland it changes from salt water to fresh. The central life of the tiny town still centers on casual, laid-back hubs along the river, where a wealth of fishing boats pull in. One popular spot is MacRae’s, which includes a motel, restaurant, shop and busy boat dock where one is likely to see manatees playing in the water or a fisherman returning with a day’s catch of grouper. Captain Erica Toney, who runs Manatee Tours and More, says she frequently takes visitors on a pontoon boat for manatee excursions on the river or to snorkel for scallops in the gulf in season.
Pelicans are not shy about walking along the docks where veteran fishermen know how to slide a piece of fish down one of the birds’ long beaks without getting their hands cut off. Herons strut comfortably along, sliding into the water if a visitor gets too close.
Just adjacent to the marina is a sprawling white two-story house that once accommodated 14 guest rooms and was known as the Homosassa Inn; it is now the private residence of the MacRae family, owners of the motel and marina.
While it is clearly visible from the parking lot at the dock, it is not open to tourists. Still, Kathy Macrae is the guardian of the place and she invited me in and showed me a guest book where Winslow Homer was signed in for a week’s stay at $18 by Helen Willard, then the owner of the inn. During one visit, Homer hired a buggy and cart to get his luggage from the railroad station. He also employed a boat and guide to paddle as he drew and fished along the river where the water was particularly clear. Mrs. MacRae, who is in her 60s, explained that her grandparents bought the building from Mrs. Willard in 1915.
The immensity of the fish Homer sought made an impression on the great artist. In one letter to his dealer, M. Knoedler, he explained that in his watercolor of a bass jumping he had added a bottle in the water to help show the size of the fish. Today on a boat ride along the Homosassa from Macrae’s to the Gulf, one feels the same air of mystery looking at the deep-hued trees and brush that line the river banks. To get a good sense of the river, you can hire a pontoon boat from Ms. Toney or at several places along the Homosassa including Island Girl Cruises. (Ms. Toney can take six passengers and charges $40 for two hours. Island Girl can take 19 passengers and charges $25 for two hours.)
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Tiny Homosassa has no original Homers, but the local library does have a permanent exhibit of prints of some of his work. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York currently has an exhibition of close to 90 of his oils and watercolors called “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” on display that the critic Roberta Smith called “revelatory.”)
At least four Florida museums own watercolors by Homer. The Sam and Roberta Vickers family recently gave a major collection of Florida art works, including Homer’s “Foul Hooked Black Bass,” to the Harn Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The Norton Museum in Palm Beach as well as the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum in Daytona Beach and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, all have a Homer work.
Homosassa may not be a particularly well-known tourist destination, but it has produced its fair share of history beyond Homer’s fondness for the town. For one thing, it was in Homosassa that David Levy Yulee, the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, created a 5,100-acre sugar cane plantation worked by enslaved Africans.
Mr. Yulee was born in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, which later became part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. There was a small Jewish population there and his father was a Moroccan Jewish businessman who made his money in lumber. In the 1820s, the family emigrated to Florida where Mr. Yulee studied law in St. Augustine and became deeply involved in the railroad business. He segued into politics and in 1845 was elected as a Democrat to the Senate.
An aggressive supporter of the Confederacy, Mr. Yulee, who took on his father’s name after he was elected, lost his plantation during the Civil War. He was briefly imprisoned after the war at Fort Pulaski according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
In a short drive from the waterfront, one can visit the remnants of the sugar plantation and see the 40 foot masonry chimney, the iron gears and cane press. The plantation processed sugar cane into sugar, molasses and eventually rum.
For those who want to linger, dining by the water is one of the pleasures of Homosassa, whether it is a casual lunch or dinner at The Shed, on the dock at Macrae’s or across the river at Crump’s Landing. Both spots offer live music. Marguerita’s Grill has a menu that includes everything from fried green beans to shrimp and grits and shrimp with tomatoes, feta cheese, rum and lime. main courses including sandwiches are around $15.
Sitting along the water one is reminded of the lure of Florida for fishermen such as Homer, who said: “This place suits me as if made for me by a kind providence.”