THE ST. JOHNS RIVER RESTORATION PROJECT
FLORIDA'S BEST FISHERY ??'
by Jim Porter
'(This concludes the 3-part St. Johns River trilogy. Don’t forget to take care of our waters for our kids’ futures!!)
One of the key elements of the project to save and restore the upper St. Johns River is to construct large `retention reservoirs' into which to pump the highly fertile and sediment-laden run-off waters from the surrounding farmlands. These `holding areas' are used to allow the local vegetation to absorb the fertilizers and other chemicals from the waters and to permit settling of the suspended soil prior to reaching the St. Johns, itself. Recent indications are that the overall project is proceeding smoothly and the angling successes have exceeded expectations. The construction of the reservoirs to contain and allow natural cleansing of farm run-off waters, coupled with an extensive stocking program, is providing high quality, man-made fisheries and waterfowl hunting areas.
As a side-benefit, the on-going St. Johns River Restoration is in process of creating marvelous opportunities for the outdoors-person. In the following pages, we will look at these resources and their outdoor recreation potential. Additionally, we will give you detailed information on one which is already active.
There are five retention reservoirs in the plan which deal directly with the farming and cattle activities: the St. Johns Water Management Area (also called the Farm 13/Stick Marsh Reservoir); the Blue Cypress Water Management Area (also known as the Garcia Reservoir); the Knight Property (no formal name given yet); 3-Forks Reservoir; and, the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area. Remembering an earlier briefing on the project, we knew that one of the key elements of the project to save and restore the upper St. Johns River was to construct large retention reservoirs in which to pump the highly fertile and sediment-laden run-off waters from the surrounding farmlands. These `holding areas would be used to allow the local vegetation to absorb the fertilizers and other chemicals from the waters and to permit settling of the suspended soil prior to reaching the St. Johns, itself. Recently, the St. Johns Water Management District indicated that the overall project is proceeding smoothly and the angling successes have exceeded their expectations.
The Farm 13 Reservoir (6700 acres) is completed and has been open to fishing for 7 years. Early in its life, it was heavily stocked with fish. It actually includes the old Fellsmere Farm #13 agriculture area, as well as a wooded swamp called `The Stick Marsh'. Since its opening in late 1989, Farm 13 has proven phenomenal, to say the least. Possibly the best bass angling in the World existed there from 1990 through 1995. It has declined a bit, but is still superb!!
Garcia Reservoir (7000 acres) is located to the South of the Farm 13 complex, just off Highway 512 and near where 512 and State Road 60 intersect. Garcia was recently upgraded and now has paved parking areas and an excellent ramp. It is a rather shallow body, once having been a farming area. A keen eye will see where the old fence rows and drainage ditches (with there accompanying levees) were located. Until you know the area well, take care in running a boat very fast. Some of the shallow levees are just that - shallow. The Southeastern portion, near the ramp was, and still is, wooded and heavy with vegetation. So, most of the fishing is done in more accessible sections. The existing fish population is good.
The main Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area (7000 acres) is relatively shallow and was not stocked with fish. It did have an existing population, but nothing to boast of. A 200-acre `borrow pit' on the western boundary, however, was stocked to some degree. It is not recommended at this time.
Another impoundment, the Knight Property, is located due West of the Farm 13 area and open for fishing. Reports are that is has an excellent population of bass and panfish. But, there is no way to access it other than by carrying a boat over a levee. Therefore, small boats only are the rule. There are plans to breech the levee sometime in the future. When that happens, we'll address this location further. Access to the Knight property reservoir is off Highway 441, between Kenansville and Holopaw (near St. Cloud).
One additional reservoir is under construction, but will be for water control only and not used in the farming cycle. Expected to be the premier recreational fishery product of the Restoration Project, the 10,000 acre 3-Forks Marsh Conservation Area will be directly on the southwestern boundary of the city of Palm Bay. At present, the facilities are under construction and flooding of the reservoir is expected in 1999.
On the southeastern boundary of the 3-Forks project and just North of the Farm 13 area, a major bonus has been constructed. In a joint venture among the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission, the St. Johns Water Management District, and the Ducks Unlimited organization, a 2500 acre duck marsh has been developed. Flooded only to a depth of 12-18 inches and specifically tailored to attract ducks, this project is providing quality hunting experiences. Access is the same as Farm 13, discussed later.
We first learned about the quality angling in the Farm 13 Reservoir during a 1990 interview with Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (FG&FWFC) biologists Fred Cross and Dave Cox. This was the story.
When Cross indicated that it was going to be `possibly the best fishing in Florida', it was difficult not to get excited. His voice rose and fell with emphasis as he described this marvelous place where angling dreams might at last come true. Could this be real? (No place is that good, I thought.) As Cross continued to speak, certain phases struck our nerve-endings:
As the first FG&FWFC manager for the St. Johns Restoration Project, Cross (Cox was his later replacement) was anxious for us to see the early results of the project and, since he knew that I fish a lot more than I write, to sample the exceptional angling the project had created.
- stocked the bass three years ago-now four to five pound average. 'and some of the original river bass population may exceed ten pounds.
- Bluegills average better than a pound-sometimes catch one every cast.'
- catching limits of big bass so easily that we plan to put a total catch-and-release in effect.
- everyone is catching their limit of big slab crappie.
What else could we do, but hurry and get the boat hitched up to the truck!! The site that greeted us at the end of Canal C-54 and the Fellsmere Grade (on the border of Brevard and Indian River counties) didn't look like much; just a muddy patch of bulldozed dirt and a small, rather unimpressive canal. The absence of a boat ramp made Fred Cross' advice to `take a boat that can be manhandled' well supplied. The slope of the canal bank was a bit steep, but our 12-foot aluminum rig was ideal suited and soon we were underway.
To our left was a high levee. On the right, just behind a very low dike, flooded brush and trees extended as far as the eye could see. This inundated area was aptly named the `Stick Marsh' and had originally been a soggy swamp of little commercial farming value. Consequently, it had remained in its natural state until the retention area was flooded to a depth of approximately 8 feet. Now, it was about to become the `right stuff', that from which legends are made.
At the end of this two-mile straight section, the canal took a 90-degree turn to the West and stretched out for what appeared to be another three miles, or more. The Stick Marsh still lay to our right, but now it was accessible through openings in the dike (the water was 3-4 feet lower then than it is today).
To our left was yet another low dike and, standing in the boat, we could peer over it. What an amazing and beautiful site greeted us. The area across the dike was Farm 13 and what appeared to be 6-9 square miles of shimmering blue water, slick and cool in the quiet morning light.
Scanning across the surface of Farm 13, we noted occasional clumps of flooded trees which seemed to be arranged in orderly manners. These, we later found, were old fruit orchards, which also happened to be interlaced with small (but now fully submerged) irrigation canals. A long, straight line of brush stretched out across one quadrant of the man-made lake and turned out to be the top of a submerged levee paralleling an original main irrigation canal which supported the previous farming operation. This canal now had 20-feet of water for our fishing pleasure, with the submerged levee structure to one side and the drop-off of the canal lip on the other. A review of an old aerial photograph clearly portrayed this feature of Farm 13 and also indicated numerous smaller canals and ditches intersecting the larger waterway. Now-submerged roads, culverts and other features were easily identified. By now, I would suppose you are getting the picture. Fred Cross had directed us to a location with hundreds of acres of flooded brush, grass and other cover; a multitude of submerged canals and their bordering dikes; old swamp areas and potholes which now lay beneath the flooding waters; to wit, an angler's dream, whether he prefers to toss a spinnerbait at a brush-top or run a crank plug around deep structure. And, the place was full of fish!
We started our quest for bass at the previously-mentioned main canal separating Farm 13 and the Stick Marsh. Surveying the dike and levee to each side, it was obvious that some heavy dragline digging operation had occurred here; probably to increase the canal depth in selected places and to obtain dirt to improve the levee. The depth, we noted, was about 20-feet in the center of the canal. What we found were a series of holes and drop-offs along the sides of the canal, bordered closely by shallow grass beds.
In addition, there were a series of large culvert pipes buried within the dike between the Stick Marsh and Farm 13, allowing a common water level to be maintained (these pipes have now been removed and the levee breached for boat access). A small amount of current was flowing into the canal from the Farm 13 side and that set up a feeding potential for fish along the edge of the affected Stick marsh and its openings.
My partner and I did not move from this first fishing location for an hour. During that period, we caught and released 47 largemouth bass averaging approximately three pounds, the largest coming close to five.
The lure choices didn't matter-a Bang-O-Lure fished with short, rapid jerks brought heart-stopping surface boils and occasionally two fish at a time amid the three treble hooks. A plastic worm rarely, if ever, made it to the bottom before it was inhaled and a hearty bass gave that familiar `tap-tap' we've all come to love. A crank plug, properly selected by depth range, was impossible to crank off a drop-off without a strike. A Rat-L-Trap coming off a grass flat into the deep water was absolutely devastating.
Moving back into the flooded brush and grass beds of the Stick Marsh, we found the depth to be about five to six feet. Hydrilla grew in abundance, but was generally two or three feet under the surface. (This was in the Spring; by mid-Summer, the growth had reached the surface.)
Bass were abundant. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, worms, shallow crank plugs-you name it, it would bring a smashing strike. And, the fish were noticeably larger in this heavier cover, now averaging about four pounds and better. Weedless plastic frog lures brought strikes of such ferocity that it would send cold chills up the back of even seasoned anglers. A excellent lure, beautifully adapted to this type cover and condition, was the new floating Rat-L-Trap. At a fast retrieve, it ran just above the submerged hydrilla and drew vicious attacks.
Back out in the main canal, we switched to small, dark beetle-spin lures and light tackle. Cross and Cox was not wrong about the bluegills and crappie. Every cast brought both of us one or the other, with an occasional bass mixed in. The bluegills did, in fact, run very close to a full pound each and it was best fishing for that species that I have ever experienced. The crappie were thick and averaged about a pound, as well.
The early fishing was so good in this Water Management area that the FG&FWFC had to enact a total catch-and-release on bass to preclude selfish exploitation by a small group of self-centered anglers. It is now planned to retain this release status in hopes of creating a trophy bass fishery for the future (you are allowed to keep one trophy bass over 24 inches today).
Between December 90 and March 91, pre-spawn and spawning Crappie (also known as Speckled Perch) made that angling so good that approximately 250,000 of the speckled fish were estimated to have been taken. I expect this figure is low, in that everyone was taking their 50-fish limit. (Some of the greedy even took limits out and came back more the same day. No one eats that many fish, so we are certain that many went to waste to satisfy egos.) This outstanding fishing continued until 1996, when it took a nosedive for many anglers. Those of us who fish the Farm 13 complex regularly found there were still large concentrations of crappie, but new vegetation growths had given them more area to spread out in and made them harder to find.
If there is any drawback to this fantastic fishing location which Man has recently created, it is that I would not recommend eating the fish. I tried some of the panfish (all bass must be released) and they were great. However, it occurs to me that the concentrations of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals, to include resultant mercury increases, in the water must be extremely high and possibly dangerous. However, Tim Miller, a FG&FWFC law enforcement officer who works the Farm 13 area regularly, advised us that water quality sampling to date indicated that the waters were clean and safe.
The Farm 13 retention reservoir is located at the very western end of the C-54 canal, a part of the border between Brevard and Indian River counties, and off State Road 507 between Palm Bay and Fellsmere. It is currently closed until early 1998 for construction of new ramps and upgrades to the roads and parking areas. Accordingly, DO NOT MAKE A TRIP TO THE FARM 13/STICK MARSH WITHOUT ASSURING IT HAS RE-OPENED.
The Stick Marsh/Farm 13 area is still very young. From 1990 to 1995, the description of `best bass angling in the World' may have been very accurate. I can tell you that my boat had over 5000 bass caught and released in each of those years. 1996 was great, too, but I have lost the logbook that I kept during that year and do not have the numbers. 1997 dropped off a bit due to the explosion of new vegetation that restricted access to many parts of the complex. We found ways to compensate, but our catch rates dropped about one-third.
And, you know what? There are even more retention areas planned for the St. Johns and as a part of the Lake Okeechobee clean-up project that is just getting started. Life can be wonderful!!
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