ST. JOHNS RIVER--FLORIDA'S BASS FACTORY
by Jim Porter
(This is Part 1 of the St. Johns River trilogy)
(Author’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-part trilogy on Florida’s famous St. Johns River. Parts 2 will address the major deterioration problem of the upper headwaters area and the restoration project underway to save it. Part 3 will then address a major by-product of that restoration project - the fabulous Farm 13/Stick Marsh fishing impoundment. Stay tuned - same bass-time, same bass-channel!!)
In the world of bass angling, there is a name synonymous with the great expectations of trophy Largemouths at the end of taunt, singing lines and straining rod tips. It has been immortalized in song and written word, and many have been the stories of it told around crackling campfires in the dark, cool of the night. It is a 'living' legend and probably the most famous bassin' water in the World--the fabled St. Johns River of Florida.
Lying in the North-Eastern quadrant of the Sunshine State and stretching nearly one-half its length, the St. Johns River is the longed-for 'Mecca' of bass fishermen everywhere. The fact that, year after year, it continuously produces such excellent angling results, has led many to deem it 'Florida's Bass Factory'. And well the name fits! It is one of those rare bodies of water that produces both quantity and quality, along with never-ending expanses of breath-taking beauty.
The 300+ miles of the St. Johns River are a study in diversity and fishing options. Whatever type of fishing water the angler desires can readily be found along its meandering course. And, as with any celebrity, this famous river has a character and series of personal traits all its own.
To start with, the St. Johns flows from South to North, a bit of an oddity in itself. Its headwaters, just to the South of the city of Melbourne, begin with the convergence of three canals which drain surrounding farm land. Before the canals were constructed, the natural drainage of that same large marsh area marked its beginning. From this point, which is slightly less than 20 feet above sea level, it starts its sluggish flow to the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville. The first quarter of the St. Johns, up to Lake Harney, is dependent upon rainfall for its flow, with a small bit of assistance from a few springs and some natural water table seepage. In times of drought or reduced periods of rainfall, this part of the river often goes nearly dry (usually between March and June). This upper portion of the river (remember, South to North!) is characterized by a lack of defined banks and boundaries, thick aquatic growth and seemingly endless marshland. Between Lake Poinsett, due West of Cocoa, and Lake Harney, the term 'marshland' gets a capital 'M'. The main trace of the St. Johns is nearly indistinguishable and forms a maze of drainage arms and sloughs. While the fishing is excellent here, it presents the readily apparent danger of the angler becoming disoriented and lost.
This headwaters portion of the St. Johns offers excellent angling experiences, especially when its waters are low, but still navigable. Low water levels bring the bass out of the endless miles of vegetation and to the edges of the main channel and the deeper holes. Although, comparatively speaking, few real trophy bass (over ten pounds) come from the section, the sheer numbers of one to three pounders are often staggering. However, the population will be erratic from year to year, based on previous periods of severe low water levels and the resulting interference with the spawn.
From Lake Harney on North to Lake Monroe, the river starts a major transition. The banks are well defined and high and the rampant aquatic growth starts to thin dramatically. And, it is in this stretch of water that we find one of those 'personal traits' of the St. Johns.
Geological finding show that this portion of the river, and extending up to just above Lake George, was once an inland arm of the Atlantic ocean. At some time, eons ago, the level of the sea dropped and Eastern barrier islands were formed. Through many thousands of years of rainfall, the waters gradually became predominately fresh. However, the remaining marine salt deposits in the ground continue to effect the region to this day. Run-off waters and springs bring a degree of salinity to the fresh water, creating an area that will support both fresh and salt water fishes, animals and plant life. Consequently, American and Hickory Shad, Mullet and Striped Bass inhabit the waters on a year-round basis, representing permanent breeding populations rather than migrants from the sea.
An interesting fact found by Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologists is that the fresh water fish, particularly the usually well-traveled Largemouth bass, do not migrate from the Northern portions of the river into the Southern sections past Lake Harney. The salt content seems to form a natural barrier. Consequently, the headwaters are entirely dependent upon the success of the spawn to sustain populations.
However, the salinity does have its positive influences. The stretch of river between Lakes Harney and Monroe is a principle spawning ground for the tremendous numbers of big American Shad, which annually make the long journey from the Atlantic. The months of December through March find hundreds of anglers casting small jigs and spoons to partake of the harvest.
The portion of the river from the city of Astor to the South end of Lake George is noted for its excellent Largemouth bass fishing. Bass seem to congregate in this stretch. The reason, and it seems quite logical, is that this is the least salty water in the area. The salt-contaminated waters from the Lake Harney basin become somewhat diluted by the time they reach this point and, as we will cover in a moment, the waters in Lake George are highly saline. The mouths of the many small feeder streams, and the points and deep holes in the bends of the river, are great places to teach a plastic worm and a crank plug to swim. Areas of lily pads are excellent in the Spring and early Summer months, especially if grass is also present. Largemouths readily spawn and feed in the beds of eel grass which predominate the flats. Look for that grass and you are almost certain to find the fish. Other good bass locations are the numerous piers and submerged pilings along the main channel and the banks, particularly if a good current is flowing. Locate a good drop-off next to some pilings, toss out a three-inch smoke grub lure and hold on for great school bass action. This part of the river has also given up numerous trophies.
Lake George is the widest and largest lake on the St. Johns River. Approximately 12 miles long and six wide, it has a very remarkable physical feature--the bottom, averaging about ten feet deep, is nearly uniform throughout. Lake George also has an significant salt content, primarily from the large Salt, Silver Glen and Juniper springs which discharge through massive saline marine deposits. Additionally, if there are strong, sustained Northerly winds, the incoming tidal flow from the North can reach the lake. A little-known fact, attributable to the salinity, is that blue crabs and shrimp can be taken from Lake George and the three areas of the feeder salt springs.
Lake George provides excellent Largemouth bass and Brim fishing, particularly along the vegetation areas of the East shore. Other good places are the mouths of the spring runs. Crappie fishing is very good and can be exceptional when drifting the open water areas in mid-Summer. Striped bass, both stocked hybrids (called Sunshine bass by many) and a few ocean veterans, provide spectacular angling experiences when they start their surface feeding in huge schools. Look for the Stripers in the area of the old military practice bombing range, just to the East of the main channel markers. It is a time of frayed nerves and tangled rods, to say the least.
Coming out of Lake George and heading North, the river narrows again for a piece, and then widens into Little Lake George. The Croaker Hole, a large spring with a significant salt content, adds its waters here. This is another area that is very good for numerous types of fish.
Just North of Little George, another major change occurs. The 125-mile long Oklawaha River, the largest tributary along the St. Johns, empties a vast amount of pure, fresh water into the system, significantly diluting the salt content. Flowing out of man-made Rodman Reservoir, the Oklawaha is a fishing paradise unto itself. Its mouth, like all moving water areas, calls fish of every type. The river channel is a beautiful stretch of water that often pleases as much with scenery as with its fine fishery. Rodman Reservoir is also a premier bass angling location, but we must save that for another time.
From here, North to the City of Palatka, the river is narrow again. The banks are high and well defined, with a number of mid-channel islands. The depth undergoes a major change in this area, with portions of the main St. Johns channel reaching 35 feet. Some of the creeks, such as Cross and Dunn's, have holes reaching 45 and 50.
Near the mouth of Dunn's Creek, we find the Seven Sisters Island area. For my money, this, and the nearby Turkey Island, holds some of the finest potential for large quantities of bass in the entire St. Johns River. The water flow around these obstructions causes a marked increase in the current. That additional movement, in this otherwise rather sluggish river, provides an excellent feeding ground for all predator fish. Watch for areas of eddy water along the outer shorelines and along the mid-stream obstructions. Fish them thoroughly. In the Summer and Fall, look for surface feeding bass here.
Dunn's Creek, the connecting link between the river and Crescent Lake, is an excellent place to find lots of bass. Although heavily fished, it is a constant producer. Look for fallen trees and grass beds, particularly on the points in the inside channel bends and in small, connecting run-off basins. Because of the water depths in Dunn's, deep running crank plugs are often a prime lure near the channel drop.
Crescent Lake has long been a great bassin' location. Its eel grass beds beckon to the spawn-ready, lunker females. Grimsley Cove and Wiedernach Point are two of the prime areas to concentrate, although I have yet to find any cover area in Crescent that wasn't pretty darn good. Dead Lake, at the lower end of Crescent is also an excellent bass spot, especially when you can locate run-off water flowing into it.
Journeying further North to Palatka, the St. Johns again makes a major change. Now, it broadens out into a wide, lagoon-like basin and holds that characteristic all the way to Jacksonville. In places, it is as much three miles across, with its depths gradually decreasing somewhat, as it approaches its joining with the ocean. Numerous feeder creeks, such as Rice, Deep, Cedar and Six Mile, provide excellent early-Summer bass fishing in the vegetation areas near their mouths. Additionally, the lily pad fields and grass beds along the side flats can be exceptional. Look, particularly, for vegetation growth near deep water and current flow. These are the places that the careful angler can often find huge schools of bass lying in wait for passing groups of bait fish. In late Spring and Summer, Largemouths will surface feed strongly on these bait fish schools, but, generally do not move with them. Once schooling activity is noted, it is a reasonably sure bet that the bass will remain close by on a cover or structure feature. If you cannot find any readily noticeable cover in the area, chances are good that the bass are holding over a shell bed. A heavily weighted plastic worm will usually allow you to pinpoint the shells. When you do, lay the anchor over gently and be prepared to catch fish for a while.
Down river (but still heading North), towards Green Cove Springs, you will find Black Creek entering from the West. This is a good-size feeder creek and contains some areas of unusual depth, often as much as 80 feet. There is a good possibility that these exceptionally deep holes are the result of collapsed limestone deposits or caverns, since the bottom is very hard in many places. Whatever the case, Black Creek is a fine bass fishing area, possibly as good as there is in the entire river system. Do not fish this creek on a 'hit or miss' basis. Go into it prepared to stay at least half the day. Work the grass beds, the tree blow-downs, the points, the mouths of run-off sloughs and the edge of the channel drop. Black Creek has an excellent bass population, if you will but take the time to locate it.
Just before coming to Jacksonville, on the West side, we find Doctor's Lake. It is a broad expanse of water, with fine grass beds along its sides and on high spots out in the open waters. Additionally, there are numerous boat houses and piers. All of these features have been known to hold good bass concentrations. Doctor's Lake is noted for its production of trophy bass. One section that I have noted to be very good is the mouth of the Lake. When the tide is running out, bass will gather near the banks, just inside the bridge, and feed on the moving water.
As we approach Jacksonville, the St. Johns starts to constrict, turns to the East and flows into the Atlantic. Nearly all the tributaries are tidal salt marsh streams. Some will hold bass but, as we get nearer to the ocean, they dwindle rapidly.
A word is in order regarding the lower (Northern) one- third of the river and the effects of the tidal influences. Bass generally do not use the same holding and feeding locations on both an incoming and an outgoing tide. When the water is moving, they will select positions in eddy water or behind some obstruction that shields them from the flow. They will still feed actively, but do not want to fight the currents. We should keep these points in mind when we first locate good bass concentrations and note the tidal conditions closely. Under similar conditions, we can expect to find the fish there again, but, if the tides are reversed, they will not be.
Throughout the St. Johns fishery, there is a transitional period from Spring into Summer. A few late spawners will still be found in the shallow grass beds, but the majority of the bass have returned to the deeper grass areas and drop-offs close to deep water. Early and late in the day, when the sun is at a less-penetrating oblique angle, they will venture into the shallow zones and are susceptible to surface lures, spinner baits and shallow crank plugs. But, for most of the day, a plastic worm worked in the deeper and thicker vegetation is the way to go. In those sections having exceptionally deep water and sharply sloping banks, a deep crank plug is often a sure ticket to success. When surface schooling activity is found, topwater lures and spoons are excellent choices. When the school goes down, search for them with the plastic worm.
The beautiful St. Johns River continues to earn its reputation as the bass fishing paradise of the World. Let us hope that the progress of Man never changes it.
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