Spending 26 days in the winter, covering Florida’s longest river, The St.Johns River.
Fifteen days into a twenty-six day kayak fishing trip and it was finally happening. A bite! At first picking up a couple nice large mouth bass, then the stripers turned on. Most fishermen know Lake George as a great bass fishing lake, with miles of pristine shore as its border. However, even the slightest winds can bring adverse conditions quickly, especially for kayakers. On this day, the lake seemed to join the sky with a perfect mirror effect; the only ripples on the water came from large black jumping mullet.
It seemed like the best thing to do was make a mad dash to start covering the fifteen miles across this notorious stretch of the St. Johns River while weather and wind were favorable. But, like travelers crossing the desert coming upon an oasis, we saw a set of wooden jetties in the distance standing tall out of the water. Leaving the relative safety of the Lake George shoreline, we kayaked out of our way to find out if this would be our oasis, or just another fishless mirage.
I , along with fishing partner Ben Guise and Drew Ross from Arkansas made our way over a mile out to investigate what looked like a single towering wall emerging from the lake. It seemed to have been put there to mark and protect what little bit of the River’s channel that was still noticeable way out in the lake. The depth was quite a bit greater in the channel, about eight to ten feet, as opposed to the standard four to six foot depths of this shallow lake.
We had fished so hard for so many days, that it was surreal when the three of us started tripling up. The hybrid striped bass in the St. Johns seem to always be on the move and on this day they were stacked in the channel between those jetties. The largemouth bass on the south end bit on a Rapala X-Rap. The hybrids seemed to like to the Northwest side. Most of the larger stripers were caught on a Rapala deep diving, long bill crank bait and an old-school Rapala minnow. The smaller stripers were taking the white ice Zoom Super fluke Jr paddle tails. Those were bringing more hits, but the larger fish definitely seemed to prefer the larger lures.
The water temps were a little low, coming off a bitter cold front that rocked Florida just a couple weeks earlier, so a slower retrieve was working best. But, unlike the bass that were shut down from the cold, the hybrids were fired up. As I realized the time of day and the distance betwee n our pick-up point and us, I peddled my kayak back towards Ben and Drew. They were holding tight on the North side of the jetties, where the stripers were. Along my way back up the weathered edge of the jetty, I was trolling a long bill Strike King shad looking for one more before regrouping to decide the next move. Then, just as I slowed to start talking strategy with the guys, my lure got slammed by a five to six pound hybrid; my personal best. We knew before we started our three hundred and ten mile journey down the St Johns River that we would eventually have to decide between miles and fish. After catching a few each we had to make the tough decision to paddle north, down current, and away from the best fishing of the trip.
While that was our best action on the river, it wasn’t our only action. A few days earlier, while covering the area coming out of Puzzle Lake just North of Highway 46, we came across a unique bite. This area of the ancient river did not fall short of adventure and navigation challenges. While doing my research this area, Google maps imaging had me very concerned about our ability to get through the labyrinth of small winding creeks that make up this section of the river. Many of them running miles out of the way while others seemed to be heading perfectly north only to be greeted by dead ends. Choosing the wrong one could easily add hours onto an already over-extended day.
We had been lucky, and the higher water levels made running Puzzle Lake a breeze but on the North side there were two directions we could go. One was our safe bet. It was to follow the river’s channel, which made a one and a half mile curve to the east. The latter, to take a chance and take a very direct path north up a very small creek that looked like it may come to a dead end just shy of connecting to a larger creek that would take us back to the St. Johns. We opted to try to shave some time off, roll the dice and take the short cut. As we came to the area of concern just shy of open water the creek did die off, but an airboat trail, made accessible by post-Irma water levels, led us into the Econlockahtchee River about three quarters of a mile west of where it dumps into the St Johns River.
It was there that we came across strikes on top and began to see American Shad flickering along the edge. This was bitter sweet, I had my fly rod with me but it was buried deep inside my kayak. Drew on the other hand had his on deck, due to hearing reports of American Shad starting to show up in this section of the river from the last bait and tackle shop we passed. He was able to grab his rod quickly and started working through the flies that he had brought. Drew had done a lot of research on the types of flies and techniques for shad. Most of the articles he read had him planning to fish deep and slow. That was not the case with these fish. They were right on top and the only luck we were having at first was on a beetle spin reeled slow but kept high in the water column. After about twenty minutes of no luck we took pliers to the fly and broke off the dumbbell eyes to give it a more buoyant presentation in the water. It was with that change that Drew finally achieved success with a few American Shad fights and a really nice couple of Hybrids.
This was a timeline bite. We were at the right place at the right time. The sun was going down and the two species of fish were congregated at a small corner of the Econ feeding in the last moments of daylight. The stripers and shad were showering the air with small schools of minnows. It was like watching a micro version of a school of tarpon feeding on a school of mullet.
Our last solid day of fishing on the St. Johns River started with meeting a friend from a local Kayak shop, David Hernandez at the Shands Bridge boat ramp. The plan was for him to shuttle us all the way back south to the Magnolia Road boat ramp in east Palatka to launch for the day. We planned to cover twenty-six miles, the longest projected distance of our trip. With the river’s slow flow, only dropping thirty feet total from its headwaters to the Atlantic, and our speed in sit-on-top fishing kayaks, we were doing good most days to get fifteen miles.
The weather forecast showed a Southwest wind at ten to fifteen k nots, which along with the flow of the river made the long track seem like an easy task. As most of us fishermen and women know the weather guys aren’t always spot on with their predictions. This day I don’t think they could have been more wrong.
After getting dropped off and starting the route we had planned everything was looking good. We had a good flow, winds were at our back and spirits were high. This section of the river is no longer the winding maze that we had started in. The distance from east shore to west shore is up two three miles across, it resembles some of the intercostal waterways within Florida with huge flats and sandbars with a channel down the center. Our track had us using the flow of the channel and w inds to expedite the day’s journey. Around an hour into our day we noticed that the Southwest winds were laying down. Then came a slap in the face. The winds made an abrupt change and started pushing in around five to ten at first then here it came, twenty to twenty-five out of the North, Northwest. Which is the way we were heading.
We didn’t have time for the reality of our newfound situation to soak in before having to veer off course to get along the West Bank of the river. It was a blessing in disguise. Once we made it over it was impossible to pass up the few docks that just looked to fishy not to hold a fish or two. It wasn’t long until we had a few good strikes and started landing a variety of different speci es using the same crank baits and soft plastics we had targeted the stripers with in lake George. The only exception was I had switched up the long bill deep diver to a short square billed crank bait due to the shallow depths along the docks. It was a surprise when I picked up another personal best with a huge hungry bluegill that grabbed hold of my crank bait under one of the docks. Ben was fishing just out from the docks we passed and managed to stick a few nice bass.
As we were making our way north along the protected shoreline, Ben, noticing a disturbance in the water signaled to me to keep my eyes open for action. We sat looking for a while with nothing, and then started to move on when I saw a small pop on the wate r with a good wake coming from it. I put the square bill directly in front of the wake and almost instantly my drag began to scream off my reel. It didn’t seem like a bass and if it was I knew I was going to have my third PB while on this trip. After a few moments the fight started to resemble a fish that I’m very familiar with. This fish was bulldogging me like an old red-bass. Heck yeah, we had made it to saltwater fish! Instead of slowing to stalk, we once again had to push forward. Fortunately, as we continued to head north, paddling along the edge of the Bayard Wildlife Management Area, we would see redfish wake up ahead of us occasionally and get a few shots before the day was done.
I operate a kayak fishin g charter business that is based out of St. Augustine, Florida, so this was a huge day for me, getting back into some saltwater fish. The fishing part of this day started to come to an end once we realized that we had made it far enough north for the incoming current from the next pending high tide was pushing water South. This was the first time on the journey we had seen the water going the wrong direction for us. We held close to shore and headed to the Shands Bridge to see if we could possibly pick up a hybrid or two before the sun dropped. Once we made it to the bridge it was way to rough to fish it from our kayaks.
While we did fish a few more spots on the rest of the river those three days were the highlights.
After spending a month on this river I have a new appreciation for its importance to all of Florida. I would highly recommend spending time on this amazing waterway and look into ways that we can to help sustain and improve the St. Johns River to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.