SLOW DOWN AND FIND A NICE SECRET
by: Don Wilson
Debary---Slow speed zones designed to protect manatees from boaters have had an expected bonus---turning an eight-mile stretch of the St Johns River into a bass angler's version of a ghost town.
Most of those who regularly fish the river for bass have gone elsewhere, meaning the fishing pressure is almost nil. Yet the section of river between the Highbanks Road Ramp and Lake Beresford is home to some of the St Johns' biggest bass.
A handful of locals know this and are willing to spend hour or more putt-putting their way to hot spots they know they'll have to themselves.
Deltona fishing guide Eddie Bussard is one of them.
Born in Sanford, Bussard has fished the St Johns for 30 years, 28 years as a guide. During the spring and early summer, this is his favorite stretch of the river. His personal-best bass was caught here. It weighed 12 pounds, 2 ounces.
That's why, in a recent bass tournament for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Bussard was willing to spend 90 minutes chugging from Lake Monroe to Lake Beresford while other anglers stayed in Monroe or headed south, where there were no manatee-protection zones to slow them. In two days of fishing, he weighed in 10 bass that totaled nearly 20 pounds.
He would have more than doubled that, and likely won the tournament, but Bussard lost four big bass, probably weighing 8 pounds or more. One bass got entangled in a tripod of telephone poles supporting a channel-marker light. Had someone been around with a net, he'd have boated the fish, but all Bussard could do was watch helplessly as the bass jumped several times inside the tripod and finally escaped. Another was lost to the huge wake of a passing yacht.
State fisheries biologists said one of the area's lakes with the least fishing pressure---Beresford---has some of the largest bass.
"We were shocking and tagging bass in Beresford, and we saw quite a few nice bass," said Joe Jenkins, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist who monitors the river. "We tagged 54 fish that were more than 22 inches long".
A 22-inch bass would weigh approximately 8 pounds
Earlier this week, Bussard showed just how productive the section of river can be. Anchoring just off the entrance to an oxbow, he started casting a diving crankbait to a point near the backwater's entrance.
"There's a sunken log right there, and the fish will be holding along that log," he said.
In a dozen casts, he caught four bass, most of them small keepers of 1-2 pounds. Bussard decided not to spend more time at this spot.
"There's not much bait here--- not near as much as there was last weekend," he said. "Both days of the tournament, I had a limit here in 15 minutes."
Idling down river to a spot near the entrance to Lake Beresford, he anchored out of the channel and started casting crankbaits toward the channel. The only other boat traffic consisted of sightseers in a rental pontoon boat, chugging slowly along.
Retrieving the lure along an underwater point, where the depth goes from 5or 6 feet to 13 feet, he caught a number of small bass, again most at least 14-inch keepers. Again, the lack of bait in the area convinced him to move.
Bussard idled upstream to a large field of cow lilies, or spatterdock, just off the main channel. He began flipping a 6-inch plastic worm into small openings in the pads. The first few fish were small, but Bussard was patient. After nearly 20 minutes of working the pad field, he set the hook on a 6 pound bass. Grinning, he unhooked the bass and lowered it into the water.
"I knew she was here--- I just didn't think it would take this long to find her. Right here is where I lost those four good fish last Saturday," he said.
Moving across the river to another pad field, he repeated the performance, catching a fish slightly smaller.
Bussard fishes only pad fields in deeper water. He wants at least 6 feet of water on the outside of the pads. Shallower pads usually attract smaller bass.
By noon, he caught 15 bass, the five largest totaling probably more than 20 pounds.
The wind died, the fish stopped biting, and it was time to head back to the ramp.
He said the bass fishing is just peaking and his tactics would work any-where along the river.
"April, May and June are my best months on this river. This is when the bait, menhaden, start to bunch up and are migrating back to sea," he said. "The bass are going to be at points near drop-offs, where the bait are holding. Anything that goes into at least 13 feet of water will give you a steep enough drop to find the fish."
He said the same technique will work in the narrow segment of river south of lake Monroe.
"You go to almost any of those points south of the (State Road) 415 bridge, and you are going to catch fish now. But by late June, it will be over--- the bait will have gone."
originally published in the Orlando Sentinal