Florida's Real Bass Fishing Capital
By Captain Ed Bussard
The St. Johns River has always been known as the Bass Fishing Capital of Florida but in recent years, it has lost some of it's limelight to other bodies of water in Florida. This beautiful Florida waterway stretches 310 miles starting from wetlands and marshes south of Melbourne, Florida, and then flowing north through Jacksonville, Florida, finally emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville Beach. The northern section of the St. Johns River from Lake George to Jacksonville Beach is a tidal river. South of Lake George to the head waters in Melbourne the river has a north flowing current without a tide.
The area of the river that I am writing this article about deals with the Central St. Johns River from Lake Harney, north to Lake George which is approximately a 75 mile stretch of the St. Johns River.
The bass fishing through out this section of the River is next to none in terms of the sheer numbers of Bass and Trophy Bass. One of the reasons this section of the St. Johns produces such great bass fishing is the speed limits and idle zones that are through out this area of the river. The 25 mph speed limits and the numerous long idle zones do not draw a lot of bass tournaments simply because, who wants to run their bass boats at 25 MPH or less.
Bass fisherman can use this to their advantage as the fishing pressure is very low. The speed limits and idle zones also eliminate a lot of boat traffic on this section of the River which makes for a great way to spend the day bass fishing, or just going for a nice quite nature ride as the river banks which are full of wildlife. Deer, Wild Hogs, and Bald Eagles are seen on a daily basis and the St. Johns River is also home to over 300 Manatees.
Bass fishing on the St. Johns River can be tough for the new comers as the river banks are laden with the fallen trees and the large lily pad fields that line the river. All these areas look promising, and many new fisherman to this area have a hard time figuring out just where to start.
Summertime patterns can be easy to establish once you learn the bait fish that the bass are feeding on. Early summer is usually the tail end of the shad run which starts in the early spring. During this period the bass will usually be on most of the main river points, sand bars, or shell beds. They stage in these areas to ambush the 3 to 5 inch size shad that line the river heading north to the Atlantic Ocean. The top water action can be non stop and these fish can be spotted very easy as they crash the water in feeding frenzies on most main river points. Catching these schooling fish can be done in a number of ways. A few of my favorite's are casting soft jerk baits, or top water prop baits. A good cast into these busting fish will get a bite most every time. You can also cast net these shad and free line them into these schooling fish with great success.
After the shad run is over, the bass start to feed on the natural forage that lives in the river. Wild River shiners and pan fish are at the top of their food chain list during this period. Most Lilly pad fields will hold a bulk of the bass during the summer months as the pan fish will be spawning around these areas. This is when the river becomes a flippers dream as most days will produce big numbers of bass, along with some real trophy size fish. Flipping a 6 inch worm rigged with a 1/4 oz rattle weight can be heart stopping. On the windy days, burning a spinner bait through these big pad fields, and dragging a soft plastic frog over the pads can be quite deadly in locating and landing some nice size fish.
The fall of the year can be great fishing as well, but a lot of your success will depend mostly on the water levels. Most years we see the river being high, or above average depending on the amount of rain fall we see during the summer. Another factor is the number of Hurricanes and Tropical Storms we see during the summer.
Early fall we have another shad hatch. Just like the summer months, the schooling fish can get very active. Later in the fall, the bass will start to roam the banks of the river and start to migrate towards the spawning flats where they will spend most of the winter. This part of the fall is when you need to fish as much as possible to keep up with the bass movement. One day they are on a stretch of river bank, and the next day they may be a mile a way. A small number of bass will still be in the pad fields if that area is one that doesn't have much current running through the inside section. These types of pad fields will make good areas for the bass to spawn. If the current is to strong, the bass will not spawn, and will move on to a different area where the current is slack.
Fall of the year is also a great time to fish the fallen trees that line most of the banks along the St. Johns River. I try to look for the trees that have fallen within a few feet of the main river channel as this tends to be the best areas for the bass to ambush bait fish in the current. A deep diving crank bait, or a spinner bait slow rolled through these trees can bring some real excitement to a day of fishing.
Winter time is spawning time and this is when the artificial action can get tough, but the shiner fishing is at it's best. The reason the artificial fishing can get tough is we will start to see big drops in water temperature. Most new fisherman visiting Florida from our northern states find it hard to believe Florida bass go dormant when the water temperature drops from the 70's to the mid 50's, as they just left home catching bass in 40 degree water temperatures. The thing you have to remember is our average water temp in the winter will be in the mid 70's, and a drop of more then 15 degrees will send these Florida bass into shock.
During the colder days, the mid afternoon bite will always be better as the water warms. Shiner fishing is the most consistent way to catch these dormant fish as anytime you can dangle a steak (shiner} in front of them, they just can't resist taking a shot at it. During the winter a bass will stick to one area, not moving from place to place. After the spawn gets started and it is not necessary for the bass to move long distances, they will not be burning a lot of energy, and there for they are not hungry everyday.
On the warmer days of the spawn, the artificial bite can be unreal on the larger flats sitting off the main river. Some of these flats that have hydrilla and eel grass have clean enough water to sight fish. Your day can be successful with artificial baits fishing the Lilly pad fields on these larger flats. If there is no hydrilla or eel grass present, this will usually mean that the bottom is soft. In this case the bass will spawn on the big root systems of the Lilly pads. A good way to detect spawning activity is watching the pad steams as the male bass will rub on the root of a pad to fan off a spot for the female to lay her eggs. The female will also many times use this big root to rub her sides to help her to release her eggs. Watch for the pad steams to shake, and you have found the right place to fish. Fan casting a worm with a lite weight, or weightless, will trigger these fish to bite on the warmer days. But again, a shiner fished under a cork is hard to beat.
Spring Time Bass Fishing Is Red Hot On The St. Johns River. This is the time of year I like the best on the St Johns River as everything is taking place. We will still have some late spawner's, and we will have a big number of fish in the post spawn mode feeding heavily. One of the special things about the river during the spring is the many different shad hatches are taking place. Unlike any other lakes or rivers in Central Florida, the St. Johns River has the American Shad that migrates from the ocean up the St Johns River to the Central area to spawn. This shad hatch takes place at the perfect time of the year when the bass are in their post spawn feeding pattern. The big trophy bass can be caught in great numbers, and on a regular basis. The top water action will be great, you can catch these St Johns River Bass just about any way you wish to fish. Rattle Traps, Spinner baits, Carolina Rigged worms, soft plastic jerk baits, hard jerk baits, and on and on. Again just like the early summer months, these fish can be seen busting these big American Shad up and down the river on most points, and shell beds. Many out of state fisherman think of schooling fish as small fish, but the fact is we catch just as many 10 pound fish schooling on these big shad in the spring as we do during the spawn.
I hope this article will help you enjoy what the Beautiful St. Johns River has to offer and help you understand why this river is still called the Bass Fishing Capital Of The World.