May On The St. Johns

May On The St. Johns

From Lake Woodruff north to Palatka, the state's biggest river offers plenty of water for bass fishing. So how should you approach the angling this month? Let's see. (May 2009)

If you had to quickly sum up May bass fishing on the St. Johns River, you could do it in one word -- exciting!


Capt. Rick Rawlins is hoisting the kind of largemouth the middle river gives up this time of year.
Photo by Bud Reiter.

There are, no doubt, some anglers who bemoan the passing of the spawning season, where the sight of a big black shape hovering over a brightly fanned bed can get any angler's pulse pounding. But when it comes to fast action on numbers of bass -- including some true trophies -- the month of May ranks high on the list for experienced anglers.

One reason for that is the spawn is largely over. Now that the bass have finished with that annual chore, they are ready to feed up to replace the energy they expended. Another is that water temperatures have risen enough that bass metabolism is in high gear, but not so high that the fish adopt an early and late routine. Many bass, including some big ones, are caught right in the middle of the day this month. And, anglers don't have to move very far from the recent spawning sites to do catch them.


Bass need to eat, and Mother Nature has provided a veritable buffet in the same shallow areas the bass recently used for spawning. Bream begin actively bedding this month in those same areas. A host of smaller forage fish gather to eat the panfish eggs and fry, while recently hatched shad fry are also abundant in the shallower vegetation. If fast action in shallow vegetation is high on your list of angling favorites, May can provide it in spades!


GEARING UP
From Lake Woodruff to Palatka, anglers are going to find the vast majority of their bass in the grass and at depths of 5 feet or less. There are a few exceptions, and we'll talk about those as we get to them. But, May on the St. Johns normally means "bassin' the grass."

In that respect, don't ignore traditional shallow cover lures like Texas-rigged plastic worms, spinnerbaits, spoons and soft-plastic jerkbaits. They can all produce. But, if there is one "signature" lure that truly characterizes May bassin' on these waters, it would be a topwater lure.

Aggressive bass and topwater baits go together like ham and eggs, politicians and promises, or any other well-used cliché you'd care to dredge up. Like most clichés, there's a lot of truth inherent in the statement. May bass are aggressive, and nothing spells an easy meal for them like a critter struggling on the surface.

Traditional hard-plastic topwater plugs can be very effective. Among those that have earned an enviable reputation are the Zara Spook-style walking baits or poppers and chuggers like the Rebel Pop R, as well as prop baits like the Devil's Horse. While gold is a top color in cooler weather, May anglers find that chrome and shad finishes are better bets this month.

All of those options can work well anywhere the cover allows treble-hook-laden baits to function. On the St. Johns, however, those places may be limited. Eelgrass is a key cover, and to that you can add dollar bonnets, and in some places hydrilla. These aren't always friendly toward treble-hook plugs. For that reason, a number of experts shift to buzzbaits, or surface-running, weedless soft plastics like the Zoom Horny Toad or Gambler Flapp'n Shad.

During the three decades I've been fishing the St. Johns River, the No. 1 bait for quality bass in May has always been a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce single-bladed buzzbait with a "squeaker rivet" on the blade arm. Lunker Lure and Hildebrant's both produce such models. A white skirt is normally used, although there are times when the bass hit a black skirt better, and a trailer hook is always added. This bait is my first choice under any dim light, or early and late condition.

Under midday light levels a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce model, with two trailer hooks added, is sometimes more effective.

A properly handled buzzbait zips over cover that would hopelessly foul treble hooks. That is unless an alga interferes. An algae bloom is common in May, especially in the main river between Georgetown and Palatka. It covers eelgrass and dollar bonnet beds with a "scummy" coating that quickly fouls a buzzbait blade and renders the lure useless.

When that occurs, the Horny Toad and Flapp'n Shad, or similar soft-plastic baits can be trip savers. White is an excellent choice, although there are times that chartreuse or a watermelon or pumpkin color might produce better. It pays to experiment.

Rig with 5/0 offset bend worm hooks without weight, and retrieve them steadily across the surface. They swim right through algae and over the thickest cover, and the bass eat them the same way they do buzzbaits. Regardless of the lure tied on, I don't leave the dock in May without a buzzbait and a Horny Toad ready to go. With that in mind, here are some top spots to toss them.

LAKE WOODRUFF & THE MIDDLE RIVER
The section of the St. Johns from Lake Woodruff north to State Route 40 is commonly referred to as the "middle river" to distinguish it from the "lower river" north of Lake George. The nomenclature isn't the only difference.

Lake George is the dividing line for tidal influence. North of the lake there is a normal tidal reversal. South of the lake there is no tide; the river is free-flowing with a northward current. It may seem like a small difference, but it can play a big role this month in where anglers find the best fishing.

Veteran guide Rick Rawlins, who has over 40 years of experience on the river as one of the owners of Highland Park Fish Camp, has a firm handle on that.

"Our spawn is largely over in May," he stated, "but the bass aren't going to move very far from where they spawned. In this area, the major spawning sites are in lakes Woodruff and Dexter. Those areas got hit pretty hard during the hurricane years and lost a lot of vegetation.

"But," he continued, "the last couple of years have seen it coming back real well. We have a lot of eelgrass in Woodruff and it's growing out to about the 4-foot depth line, with a lot of lily pads inside that. Hydrilla is also coming back and there are open-water patches in depths up to 6 feet. That's creating a deeper water habitat we haven't seen in the last few years. Woodruff and Dexter are a tremendous habitat right now, and are holding a lot of post-spawn bass."

There are a number of ways anglers can tap into that. For Rawlins, however, the most effectiv

e approach is the simplest.

"When I leave the dock early in the morning in May," Rawlins explained, "my first choice is to head to either the southeast or northwest corner of Lake Woodruff. The bass will be feeding heavily on shad fry in shallow cover and these two areas are traditional schooling grounds.

"In the southeast corner, the primary feeding areas will be in 2 to 3 feet of water among the lily pads and pennywort," the guide continued. "In the northwest corner, the cover is a little deeper, but not much. In the bigger pad fields, the key areas are the cuts, channels and boat trails that provide a natural funnel point through the pads. If you find shad flipping in any of them, that's the place to be."

Once bass and shad are found, Rawlins noted that compact topwater plugs like the Tiny Torpedo or baby Zara Spook can be deadly. So, too, can 1/4- or 3/8-ounce tandem-blade spinnerbaits in a gold-and-nickel blade combo with a white skirt.

An overlooked but effective option is a 1/4-ounce shad-colored plastic-bodied spinnerbait, like a Sassy Shad, with a single nickel blade. If it looks like a shad, and is the same size, the bass tend to eat it. Rawlins carries that a bit farther.

"If I'm fishing cuts and channels in the pads," he said, "I normally start with a small shallow-running crankbait like a Shad Rap, or a 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap. They can work in the cuts and seem to produce better than most other lures."

The morning activity generally runs up to about 10 a.m. on a bright day, but can last all day if we get one of those May storms that combine a stout southerly breeze with solid cloud cover. Lacking the cloud cover, bass slack off at midday. But two other excellent options still exist on the lakes.

"If I have found a good concentration of bass in a particular area during the morning," Rawlins pointed out, "I'm not going to be in a hurry to leave that area when the sun gets bright, because the bass normally won't. I'll move a little shallower -- into 2 and 3 feet of water -- and start fishing any mats of floating cover that have drifted in and formed overhead cover. Bass snuggle up underneath this stuff and take a Texas-rigged plastic worm or a flipped craw."

Another option is any open-water patches of hydrilla, especially if portions have reached the surface and formed an overhead mat. Anglers with experience on Rodman, Istokpoga, Tohopekaliga, and other lakes offering deepwater hydrilla will recognize this pattern as one that can hold trophy bass during the midday hours. Probing the edges with subtle topwater plugs or Trick Worms can produce, as can slowing down with weedless plastic worms or flipping compact craws.

While May on the middle river is best enjoyed on the lakes, there is one condition that can make the river a top bet -- a May storm with a solid overcast and a stout south wind. This accelerates the normal northerly current flow and can spark major feeding activity.

"If you get the cloud cover and a hard wind that really moves that current," Rawlins confirmed, "you can find a lot of bass stacking up around intersecting creek mouths and the openings leading to the small mud lakes. These become feeding funnels all the way from Woodruff to Lake George."

For more details on fishing the middle river or to book a day of guided angling, contact Capt. Rick Rawlins at Highland Park Fish Camp by calling (800) 525-3477.

LAKE GEORGE TO PALATKA
Moving north of the State Route 40 bridge brings you to the southern end of Lake George, and a noticeable change in both the character of the river and the techniques needed for success.

At about 48,000 acres, Lake George is massive. Wide, shallow, and at times windswept, it is a veritable bass factory. Exiting the lake on the north side at Georgetown, one is back in the river. But it's a different river than that to the south.

The first difference is that there is tidal action, and in the absence of a severe wind, anglers have two incoming and two outgoing tides every 24 hours. Throw in a number of islands -- some of which have significant size -- several major inflowing tributaries, a wealth of smaller creeks, numerous major submerged points, mid-river shell bars, extensive man-made canal systems, and the lower river becomes much more complex than the middle river.

Fortunately, May anglers don't have to deal with the full level of complexity. All they have to do is find eelgrass growing to deeper water, or a deeper river drop. Equally fortunate is the fact that this year that's not hard to do.

"The hurricane years and some high water decimated the eelgrass in this area," said Don Weaver, who has been guiding in this area for a number of years, "but it's come back strong. On the east and west shorelines of Lake George, it's growing out to at least 4 feet and in places it hasn't been in years. In the river to the north, it's also flourishing and there are mid-river bars that haven't seen grass in five years that are covered with it."

Anglers getting an early start might want to find those deeper eelgrass points on Lake George. The outer edge of that grass is where bass and shad will be meeting during the morning. Tide doesn't play a significant role in which grass points the bass use until you reach the northern edge of the lake. But wind can be important. A few days of a steady east wind can often stack up shad along the west side grass points, while a west wind moves them to the eastern side. Either way, the bass will follow.

Buzzbaits and weedless soft-plastic surface lures are top choices for these spots, but if the fish are feeding on more scattered grass, a spinnerbait can often be more productive.

The main lake is often the best bet during the morning hours, but not always.

"If I have an outgoing tide in the morning, I don't see any reason to run down to the lake," Weaver, who normally starts his day in Georgetown, pointed out. "The area around Hogg and Drayton islands, including Keiths Point, Black Point and Rocky Point, has great grass, and an outgoing tide will sweep shad right onto it. I'll hit those areas with buzzbaits and Horny Toads, and can be fishing within five minutes of leaving the dock."

The same applies anywhere along the river north to Palatka. Eelgrass extending toward deeper water on a deep outside bend, a point extending outwards from an inside bend, or on mid-river bars or islands can hold major concentrations of bass early. Some of these places may only be 30 or 40 yards wide, but they can hold the majority of the bass in that immediate area.

This morning action is often over by 10 to 11 a.m., but can continue throughout the day if it is heavily overcast with a southerly wind that accelerates the outgoing tide. Pounding grass points with buzzbaits can be an all-day tactic. I've caught 8-plus-pound bass during the midday under these conditions in the river.

Under bright conditions, however, the mai

n lake can be tough at midday. Most experienced anglers leave it, and Weaver knows exactly where to go.

"From the mouth of the Oklawaha River northward, there are a countless number of very small drainage creeks that intersect with the river," he described. "Most are along the west shoreline. They aren't big enough to put a boat in and many are tough to see unless you look for them. But they hold midday bass, even on an incoming tide. Their mouths are a jumble of lily pads and fallen timber, and best worked by slow-rolling a spinnerbait or crawling a plastic worm through them."

It's not a complex pattern. Pound the grass early and late, whether in the river or the lake, and probe creek mouths in the river at midday. It's a simple, but effective, way to handle the lower river this month.

For a little expert help in that endeavor, contact Don Weaver at (386) 467-2526 to arrange a day of guided bass fishing.

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