Mid-Florida's Down-Home Angling

Mid-Florida's Down-Home Angling

From Gainesville to Jacksonville, there are plenty of places to target catfish in the summertime. Here are few destinations you don't want to overlook this month! (June 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Why is Florida called the Fishing Capital of the World? It earned that moniker. Whether you're looking for freshwater or saltwater opportunities, the possibilities we have make anglers in most other states jealous.

From March through October, lakes like Okeechobee, Hatchineha, Tohopekaliga, Panasoffkee, or the St. Johns River offer unparallel bream fishing.

In these waters and countless others, largemouth bass fishing is as good as any place in the country. And then there is the saltwater.

With all that variety, we sometimes overlook the catfish. But for the roughly 3 million residents in the Gainesville-to-Jacksonville corridor, there are plenty of great places for catfishing as well.

Let's have a look at some of the best rivers and lakes in that area for catfish -- plus a few tactics that just might help you have a successful outing this year.

But first, we'll consider what species of catfish are important to freshwater anglers.

THE CATS

Fishermen in northeast Florida are apt to catch four species of catfish with some regularity.

Channel catfish can grown up to 50 pounds or more and are some of the better-tasting cats around.

White catfish is another species that rarely grows larger than 12 to 15 pounds.

Brown bullheads seldom grow larger than 5 pounds, but have the unique trait of often traveling in schools.

Finally there's the spotted bullhead, the smallest of all the bullhead species. In fact, they are so small no one has ever submitted an application to establish a Florida state record for the species. That's in spite of needing only a fish that meets the minimum qualifying weight of 2 pounds.

WHERE TO CATFISH

Using Gainesville as a starting point, just a short drive to the west is one of the best free-flowing rivers that offers great catfishing. The Suwannee River begins in Georgia and courses its way south across peninsular Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

At first it snakes along past steep limestone rock banks until the river and terrain both flatten out south of Old Town.

Dewey Weaver is a Lake City resident who knows the Suwannee well and is now retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said fishing is better in the middle section of the river -- basically, from the Dowling Park area down to the Old Town-Fanning Springs region where U.S. Highway 98 crosses the stream.

Along this stretch of the Suwannee, there are plenty of places to bank-fish, but most fishing is from boats. Weaver said there are no secrets to fishing the river. Most anglers just anchor upriver from holes or patches of sandy gravel bottom and drop bait down into those areas. They tend to catch channel and white cats or the much smaller spotted bullheads.

Some anglers use poles, but most fish with rods and reels, 3/4-ounce egg sinkers and earthworms for bait. Weaver said he didn't know why, but catfish anglers don't catch many channel cats out of the Suwannee bigger than 1 1/2 to 2 pounds in size.

There is one novel safety issue regarding the Suwannee. The river supports the largest population of Gulf sturgeon of any stream on the Gulf Coast. These fish can grow to 8 feet in length and weigh 200 pounds. Last summer, there were more than half a dozen incidents of boaters on the Suwannee being injured by free-jumping sturgeon! The FWCC advises Suwannee boaters to wear their life jackets and go slow.

One thing the Suwannee also has is an abundance of boat ramps. There's an assortment of state, county and private launch points scattered up and down the river. Information about state-owned ramps is available online at MyFWC.com

Over in Columbia County at Lake City are two lakes with plenty of catfish available to anglers. Watertown Lake and Montgomery Lake are both managed by the FWCC.

Of the two, Watertown Lake is the larger and deeper. It has 46 acres and measures a little over 20 feet at its deepest location. Montgomery Lake covers 36 acres and is roughly 12 feet deep at its deepest point.

Freshwater fisheries biologist Jerry Krummrich, who works out of the FWCC North-Central Regional Office in Lake City, said both lakes are stocked annually with 5,000 channel catfish that when released are about 8 inches long.

Krummrich said the FWCC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Welaka National Fish Hatchery in Putnam County, have an excellent working arrangement for producing small channel catfish for stocking across northeast Florida.

Under their agreement, the FWCC spawns the catfish at their Richloam Hatchery, then moves the fry to the Welaka Hatchery where they can grow to suitable size for stocking.

It doesn't take those fish long to find the automatic fish feeders located on the ponds.

"The fish feeders are out in the lakes. And you really need a boat," the biologist explained, "because that's where the fish are. Sometimes you see a boat, and both anglers will have their limit, and other times they might not catch any. But there's plenty of fish there."

On most Florida lakes and rivers, there is no bag limit for channel or other species of catfish. However, on most fish-management areas, there is a daily bag limit of six channel cats

Krummrich said that most anglers fish on or near the bottom, using either cane poles or rods and reels. Typical baits include earthworms, chicken livers, commercially prepared "stinkbaits" or cut shad.

"I do recommend that people start out fishing near the feeders," he emphasized.

Both lakes have concrete boat ramps and good fishing piers.

Both Watertown and Montgomery lakes are located northeast of Lake City and off U.S. Highway 90.

In nearby Hamilton County, Eagle Lake and Lang Lake are also designated as fish-management areas and they may offer "the best

catfishing in northeast Florida," according to Dewey Weaver. The fact that both lakes are a little off the beaten path means they get less fishing pressure.

Both Eagle and Lang are old flooded phosphate pits owned by PCS Phosphate. Some years ago, the FWCC reached an agreement with the owners to manage these fertile lakes as public-fishing waters.

Both are stocked annually with channel catfish, whose numbers depend on the availability of fish from the hatchery. In addition to channel cats, both lakes have plenty of brown bullheads.

As you might expect with former phosphate pits, both are deep. Eagle measures 35 feet deep in places, and Lang is a little shallower. Both lakes have good boat ramps, and their limited bank access means you definitely want to fish by boat.

Weaver said that he and a son were fishing Eagle Lake recently, using minnows and crickets -- and had the best catch of catfish they'd seen in a long time.

"We were actually after crappie and bream, but we got into big channel cat," he said. "We caught several that were 7 to 8 pounds, and got one to the boat that we didn't land that was probably 12 or 13 pounds.

Unlike channel cats, the brown bullheads tend to move and feed in schools. If you catch one or two, it's a good idea to keep fishing the same area. There are probably more of those bullheads nearby.

On both lakes, the daily bag limit for channel cats is six. But there is no limit for bullheads.

If you plan to fish Eagle and Lang for catfish, you probably will need to fish with rods and reels, due to the depth. Most serious catfishermen on the lakes go to the deeper holes and typically use earthworms and stinkbaits.

Both lakes are open to fishing during daylight hours only. No gasoline motors may be used on either lake.

To get to these lakes, take U.S. 41 north from White Springs. Turn right on County Road 137, then look for the signs.

A good catfishing lake just east of Gainesville on the Putnam and Marion County line is Rodman Reservoir. This impoundment was part of the ill-conceived, ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal that President Nixon stopped in 1971.

Rodman tends is a fairly shallow reservoir, but offers excellent fishing for channel cats, white cats and brown bullheads, particularly near the old river channel.

A couple of years ago, a friend and his son drove down to Rodman for a few days of bass and bream fishing. They caught a few largemouths and some bream, but then ran into a local man with a box full of 1- to 2-pound channel cats. The fisherman told them his secret was to fish near the old river channel with red worms.

They anchored in water 9 to 10 feet deep and had the time of their lives, pulling in channel cats on limber bream busters.

Joe Crumpton, a retired FWCC fisheries biologist, is still known as "The Catfish Man." He got that nickname prior to his retirement by publishing a newsletter about the best places in the state to target cats.

On Rodman, Crumpton recommended fishing on the bottom near the dam with traditional baits, such as earthworms or stinkbaits.

He suggested stopping below Rodman at any of the sandbars in the Ocklawaha River -- assuming the water is low enough -- and looking for mussels the size of a half dollar.

"You can't find a better bait for channel cats than mussels," he stated. "That's really an overlooked fishery in the Ocklawaha."

There are several good boat ramps on the south and east sides of Rodman Reservoir. Parking is usually no problem, except when bass tournaments are taking place.

To reach the lake from Palatka, take state Route 19 to the southwest. After crossing the Barge Canal, follow the signs to the impoundment.

In Clay County, another good place for catfish is Ronnie Vanzant Park Lake near Green Cove Springs. The 5-acre lake is a fish-management area and a good example of what a cooperative venture between state and county authorities can accomplish.

Biologist Jerry Krummrich said the FWCC stocks this popular lake with 5,000 channel cats annually and provides fish feeders. County personnel then take care of filling and maintaining the feeders.

No boats are allowed on the lake, unlike at most other fish-management areas. But the county does a superb job of keeping the grass cut and bank clean for easy public access.

Another major difference is a provision that no one can fish unless accompanied by an angler under 16 years of age. That kind of regulation is an investment in the future of fishing by recruiting new anglers. It's also something most visitors to the park seem to like.

Practically everyone has heard of the St. Johns River, and it rates a place on the list of the area's great catfish waters.

North of the equator, most rivers flow north to south. But the St. Johns, one of those oddities of nature, flows south to north. The river starts in the St. Johns Marsh, inland of Vero Beach in southeast Florida. From there, it flows north through Jacksonville before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the time, the stretch near Jacksonville is too salty for catching channel or white catfish. Joe Crumpton said the best section of the river for catfishing is from Palatka down to Murphy and Dunns creeks.

Most anglers look for holes or harder bottom to do their fishing, typically using baits such as earthworms, chicken livers or pieces of cut-up shad. A bait that Crumpton has found works very well for channel catfish in the St. Johns is cut pieces of pond sucker. To make these baits, of course, you have to first go out and catch your own pond suckers.

Saving the best for last, nine area fish-management lakes surrounding Jacksonville are open to fishing: Oceanway, Hanna Park, Pope, Duval East, Duval West, Bethesda, Huguenot, Crystal Springs and St. Augustine Road lakes. Their common denominator is that they all receive a tremendous amount of fishing pressure.

These urban ponds, ranging in size from 2 to 27 acres, receive yearly stockings of 1,000 channel catfish per acre.

"We work with the city of Jacksonville to provide the fish and keep check on the ponds," Krummrich noted. "But they do all the mowing and maintenance on the bank areas. It's a real first-class operation."

There are fish feeders in place at all of the ponds, a fact that's not lost on the fish or the anglers who go there. Both congregate around those devices.

On all the Duval County urban ponds,

as with other managed lakes, special regulations are in place. Boats can be used on all of them except the Crystal Springs Park Pond. Gasoline motors are prohibited. A creel limit of six channel catfish per person applies to all of these managed ponds.

The Jacksonville Urban Ponds Brochure has a directional map for the lakes. To view it online, go to www.myfwc.com. Follow the links through "Fishing," "Freshwater Fishing," and "Fish Management Areas." Next, scroll down to "Duval County" and click on the "Jacksonville Urban Ponds Brochure" link.

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