Mixed Bag On The Suwannee
September 30, 2010
When it comes to bass fishing, you can double your fun on this North Florida stream. The water holds largemouths aplenty and Suwannee bass as well! (March 2006)
The chance to tangle with a Suwannee bass is an added bonus on this river. Photo by Jeff Christopher.
Suwannee River bass fishing is a little-known commodity outside of the small river towns scattered throughout North Florida's Big Bend section. It includes plentiful, often cooperative bass that can be ambushed at the entrances of tidal creeks along the southern end of the river. Those largemouths run up to 11 pounds and hide along wooden structure that lines the banks. Farther north, rocks and wooded areas hold the unusual Suwannee bass, a feisty subspecies that patrols the shoreline. There are also crystal-clear springs where big bass go to spawn each year.
During the usually mild winter and spring months -- especially March and April -- the scenic river is home to some of the most dependable bass fishing anywhere.
"The Suwannee in the springtime is probably the most rewarding fishing you can do in Florida, particularly when it comes to cold fronts and the impact that they have on our shallow lakes," says Bernie Schultz, a top tournament pro and expert on the river that's located less than an hour from his Gainesville home. "Cold fronts can play havoc with the natural lakes in Florida, but moving water is the most stable water you'll find in the winter and spring.
"Unlike the lake bass, when these fish are subjected to fronts, they seek the shallowest water and hard structure like rock and wood. They position themselves tight to those structures, feeding occasionally in the current. It's easy for the average guy -- a bank-beater -- to go out there and catch fish just about anytime. The colder days seem to be the better days because the fish hold tighter to the cover."
To Schultz's way of thinking, there is no better time to fish the Suwannee than from January through April. In this season, it is not unusual to average 30 to 40 "mixed bag" bass, including both largemouth and Suwannees. His biggest bass, caught on a green-pumpkin 5-inch Yamamoto Kut-Tail worm, topped the 9-pound mark, but he emphasizes that "on the average, they're not big fish. But how many places in Florida can you fish during a cold front and catch those kinds of numbers?"
The tidal section of the lower Suwannee, particularly creeks and ditches from the mouth of the river north to Fowler's Bluff, is especially popular among local bass enthusiasts. In these shallow tributaries, bass waylay baitfish from behind abundant wooden structure, as well as lily pads.
"In this section of the river, there's always a lot of forage, and you have a dual current situation," Schultz says. "Upriver, you generally have a current flow that travels in only one direction and it's always outgoing. But at the mouth, you can double the feeding periods, because you have the tidal influence. The bass are feeding on both fresh- and saltwater forage, depending on the direction of the tide."
As with most tidal rivers, Schultz prefers a falling tide. Bass congregate at the mouth of the creeks, where they are usually easy prey during a falling tide and the first portion of the incoming flow.
For largemouth, Schultz and other Suwannee regulars target lily pad fields, canals, creeks with steep banks or hydrilla, creek intersections and bends in the river that harbor plenty of downed trees. Topwater plugs, jerkbaits, small crankbaits and spinnerbaits worked around any current break in these places often produce action.
Farther upriver, he concentrates on swift sections of steep, rocky banks, often in the outside bends of the river. A large rockpile or tree that provides a sizable break in the current is a prime place to swim a 4- to 6-inch ribbon-tailed worm for both largemouth and Suwannee bass. Rolling a spinnerbait through lily pads in slack-water stretches also scores on largemouths. Schultz' favorite is a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce version of The Blade he designed for Hildebrandt, which sports a silver-and-white skirt and tandem silver blades, tied to 17- to 20-pound-test monofilament.
Another prime largemouth bait is a 4-inch green-pumpkin or June bug Senko soft-plastic jerkbait rigged weightless.
Schultz's favorite river begins in southern Georgia and ultimately empties into the Gulf in the northwest corner of Florida. It's along the narrow banks of the Suwannee that he learned the ABCs of tidal fishing. And his experience there has made him especially adept at catching a relatively rare species of bass.
"This is my personal favorite river, because it has a species of bass that's indigenous to that river," Schultz explains. "The Suwannee bass offers a Florida angler the chance to catch a smallmouth bass. It's not a smallmouth, but it has a lot of similarities -- like the fight it puts up. They are very aggressive. Pound for pound, they are considerably meaner than a largemouth. You can find Suwannee bass in high-current areas with a lot of rock and wood -- atypical of largemouth habitat."
The opportunity to catch the distinctively different Suwannee bass is worth the visit to the picturesque river. If a smallmouth is considered the world's hardest-fighting game fish, pound-for-pound, then the Suwannee bass may deserve a similar title on an ounce-by-ounce basis. Unfortunately, few bass enthusiasts have ever experienced the king-sized charge of this pint-sized bass.
That is because the Suwannee bass has the most restricted range of any bass species. It is limited primarily to the Suwannee River system (including the Santa Fe and Withlacoochee rivers) and the Ochlocknee River in Florida and southern Georgia. This species, which rarely tops the 2-pound mark, has a body shape similar to a smallmouth and markings resembling a redeye or spotted bass.
The Suwannee bass has a dark sublateral line that's imperfectly developed and aligned straight only at the base of the tail. It has a spot at the base of the tail and lateral blotches on its sides. Its lower anterior section can be bright blue, which is one of its most distinguishing characteristics.
Because of both its diminutive size and testy demeanor, the Suwannee bass provides the perfect sport for ultralight enthusiasts.
Gainesville's Ronnie Everett owns the world record for his 3-pound, 14-ounce Suwannee bass. It was while scouting for a Suwannee River gobbler on March 5, 1985 that Everett practically stumbled onto his world-record renown.
"That was the luckiest thing that's ever happened to me," he admits. "I was floating down the river trying to get a turkey to answer me, and fishing was
sort of an afterthought. The third cast I made, I hooked this fish. I was a taxidermist at the time, and about the third time the fish jumped, I recognized that it was an unusual fish -- a Suwannee bass. And I knew it was a real big one, too."
A native of High Springs, Everett was raised on the banks of the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers, where he came to understand the habits of its various creatures. He has a keen appreciation for the uniqueness of this homegrown species.
"They're a beautiful fish, they really are," he says. "It's kind of neat because we have this fish that pretty much comes only from Florida. It's kind of our own little world-record fish.
"It's kind of like the Osceola turkey. To kill a grand slam, you have to come to Florida to get the Osceola. If you want to catch the grand slam of bass, you've got to come to Florida and catch the Suwannee bass."
One characteristic to love about this energetic little bass is that it will attempt to annihilate a small lure worked along any rocky structure. That is particularly true of crankbaits.
One of Schultz's most effective patterns involves cranking any limestone rock bank with fallen trees or brush in less than 10 feet of water. His most productive baits are a Rapala DT6 and Storm WiggleWart or Bass Hunter's Bass Magnet in crawdad or Firetiger colors, fished on 6- to 12-pound-test line.
The aggressive nature of the Suwannee bass can also be unleashed by 1/4- to 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits, the venerable Snagless Sally in-line spinner, 4- to 6-inch plastic worms, grubs and 1/4-ounce jigs with plastic crawfish trailers.
"To the novice, I would suggest that he get on the steeper banks on bends in the river and make short, quartering casts to the bank," notes Schultz, dispensing some valuable Suwannee bass advice. "A lot of strikes come right on the bank, so try to keep your bait in contact with the cover as you quarter it back towards the boat."
According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Jerry Krummrich, an extensive survey showed that most bass in the river prefer steep shoreline areas over shallow, silt-covered bottom zones with lily pads. According to the results, the biggest concentrations were found on those banks in the month of December.
Krummrich adds that the Fowler's Bluff area was the most productive area in the study, while the Cypress Creek section was the territory least utilized by both species of bass.
"Rivers typically increase in productivity from upstream to downstream," he says, "especially in Florida, as mineral-rich ground water becomes influential and aquatic plants become more abundant."
The survey also found that the Withlacoochee and Santa Fe rivers, which enter the Suwannee, are home to the largest population of Suwannee bass.
Perhaps the best way to experience all that the storied Suwannee River has to offer is to rent an affordable houseboat and tow a bass boat along behind. Miller's Suwannee Houseboats have long been a staple on the river and a mode of transportation that makes this fishing trip a true adventure.
The combination of one of these comfortable floating homes, plus my 18-foot Triton aluminum boat powered by a 150-horsepower Mercury OptiMax, allowed me to fish every possible minute and explore many of the Suwannee's hidden treasures. It was the perfect combination for experiencing a fine fishery located close to home.
Although the river is more than 250 miles in length -- stretching from Georgia's Okeefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico near the town of Suwannee -- only about 70 miles of it north from the mouth are navigable by boats of substantial size. But that stretch of the river offers an intimate look at one of the South's most unspoiled and undeveloped rivers.
Designated an official Florida Outstanding Water, the southernmost stretch of the Suwannee possesses excellent tarpon, redfish and seatrout fishing. Just a little northward can be found some fine bass fishing, though much of it is tidal-influenced. The farther north you go, the less and less influenced by the tide the good fishing areas become, making them easier to fish for some anglers.
The Suwannee has more than 20 natural clearwater springs worth exploring, but connects with no lakes. The springs provide fun but challenging bass action, since the water is so clear. Still, bass can be caught on downsized baits and light line. Target any vegetation along the edge of the spring, as well as the entrance. These springs load up with bass during the spring spawning season.
Also, the mouth of the spring where it connects to the river is typically a productive place to look for largemouths.
The Suwannee has something to interest every type of nature lover. For the more passive among us, simply cruising the river offers an excellent opportunity to view a tremendous range of wildlife, including alligators, osprey, wild turkeys and a huge array of birdlife. Those who enjoy watching life below the waterline can snorkel in a variety of small and large clearwater springs.
But it's the diversity of fishing that drew us to the Suwannee and made the chance to spend a week afloat so attractive.
Last March, our houseboat trip began with two days near the mouth of the river, where the shallow saltwater flats proved consistently cooperative for numerous species. These fish receive little pressure when compared to most Florida inshore areas. From there, we headed northward toward some of the most underrated and unique bass fishing to be found anywhere in the country.
At one point, we took the Triton and made a run to the Dowling Park area of the river. Veteran Suwannee angler Jeff Blanton, 47, had taken time off from his job as fisheries manager at Bienville Plantation in White Springs. Blanton has fished the river for 35 years or so and knows it more intimately than most of us know our back yards. His favorite stretch is from the Dowling Park boat ramp 15 miles north to the I-10 Bridge.
We spent the day flinging crawfish-colored crankbaits and a white spinnerbait along with rubber-skirted jigs. Most of the action came in super-shallow water -- the river's typically dark-colored water -- in a deep limestone quarry.
"The fishing can be really good this time of year," Blanton says. "If you have several mid-70 or low-80-degree days, it really pulls those fish right up on the bank. I've had many days on that stretch of the river during this time of the year -- and we didn't go probably a mile up the river -- where I caught 20 and 30 fish. And I'm talking about good fish. My wife caught one that weighed 9 pounds, 11 ounces."
As the spring warms up, Blanton can be found drifting downstream on his off days. His strategy involves rolling an all-white spinnerbait, cranking a variety of crawfish- and shad-colored divers and flipping a black-and-blue jig.
"It's hard to make
a pattern work consistently day after day," he explains. "It may be a spinnerbait bite one day and a crankbait bite the next. But the crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jigs -- something will usually work. When it warms up later in the spring, I also throw a gold Bang-O-Lure. I catch a lot of good fish on that."
Blanton pointed out that bass in the river tend to spawn later than others in the region.
"These fish will bed in April and May," he notes. "And I've seen them as late as July, because that river stays a whole lot cooler than surrounding lakes. But in that river, you hardly ever see a fish on a bed. I do some scuba diving off and on in that river and I have seen some fish bedding as deep as 15 feet.
"They'll bed on a ledge, a curve in the river where it's washed out. You'll find a lot of fish in an area like that. But you never see them stacked up in an area bedding, like you do at Bienville. It's mostly isolated fish. In this stretch of the river, I don't think you can actually count on going sight-fishing."
As with most Suwannee visitors, Blanton's favorite aspect of fishing the river is the chance to catch both largemouth and Suwannee bass.
"There is a very healthy largemouth population in that river," he says, "and an extremely healthy Suwannee bass population. You'll have a mixed bag anytime you fish up the river. You can't predict what you'll catch. Some days it's mostly largemouth, and some days it's mostly Suwannees."