September 30, 2010
In the area from Jacksonville to Gainesville, the bass fishing is hot this month. And here are some waters and tactics that are your ticket to the action! (April 2007)
Tossing a spinnerbait in April can produce bass like this lunker largemouth on the St. Johns River.
Photo by William J. Bohica.
No matter where you fish for bass in northeast Florida, it's hard to find a better time to do it than the period from mid-March to mid-May. Regardless of how severe the winter may have been, there are some bass spawning during late March. In many areas -- especially on the northern end of the region -- April can see the peak of the spawn. Once the spawn winds down, there are still plenty of bass in the shallows and they are ready to feed!
That's as good as it gets, and there are plenty of places where it gets good. But here are two spots where spending some time can really pay off this month!
SANTA FE LAKE
At a combined 5,800 acres, Santa Fe Lake and the connecting Little Santa Fe Lake aren't large waters in size. But they fish bigger than they look.
Located in Melrose, they sit in the "sand hill lake" country, and the bottom strata is hard sand with a surprising number of offshore shell beds, ridges and finger bars. Like similar lakes, they run deep. Maximum depths reach 27 feet, and a lot more water is deeper than 10 feet than shallower. The offshore habitat is significant, and the lakes are also two of the few water bodies in Florida with a large threadfin shad population, which provides a wealth of open-water forage. Unlike some other lakes in this general area, Santa Fe has also enjoyed a remarkably stable habitat over the years, which has promoted a very stable bass population.
The shallow littoral zone, comprising only a small portion of the lakes, is largely filled with maiden cane and cypress trees that can grow out to depths of 6 or 7 feet. For much of the year, the bass make only infrequent visits to those shallows during the early morning and evening hours. The fish spend much of their time at depths below 10 feet, where they have everything they need to flourish.
But that changes during the spawn. April is the peak of the spawn on Santa Fe and sees the majority of the bass relating to shallower water. That puts them within reach of most anglers, and there are a number of ways to connect with them.
One consistent area they use is what is commonly referred to as "the trees" on the south end of Santa Fe Lake. This 2-mile long section is a mixture of mature cypress trees, shallow maiden cane and fallen timber. It's one of the better spawning areas on the lake, and anglers working it during the morning and evening hours are likely to score.
Six-inch Texas-rigged plastic worms in red shad or June-bug colors are local favorites and always good choices for this fishing. But those plastics also represent a slow method of locating and targeting the spawners. Bass often congregate into relatively small areas in the trees. Many anglers have found that working quickly with shallow-running square-bill crankbaits, or Rat-L-Trap-type lures can find those concentrations more easily. Once a good area is located, then you can turn to the plastics to work the area more thoroughly with the worm.
For this section of the lake, the most effective technique is to move quickly, find the bass, and then stay in that area. Though some anglers have experienced success here during the midday hours or all day if it is heavily overcast, this is generally a morning or evening spot.
Another excellent early and late pattern is working the larger shoreline maiden cane beds. There are a number of these scattered about both lakes and they generally form an outside edge in about 5 to 6 feet of water. The inner areas are riddled with open potholes, while the extreme inside edges often see significant bass spawning activity. On the main lake, some of the larger beds are located along the east shore from Lakeside Landing south to Melrose Bay, and on the west shoreline from Santa Fe Beach south towards Bonnet Cove.
Savvy anglers approach the maiden cane the same way they tackle the trees -- first find a concentration of bass, and then work the area thoroughly.
A plastic worm worked along the edge is sure, but slow. Putting the boat parallel with the outer grass edge and working a lipless lure, or a hard-plastic jerkbait, like the Bomber Long A in gold with an orange belly stripe, more quickly finds those grass beds that are holding bass.
Once largemouths are found, a soft-plastic jerkbait or fluke-type bait worked in the inside potholes often finds more of those fish. Or try tossing a Texas-rigged plastic worm. If the action is truly hot, then easing the boat to the inside edge of the maiden cane bed may reveal some big spawning females that you can sight-fish with soft-plastics.
Both of the above tactics are proven ways to start -- or end -- the day on Santa Fe. But during the midday hours, a change of tactics is recommended.
Some bass remain in the shoreline cover, but far more of them move out and spend the midday hours over submerged grass in the 7- to 9-foot depths. Those can lie anywhere from 10 to 50 yards off the maiden cane edges, especially along those sections of shoreline boasting a large number of docks. Some fish may hold on docks, but a larger percentage hang out a cast or two farther out from those structures.
Other top choices for midday bass are the ends of submerged points. Although most maps don't show them, there are a number of tapering points coming off the shoreline and dropping sharply into 10 to 12 feet of water. Many of these protrusions are covered by a mixture of bottom-growing grass and shell. The bass relate to them the same way they use points on man-made reservoirs --in dim light, they move shallow to feed and retreat to the drop-off at midday.
Carolina- or Texas-rigged worms and lizards are highly effective on these open-water fish. The hard-plastic jerkbaits mentioned earlier will outfish them, but they must be capable of being twitched down to depths of 5 or 6 feet. The erratic darting action of a jerkbait can often trigger a strike from bass that may ignore a slow-moving plastic worm.
Locating these offshore spots can take some time, but anglers who are willing to troll can speed up the process. In fact, one elderly gentleman who runs a small skiff with a 15-horsepower outboard is a frequent sight on the lake this time of year. He has it down to a science of using his depthfinder to maintain a constant depth of 7 or 8 feet of water beneath his boat and slowly circles the lake, trolling a minnow lure.
As soon as he gets a strike, he tosses a marker buoy, lands the fish, and then returns to the spot to cast it with worms or jerkbaits. He seldom gets skunked, and 20-fish days are not uncommon for him.
Two other midday options are worth noting.
Off these lakes, there are several relatively shallow canals: one at the northeast corner of Little Santa Fe and another midway up the east shoreline of the main lake. These are heavily vegetated and have some of the most sheltered spawning areas on the lakes. Anglers flipping the matted shoreline cover can run into some hefty fish.
Another area worth checking is the pass between Santa Fe and the little lake. This is a shallow flat connecting to deeper drops on either end. Submerged grass patches are scattered across it. If a northerly or southerly breeze is moving water through, bass feed here actively, regardless of the time of day. Some bass may be along the shoreline grass, but many are right in the open waters where a crankbait or jerkbait can be very effective.
Accessing Santa Fe Lake is easy. A small, but adequate, free public ramp is located on the northeast end of Little Santa Fe Lake on State Route 21B, while a larger public ramp is located on the southern end off of SR 26 in Melrose. That makes it a pretty simple lake to get onto, and one where you can stay on fish throughout the day this time of year.
St. JOHNS RIVER
(Welaka To Palatka)
It's hard to discuss the St. Johns River in general terms because along its 300-mile length, it is anything but "general." At its humble beginnings west of Melbourne, it's just a collection of small free-flowing creeks and quiet backwaters. Gaining strength as it flows northward, it becomes a true river somewhere below Sanford, and next transforms into Lake George, Florida's second-largest body of water, by the time it reaches the Volusia/Putnam/Marion County region.
From there, it turns into a reversing-current, tidal river to the north of the lake. By the time it meets the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville, the St. Johns River is more salt water than fresh, and red bass are more common than the black variety.
In this varied environment, one of the most interesting and yet overlooked portions of the river is the section between Welaka and Palatka.
This is true tidal water, where current reverses direction four times a day and saltwater fish are known to show up in angler's creels. Yet it also receives a significant influx of fresh water from the Oklawaha River, the Barge Canal leading to Rodman Reservoir, and Dunns Creek that connects to Crescent Lake.
Relatively narrow, this section boasts a wealth of offshore bars, inside bends, submerged points, and a number of small islands. It offers a rich and productive environment for bass angling. That's especially true from mid-March through April, and for two good reasons.
The first is, this is the peak of the spawning season in this section of the river. A significant percentage of the bass are seeking shallow, sheltered waters. But in recent years, shoreline eelgrass has been in sharp decline, and this has adversely impacted the spawning habitat in the main river.
There isn't a lot of desirable shallow-water vegetation left for the bass to use. However, they use what they can find. And anglers who take the time to find the remaining grass also find fish.
That means that anglers in the main river may need to do a lot of looking before they can start fishing effectively. But once you find good shallow-water spawning habitat, the bass won't be absent for long.
Another good option is to locate deeper shorelines, out of the main current flow, that have a lot of fallen timber on them.
The second reason why this season is so good is that anglers don't need to spend a lot of time probing the main river. This section has a wealth of shallow manmade canals. Even back when eelgrass was abundant in the main river, these sheltered areas were premier spawning spots used by a lot of bass. Given the current lack of spawning habitat in the main river, many more largemouths are now heading to the canals. That is where you should be heading too!
Beginning just north of Welaka and next to Welaka Springs, there's a canal system with one main branch and a number of finger canals leading from it. From there to the railroad bridge at Buffalo Bluff are several small canals on the east side of the river. Buffalo Bluff boasts a large canal system on the east side as well. Anglers heading farther north, to duck into Dunns Creek, find several large canal mazes where it's possible to spend more than a few days without seeing the same water twice.
When it comes to fishing canals, a couple of points need to be kept in mind. Bass often prefer to spawn in the quietest waters at the rear of the canal. But prior to that, they generally prefer to stage in the deeper water at the mouth of the canal, or in the first portions of the canal where they have quick access to the deeper water outside the mouth.
Once they commit to entering the canal to spawn, the larger females normally hold right out in the middle of the waterway, especially in any deeper sections or at the spot where two canals intersect. They may also be underneath any surface matted vegetation along the canal banks.
If the canal has docks, these provide more holding spots. And bass may hold around the outside mouth of the canal for a week or more before they enter, then stay in a canal for several days before they actually fan a bed.
One way savvy fishermen capitalize on this behavior is to start at the mouth of a canal. They toss out a live shiner under a float behind the boat, and then using their trolling motor to move slowly along the length of the canal.
The angler in the back of the boat can mind the shiner, while the one in front, running the trolling motor, can look for bedding fish, which can then be sight-fished as they are found. If the bass are bedding, the front angler will see them. If the fish are just staging up -- or if boat traffic has spooked them off their beds to the safety of the mid-canal -- the shiner catches them.
Anglers who prefer artificial lures can use the same approach. Working slowly down the middle of the canal tossing crankbaits, while scanning the banks for beds, is an effective approach. In this portion of the river, most of the canals are relatively shallow at less than 8 feet deep, so countdown crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap or other baits that reach down 4 or 5 feet are excellent choices.
Some of the proven color patterns are Tennessee shad, bleeding shiner, or a gold bait with a florescent orange belly stripe. During the end of April, as waters start to warm quickly, a hard-plastic jerkbait like the Bomber Long A or Strike King Wild Shiner can be deadly.
al waters can be productive, but if the waterway is shallow -- and especially if matted shoreline vegetation forms an overhead cover -- anglers need a flipping rod. If deeper water isn't available, bass will snuggle under matted cover, even if there's not much more than a couple of feet of water beneath it.
Canals are a key in this area this time of year. But not every canal holds fish at the same time. One canal might be barren, while the next one can be loaded. It pays to stay on the move until you find one that's holding fish. Just hit enough canals, and you are likely to find out why April is the best month to fish this portion of the St. Johns River.