With the coming of fall, the bass angling on our biggest river can get red-hot. That's especially true just downstream of Deland in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
By Bud Reiter
It's a rare bass fisherman who has not heard of Florida's St. Johns River. Not only is the St. Johns a unique waterway - one of the few major rivers in the world that flow to the north - but it also has a rich tournament history that goes back to the earliest days of the B.A.S.S. circuit. That history, however, and the river's present publicity center around that portion of the flow from Lake George northward.
With an overall length of over 300 miles, there is a lot more St. Johns River than that. Much of it is not well known or heavily fished, and nor will it ever host a national bass tournament.
Yet, these overlooked sections can be every bit as productive - maybe more so - than better-known areas. One such portion is the maze of quiet backwaters near DeLand that make up the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
Established in 1964, the Lake Woodruff NWR encompasses what is commonly called the "middle St. Johns River." Not an overly large area, it stretches about nine miles from a point just north of State Road 44 to the upper end of Lake Dexter, and sits on the northwest side of the city of DeLand. Within that area lie 2,200-acre Lake Woodruff, 1800-acre Lake Dexter, and a handful of small oxbows (called mud lakes locally) that comprise another 1,500 acres. Add to that the main St. Johns River, along with major tributaries like the Norris Dead River, Harry's Creek, the Ziegler Dead River, the St. Francis Dead River, Cross Creek, Alexander Spring Creek, Get Out Creek, Spring Garden Creek, and a number of smaller feeders that the local folks figured weren't big enough to waste a name on, and there is a significant amount of fishing water.
Those waters have also ranked consistently as among the most productive in the state.
"This area doesn't get talked about much," says Rick Rawlins, "but each time the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission comes out with angler creel surveys comparing different water bodies, this area ranks right up near the top, and it's been that way for years. What makes this area somewhat different from a lot of other Florida lakes, however, is that some of the best fishing can happen after the traditional spring spawning period, and extends well into the fall."
Rawlins should certainly know. He has been intimately acquainted with the area since 1962, when his father purchased Highland Park Fish Camp. Beginning in 1970, he and his brother Ron have run the camp and guided anglers on a regular basis. That's a considerable amount of experience. Surprisingly, however, Rawlins doesn't consider his hard-earned knowledge to be that critical for success.
"This isn't a tough area to fish," he claims. "It does have a variety of depth and cover situations, but there are really only a handful that are going to hold bass on a regular basis. The ones anglers need to concentrate on are lily pads, shoreline trees, open-water bars and drops in the main river, inflowing tributary mouths, and the submerged vegetation in lakes Dexter and Woodruff and the mud lakes. If anglers keep those covers in mind, finding fish in this area isn't difficult."
That is especially true during the late summer and fall months. Once water begins to warm during the summer, the shad population increases dramatically, and bass key strongly on this forage. Rawlins has a simple plan for targeting the bass at this time.
"Unless I found some real good schooling activity at a specific spot in the main river or one of the back creeks," he explains, "my first stop in the morning would be in either Dexter or Woodruff. Like most Florida lakes, these normally see their best activity during the morning hours during warmer weather, and although the waters are starting to cool, September and October are still plenty warm. I would initially be targeting lily pads in 3 to 5 feet of water and start fishing the deeper edges first. If that didn't produce, I would move shallower and concentrate on the thicker areas of pads that form a significant overhead cover."
That is normally enough to bend a rod or two for most of the year. But during the late-summer periods, when water temperatures are at their peak, Rawlins adds another target to his list.
Rick Rawlins lips a largemouth into the boat in a backwater, dead river just off the main St. Johns River. Photo by Bud Reiter
"Submerged cover like hydrilla and coontail can draw a lot of fish in the hottest weather," he states. "If the pads didn't produce fairly quickly, I definitely start looking at the deeper hydrilla patches."
In Dexter, Rawlins favors the southwest side of the lake a few miles below Channel Marker 15. In Lake Woodruff, the northwest corner and the southern end usually draw his attention first. In either lake, his lure selection is not complicated.
"It's hard to beat a spinnerbait when it comes to finding fish in the morning hours," he notes. "It covers the water quickly and bass eat the heck out of them. A 1/4- or 3/8-ounce tandem bait with a rear willowleaf and a front Colorado blade seems to be the most consistent producer. Under bright conditions, a white skirt and nickel blades work well, but a combination of a chartreuse skirt and gold or bronze blades can sometimes produce better if it is overcast."
During the September to October period, however, Rawlins often shifts to a tandem-blade 3/8-ounce buzzbait with chartreuse blades and skirt, or a black skirt with aluminum blades. He notes that this often produces bigger bass than do spinnerbaits at this time of the year.
"You won't get as many hits as you will with a spinnerbait," he acknowledges, "but the ones you do get will definitely get your attention. They will produce more 5- to 10-pound bass."
Should bass just boil near or short-strike the blade baits, Rawlins shifts to swimming soft-plastic lures. Baits such as lightly weighted curly-tailed plastic worms, Trick Worms and soft-plastic jerkbaits are ideal for this angling. These often turn "boilers" into "biters" and allow water to be covered quickly. For Rawlins, covering water is an important consideration.
"One thing anglers should keep in mind," he explains, "regardless of what kind of cover they are fishing, is that these bass can concentrate into relatively small areas of the lakes. If you fish a quarter-mile of good cover without a hit and suddenly catch four or five fish in 100 yards, it pays to go back through that area and work it thoroughly with a variety of lures. You may have found one of the biggest concentrations of bass in that area, and it makes little se
nse to fish it quickly and then leave and go looking for new fish."
Under most circumstances, the lake action is over by noon, or earlier. To finish the day, Rawlins moves into either the main river or the side creeks. Which one he chooses depends primarily on what the current is doing that day.
"Once you leave the lakes," he claims, "the current flow will determine how well the fish feed. This is not tidal water like the river to the north of us, and we don't get a normal current reversal each day. It's a straight, free-flowing river environment and the fish get used to the current running in only one direction. Like most river fish, an accelerated current flow will turn them on, and a sudden decrease in the current will turn them off.
"The problem with this area is that there is very little gradient, so the wind can play a major role in the current flow, and sometimes it does it overnight."
Since the river flows northward, a strong southerly wind or heavy rainfall downstream can kick the current - and the bass - into high gear.
If the wind shifts and comes hard from the north, it can stop the current or even make the river flow backwards. This shuts off the fish in the main river immediately.
"You have to watch the current," Rawlins has found, "but if it is running well, the main river can produce large concentrations of bass."
That often includes large numbers of surface-schooling bass feeding on the abundant shad. Most schooling activity takes place in relatively open water, with intersecting creek mouths, the mouths of mud lakes, and numerous open-water bars being the most productive. Some of the most consistent schooling areas are in the vicinity of channel markers 15, 20, 24, 26 and 38.
This activity can occur at any time of the day and is often visible for quite a distance as the largemouths are joined by sunshine and striped bass in blasting shad schools on the surface. Most shad-imitating lures can be effective. But given the often-finicky nature of river schoolers, savvy anglers tote a variety of topwater plugs, lead tail-spinners, jig and plastic trailer combos, and crankbaits. Matching the hatch is sometimes critical for success here.
At times, drifting a Carolina-rigged worm or lizard under the schoolers can produce bigger bass.
If visible schooling activity is lacking, Rawlins concentrates on lily pad beds - especially those at tributary creek intersections, on small points jutting into the current, and on sharper dropoffs along outside bends.
|LAKE WOODRUFF NWR INFORMATION|
To obtain more details on the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding attractions, visit the DeLand Chamber of Commerce, 336 North Woodland Blvd., DeLand, FL 32720, or give them a call at (904) 734-4331.
Rick Rawlins is available for guided bass fishing on the St. Johns River and surrounding waters by contacting him at Highland Park Fish Camp. They are located at 2640 West Highland Park Road, DeLand, FL 32720. You can reach him by telephone at (800) 525-3477.
Highland Park Fish Camp can provide accommodations, boat launch facilities, rental boats, live bait and tackle in addition to guide services.
The mouths of tributary creeks are particularly worthy of further exploration.
"If the bass aren't up in the pads," Rawlins explains, "it's worth tossing a diving crankbait or Carolina rig down the open-water drop, just off the mouth. Schools of bass can sometimes stack up in the open water on that drop."
Fishing a live shiner tight to any vegetation at a creek mouth is also a deadly tactic and often results in larger bass for those who have patience.
If the current isn't flowing well, Rawlins won't waste time on the main river and heads immediately for the back creeks. These "dead rivers" do not normally have a significant current flow, and their bass population is not as affected by slow water. Under conditions that can shut the main-river fish down, these bass can continue to be active. Rawlins doesn't spend a lot of time exploring. He knows exactly what he wants to fish.
"There are a lot of small, shallow bars that lie right next to the channel in these back creeks," he notes. "Most of them have lily pads or scattered grass on them, and even on the brightest, hottest day, bass get right up on those bars and hold around the roots of that vegetation. This is especially true if there is any floating vegetation that has blown in around the pads."
Texas-rigged plastic worms in the 6- to 8-inch size in red shad, black with blue tail, or June bug patterns are often the best bet if bass are holding tightly to the roots. But an overcast sky or surface-ruffling breeze can make spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and topwater plugs very effective. Quiet hard-plastic or wood minnow-shaped jerkbaits are popular with many, but Rawlins often favors a modified Devil's Horse.
"If you remove the front propeller and replace the factory hooks with 4X-strong models in the same size," he offers, "it makes the tail sit lower in the water and lets you achieve a walk-the-dog kind of retrieve. This seems to draw bigger fish if you have dim light or a ruffled surface."
Another back creek target worth fishing - particularly for larger bass - is fallen treetops extending over deeper water on outside bends. This is especially true if floating vegetation has drifted in around the limbs to form an overhead canopy.
"These individual trees don't hold the concentrations of bass the pad bars do," Rawlins says, "but they hold some big fish. They're well worth flipping with a big plastic craw or soaking a shiner underneath for 10 minutes or so. If you hit enough of these during the day, you run into some big fish, and this area produces a bunch of 10-pound bass each year."
That makes it well worth the time it takes for anglers to get to know this section of the river. But it comes with a caveat.
If there is a drawback to fishing the Lake Woodruff NWR, it is that the entire area is heavily regulated with boating speed limits intended to protect the flourishing manatee population. Regulated enough, in fact, that the maximum speed allowed is 30 mph - and in many areas one is required to idle.
Planing-speed "travel corridors" that allow 25 to 30 mph depending upon location are confined to the main channel of the St. Johns River and the center sections (1,500 feet off of the shoreline) in lakes Woodruff and Dexter. The remainder of the area is largely posted as "Slow Speed/No Wake" - which means the boat must be level in the water, producing no measurable wake, and traveling in the 5- to 7-mph range. In most areas, the required speed limits are properly posted and the signs are readily visible to anglers.
The manatee-area speed limits do seriously impede anglers in their travel, and some experts contest the need for such restrictive speed limits.
"There hasn't been a manatee killed by a boat in this area since 1992," says Rick Rawlins, "and the boat that killed that one was an oil barge in the main river, not a bass-boat-type skiff. During the intervening years, the local manatee population has more than doubled, and even the federal biologists admit that this manatee population is in excellent shape, and not truly endangered.
"No one wants to see the manatee population suffer," he continues, "but there comes a time when you get federal regulatory overkill that is far in excess of what is required to accomplish the objective. That's what's happening here, and fishermen are paying the price for it."
Boating speeds in this area are slow. That's a negative for some, and it does tend to keep boat traffic lower than would be normal for a productive Florida bass fishery.
It also reduces angling pressure and might be one of the reasons the area has been so productive over the years. Regardless, it makes this a perfect environment for anglers with small boats. And it doesn't preclude the use of bass boats. Despite the fact that you have to go slow, you can still find fast bass action on this wildlife refuge.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Florida Game & Fish