When it comes to bass fishing, the Florida Panhandle is a much different venue than the waters further south in the Sunshine State.
The fishing is more laid back; there's rarely a wait at a boat ramp, and anglers are more likely to see deer, wild turkey or bear along the forested shorelines than a multi-million-dollar home or a condo.
Those looking for a 10-pound Florida strain largemouth should look further south, as the fast-growing monsters begin about Gainesville and continue through the peninsula; the bass of the Panhandle are northern strain intergrades, and like river fish everywhere they tend to be lean and mean rather than fat and happy.
But for lots of action and beautiful, unspoiled surroundings, minimal fishing pressure and great variety, Panhandle rivers have a lot to offer.
The average "quality" bass is a 3-pounder — most local tournaments are won by five fish totaling 12 to 15 pounds, though spring can turn out a few 5-pounders. One of the big pluses in fishing the lower rivers is the mixing of saltwater species with the fresh — it's not at all uncommon at the right time of year to catch a largemouth on one cast, a redfish on the next and a spotted seatrout on the third.
Hybrid stripers or "sunshine bass" as they're called by the FWC are also very abundant. There's also a steadily improving stock of Gulf striped bass, fish which regularly top 20 pounds and occasionally quite a bit more.
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The Apalachicola River is a big, often muddy river that flows out of Woodruff Dam on Lake Seminole a little over 100 miles to where it meets Apalachicola Bay.
According to the FWC, it's the state's largest river in terms of water volume. It's a famed spot for white bass and "sunshine bass," the white bass/striper hybrids stocked by the millions by the FWC — the state record has repeatedly been broken in the fast water directly below the dam during the March spawning migrations. It currently stands at 16.31 pounds, but that fish came from above the dam, where the Apalachicola originates.
Other current state records from the Apalachicola include the record striper at 42.25 pounds, white bass at 4.69 pounds, redeye bass at 7.83, shoal bass at 5.2 and spotted bass at 3.75 pounds. And of course there are plenty of largemouths.
An interesting and unusual bass fishery occurs in the lower reaches of the river where it meets tidewater in March and April and again in late October as shrimp move into the marshes of the delta. The river splits into a number of narrow and shallow side channels before flowing into the open waters of Apalachicola Bay, providing many miles of wooded shoreline and winding creeks.
Largemouths move down river to feast on the crustaceans, most often on saltmarsh flats with lot of emergent reeds, and anglers use long cane poles (or modern fiberglass/graphite replacements) to drop live shrimp into the reeds and other cover along the shore. The bass tend to be found in large schools here, and while the average size is 1 to 3 pounds, 5-pounders are caught.
Fat-bodied crankbaits with lots of flotation are one of the best bets for this action because they allow fast coverage of water to find concentrations of fish. And, the high-flotation lures tend to "back up" and come free of the many snags hit in the river. Because of the snags, fairly heavy line is a must. Jigs are also effective, and get a lot better in late March and on into early May as the fish go through the pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn periods around shoreline brush. Spinnerbaits and buzzbaits can also be effective, particularly before and after the spawn.
In the delta area, deep, bassy creeks go everywhere. East River is one of the larger creeks and always a good bet, but so are Chipley Creek, Brothers River, Little Brothers Slough, Harrison Creek, St. Marks River, Little St. Marks River and Acorn Lake Creek, all in the last 20 miles before the bay.
There are not a lot of access points away from the town of Apalachicola — everything to the north is serious wild country with only forest service dirt roads leading to the river for many miles at a stretch.
There are ramps at the Apalachicola City Dock, Gardner Landing on East River, Cash Creek off of Hwy. 65, Magnolia Bluff on the east end of the Hwy 98 Bridge in East Point and at the end of Bluff Road within Box-R WMA. Private launching facilities can be found at several marinas in Apalachicola, in East Point, and Howard's Creek off the Brother's River, and on Searcy Creek (Intracoastal Waterway) in White City.
The Ochlockonee River is a more-narrow, dark-flow river running through Apalachicola National Forest out of Lake Talquin. It's a place to see a lot of wildlife, including possibly a black bear, along shore. It's not an easy river to fish though due to the many overhanging trees, brush piles and submerged timber, but it has lots of bass. It's not a place for big, fast fiberglass bass boats — a tough aluminum johnboat or a canoe or kayak will serve better. There are numerous shoals, some barely ankle deep, when the water is low, so easing along slowly is a must when under outboard power.
There's good striper/hybrid fishing at the dam in late February and on through March as the fish move upstream to spawn. The routine is to tie to the orange-buoyed cable that keeps boaters out of the race itself and cast up into the fast water with 1/3- to 1/2-ounce jigs usually trimmed with 4- to 5-inch swimmer tails in pearl or chartreuse. Best bass fishing is in spring and early summer when water levels tend to be low — Florida's dry season is in spring on the Gulf Coast.
The Ochlockonee is famed for redbreast sunfish, which are readily caught on bream poles with worms or crickets in holes in the shoreline brush. They also take flies readily, but many areas of the river are too narrow for effective backcasts.
There's also a good crappie run below the dam in December and January, with lots of fish over 10 inches long in the fast water feeding on shad — small spinnerbaits do the job.
One of the keys to success on the Ochlockonee is to find deep water, and that can take some travel when the flow is low. In fact, during dry conditions, much of the river cannot be navigated in a powerboat, though it remains a good float trip for kayakers and canoe anglers.
As in many rivers, deep holes tend to be found on the outside edge of sharp bends — and there are a whole lot of sharp bends in this river. There are also oxbows or cutoffs, and many side creeks, which are always worth working over carefully.
Very small topwater lures like the Rapala F4 and the smallest Rebels are a good choice because they will catch everything from largemouths to Suwannee bass to an assortment of panfish, and since they float they are much less likely to get into snag trouble. Throw them as tight to the brush, and work them in a series of sharp jerks out to about 10 feet off the bank before reeling in to hit the next likely spot.
In some areas the river splits into numerous tongues through the forest, and determining which way to follow it can be a coin toss without a GPS aboard (Don't depend on cell phone navigation, the towers don't necessarily reach out here). Forest Highway 13 is one of the few bridges, while SR 67 is to the west, Smith Creek Road or SR 329 to the east, but in many areas the swamp is so tangled that walking out is a real nightmare.
Probably the best ramp on the entire river is at Ochlockonee State Park, off SR 319 south of the village of Sopchoppy. Anglers can launch here to go upriver and fish for bass, bream and catfish, or downriver and fish for trout, reds and sheepshead. Tides and brackish water can be found as much as 15 miles upriver from the mouth, depending on moon phase.
The saltwater action gets a lot better in winter, when the saltwater species move well into the river, and are readily caught on live shrimp or jigs fished in the deeper rocky holes. There's a good saltwater ramp directly on the open bay on the south side of the U.S. 98 bridge, south of Panacea.
The Choctawhatchee River is Florida's third largest in terms of volume, flowing 96 miles from the Alabama border into the bay of the same name. It's noted for producing the largest blue cat on on record for Florida — 69.5 pounds — as well as one of the few spots where alligator gar are still found on rare occasion — the state record 123-pounder was caught there in 1995.
Bass action is in snags and overhangs in the middle and upriver areas, and around the sawgrass edges in the lower sections where the river valley becomes a flat, slow-flowing delta with multiple side creeks. Basically, below S.R. 20, anglers are likely to catch both fresh and saltwater species, particularly in winter when reds, trout and sheepshead come upriver. In the upper river, there's sometimes good fishing in some of the cutoffs, but only if there's at least some current flow through — when they're completely cutoff from the main river, the oxygen levels drop and sometimes kill any fish left within.
There are boat landings off Highway 90 near Caryville, Highway 20 near Ebro and along River Road east of Bruce. Lower river access is off S.R. 394 south of Freeport. Holmes Creek, a spring-fed tributary of the Choctawhatchee, offers good panfishing, particularly for big shellcrackers in spring and early summer. There are several boat access points along Hwy. 279 near Vernon and Hwy. 79. Black Creek Lodge off 331 east of Destin is a common jumping off spot for fishing the lower river.
Sunshines and Stripers
There's a great fishery for sunshine hybrids and for stripers below Woodruff Dam on the Apalachicola. Access to the tailwaters is on the west side of the town of Chattahoochee off U.S. 90 at River Landing Road. This is primarily striper and hybrid fishing, but that alone is worth a trip in March as the fish stack up in the outflow. Stripers over 10 pounds and hybrids of 5 to 8 pounds are common during the run. Live shad is the premiere bait, but a chrome rattlebait or a shad-size swimbait can also be highly productive.
Fishing starts to get good in November in the tailrace and continues through winter — stripers and hybrids both are most active in cooler water. The fish can also be caught on topwaters where seen breaking at the surface, usually at dawn or dusk. The first mile of water is the primary fishery.
Water temps in the 60s trigger the spawn in March and early April. So does water flow — a few dam gates open means good fishing, while no flow means few fish. This fishery alone, much less the bass and saltwater species downstream, makes a trip to the Apalachicola well worthwhile.