I was there to chase a species of bass that is only indigenous to a few river systems in the area, the Suwannee bass. It is not a large fish, but it is strong and feisty. Ever since catching my first one, I jump at the chance to catch the next. My side trip did not disappoint. It took me a bit to find them but once I dialed in it got exciting. They were tight to the limestone chunks, and a jig bounced along the edge would get hammered. I caught several new personal bests, topped off by a football-shaped sixteen-incher. The world record is only a little over 3lbs, so that one was very much a trophy to me. I had so much fun on that trip I hated to leave, but the Boondoggle was waiting.
I had a meeting to attend down in Orlando this week, and I knew the Suwannee was just a short detour from my route. That dark tiger-striped bass started dancing in my mind, begging for me to come catch it. I loaded up my kayak and headed south before sunrise. As soon as I got to the park, I saw the river was moving a little faster than it was the last time I was there. A serious rain storm a few days earlier had the river up, but I had no idea how much it had risen. I decided I could float a few hundred yards down to the Withlacoochee, and fish it instead. Little did I know that the Withlacoochee was higher and faster than the Suwannee, and the color of a dirt road!
In just an hour of paddling in that current, I decided I needed a backup plan. I muscled my way back to the truck, loaded the gear, and hit the road, not sure where I was going. I pulled into the first rest stop I came to so I could look at the “You Are Here” map. I figured it would give me a few options on in the direction I was heading. By now I was also watching the clock, and decided to burn no less than two hours driving so I could maximize fishing time. I found a couple of lakes down around Ocala, but my heart was still set on catching a Suwannee bass.
I hadn’t been on the road very long after the map stop when I crossed the Santa Fe River. I knew from friends that this was a Suwannee bass hotspot, and from what I could see at 75mph it was fishable! Since it was on the river I doglegged over to Oleno State Park, and in a few minutes I was at the entrance. The gate attendant looked at the kayak in the back of my truck and said, “You are welcome to come in, but the boat ramp is closed today due to high water.” I told him I had just passed over it and it looked fine to me, but there was no way to sway him. It seemed like plan “B” just got shot in the foot.
I turned to head back south toward the lakes I had seen, and was watching my GPS when a sliver of river showed up on the screen. As I crossed over the river I was still convinced it was paddleable. On the other end of the bridge, I saw a canoe sign pointing toward an outpost in the woods. The sign read “Santa Fe Canoe Outpost”, and the place was covered with aluminum canoes and kayaks. I didn’t want to rent one - I just wanted to launch mine! A gentleman stepped out on the porch and gave me the scoop:; 5$ to launch, and the current slows above the bridge. That was just the information and help I needed - it seemed like plan “C” was going to work. I thanked him, handed him my money, and started unloading the kayak.
The launch is about 125’from the staging area, but there is a leaf-covered path where it was easy to drag my fully-rigged boat. The gentleman was right; above the bridge, the current was easily manageable. I was alternating between casting a jig tipped with a crawfish, and a Z-Man “Chatterbait”. I pulled into a small cut, and noticed a few minnows skipping near a current seam. I pulled the Chatterbait through the area, and it was mashed by a dark-colored fish. As soon as I got a clear view I knew it was a Suwannee bass. It wasn’t a monster, but for my first bass of the year and the first fish in my new Jackson Coosa HD, I was tickled pink!
I started upstream, and noticed some large weed mats pushed in the outer bends of the river. I made a quick gear change to a tungsten punch weight and a Z-Man “Punch Craw” and I was ready to go prospecting. The very first drop through the mat was hammered by a small largemouth. I kept working the mats until the light started to get low. I added a few more bass to the tally, including another scrappy Suwannee.
Right before taking out, I swapped to a spinnerbait to work some of the weedy edges. During the retrieve, a monster wake popped up behind my bait and then the water erupted. The fish missed the bait, and I scrambled for another rod to throw a different bait back to the fish. The spinnerbait was dangling by my foot, just under the surface, when the big bowfin that missed it mashed it again. That big gnarly critter on 18” of line soaked me to the bone with cold Santa Fe water! After releasing the fish I could not help but smile. It took plan “C” to get it done, but man, what a fun day! Now I have another place to chase these beautiful fish, and I can’t wait to take my family there. I am kind of glad plans “A” and “B” didn’t pan out!
If anyone is headed south on I-75 through Florida and needs a nice place to stop and paddle, I would fully recommend the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost. It is on a beautiful stretch of river and has an easy launch. It is in High Springs, FL just a couple miles from Oleno State Park. If you are traveling without your kayak, Mr. Jim has a pile of canoes and kayaks to rent.