By: Phillip Scearce aka “Pip”
On very RARE occasions I get a weekday off where my wife and kids have work and school. This was the case one day in November 2008. I had the day to myself! What to do? Take advantage of the beautiful Florida weather and go fishing, of course! So I called up my fishing buddy, Daniel Bass (great name) loaded the canoe and we headed up to High Springs Florida, in Alachua County, to fish for Florida’s “Bronzeback” Bass, the Suwannee bass, on the upper Santa Fe River.
I had wanted to fish the Santa Fe River ever since taking a (non-fishing) canoe trip that was part of a conference I attended in Gainesville a few years ago. I don’t know why, but I never made it back until now. Why did I wait so long? After all, the Santa Fe River is home to the largest population of Suwannee Bass known for their reputation as being scrappy fighters for their little size. The state record is only 3lbs 14oz. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) the Suwannee bass was “…originally restricted to the Suwannee and Ochlockonee River systems of Florida and Georgia. Also occupying spring-fed lower reaches of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, tributaries of the Suwannee River and the St. Marks and Aucilla/Wacissa systems where it was introduced”.
In low water conditions, as was the case this day, the best and only way to explore the upper Santa Fe River is by canoe (or a shallow-draft john). According to the “Florida Paddling Trails, Guide to Florida’s Top Canoeing and Kayaking Trails”, published by the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Santa Fe River Canoe Trail “begins in O’Leno State Park, where the Santa Fe reappears after flowing underground for more than three miles. For the next 30 miles, this tributary of the Suwannee River curves past hardwood hammocks and through river swamps. Many clear springs feed the Santa Fe. There are some small shoals during low water, but they are almost always passable. The trail ends three miles upstream of the confluence of the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers”.
We checked in at Santa Fe Canoe Outpost (www.santaferiver.com) next to the Hwy 441 bridge and unloaded the canoe and gear. Then I followed the owner, Jim Wood, to Rum Island County Park where I left my truck. This way we were in control of our return time and didn’t have to rush to meet the shuttle in time. I should mention that this shuttle service cost $25. Since this was our “first” time on the river, I felt better paying for the shuttle, and Jim assured me that if anything went wrong that he’s a cell-phone call away. It’s a 3-hour paddle from the Canoe Outpost on US 441 to Rum Island Park without fishing, so we had to keep track of our time (yea right…). The weather was cool in the lower 60′s in the morning and spiked in the mid-80′s by the afternoon. I had to remind myself it was November; my friends up north are packing away their gear for the winter. I love Florida!
We launched the canoe and headed upstream under the 441 bridge to fish the upper section where the Santa Fe comes out of the ground approximately 3 miles up. Just under the 441 bridge we started fishing about 9:45. I cast out to the middle of the river to adjust my reel and noticed my line moving a few seconds later. I landed the first fish of the day…a little 10 inch bass that swam away with my Zoom Vibritail Speed Worm…Cool! Could this be the start of a good day?
We worked our way up river to the first bend. On the left side of the river we notice a laydown sticking out into the deep side of the bend. I told Daniel there should be a fish sitting there and to cast up to it and work his lure (a pumpkin chartreuse craw worm) back. I wanted to work on my “guide skills” so I put Daniel in the right spot and a few seconds later he set the hook on a nice bass. Unfortunately, it got free right at the boat. Further upstream we came to one of the numerous springs of the Santa Fe. This is where I caught the first of many Suwannee bass caught this day.
Back under the 441 bridge at noon just below the Canoe Outpost we came to the first shoal of the day. We quickly paddled through the shallow rocks getting out of the canoe only when I couldn’t bear the sound of the rocks scrapping the bottom of my canoe. Once through the shoal the river deepens and it became apparent that the slow current was not going to help us get to Rum Island without a little effort. On the other hand, the current was slow enough to fish effectively and make multiple casts to likely targets. Likely targets in this case were every cypress tree, stump, bush, brush, and branch sticking out of or laying down in the river. Likely targets are EVERYWHERE!
Between the Canoe Outpost and the US 27 Bridge, which is the halfway point, we each managed to catch a lot of little and nice bass, both largemouth and Suwannee’s. We also lost a few more fish, but caught more than we lost. All the fish were caught from some form of lay downs (brushy or not). Also, somewhere in the middle of this section Daniel started fishing with “my” Zoom Vibritail Speed Worms, and he was turned into a convert to their versatility. Vibritails can be crawled on the bottom like a worm, slow-rolled like a spinnerbait, or buzzed on top. Ninety-nine percent (99%) of the fish caught this day were caught with Texas-rigged watermelon/red Zoom Vibritail speed worms.
Under the US 27 bridge at 4:00 and we still had 1 ½ hours left to paddle, and we had to be out of Rum Island park by 6:00. We decided it was good day already and needed to “haul the mail” back to the ramp and agreed to stop and fish only “prime” spots, which seemed to be everywhere when you’re not fishing. An hour and a half of grueling paddling and a few small fish later we arrived at Rum Island Park and beached the canoe on the boat ramp. I went to get the truck and relieve myself of a few Diet Mt. Dews. Meanwhile Daniel caught the last bass of the day while fishing from the boatramp; it was a nice little Suwannee. I tried to take a picture but it slipped out of his hands and under the canoe to safety.
I have made several trips to the Santa Fe since this initial trip, and in most cases have always had good luck. I generally catch more Suwannee bass than largemouth’s. When the fish are biting and the river is “on”, my catch ratio is about 3 Suwannee’s to 1 largemouth (3:1). Suwannee bass are “historically” known to prefer shoals and current. This may be the case on other rivers, but my belief is that Suwannee’s are so prevalent on the Santa Fe that they can be caught on all types of structure and in any velocity of current. They will also eat the same lures for largemouth fishing, so feel free to throw the “kitchen sink” when targeting Suwannee’s. Texas-rigged worms are my lures of choice, as well as chatterbaits, jointed minnows, and spinnerbaits.
If you want to plan a trip to the Santa Fe River, you are in luck. The Santa Fe River offers many access options which do not require shuttle service, but it’s there if you need it. Here are some trip recommendations for the “upper” section of the Santa Fe:
- Canoe Outpost/Hwy 441 upstream: This is a 3 mile easy upstream paddle which should keep you busy for a few hours, at least.
- US 27 upstream or downstream (depending on current): Good deep pools on either side. Above US27 there are a few shallow rocky sections that are easily portaged in ankle deep water (feels good on a hot day!).
- US 27 to Rum Island Park: Good deep pool section. Rum Island Park take-out is quick 10 minute drive to leave a vehicle.
- Rum Island Park upstream or downstream (depending on current). We learned you can catch fish from the boat ramp!
- SR 47 Bridge upstream or downstream (depending on current). Powerboats are more prevalent downstream of SR 47.
In addition to these access points, there are numerous public ramps springs, and campgrounds that offer additional access. For example, Blue and Ginnie Springs offer camping for a fee, as well as O’Leno State Park which offers access to the “upper” upper section of the Santa Fe River. If you go on a weekend be prepared to see a lot of canoe traffic between High Springs and Rum Island. Most are just canoeing but there are a number of people fishing as well. My recommendation is to go on a weekday if possible.
I hope this article inspires you to explore the Santa Fe River on your next trip to Florida. It’s certainly a jewel of Florida. Let’s just keep this secret to ourselves, and please practice catch-and-release at least with the little Suwannee’s, they need our protection.