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Largemouth Bass Of The Ocklawaha River, Florida: Recent Fishery Degradations

Largemouth Bass Of The Ocklawaha River, Florida: Recent Fishery Degradations

Author:  “Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca with the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter and Keith Alwine….

This particular RiverBassin article is a small preview of a much larger research paper entitled “Largemouth Bass Of The Ocklawaha River, Florida” that I have recently submitted to a conservation organization for scientific peer review and possible publication. Others at that organization, more learned than I (and above this old soldier’s “pay grade”), may add their professional expertise to this document–with the final goal being to create the most comprehensive description ever published of the Ocklawaha River system’s largemouth bass fishery along with that of its historic migratory riverine species (i.e. striped bass, American eel, American shad, striped mullet, giant river prawn, sturgeon, channel and white catfish). The Ocklawaha River is the largest and most important tributary of Florida’s St. Johns River Basin.

Included in this short preview is the paper’s INTRODUCTION plus its 2 final sections which are LARGEMOUTH BASS: OCKLAWAHA RIVER FISHERY DEGRADATIONS and FLORIDA POLICY REGARDING RODMAN RESERVOIR along with the ending LIST OF LITERATURE CITED (in the text of this article only). I respectfully offer this sneak preview for RiverBassin readers and the peer review of its experienced river “bassers”. May your favorite natural by God river not suffer being “improved” for mythical commercial navigation by man!

Most sincerely,
“Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca


Largemouth bass are inextricably linked to the Ocklawaha River and the St. Johns River tidal estuary that it flows into. The largemouth bass, naturally present in all 67 counties, is undoubtedly Florida’s most important and popular freshwater sport fish which makes this particular black bass species a sizeable component of the state’s economy. The combined Ocklawaha and St. Johns drainage basin is possibly the most significant river-estuary waterway of Florida, past and present, while this system is of legendary reputation among anglers of largemouth bass who seek 10-pound plus trophy fish. Many fishing tournaments, tackle shops, and guides rely upon the continuance of the bountiful largemouth bass fishery that has existed within the Ocklawaha and St. Johns valleys.

“Largemouth Bass Of The Ocklawaha River, Florida” shall attempt to consolidate available information, from many sources, about the largemouth bass of the Ocklawaha River along with related St. Johns River or other Florida data whenever relevant. It is intended to be informative reading for bass anglers and environmentalists alike.


“Snagging and Clearing” 2009-2011

“Snagging and clearing” operations to improve navigation were conducted several times from July 2009 into 2011 along 64 miles of the Ocklawaha River including Rodman Reservoir. This work, funded by Federal stimulus money, was performed by a dredging company contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Ocklawaha has “enjoyed” the status of being declared a commercially navigable waterway by the Federal government since the late 1800′s. Using a tiny tugboat to push a barge carrying a backhoe with a “clamshell”, the work crew operated according to their instructions. Sawing whenever deemed appropriate to maintain a 25-foot wide channel; they removed valuable in-stream structure consisting of branches, logs and trunks of downed trees otherwise described of as large woody material (LWM), along with its attached coon-tail moss or other submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) plus invertebrate creatures, from the water then stacked this wood up on the dry floodplain banks above th  e usual river level. Very little rock occurs in the sand-bottomed Ocklawaha, so its riverine largemouth bass prize this LWM fish-holding cover with its attached SAV as in-stream ambush points and current breaks. The largemouth bass fishery may have been degraded since these LWM blow-downs and deadfalls along with their associated SAV are now above the usual waterline, obviously useless as bass structure.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (1955) stated “Numerous logjams and brush piles impede boat travel, but it is in the pools adjacent to such areas that most fish are caught.”

Hitt (1975) wrote “Fallen trees are much more abundant, and some of the best fishing may be found around them. Deep holes along the banks in which trees have fallen produce large shellcrackers, redbreast, and largemouth bass.”

High Speed Boat Traffic after “Snagging and Clearing” 2009-2011

High speed pleasure boat, airboat, and jet-ski traffic is not only potentially dangerous to humans (or manatees) on the narrow Ocklawaha but the resulting wakes or waves cause river bank erosion along with disrupting spawning largemouth bass on their beds. The Middle Ocklawaha River is a Florida Aquatic Preserve and possibly could be established as a “no wake zone” like Silver River.

Florida Department of Natural Resources (1992) declared “The primary management issues within the aquatic preserve are associated with the ever increasing recreational use of the river. Increased boat traffic brings with it an increased rate of bank erosion due to wave and wake action and the increased potential for boating accidents. On a river such as the Oklawaha that is relatively narrow, winding, contains numerous sharp bends, and has heavily vegetated banks that limit sight distance and attenuate sounds, the potential for boating collisions is heightened, particularly when canoes and motorboats of various sizes and horsepower are mixed. If public safety and accelerated bank erosion due to boat traffic are not currently issues of concern on the Oklawaha River, they will be as the recreational pressure upon the river increases. A Marion County ordinance establishes a no wake zone for the entire length of the Silver River. The no wake zone was imposed to limit the ill effe  cts of erosion from boat wakes along the banks of the Silver River.”

Hill and Cichra (2005) indicated “Allan and Romero (1975) reported on the destruction of several largemouth bass nests due to bank erosion, heavy wave action, or lake drawdowns.”

Black Bass 14-inch Minimum-Size Limit 1992-2011

The 14-inch minimum-size limit since 1992 for angler harvest of largemouth bass from the Ocklawaha River including Rodman Reservoir may have negatively effected the quality of the bass fishery. An Ocklawaha 14-inch long female legal keeper-size bass will probably be from 3 to 4 years old (males may take 2 more years to reach 14 inches). 20-inch long females likely are 6 to 7 years old and males almost never reach 20 inches in length. 17-inch and longer bass (which are almost all females) are being kept for eating instead of 12 and 13-inch fish (maybe half of them would be males) which are protected by the 14-inch minimum length law. If the only bass caught by an average fisherman all day that is 14 inches or longer measures 17 to 21 inches (most likely a female)–it will probably be kept–while perhaps 2 or 3 or more bass at 12 to 13.75 inches (more likely to have included males) would have been released earlier.

Chapman (1992) proclaimed “Actually, it is the release of intermediate-sized largemouth, three pounds and heavier that will contribute most towards quality fishing in the near future. Bass this size usually take five years or longer to replace, while smaller bass are considerably more abundant and are replenished much more rapidly through natural production. If anglers concentrate heavily on harvesting only large bass, size distribution and consequently the quality of the bass fishery is likely to deteriorate. Although Florida anglers readily return most bass 12 inches and smaller in the interest of conservation, it is more important to consider recycling intermediate-sized bass and keeping smaller ones for the table.”

Middle Ocklawaha River Fish Kill 2004

The September 2004 fish kill in the Middle Ocklawaha River between Eureka and Gores Landing resulted in the suffocation deaths of up to a thousand sizeable largemouth bass due to low levels of dissolved oxygen. About 300 dead bass were counted just around the Eureka boat ramp. This fish kill, which seems to be the only one ever reported from this segment of the Ocklawaha that involved native game fish species, was apparently caused by a combination of natural and man-made factors.

Hurricanes “Charley”, “Frances”, and “Jeanne” blew through central Florida within 2 months of each other causing high water levels not seen since “Cleo” in 1964. Eureka and Rodman dams were not constructed until after 1967 so they were not in place during earlier hurricanes to constrict and slow-down the Ocklawaha’s surging floodwaters, as they would in 2004. The natural floodplain at Eureka Dam is 3/4-mile (3960 feet) wide while 21 miles downriver at Rodman Dam the natural floodplain is over 1-mile (5280 feet) wide. Along comes September 2004 with a raging, swollen Ocklawaha forced by man to flow “strangled” to the St. Johns through the much smaller gaps of 400 feet along the west side of the never completed Eureka Dam and then only 160 feet wide at Rodman Dam Spillway though four 40-foot wide gates.

The managers of Rodman’s spillway, probably in an effort to save newer public-use recreational structures at the Rodman tailrace that were built somewhat below 10-foot elevation, apparently never allowed the Lower Ocklawaha River to fully inundate the historic floodplain in that area which naturally extends up to 10 feet above sea level. According to United States Geological Survey (USGS) data, high water events during the years of 1950, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1970, 1979, and 1982 had all flooded that part of the valley to beyond 9-foot elevation above sea level.

The USGS Eureka stream-flow gage, some 21 miles upstream of Rodman Dam, recorded a maximum river elevation of 25.61 feet while the upper extent of the natural floodplain there is quite a bit less than 25 feet above sea level. 18 miles above Eureka, the USGS Conner stream-flow gage recorded a maximum river elevation of 40.22 feet while the natural floodplain there is less than 40 feet above sea level. Water was backed-up un-naturally from Eureka upstream in the Middle Ocklawaha River and inundated normally dry ground areas for many days. Add many cloudy days to this mix, lots of oxidizing dead terrestrial organic material, plus the highest water temperatures of the year along with the instinct of largemouth bass to cruise any new shoreline for non-aquatic prey and the conditions were ripe for the fish kill that occurred.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (1970) submitted that “Biological oxygen demand (BOD) in a newly-flooded impoundment will create an initial dissolved oxygen sag due to oxidation of inundated organic material such as crushed trees, terrestrial vegetation, and humus.”

Hill and Cichra (2005) found that “Although tolerant of a wide variety of physical and chemical parameters, largemouth bass is not well-adapted for periods of low oxygen and is one of the first fish species to succumb to hypoxic conditions…Increases and decreases in water levels can negatively effect fish populations due to poor water quality. High water levels and floodplain inundation can lead to hypoxia due to decomposition of terrestrial vegetation and other organic materials (Toth 1993; Furse et al.1996; Sabo et al. 1999, Fontenot et al. 2001). Such harsh environmental conditions can lead to fish kills and affect movement and habitat use of largemouth bass and other species…”

Rodman Reservoir Fish Kills 1985-2009

Available reports show that several fish kills have occurred in Rodman Reservoir over the years including: August 1985 (8.5 million dead fish), October 1988 (2.5 million dead fish; 70,000 of which were largemouth bass with 30 or so at 8 pounds or over), September-October 2000 (2 million dead fish), September 2004, and June 2009.


It has been Florida’s official policy since 1995 that the Ocklawaha River shall undergo a partial restoration that makes it once again a free-flowing stream from Moss Bluff and Silver Springs to the St. Johns River. Funding and legal/permitting issues continue to stymie this restoration process.

Governor Lawton Chiles on 6/16/95 issued the following “After a careful review of the Ocklawaha River/Rodman Reservoir issue, I am hereby directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in cooperation with the St Johns River Water Management District, to proceed immediately in applying for permits to restore the Ocklawaha River and in moving forward with a plan to begin an orderly and phased drawdown of the Rodman Reservoir.”

Clugston (2002) summarized “The ultimate destiny of the impoundment is confounded by an ongoing dispute between sport fishermen, who wish to preserve the dam and reservoir, and environmentalists. The first group touts excellent largemouth bass fishing and economic benefits to nearby communities. The later group emphasizes the importance of a free-flowing river for the benefit of all flora and fauna, many of which are listed by Florida as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails (2007) in their
“Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Management Plan” stated that “Numerous groups have urged the removal of the Kirkpatrick (formerly Rodman) Dam and restoration of Rodman Reservoir to the Ocklawaha River floodplain since the 1970s because of the impact of the reservoir on the Ocklawaha River and floodplain and associated ecosystems. There is resistance to this from other groups such as sports-fishing related organizations and businesses. The Governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, have an established policy that the Ocklawaha River should be ‘partially restored’… with the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection as the lead agency. However, the Legislature has not appropriated funds for this purpose. If funds are made available and permits are issued, it is the intent of FDEP to undertake this restoration. SJRWMD is investigating the potential impact on the St. Johns River from restoration of the Ocklawaha.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails (2007) later on in their “Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Management Plan” also mentioned the future “By 2057, the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway exceeds the original vision. Through an enthusiastic and determined effort, the uplands and wetlands of the Greenway are now restored natural communities, not just in appearance, but in function as well. The Ocklawaha River is once again free-flowing, and its formerly submerged floodplain is flourishing…The Ocklawaha River continues to produce trophy bass, and people still enjoy the simplicity of catching panfish with their kids. The paddling trails of the Greenway continue to be popular. Paddlers can enter the Ocklawaha from a variety of access points, including the St. Johns River. Public ownership of the Ocklawaha River banks allows paddlers to immerse themselves in the experience of an undeveloped river and floodplain. Some
choose to paddle upstream from the St. Johns River to the Silver River; others prefer the easier, downstream paddle originating at Silver Springs…CFG staff are planning events for the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Ocklawaha River as a National Wild and Scenic River.”


Chapman, P. 1992. Recycle your bass; a guide to handling and releasing your catch. Educational bulletin No. 2. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Tallahassee, Florida.

Clugston, J. P. 2002. Fishes of the Ocklawaha River, Florida. Florida Defenders of the Environment, Gainesville, Florida.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails. 2007. Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway management plan (6/15/ 2007). Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Tallahassee, Florida.

Florida Department of Natural Resources. 1992. Oklawaha River Aquatic Preserve interim management plan adopted May 5, 1992. Florida Department of Natural Resources, Tallahassee, Florida.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. 1955. “The Ochlockonee River” article. “Florida Wildlife” magazine (December 1955). Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Tallahassee, Florida.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. 1970. “The Oklawaha River” article. “Florida Wildlife” magazine (November 1970). Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Tallahassee, Florida.

Hill, J. and C. Cichra. 2005. Biological synopsis of five selected Florida centrarchid fishes with an emphasis on the effects of water level fluctuations. Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Hitt, V. 1975. “Suwannee River” article. “Florida Wildlife” magazine (February 1975). Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Tallahassee, Florida.


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