Author: “Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca with the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter….
Some of my fellow river “bassers” have experienced this type of adrenalin stimulus at least once and haven’t forgotten it yet. You are float-fishing a small river for your favorite black bass species from your canoe or kayak when all of a sudden your spinnerbait has been “intercepted” by an “F-4 Phantom II jet”–which is now attempting to drag you and your vessel into the depths by your own 12-pound monofilament line. Now, if this small river that you are “bassin” just happens to be no further south than northern Florida and is connected to a much larger river, big lake, or tidewater; then maybe you start thinking–WOW, it might be a “STRIPER”!
Fisheries biologists back in 1961 determined that only 2 river systems in Florida contained native naturally reproducing populations of STRIPED BASS (Morone saxatilis or formerly Roccus saxatilis): the Apalachicola Basin and the St. Johns Basin. There are no sub-species of striped bass but there are distinct endemic “races” usually based on lateral line scale count. “Stripers” in Florida are classed as a “riverine” freshwater fish although in more northern states they are usually classed as an “anadromous” marine species. Adult striped bass are also a “cool-water” freshwater fish needing 75-80 degree F “thermal refuges” for survival in the summer. Combined with their natural reproduction habitat requirement of about 50 miles of swift stream current for successful spawning and the striped bass was destined to have a very limited natural range in Florida.
STRIPED BASS and WHITE BASS are interbred artificially in Florida by fisheries workers to produce the sterile “SUNSHINE BASS” (also known as “HYBRID BASS”) which are released in various waters around the state. “HYBRIDS” are regularly stocked into the Apalachicola River. They have sometimes been placed into to the St. Johns River and into some of the Ocklawaha Chain of Lakes upstream of Moss Bluff Lock and Dam.
THREE NORTH FLORIDA RIVER SYSTEMS THAT I HAVE CAUGHT STRIPERS FROM…
1.) The APALACHICOLA RIVER was dammed backed in 1957 at Chattahoochee about 100 miles above the Gulf of Mexico which allowed the endemic “Gulf Coast race” stripers to continue limited successful spawning in Florida although it has been determined that their prime spawn area was the swifter Flint River in Georgia (many miles upstream of the Jim Woodruff Hydroelectric Dam across the Apalachicola). The spring-fed cool-water CHIPOLA RIVER, which is the main tributary of the Apalachicola in Florida, serves as its “thermal refuge” for striped bass in the summer. Dead Lake Dam was removed from the Chipola River in 1989 which allowed unhindered migration of stripers back and forth from the larger Apalachicola. Today, most but not all, of the Apalachicola’s “Gulf Coast race” (lateral line mean scale count of 66 to 67) striped bass are hatchery produced. Great numbers of stripers are caught from the dam’s tailrace, especially during the spring spawning run.
2.) The OCHLOCKONEE RIVER, just east of the Apalachicola, was dammed all the way back in 1929 at Jackson Bluff about 68 miles above the Gulf. My guess is that native “Gulf Coast race” striped bass regularly spawned successfully in the Ochlockonee before that dam (now known as the C. H. Corn Hydroelectric Dam) was built, but only very rarely ever since–the 1961 study did not discover a breeding population there. This dam that created Lake Talquin blocks the stripers of the “Lower” Ochlockonee from reaching summertime-critical “thermal refuge” areas which are upstream of the structure. Also, flooding rains must occur at the proper time in the spring of the year or the Ochlockonee will lack the required streamflow (it lacks any big artesian springs). Today almost all Ochlockonee striped bass are hatchery raised. “Gulf Coast race” stripers are stocked heavily both above and below the hydroelectric dam providing good fishing success at times.
3.) The ST. JOHNS RIVER, prior to the 1970′s, historically supported the most southern native reproducing population of striped bass in the United States. Its major tributary is the OCKLAWAHA RIVER, providing about 1/4 of the total flow of the entire St. Johns Basin. Then later, some several years after the September 1968 completion of Rodman Dam across the Ocklawaha, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission declared (regarding striped bass) that “evidence of recent reproduction in the St. Johns has ceased” plus “native population extirpated and replaced by hatchery stocks”. In 1970 large-scale stocking of hatchery raised striped bass was initiated in the St. Johns River, natural reproduction had apparently stopped. Whatever happened to the natural distinct endemic “Atlantic Coast race” (lateral line mean scale count of 54 to 56) striped bass of the St. Johns Basin? Is it possible that the pre-Rodman Dam Ocklawaha River, which used to be current-swift and free-flowin g for at least 56 stream miles to the St. Johns, was the major spawning area for this system’s striped bass?
Documents that I have read suggest that successful striper reproduction requires about 50 miles of swift-flowing stream current (at least 0.68 mph) for their fertilized eggs and hatchlings to be carried-along-in for some 48 hours (to avoid suffocating in bottom mud). If this information, from many official sources, is correct then it would identify the pre-Rodman Ocklawaha River–56 stream miles from Silver Springs to the St. Johns with a 0.75 to 1-mph current–as probably being the ONLY striped bass successful natural spawning area in the entire St. Johns River Basin. The extremely low stream gradient (about 1/10th of the Ocklawaha’s) with its resulting sluggish current of the St. Johns River itself (Lake Washington, near Melbourne, is 260 miles upriver from the mouth but less than 20 feet elevation above sea level–lower than Rodman Reservoir most of the time) precludes the larger river from being suitable for striped bass reproductive needs. There are not enough stream mil es or streamflow velocity and volume for successful striper reproduction in any of the other major tributaries of the St. Johns River: Econlockhatchee River (26 miles), Wekiva River (14 miles), Alexander Creek (13 miles), Juniper Creek (10 miles), Salt Springs Run (4 miles), Dunns Creek (6 miles), Black Creek (20 miles), etc.
Today, all striped bass in the St. Johns Basin of Florida are hatchery raised and stocked–successful natural reproduction here seems to have ceased with the advent of Rodman Dam. Ocklawaha River restoration, through the removal of Rodman Dam, would provide the St. Johns stripers a suitable breeding area again. Should natural NON-HATCHERY RAISED St. Johns Basin distinct endemic “Atlantic Coast race” striped bass be allowed to be extinct where they were Florida “natives” in modern times? Is it ethical NATIVE fisheries management for any of our conservation agencies to be unsupportive of Ocklawaha restoration?
So far, I have not been able to verify any RECENT existence of striped bass in the flowing Ocklawaha upriver from Rodman Reservoir. No stripers are stocked upstream of the Rodman Dam (now officially known as Kirkpatrick Dam) or Buckman Lock (of the still-water Cross Florida Barge Canal). Striped bass seek strong currents for their springtime spawning run so very few move through the lock into the reservoir. They “pile-up” in the Rodman tailrace blocked from their upstream migration wishes. The flowing Silver and Ocklawaha rivers of Marion County, in recent decades, seem to be absent of any striped bass.
The annual spring-time spawning migration (before Rodman Dam was built) of striped bass up the Ocklawaha and into Silver River was northeast Florida’s mini-version of those classic “striper runs” in swift rivers of more northern states. Pre-Rodman Dam history is revealed in the following excerpted selection from the “OCALA STAR-BANNER” (May 22, 1966) newspaper article “Area Fishing Is Good” from the “OUTDOORS” column by Gene Gallant, Ocala Star-Banner Outdoor Editor:
“…It looked for awhile like the annual run of Striped Bass were going to overlook the Ocklawaha River this season, but last week the scrappy gamesters started their upriver trek, and now a few of them have been boated during the past few days. “Bob Houck, from Pasteur’s Sports Shop went out last Wednesday, and latched-on to a 12 pounder. Bob was using the old stand-by Pal-O-Mine lure and was fishing in the Gore’s Landing Sector. “OTHER PORTIONS of the Ocklawaha have started to produce a few of the Stripers, too, including Colby’s Landing and the mouth of Silver Springs Run…”
FLORIDA’S DAM SPILLWAYS (ACROSS RIVERINE BASINS CONTAINING STRIPED BASS)…
Apalachicola River Basin of Florida (including Chipola River Basin) dam, lock, and spillway data: JIM WOODRUFF HYDROELECTRIC DAM Upstream is Lake Seminole (37,500 acre pool at elevation 77 feet). Downstream is the Apalachicola River (tailrace elevation 40 to 68 feet). Fall at the dam averages 25 feet and is used for hydroelectric power generation. Apalachicola River tailrace summer water temperature usually is 80 to 88 degrees F. Gradient of the Apalachicola River for 107 miles to the Gulf of Mexico averages 0.50 feet/mile. DEAD LAKE DAM (Chipola River) was removed in 1989. Chipola River summer water temperature usually is 74 to 77 degrees F (striper “friendly”).
Ochlockonee River Basin of Florida dam, lock, and spillway data: C. H. CORN HYDROELECTRIC DAM Upstream is Lake Talquin (10,200 acre pool at elevation 69 feet). Downstream is the “Lower” Ochlockonee River (tailrace elevation 28 to 49 feet). Fall at the dam averages 30 feet and is used for hydroelectric power generation. “Lower” Ochlockonee River tailrace summer water temperature usually is 83 to 90 degrees F. Gradient of the “Lower” Ochlockonee River for 68 miles to the Gulf of Mexico averages 0.57 feet/mile.
St. Johns River Basin of Florida (including Ocklawaha River Basin) dam, lock, and spillway data: KIRKPATRICK (RODMAN) DAM Upstream is Rodman Reservoir “aka” Lake Ocklawaha (13,000 acre pool at elevation 20 feet). Downstream is the “Lower” Ocklawaha River (tailrace elevation 3 to 6 feet). Fall at the dam averages 16 feet. THIS DAM WAS BUILT ONLY FOR BARGE NAVIGATION. “Lower” Ocklawaha River tailrace summer water temperature usually is 85 to 88 degrees F. BEFORE THE 1968 DAM, summer water temperature here rarely exceeded 82 degrees F. Gradient of the “Lower” Ocklawaha River for 11 miles to the tidewater St. Johns River averages 0.35 feet/mile.
St. Johns River Basin of Florida (including Ocklawaha River Basin) dam, lock, and spillway data: EUREKA LOCK AND DAM Upstream 0.3 miles is the Eureka CR-316 Bridge. Upstream of the Eureka CR-316 Bridge is the “Middle” Ocklawaha River which is free-flowing for 18 miles upriver to the inflow of the Silver River (just above the SR-40 Delks Bluff Bridge). Silver River is free-flowing for 5 miles upstream to Silver Springs (America’s largest discharge inland artesian spring group at a constant 73 degrees F). “Middle” Ocklawaha River summer water temperature usually is 75 to 80 degrees F (striper “friendly”). Natural gradient of the “Middle” Ocklawaha River for 18 miles from SR-40 to CR-316 averages 0.90 feet/mile (striper “friendly”). Downstream of the Eureka CR-316 Bridge is considered Rodman Reservoir for FWC fishing regulations.
St. Johns River Basin of Florida (including Ocklawaha River Basin) dam, lock, and spillway data: MOSS BLUFF LOCK AND DAM Upstream is Lake Griffin (16,505 acre pool at elevation 59 feet) plus 13 miles of the original “Upper” Ocklawaha River (now channelized basically into a canal). Downstream is the “Upper” Ocklawaha River (tailrace elevation 34 to 45 feet). Fall at the dam averages 21 feet and up into the 1950′s was used for hydroelectric power generation. “Upper” Ocklawaha River tailrace summer water temperature usually is 80 to 89 degrees F. Gradient of the “Upper” Ocklawaha River for 13 miles downstream to the “Middle” Ocklawaha River (begins at the Silver River inflow) averages 0.10 feet/mile.