Author: “Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca with the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter
This RiverBassin article is a small preview of a larger research paper called “Striped Bass Of The Ocklawaha River, Florida” that I have recently submitted to a conservation organization for scientific peer review and possible publication. Others from that organization may add their professional expertise to this document–with the final goal being to create the most informative report ever compiled about the Ocklawaha River’s historic native striped bass fishery. 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 EXCERPTED DATA FROM TEN SOURCE DOCUMENTS (1891-1968) along with the LIST OF LITERATURE CITED (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” bass fishing flowing river never be “improved” by man for commercial navigation!
“Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca
The St. Johns River Basin historically supported the most southern native and naturally reproducing population of striped bass in the United States. Striped bass, Morone saxatilis (formerly Roccus saxatilis), is also commonly known as “striper”. Striped bass in more northern states with summertime cool coastal saltwater are classed as “anadromous” marine fish, living much of the time in tidewater but spawning far upstream in freshwater rivers. Stripers in Florida, however, are classed as “riverine” freshwater fish. Adult striped bass are also “cool-water” fish needing 75 to 80 degree F thermal refuges such as artesian springs and canopied streams for survival during hot weather. The spring-fed and originally mostly forest-lined Ocklawaha River is the largest stream-flow tributary, by far, of the St. Johns River.
Available fisheries research documents suggest that striped bass require about 50 miles of swift-flowing stream current (of at least 0.68 mph) for their fertilized eggs and larvae to be suspended-in for approximately 48 hours to avoid suffocating in bottom mud. Rodman Dam, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers solely for the defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal project, was completed across the Ocklawaha River on September 30, 1968. The striper’s strict reproductive requirement would identify the pre-Rodman impounded Ocklawaha River–which was 56 free-flowing stream miles of swift current from Silver Springs to the St. Johns–as probably being the only striped bass successful natural spawning habitat of 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 precludes the larger river from being suitable for the striper’s reproductive needs. Lake Washington, near Melbourne, is 260 miles upriver from the mouth but less than 20 feet elevation above sea level–lower than Rodman Reservoir much of the time. There are not enough stream miles or stream-flow velocity and volume to allow striped bass natural 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 (24 miles), etc.
Since 1970, striper replacement stocks in the St. Johns Basin have been hatchery raised and stocked by man. Successful natural reproduction seems to have ceased with the advent of Rodman Dam. During the springtime, these man-reared striped bass from the St. Johns River attempt futile spawning runs attracted by the current of the lower Ocklawaha River but are blocked at Rodman Dam’s spillway from proceeding any further upstream. Without a steady current in the still-water Cross Florida Barge Canal to guide them, only very few (if any) move back and forth through Buckman Lock. In recent years striped bass appear to be absent from the Ocklawaha River upstream of Rodman Reservoir as evidenced by a lack of striper observations or catches.
This report will present available data, excerpted from thirty (only ten in this RiverBassin preview, however) Florida and other U.S. source documents, supporting the belief that the endemic striped bass of the St. Johns Basin historically utilized the pre-Rodman impounded Ocklawaha River as their only suitable spawning habitat.
1.) Bacon and Black (1891):
“Table No I…
Velocity per hour for lower river…miles…0.90…
Maximum velocity per hour…………do…..1.20…”
NOTE: The “lower river” refers to the Ocklawaha (in 1891) from “Silver Spring Run 53.1 miles” downstream to the “St. Johns River 0.0 miles”. “Velocity per hour” means the speed of the river current (stream velocity) which was measured by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (in 1891) at an average of 0.90 mph with a maximum of 1.20 mph.
2.) Langworthy (1955):
“Sudden appearance of Northern striped bass, known along the New England sea coast and southward as ‘stripers’, over near Silver Springs during the past week has sent scores of fishermen speeding to that area with heavy tackle and anticipation agog.
“The ‘stripers’ have been located at the junction of the Silver River where it enters the Oklawaha River, and were first noticed by a fishing party that went out from Ed’s Boat Basin, operated by Ed Mason on Road 40 at the Oklawaha.
“Reports received here say that the party, fishing for black bass, hit into rather hefty strikes that tore up tackle. Later, and with heavier gear, they returned to the river and boated some of the fish, finding that they were real northern striped bass, a salt water fish. From then on anglers from all around hurried to the river, and at last report were hauling in scores of them weighing from 14 to 30 pounds.
“Striped bass are well known along the northeast Atlantic Coast, especially along the New England section where each year a big ‘striper tournament’ is conducted. They are caught in the ocean surf up that way and provide excellent sport for anglers. How they happen to have drifted this far south and so far up in Florida’s fresh water streams is anybody’s guess. Maybe the recent hurricanes had something to do with it.
“I checked with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission Friday night regarding the appearance of stripers this far off their customary beat. The Commission said that striped bass often travel long distances up rivers and there is nothing unusual about finding them in fresh water.
“Dave Swindell, regional manager of the Commission with office at Williston, Fla., also said that he had heard nothing of large schools of stripers in the Oklawaha, but that some had been caught during the past several months at the county boat basin and landing near the junction of the Oklawaha and Silver Rivers–which is where these big catches have been made during the past few days.
“Several weeks ago an 18 pounder was caught with shrimp in the vicinity of Eureka, about 20 miles downstream from the junction of the two rivers.
“Several years ago a few stripers were seen and caught, at the ‘Croaker Hole’ in the mouth of Lake George, but not in any great quantity. Norman Clifton of Daytona Beach was over at the junction of the two rivers Friday and reported seeing large catches of the stripers being made. An unconfirmed report said that one man had caught 100 of them in three days last week.
“The stripers were first noticed last Monday when they began tearing up light bass tackle. To get into the Oklawaha, they would have had to come in from the Atlantic via the St. Johns and its string of lakes, quite a long trip inland for a salt water fish.
“The stripers at the junction of these two rivers are reported to be striking at live shiners, striking avidly. As far as I can gather, they would average around 12 pounds, but some are larger. In the Atlantic Ocean surf they average 20, but some have weighed 100 pounds, the records say.
“The striped bass is an anadromous variety, or one that ascends rivers from the sea at certain seasons, like salmon and shad. The scientific name is Roccus saxatillis, family Serranidae. It is native to the Atlantic Coast of the United States, but is also common on the Pacific Coast where it has been introduced.
“In color the striper is olivaceous above, yellowish silvery on the sides and below, but gets its name from numerous longitudinal black stripes on its sides. It is highly esteemed as a game and food fish, especially in New England.”
3.) Ocala Star-Banner (1956):
“Ocklawaha Catch…Jim Keeney, Ocala, (in photo) is displaying the 17-pound stripped (sic) bass he pulled out of the Ocklawaha River on a standard spinning outfit with 8-pound test line. Keeney said it took between 15 and 20 minutes to land the bass. A number of the large salt water fish have been caught recently. They have come up the Ocklawaha to spawn.”
4.) Waterman (1958):
“After my underwater observations I was talking with Buck Ray, the manager of Silver Springs, about the fish in the Springs. He took me to his office and showed me the picture (18.5 pounds) of a salt water striped bass which he had taken in the Silver River below the springs.”
5.) McErlean (1961):
“Mr. J. M. Barkaloo (sic) (personal communication), the project leader of the Anadromous Fish Study for the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, gives the Florida distribution of bass as follows: ‘The Apalachicola River population seems to be the most important, the other is in the St. John’s River. We have occurence (sic) records of this fish for every other major river system in North Florida; i.e. St. Marys River, Suwannee River, St. Marks River, Ochlockonee River, Choctahatchee River, Yellow River, Escambia River and the Perdido River. It is my belief that the few found in those other rivers are stragglers from the spawning populations mentioned above.’”
“BIOLOGY OF THE STRIPED BASS The complete life history of the Florida bass is not known but the literature for the animal is voluminous and very informative.”
“Perhaps, more than any other factor in its life history, the unique reproductive requirements of R. saxatilis, explains its scarcity and distribution in Florida. The maintainence (sic) of fishable stock is dependent upon whether the bass is able to reproduce and thus replenish its numbers. Clearly, the requirements for reproduction are not met equally in the available river systems of the State.”
“Barkaloo (sic) (personal communication) in reference to Florida stripers states that ‘…approximately 50 miles or more of large stream is required for spawning.’”
“It is probable that bass do not spawn in all the rivers of North Florida since a single successful spawning of two or three older females could theoretically populate the river systems mentioned earlier.”
6.) Buckow (1962):
“‘Eighty-four striped bass were brought into one fishing camp alone on the St. Johns during the past year, and some of the stripers at Silver Springs are now up to the 25-30-pound bracket’, Dietz said.”
7.) Gallant (1962):
“Colby’s Landing Fish Camp reports that a few striped bass are still ready and willing to take the bait and that bass fishing on the Oklawaha has improved considerable.”
8.) Gallant (1965):
“John Norka of Norka’s Camp at Eureka reported a few days ago that the Striped Bass are starting to put in their annual appearance and while no ‘lunker’ size Stripers have been caught, plenty of eating size ones are vailable (sic). ”
9.) Gallant (1966):
“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.”
10.) Ocala Star-Banner (1968):
“Surprisingly enough, the best reports of the week came out of Colby’s Landing on the Oklawaha River. The fishing hasn’t been up to par all year on the River but the tide may now have turned.
“The best bet on the river now appears to be the striped bass. One party brought in a catch of 17 and the top place to find them seems to be where the Silver and Oklawaha Rivers branch together.”
NOTE: This report was from that sad last summer (1968) before Rodman Dam was finished. Although Cross Florida Barge Canal construction along parts of the river was feverishly proceeding, striped bass migration to and from the St. Johns River was still possible.
Bacon, J. H. and W. M. Black. 1891. “Report of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army; Appendix O – Report of Captain Black (page 1623); Improvement of the Ocklawaha River, Florida; Report of Mr. J. H. Bacon, Assistant Engineer, United States Engineer Department, St. Augustine, Fla., May 11, 1891″. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Buckow, E. 1962. “Striped Bass For St. Lucie” article. “The Reel Story” column. “Palm Beach Post-Times” newspaper (8/12/1962; page 31), Palm Beach, FL.
Gallant, G. 1962. “Outdoors With Gene Gallant” column. “Ocala Star-Banner” newspaper (9/11/1962; page 5), Ocala, FL.
Gallant, G. 1965. “Fishing, Boating Season Well Underway; Fishing Reports Vary” article, “Outdoors” column. “Ocala Star-Banner” newspaper (5/30/1965; page 26), Ocala, FL.
Gallant, G. 1966. “Area Fishing Is Good” article, “Outdoors” column. “Ocala Star-Banner” newspaper (5/22/1966), Ocala, FL.
Langworthy, F. 1955. “Outdoors” column. “Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal” newspaper (8/28/1955; page 14), Daytona Beach, FL.
McErlean, A. J. 1961. Striped bass in Florida. Florida State Board of Conservation Marine Laboratory, St. Petersburg, FL.
Ocala Star-Banner. 1956. “Ocklawaha Catch” article. “Ocala Star-Banner” newspaper (5/6/1956; page 23), Ocala, FL.
Ocala Star-Banner. 1968. “Fishing Stays Unpredictable” article. “Ocala Star-Banner” newspaper (6/30/1968; page 3C), Ocala, FL.
Waterman, R. 1958. “Writer Observes Florida’s Gamefish In Natural Habitat” article. “The Evening Independent” newspaper (8/3/1958; page 6), St. Petersburg, FL.