Heartlander Abroad: St. Johnís River, Florida

Friday, January 12, 2018
Josh Gowan with big Florida speck

The arctic cold blast that is currently choking much of the country can push an outdoorsman to delirium. In my small part of the southern Midwest (or northern South, depending on your perspective and which side of the county Iím on), thereís too much ice to put a boat in the water but not enough to walk out on and drill a hole, and itís just too darn cold to do much of anything outside. I have a few friends that ďsnowbird,Ē leaving southern Missouri and spending their winter months in sunny Florida, and its times like these that I realize why. Being that snowbirding is an impossibility for me at this point, Iíll resort to fantasizing about warmer times in warmer places, namely, the St. Johnís River in central Florida.

One of the more abroad locations this Heartlander has ever been, the St. Johnís River might had well of been on another continent the first time I laid eyes on it. The pristine, inter-coastal swamp offered a backdrop that would have been enough to make the trip worthwhile on its own, but the wildlife that inhabited the tranquil current, both above and below the waterís surface, was easily the main attraction.

The primary passion that drives someone obsessed with traveling is experiencing new sights, sounds, tastes, and so on. The St. Johnís River offers so many of these new experiences that it can become difficult to focus on your objective, which in my case, was catching the big black crappie that haunt the shadows of the tannic water.

Crappie are split between two species, black and white, which have nothing to do with their color. Most of Florida offers only the black species of crappie, often referred to as ďspecks,Ē but in these constantly moving waters, the swampy vegetation releases tannins, causing the mostly transparent water to have a black tint, like weak coffee, and the fish that reside there, from the catfish to the bream, become very black in color, making the St. Johnís River black crappie some of the darkest and most beautiful in the country.

While the color and size of the fish in this nourishment-rich environment are enough to attract anglers from across the country, the tenacity of a species not known to be hard fighters is what is really unmatched. The constant current, combined with a list of predators ranging from massive stalking herons and diving birds to predator fish and a healthy alligator population, force these Florida river specks to evolve into stronger, more agile swimmers than their cousins to the north.

Catching crappie in the river can be done with a myriad of tactics. Pulling roadrunners with curly tailed plastics, also known as long-lining, from .8 to 1.5 mph is a popular way to fish across the southeast, and the river, as well as the many lakes it runs through, is an ideal area to long-line. Spider-rigging or slow-trolling is a deadly tactic anywhere in the country, and many tournaments have been won on the St. Johnís pushing BíníM Double Minnow Rigs armed with small minnows and jigs. The most popular way to fish among locals, and certainly the most fun, is to vertical jig the never-ending expanses of wood and vegetation. Lily pads, grass mats, and fallen trees are abundant along the channel and in the backwaters. Finding a combination of cover, like a fallen tree in a grass mat, is an ideal place to drop a jig.

There are also a variety of other animal species to gawk at (both land and marine) if youíre used to the simplicity of the squirrels and crows of the Midwest. While pre-fishing for a Crappie Masterís tournament this past spring, Iíd located a grass mat about the size of my boat that was holding good fish. Upon returning on tournament day, I found my grass mat being devoured by a family of massive manatees, which was quite the sight, but made it impossible to fish. Iíd like to say that was a huge contributing factor to my subpar finish, but, being that the winning weight came from fifteen miles downriver, I was also apparently not in the right area. Regardless, my second trip to the St. Johnís River was as amazing of an experience as the first, and aside from the crappie, we caught gar, catfish, bass, and a wide variety of bream.

As for the wining and dining, The Half Wall Beer House in Deland has an incredible menu (the Boom Boom Shrimp and Ahi Tuna Melt were delicious) and a heck of a drink selection (including 76 beers on tap!). If youíre looking for a great place to stay, the Hontoon Landing on the St. Johnís River in West Valusia, Florida holds something for everyone, from the fishing to the manatees and alligators, lily pads, palm trees, and cypress adorned with Spanish moss, itís a gorgeous destination that should not be missed.