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St. Johns River: this unique river offers waterfowl, bass or saltwater species. Just pick your spot.

The St. Johns River begins in the St. Johns Marsh, just west of Fellsmere, as a trickle of small creeks in search of a river. By the time those creeks reach Lake Helen Blazes the river begins to take shape and starts to form a number of what are commonly called lakes, but are merely wide spots in the river. That continues all the way north to Lake George, the state's second largest "lake" at over 46,000 acres, and to Little Lake George where the Oklawaha River joins the St Johns at the town of Weiaka. From there northward to the river's meeting with the Atlantic Ocean at Mayport, it becomes a brackish water tidal river--often wide and wind swept!

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Fed along the way by numerous intersecting rivers, creeks, runouts and springs, it's a haven for wildlife, and that's especially true of waterfowl. The southern, or upper, portion of the river draws the most birds--and hunters--with the Upper St. Johns River Marsh WMA being a premier destination.

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"Upper" St. Johns

Beginning on the north side of SR 60, just west of Vera Beach, the Upper St. Johns River Marsh WMA hugs the St. Johns River northward to just above SR 520 to the west of Cocoa--a distance of over 50 miles, and encompassing more than 120,000 acres. Within its boundaries lay lakes Blue Cypress, Kenansville, Helen Blazes, Sawgrass, Washington, Winder, and Poinsett, as well as Three Forks, Stick Marsh Farm 13, and the T.M. Goodwin and Broadmoor Marsh Waterfowl Management Areas The habitat includes shallow, vegetated lakes and marsh land that appeal to both puddle ducks and freshwater diving ducks, as well as wood ed river sections favored by green wing and wood ducks. In addition to ducks arriving from the north, this area is also favored by Florida's native species, like the Florida mottled duck and the now-established black belly whistling duck. There is a lot of excellent waterfowl habitat in a large area, "says FWC Waterfowl Biologist Andrew Fanning, "and this is one of the most popular waterfowl hunting areas in the state." While the natural waterfowl habitat is among the best in Florida, state agencies have collaborated to further improve it. The Stick Marsh Farm 13 and Three Forks complex was originally created as a filtering and settling area to remove excessive nutrients from the St. Johns headwaters. That provided more habitat, but it went a step further.

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The state was able to purchase additional land in the area. That became the T.M. Goodwin and Broadmoor Marsh and they are actively managed to provide food for waterfowl.

Just how many ducks are harvested each year in the 120,000-acre WMA is impossible to determine, since there are few check stations to cover that large area. However, on the miniscule T.M. Goodwin section, where there is a mandated check station, last season's tally was almost 2,000 blue wing teal, 650 green wing teal, 400 black belly whistling ducks, over 300 mottled ducks, and about 300 ringnecks.

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Middle River

Moving north, the next major waterfowl hunting area is the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge at DeLand, on the ing of 2,200-acre Lake Woodruff, 1,800-acre Lake Dexter, a large attendant marsh, and a maze of back creeks and intersecting rivers, this federal refuge was actually purchased with Duck Stamp monies.

The draw here, however, isn't so much ducks as it is the bass and panfish in one of the state's most productive fisheries. Captain Bryn Rawlins knows that well.

"This area has always ranked very high in the state's annual creel counts for both bass and bream," she says. "And, the last couple of years have been really good. The best bass I know of recently was a bit over 12 pounds, but there have been a lot of 8- to 10-pound fish as well."

At age 23, Rawlins may be one of the youngest Coast Guard-licensed captains (and one of the only female captains) on the St. Johns River. She literally grew up fishing the St. Johns, and is the third generation of the Rawlins family to run guide parties out of Highland Park Fish Camp in DeLand. This family-owned camp was started by Derris Rawlins in 1962. His sons, Rick and Ron Rawlins began guiding in the late 1960s, while still in high school, and now run the camp. Bryn learned well from her father, Rick. In fact, on a warmouth fishing trip in the mid1990s with Rick and then 8-year-old Bryn, she watched me manipulate a canepole with a float and cautioned me, "You have to get your cork closer to the tree or the fish won't bite your minnow."

Having spent 15 years as a guide on the St. Johns myself, I could that see another guide was born.

While the Lake Woodruff area is productive, it's also quite varied. Picking the "right spot" can be important as the seasons change. When it comes to the spring spawn, however, that's an easy call.

Bass begin spawning in February, and continue through early April. Experienced anglers concentrate on the shallower sections of Lakes Woodruff and Dexter, with the top spots being where eelgrass or dollar bonnets dominate. Both of these plants grow on the hard sand bottom bass prefer for fanning beds. Find that plant cover and you'll find bass during the spawn. The post-spawn period paints a different picture.

"We get a good late spring shad run in the main river," Rawlins explains. "It normally starts in mid-April and lasts through early summer. That draws a lot of bass, and they don't chase baitfish they lie in ambush. You can have large concentrations of bass at the mouths of the mud lakes and around intersecting creek channels. When the shad pass by they rally on them. When the shad aren't there, the bass hold in the pad beds at the mouths and you can catch them on plastic worms, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and topwater plugs."

When summer's high temperatures arrive, there will still be some fish in the river. But, the lakes are once more the place to be. Experienced anglers look for matted vegetation forming a hard edge with open water, or offshore hydrilla beds. The latter can be all-day goldmines.

When the first cold fronts of fall arrive, things change again.

"In cooler weather I definitely want to be in the back creeks and intersecting rivers that have a current flow through them," says Rawlins. "A lot of big bass will homestead there for the winter and they love to find heavy floating aquatic vegetation or a fallen tree top, to snuggle under Run a shiner under this kind of cover, or flip it with soft plastic lures, and you can connect with a lot of them."

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The Lower River

A short run north of Woodruff, the St. Johns enters Lake George. There it changes from a free-flowing river to one affected by the tides. That adds some different fish to the mix.

One of the best days on redfish I've experienced in over 35 years in Florida occurred on Lake George during a drought, when saltwater intrusion pushed large schools of reds far south. A few miles north, Little Lake George routinely produces flounder during the summer months, along with an occasional tarpon or snook. As the river winds north, saltwater species increase. At Jacksonville, it's a full-blown saltwater fishery, and one of the best in Florida.

From the jetties at Mayport, and right into downtown Jacksonville itself, anglers can find sheepshead, tarpon, weakfish, mangrove snapper, big bull reds (topping 40 pounds), flounder (including some real doormats!), jacks, ladyfish, croaker, bluefish, and a host of lesser species.

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"That's a pretty good lineup, but there's more. Although it doesn't get the publicity of some other locales in the state, this is one of the top bets for "Bator" spotted seatrout. The peak time for them is April, May and June in the main river itself. But, they can pop up at anytime. I remember a 7.5-pound trout that ate a topwater plug in three feet of water at the back of Mill Cove at noon on a calm and scorching August day.

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Veteran Jacksonville guide Capt. Tony Bozzella (who owns TBS Jigs) is well aware of the trout situation. During the last couple of years his guide parties have landed 88 trout over five pounds, with an 11-pounder topping the list. When not chasing those gator trout during their peak months, however, he has another area that occupies his time.

"The maze of backcountry tidal creeks on the north side of the river from Dames Point Bridge to Fort George offer some of the best fishing," he notes. "That's especially true during the cooler months when the main river slows down."

It's not hard to see why. Those shallow, mud-bank creeks draw heat from the sun. That brings baitfish. The trout, redfish and flounder follow.

"I'm looking for outside bends with a steady current flow that has a harder bottom, or oyster, not just mud or silt," Bozzella says. "Find those areas that are holding baitfish, and you'll find fish."

As for lures, Bozzella uses bucktail jigs or soft-plastic jigs. Another option is a shallow-running jerkbait.

It's simple. But, then so is the entire St. Johns. Just pick the right spot.

A pair of drake bluewing teal taken on T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Area, near Fellsmere. Above: Highland Park Fish Camp outside DeLand, on the middle river. That's where Capt. Bryn Rawlins knows that well. "This area has always ranked very high in the state's annual creel counts for both bass and bream," she says. "And, the last couple of
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Title Annotation:Trifecta
Author:Christian, Chris
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1628
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