Sometimes adventure awaits in your own back yard. I lived in Florida for eight years before I discovered the St. Johns River as a fishing destination. It was my friend and Florida Guides Association guide, Tom Van Horn, that introduced me to the St. Johns. He was promoting the Coastal Angler Magazine-Orlando Shad and Crappie Derby.
Shad, I thought. That’s bait fish, right? Then Tom gave me the story of how the American shad make their way from the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville all the way up to Volusia county and beyond to spawn. This migration takes place every year and produces some unusually good light tackle fishing on the St. Johns River. Fly casters are also swooned by the shad’s arrival. The feisty fish are hard pulling and high-flying targets for small colorful offerings.
With the American shad discovered, I was hooked. My shad fishing trips to the St. Johns also uncovered a special beauty of its own. Wildlife was abundant, from shorebirds to alligators to eagles. Every day was a new adventure on the St. Johns.
My next discovery was the terrific crappie fishing available on the river. Covering a crappie tournament as a member of the media unveiled just how good it was. Angler after angler came to the scales at weigh-in with a seven-fish limit of crappie. Big, beautiful, black crappie. No fish is more photogenic than Florida black crappie.
Naturally, after firsthand witnessing the bounty of the river at that tournament, I had to try the crappie fishing myself. I was not disappointed. I discovered that about any method of crappie fishing you would want to try would work on the St. Johns River. Longline trolling, spider rigging (pushing), casting, and my favorite one-pole jigging all produced nice crappie.
Given the numerous lily pads on the river it is just two inviting not to try dipping some jigs in the pads. With this method of crappie fishing the angler holds a single or longer pole in his hand and moves from spot to spot dipping a jig vertically down among the lily pads. Thump! When you feel the thump, set the hook. Crappie anglers are often heard to say, “I live for the thump!”
Bass are also abundant on the river. I don’t think I have ever been out on the St. Johns without running across a bass angler or two. Just like with the crappie, almost any method of bass fishing works. Most that I have witnessed are casting plugs and swimbaits around the numerous pads and fallen timber. Others are casting live shiners under a bobber to catch some monster bass.
One St. Johns angler, Broc Foley, has a special penchant for fishing with artificial frogs. His covert methods of waging war on bass have earned him the nickname – The Frog Ninja.
“The best time to throw a frog is every day,” says Foley. “It is all about risk and reward for me. I can put on a worm and catch a lot more bass, but when I throw my frogs I know I am going to catch quality fish.”
Froggin’ is Foley’s go to technique for catching big bass. “Whether it is skipping under overhangs, fishing open water or targeting specific structure, I like to fish frogs,” elaborates Foley. “I fish frogs 12 months of the year. I personally carry over 100 frogs in my boat. I have at least three rods rigged with a different frog very time I fish. Who doesn't love a big fish blowing up on a frog?”
Foley is so into frog fishing he has developed his own frog. He spent about 18 months field testing and developing his Vexan Ninja Frog. It will be available soon for other froggers to use.
The St. Johns River is also a great place to catch catfish. Van Horn also introduced me to the catfish in the river while shad fishing. He would always bait up a rod and throw it out on the bottom while he was fishing for shad. Once again, the proof was in the pudding. Catfish after catfish came using this method.
Now, I make trips to the river to target catfish. Interestingly, the first nice catfish I caught, I thought was a blue cat. After a little investigation, I discovered that the blues don’t range this far south. It was a nice big channel cat.
Catfishing is easy and anyone can do it. A simple Carolina rig and some worms is really all you need. Catfish will eat other baits too. I have good luck on shrimp and just about any kind of cut bait. The bridge where HWY 44 crosses the St. Johns is one of my favorite launch sites. There is shoreline fishing available, nice boat ramps, a nice restaurant and bait shop.
I still enjoy travelling to fish other locations, but once I discovered the St. Johns River it has become a favored destination, not just for the fishing, but for its beauty too.
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