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Suwannee Bass (and more) on the Wakulla River

Editor's note: Native Floridian Bill Bell went fishing on the Wakulla River south of Tallahassee in early April of 2003. Here is his account of the trip.

Though not native to the Wakulla River, the Suwannee bass appear to be thriving! These guys don't get real big but make up for their lack of size with lots of attitude! Suwannees are native to the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Withlacoochee Rivers in northern Florida as well as the Ochlocknee in the panhandle.

      This weekend, I finally got a chance to fish the Wakulla River. The river rises from a massive spring just south of Tallahassee, Florida and flows a short distance to the coast. It is crystal clear and loaded with vegetation, wildlife and fish. I canoed and fished the river quite a bit growing up (it was strictly a largemouth fishery then) but haven't been back in a while. Recently I have heard reports of a developing Suwannee bass fishery there so I decided to check it out.

    My friend Bernie and I arrived at the upper access off of Highway 365 around 7:30 am. The air was chilly and the springfed 70 degree water created a layer of fog over the river. We put in and pushed off downriver. The upper section of the river is broad, shallow, and braided. The bottom is a mixture of limestone gravel and sand with eelgrass, elodea, and pickerelweed along the banks. There are a number of cypress trees and blowdowns along the banks that break the current. The water is so clear that it is almost transparent, and there are plenty of largemouth, Suwannees, redbreast, stumpknockers, suckers, mudfish, and even saltwater visitors like sheepshead and mullet.

   We drifted a while before Bernie hooked his first river bass of the year, and it was a nice one. The fat largemouth looked to be fresh off the bed and she must have been hungry to eat the little beetle spin he was throwing. She was one of the larger river largemouths I have seen and a heck of a good start to the day. I continued to throw a small crankbait and a popper as we moved downstream with no success. Finally, in a little slough off the main channel, I found a taker. I flipped the popper near a fallen cypress and saw a wake streak out from the bank. The bass exploded on the popper and began a short, stubborn fight just like a shoalie or smallmouth. I was just about to lip my first Suwannee when it jumped and threw the hook. I don't get very upset about losing fish, but this was pretty bad.

Whoa Nellie! The Wakulla also sports a few nice traditional bass of the largemouth variety!

    We continued fishing for an hour or so, catching lots of bream and running into a pod of 5 manatees moving upriver (these guys are unbelievably huge, nearly the length of my kayak at 11 or 12 feet, and are an incredible sight). The sun was a little higher and I was able to see a few fat Suwannees holding in the current. They didn't seem to care for my crawfish crankbaits or jigs so I decided to improvise. Even though I have heard they don't care for plastic worms, I tried a brown and orange 4" finesse Zoom on a 1/16 oz Slider weedless head. This changed my luck immediately. I saw a sandy patch behind a weedbed with a Suwannee over it and pitched the worm to it. The fish moved over and sucked in the worm and I set the hook. I managed to get this fish to the boat and take pictures. The bass was about 13" and looked a bit like a redeye or a smallmouth. The body was dark and the belly and lower fins were mottled gray like a smallmouth. The head of the fish was very distinct and had an incredible turquoise hue that didn't show up very well in the pictures. The dorsal fin was connected with no notch and looked very much like a smallie. I was surprised at how large the scales were and how deep-bodied the fish was in general.

    Once I figured out the pattern, I started to catch them regularly. There is tremendous variation in the coloration, with some fish looking like brilliantly colored largemouths with red eyes and a tiny mouth and other fish looking dark and more like a smallie or redeye. I think there may be some hybridization going on but that's just a guess. I caught fish over 14" and saw 2 fish that were pushing 3 pounds. I also was able to observe several spawning pairs of Suwannees (I caught a couple of spawners but decided not to bother the rest) in the clear water. The male and female are generally the same size, unlike most largemouth I have observed, and the beds are much more irregular and inconspicuous. They seem to like to place the beds under logs and in cover close to the main river channel. The beds tend to be a little deeper than the largemouth bed in the same river. The crystal clear water allows you to really observe their behavior and is a neat spot to fish.

    I ended the day with a dozen Suwannees and 6 or 7 largemouth in addition to redbreast and stumpknocker. No trophies, although my buddy caught a giant largemouth and we saw many more big ones in the river. In addition to the manatees, we saw gators, huge schools of giant gar, several 10 pound plus mudfish (I hooked one which promptly snapped me off), and plenty of birds including an aerial fight between a bald eagle and an osprey. It is a beautiful place and a definite change of pace from our rivers up here. The whole area has a tropical feel (they filmed a Tarzan movie on the river) and the fertility of the springfed river has to be seen to be believed.

Bill was quick with the camera and was able to get a shot of this pod of manatees as they meandered past.