Withlacoochee: Episode II
The wind was already whipping when I popped my
head outside the popup camper for a look-see around 8 AM on the
second day of our Withlacoochee trip. The trifecta of high winds,
crystal clear water, and a severe cold front had made our first day
an exercise in frustration. Our plan on this day was to try and find
a spot upriver where the water had more color and was protected from
This picture pretty much sums up the day. Cold, windy, and
catching bass out in the middle of the river. There's a bass there,
The weather forecast had told us that today was
going to be rough, with a 20 mph wind out of the north and highs
only reaching the mid-50's. Well, at least the river wouldn't be
crowded today! Since the Withlacoochee flows in a northwesterly
direction, we decided to fish our way upstream with the wind at our
backs and then paddle back downstream to our takeout vehicle. As it
turns out, we could have easily done a float trip from downstream to
upstream (and avoided paddling against the wind altogether!), as the
wind turned out to be far stronger than the current.
Due to the curious events of the day before, I
had to go find a mechanic to look at my truck to make sure it was in
good enough shape to get me and my popup trailer safely back to
Georgia. This was a tad trickier than usual considering today was a
Sunday, a holiday weekend, and the day of the Daytona 500. Since we
didn't know how long this would take, Will and Todd got an early
start on the fishing. After I got someone to examine my car, I would catch up with them on the river. Luckily, the the suspension
damage to my truck wasn't too bad (either that or the mechanic
didn't want work interfering with the race!), and I was able to head
to the Withlacoochee only an hour or so behind Will and Todd.
I was cautiously optimistic when I saw the river
at the launch site. It was small with lots of trees on both banks
that would offer protection from the wind. Unfortunately, the river
widened after the first bend heading upstream and stayed at least
100 feet wide for the next few miles upstream. There were whitecaps
forming in places, and I knew the paddle back downstream would be
labor-intensive and chilly. I barely had to paddle on the way
upstream, as the wind provided more than enough propulsion. I was
able to make a few casts along the way, and the results were not
I was throwing a spinnerbait to the banks, and
more often than not, my lure would come back coated with river
slime. To avoid the slime near the banks, I basically had to burn my
spinnerbait across the surface, an effective tactic to be sure, but
not during a February cold front. I decided to concentrate on
paddling upstream to find Will and Todd and see if they had
discovered the key to making the bass bite.
Once I put down the fishing pole, I started
noticing all the life abounding in this section of the With. The
bird life is amazing. I saw owls, osprey, and a few different types
of hawk along with a plethora of egrets and herons. I stopped at one
point to check a little side channel that ran through a grass
prairie and walked through absolute swarms of tiny minnows. I can
only imagine what this place is like when the river is full and the
weather is warm!
Florida State Code 100-43567 states that every article written
about a river in Florida must contain a menacing alligator picture.
I finally found Will and Todd a couple miles
farther upstream. A couple miles of upstream paddling might sound
like a lot, but the current on the Withlacoochee is very mild, even
when the river is high. Throw in a 15 mph wind at my back, and the
trip upstream was much more akin to sailing than paddling. The float
downstream required some work.
As I predicted, Will and Todd hadn't caught
anything either. Around 2 PM or so, we decided to fish our way back
downstream to the trucks. The With is very wide in this section, and
we lined our kayaks three abreast and started paddling downstream
against the wind, getting in a cast or two, and paddling a few
strokes farther. Todd was in the middle of the river, and his first
bass helped us figure out how to make the best of a pretty wretched
day (see first picture).
The key was fishing the deeper water towards the
middle of the river, and pretty soon we were all flinging small
crankbaits and spinnerbaits that dove 4-5 feet and constantly ticked
the wood and weeds out in the middle of the river. We got enough
strikes from small bass and jackfish to make us feel like we had
accomplished something. All told, we caught ten bass and a couple
jackfish by ignoring the banks and combing the riverbed thoroughly
with cranks and spinnerbaits. It's pretty obvious that the cold
front and low water sent the bass hiding in the deepest water
available, and we were able to find a few of them.
Crankbait-caught bass from midstream. Not your typical pattern
for Central Florida river bass.
Needless to say, we didn't see anybody else
fishing and only one airboat made an appearance. We did see our
first couple gators of the trip along with all the other wildlife.
That night while catfishing, we wondered aloud at how different that
stretch of river might be with another foot or so of water. The
cypress knees that were now completely exposed would hold fish
once some rain filled the river, and the shallow and weedy banks
wouldn't be the banks anymore. They'd be the muck you had to drag
your fish through to get them from the trees into the boat.
It turns out that our catfishing provided the most
eventful moment of the day. We kept hearing big, unidentified
splashes out in the middle of the river. Todd cast a topwater bait
as far as he could and started working it back to the dock. Quicker
than he could react, an owl swooped down and picked the lure up off
the water, hooking one of his talons in the process. This was a
no-win situation for both bird and angler. Rather than risk harming
the owl or ourselves any further, we decided to cut the line and
hopefully the owl would be able to work the lure free. I hope it
survived, but that has to be one of the craziest things I've ever
witnessed while fishing. I thought owls were supposed to be wise.
Run for your lives! Between the owls and eels, catfishing
is never boring is the most exciting thing ever
can be pretty fun sometimes!