SASSY BASS AMONG THE HYACINTHS
Rising inscrutably from a maze of bogs, springs, marshes and creeks and emerging at last out of a lake called Helen Blazes, where islands float mysteriously, flowing through a land that once knew the lion and the hippopotamus, as well as a race of giant pre-Indian men, the American continent's finest largemouth bass river proceeds slowly northward, confusing the stranger who thinks of downstream as south, upstream as north. It takes a bit of determined self-orientation to get used to it. Along the river's perverse course it occasionally becomes as wide as the Nile or the Mississippi, but no one who lives on its banks thinks that this is anything to remark about, since, after all, it contains so many other wonders. Finally, after quietly making its point, which is that it is the strangest stream that we know in our country, and one of the most beautiful in all the world, it empties prosaically into the Atlantic Ocean, just east of Jacksonville, Fla.
Exploring Frenchmen called it the River of May, the Spaniards knew it as the San Mateo, and no one knows for certain how it became the St. Johns River, except for speculation that this may derive from San Juan del Puerto, a Franciscan mission that once was established near its mouth, though the historians don't seem to know just when. One does know this: that it contains in all but satiating numbers some of the most superb specimens of the Florida large-mouth bass that ever have been taken—magnificently conditioned fish, fiercely eager for bait or lure, gifted with artifice and muscle and as determined to defeat a fisherman as bass have ever been. In some other waters really big bass fight with a ponderous sluggishness, with mere reluctance to be taken. In the St. Johns they fight to drag you out of the boat.
"Come on up an' ring de bell!" the Negro guide exhorts. A massive bass shoots obediently out of his deep hole, crashes through the surface and, with bell-like mouth extended in an improbable yawn, shakes himself from side to side in a dingdong battle against plug, line, rod and you. If he fails to break something that way he sounds deep, swerving inexorably toward a tangle of cypress roots or weeds. Stop him before he reaches his submarine jungle and he will likely jump again, perhaps as many as two or three times. Fail to stop him and you have lost a prize.
No need for weeping, though. The river is full of his peers and so are tributaries like the Oklawaha River, emptying into the northern end of Little Lake George, one of 10 major lakes through which the St. Johns passes on its eccentric 300-mile journey to the sea. You may wander up the Oklawaha or Salt Springs Run to find good bass fishing, and on Salt Springs you will see such fresh-water oddities as mullet and blue claw crabs of surprising size, though the run is about 100 miles upstream from the ocean. The water of Salt Springs is only moderately salty—it is, in fact, potable—but it suits these ocean creatures well enough.
In stretches of these two tributaries the water is so clear that you may sometimes see the bass take the lure, then enjoy not only the sight of his surge to the top but a fine view of his underwater fight as well. On a sunny winter afternoon on the Oklawaha it was fascinating to study a 4-pound bass which had decided that one particular blue catfish out of a drowsing dozen was his special pigeon, though the cat looked like all the others in the school. The catfish did have one peculiarity, though. He wanted to move about instead of lying in the hypnotic state that seemed to afflict the others. The bully bass singled him out, therefore, and insistently drove him back into the cat community whenever he ventured out of it. The bass didn't want to eat him; he just wanted to keep him in line. It was very like watching a good collie tend sheep.
Quite possibly the incident helps explain why bass strike those improbable lures. They are a fish who seem to resent anything that departs from normal patterns of design or behavior. A strange wiggle, a floundering on the surface, a limping, hesitant movement of a lure along the bottom, a plastic worm that is colored bright blue instead of a decent angleworm brown—these are what put bass in a dudgeon and what they hang themselves on.
Whatever the ecology of the St. Johns may be—and it seems not to have been studied too thoroughly—it is certainly among the most fertile producers of largemouths anywhere, as well as pickerel, crappies, bluegills and other pan-fish. It is not always easy to take a limit of 10 bass there, but it is always difficult to be skunked. Clue No. 1 to this fertility, perhaps, is the water hyacinth, lavender-flowered rafts of which drift with the winds and current, nestle along lee shores where there is a windbreak of trees and pile up on the windward side when there isn't. These wandering islands—quite different from the more substantial floating islands of Lake Helen Blazes—block channels and foul propellers unless they are negotiated with caution. They are obnoxious to boatmen who don't care about fishing. They are a blessing to the man who wants to take bass. The tangled roots of the hyacinth make a natural net to trap the passive plankton on which small bait-fish feed, and on which the bass feeds in his turn.
The great nuisance of the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-34 was the spate of fan dancers it spawned. What the New Orleans Cotton Exposition of 1884 spawned was the water hyacinth. Brought to the fair from Venezuela as a curiosity, its blossoms attracted a gentle Brooklyn lady of the old school who had a winter home on the banks of the St. Johns near Palatka. She brought some hyacinth plants back from the exposition, saw them flourish in her private pond, then decided, with gracious na√Øveté, to decorate the river she loved. By 1894 the hyacinths were decorating some 50 million acres of the St. Johns and threatening to choke off a very profitable riverboat traffic in lumber and tourists. In the ensuing 68 years the federal government has spent hundreds of thousands to keep the river clear for navigation. It is still spending, and it will continue to spend forever, for the water hyacinth is as ineradicable as those other pesky immigrants, the starling and the nutria. No effort is made now to destroy it utterly, since that would be impossible, and in any case, when properly controlled, it is an attractive nuisance. It is attractive to the eye and to the bass, which uses it as both cover and hunting ground.
Aside from the water hyacinth, there are other basic reasons for the river's fertility. It is shallow, with a very slow current, and light-loving weeds grow plentifully everywhere, with nothing but an occasional storm to disturb them. These weeds, too, contain extraordinary quantities of plankton.
Despite the land booms of recent years—and river frontage now is very expensive—much of the St. Johns valley still retains the illusion of jungle wildness, almost the wild-ness of the post-Civil War days that Marjorie Kinnan Raw-lings wrote about in The Yearling, when Jody Baxter and his pet fawn, Flag, roamed the country around the western shores of Lake George. Should you make your fishing base just south of Lake George, at Astor, where accommodations are good and the guides first-rate, talk fishing, hunting and hound dogs with the people you meet. You will then understand that not all of what Miss Rawlings wrote about has yet died. The old Indian trading post of Volusia, where Jody and his father went to swap hides for supplies, is gone and the big steamboats loaded with Yankee tourists and trade goods no longer ply the river, but Jody's Juniper Creek, just a bit northwest of Cross Creek—another of Miss Rawlings' discoveries—still flows into the southwestern end of Lake George. The country one sees from much of the river remains little changed from the days when Timucuan Indians hunted along it with arrows tipped with turquoises. So long as it remains this way the St. Johns will be a river of unusual beauty.
Its beauty derives not only from the water hyacinths but from the constantly varying loveliness of its banks. Sometimes, where the river widens into one of its many lakes, the banks are far away, only dimly seen through sunrise mists, and sometimes they press close on either side as the contrarily changing stream narrows suddenly to flow between brilliant, sweet-scented orange groves, live oaks draped with Spanish moss, towering cypresses, bay trees, ash, hickory, palmetto, sweet gums and water maples. In winter the gray of the moss may be illuminated here and there by clusters of holly berries. The green parakeets of the early days are gone now along with the passenger pigeon, but there still are hawks and sapsuckers, whippoorwills, mocking birds and curlews, wild turkey, wood ducks and quail. In nesting season tens of thousands of white ibis, as many as 50,000 of them in some years, cover the waters of Lake Washington, where they subsist on crawfish, minnows and, providentially, small water moccasins.
From Astor south the bass achieve their bragging size in greatest numbers, but there are fine fish to be had, too, at such concentrations of fishing camps to the north as Fruitland, Welaka and Palatka. In such areas the shores are lined with fishing camps, motels, hotels and boat liveries, many of them excellently equipped and some even offering such refinements as cocktail lounges, where a record bass lurks in every third Martini, but always gets away. There are those who will tell you, quite soberly, that the 30-year-old record of 22 pounds 4 ounces (made in Montgomery Lake, Ga.) will yet be surpassed in the St. Johns and that such record bass have, in fact, escaped many times just by smashing terminal tackle. My own 7½-pounder, taken on a recent expedition, was hefted with courteous congratulations at the dock, but only because I seemed to be expecting congratulations. It takes a fish of 12 pounds or so to collect a small crowd. I do believe that I lost a much bigger bass because I was disrespectful enough to start out with light spinning tackle. For the big ones in the weeds the minimum requirement is a bait-casting rod equipped with line of at least 15 pounds test. If you are not out for the really big bass but would be content with three times your limit of 3-pounders every day, then spinning tackle and August are best. At that time the young bass are schooling on Lake George, feeding on small shad. Standing in the bow of your boat on a clear day when the water is good and flat, you can detect the surface flurry of the feasting bass. If you can race your boat to the spot before those particular shad, about the size of an ordinary streamer, are wiped out or scattered, you have a wonderful opportunity to take fish on every cast.
As for the lunkers, they arc there the year round but must be sought by more subtle methods of reading the water. The most efficient way to read strange water is to bring along a translator, a native guide who will lead you to the best spots. The guides I encountered in an exploration of the river's upper reaches were all first-rate—quiet, informative men.
Artificial lures are quite productive except in the hyacinth beds. These call inexorably for live bait. The bait of choice is a large shiner, five or six inches long, because if you use bait it is assumed you are going out for big bass and big bass do like the big shiners. The hyacinth patch is approached to within casting distance, from which the shiner is delivered to the edge of the patch and allowed to run free. In its crude way, this is a stratagem, because the free-running shiner ducks instinctively into the dark water under the hyacinths, seeking shelter. There, waiting for him, is that big bass you want so much. The live bait works fine, therefore, but casting an artificial lure up to the edge of the hyacinths is likely to be fruitless because the lure cannot be persuaded to go forward and down, which is necessary if you are to get it under the raft where the fish are. Nor can you, as in fishing lily pads, cast a weedless lure onto the top of the vegetation and skitter it back to you with any hope of inducing a bass to leap through the top. There is not enough water on top to produce a skitter, and the roots of the hyacinth plants are so thickly interwined that no fish could penetrate them. The angler who insists on fishing with lures among the hyacinths has but one recourse. He can station his boat at the end of a stretch of hyacinth and cast parallel to the raft, as close as he can manage, retrieving his lure along the edge while trusting that somewhere over the route a bass will be close enough to see and desire the plug.
From March 1 to June 1, it is generally agreed, bass fishing is best along the St. Johns. The spawning season runs from late March to late May. At that time the fish are on the grass beds, easily found and easily provoked. The August schooling season might be the most fun for many fishermen, even though the school bass run mostly to middling size, just because it is exciting to track them down by sight. It's a matter of personal preference. The fact is that any time of year is good by comparison with most other parts of the U.S., and there is no closed season. So far there has seemed to be no need for a closed season. The St. Johns produces bass as fast as the fishermen take them out.
It is a fine, romantic, sporting river, rich in a history of smuggling, piracy and slave trading, massacres and murders during the days when Spanish explorers, French colonizers, English planters and American frontiersmen fought over it. It is easy to understand why Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a letter to George Eliot, called it "the beautiful, grand St. Johns," and why that persistent fisherman, Grover Cleveland, shrewdly persuaded his bride that it was just the place to spend a honeymoon. Any angler would agree.
Along the edge of a large floating, flowering island of hyacinths, a fisher man battles one of St. Johns's fat and vigorous largemouths
St. Johns River
OCALA NATIONAL FOREST
Lake Helen Blazes
Blue Cypress Lake
St. Johns River
ST. JOHNS TRAVEL FACTS
From bogs and creeks around isolated Blue Cypress Lake, the St. Johns flows north to Jacksonville. Lake George has plenty of camps for traveling anglers. Welaka has at least eight good places, of which Sportsman's Lodge and Andersen Lodge are the best. In Fruitland, Camp George and St. Johns Lodge are recommended. Near Palatka, in San Mateo, the best place is Horse Landing Camp. In Astor the writer stayed at Hall's Fishing and Hunting Lodge. Prices are fairly standard, with a single cabin costing about $35 per week and a double $65, no meals included. Boats are $2 to $4 per day, motorboats $5 to $8.50, and a fishing guide charges $12 a day. Camp dining rooms will cook your catch, and bass fresh out of the water is good enough for anyone. But if you want to vary the fare, try the Sportsman's Restaurant on Florida Highway 40,' near Astor, which is rated tops in the area.