Josh Gowan: St. John’s River, Florida
Possibly the most abroad this Heartlander has ever been (it’s difficult to count the miles with your eyes clinched shut, gripped in fear because the jet-propelled, patchwork rust-bucket you’re crammed in is convulsing through the whatsos-sphere like a Chinese bottle rocket with a broken stick,) the St. John’s River might had well of been on another continent.
The pristine, inter-coastal swamp offered a backdrop that would have been enough to make the trip worthwhile on its own, but the wildlife that inhabited the tranquil current, both above and below the water’s surface, was easily the main attraction.
I was tucked in a quaint cottage overlooking the river at the Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina in beautiful West Volusia, Florida, and while the scenery was certainly breathtaking, I wasn’t there to sight-see. My game is panfish, and the St. John’s River is jam-packed with some of the most tenacious crappie and bream I’ve ever had the pleasure of hooking.
One of the first trips I ventured out on was for big, bull bream with B’n’M and Lucas Oil/Hydroforce Pro Staffer Mathew Outlaw and his young apprentice Justin Black. Mathew recently won the Bass Pro Shop’s Crappie Master’s tourney at Lake Marion, South Carolina, and is no stranger to catching both big crappie and big bream.
Although I’ve boated many bream jigging the cypress trees of Reelfoot Lake, this was an entirely different approach. We were using the new B’n’M Double Duty rod by Whitey Outlaw, Mathew’s dad (although Mathew said he had plenty of input on the pole as well.) The rod is essentially a high-end, graphite cane pole that weighs next to nothing but offers a ton of backbone.
The set-up utilized around 12-foot of 8-pound Viscious monofilament tied to the tip of the 10-foot pole, rigged with a small toothpick float, splitshot, and #4 Tru-Turn hook armed with a lively Florida cricket. The tactic was to either flip or swing your bait up to the edge of the vegetation and let the current ease it along, but it never eased far! The action was fast and furious and the bream were monstrous and black, and none too happy about the unexpected lip piercing.
Unfortunately the active bite was shut down just before the YETI Cooler was completely full, which happens, but the culprit in this case was new to me. Mathew said, “Oh crap, that manatee is coming straight at our spot.” That’s right, a manatee. Roughly the size of the compact rental car I was driving, manatees are strict vegetarians, but apparently just the sight of the enormous sea-monster is enough to make the bream tuck tail, and I don’t blame them!
The next morning, the legend himself, Mr. Whitey Outlaw picked me up in a new camouflage War Eagle, rigged with Humminbird depth finders and a Minn Kota trolling motor, and we went out to use a new-to-me tactic for big, black crappie. Whitey ran the aluminum tank right up on top of a heavy vegetation mat surrounding a downed tree off the bank of the river.
He pulled out an 8-foot metal pole with a 90 degree bend and another 2-foot off the end. This homemade device was built for a specific reason, to make a hole in vegetation too thick to drop a jig through. This was not a dainty process. He thrashed a trashcan-sized hole in the mat and dropped a silver 1/16-ounce Rockport Rattler jighead armed with a white Midsouth tube jig, and within a matter of minutes was busy pulling in slab Florida specks. It was an absolute blast and a tactic I’m going to try back in my part of the country.
My last endeavor was at the mercy of the Lucas Marine Products and B’n’M team of Matt Morgan and Kent Watson, also recent Crappie Master’s victors. Matt put the 14-foot B’n’M’s in the single Driftmaster rod holders, and we pushed a variety of live minnows on Blakemore Roadrunner heads. Putting out multiple poles with live bait, in a fishery as fertile and active as the St. John’s River, results in a whole lot of action from a whole lot of different fish! Aside from the crappie, we caught gar, catfish, bass, and a wide variety of bream.
The trip was an amazing experience. From crappie to bream, manatees to alligators, lily pads, palm trees, and cypress adorned with Spanish moss, the Hontoon Landing on the St. John’s River in West Valusia, Florida holds something for everyone, and is a destination that should not be missed!