Landlocked yet brimming with saltwater fish, Guana Lake in Northeast Florida is a treasure for outdoorsmen.
By Jim Anderson
Look, look over there,” I said to Steve Helseth as I pointed to the open bay to our left. There, mullet looked as if they were trying to become flyingfish in an effort to escape becoming a midday meal. I altered course and shut down the outboard to quietly approach the area.
Steve made a long cast with a 1⁄2-ounce gold spoon and quickly hooked up. After a few minutes and to our surprise, Steve landed a very nice black drum. Over the next hour, Steve and I caught and released 11 upper-slot reds to top off the drum—all of this in the middle of the day in August. You just never know what will happen next when fishing Guana Lake.
Guana Lake is officially known as Lake Ponte Vedra, and it’s located within the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR) and also includes the Guana River Wildlife Management Area just south of Ponte Vedra Beach along Highway A1A. The main entrance to the lake is on the south end of the preserve. You will find a newly constructed $6 million educational center and a renovated recreation area around the dam. Unimproved boat ramps access both the Guana River and Guana Lake; fee is $3 per vehicle, plus $3 if you have a trailer.
The access on the north end of the preserve is aptly known as Six Mile Landing. It is, as you might guess, six miles north of the dam. There is a concrete ramp here and parking area, but no facilities. During the late spring drawdown, Six Mile is unusable due to the low water. Be sure to read the informational signs at the ramp, which review specific regulations related to Guana.
My first experience fishing Guana Lake was one of confusion. I had never fished a “lake” in which I had heard tales of giant reds and gator trout. Usually, a “lake” is known for its hawg bass and slab panfish, not the saltwater variety of inshore species. As we navigated the small channel through the cattails, I was convinced I would find a bass or two. However, the results were as advertised with our catch of reds and trout. I started thinking then—this is more like a lagoon than a lake.
Guana is rare among Florida’s coastal waterways in that it is not affected by tide. You will not find any oyster bars or water depth exceeding four feet. Much of the lake is less than two feet deep. What you will find is a bountiful estuary producing a wide variety of forage for redfish, trout, black drum and flounder.
At the southern end of the lake lies an earthen dam and water control structure. The water that flows into the lake comes from the Guana River and adjoining Intracoastal Waterway. This happens during the abnormally high tides during the spring and fall or when the FWC desires to raise the lake level. During these times, especially in the fall, schools of reds and flounder concentrate near this inflow of oxygenated, saline water. Lots of anglers fish from the north edge of the dam wading out into the lake. When the bite is on, it can be phenomenal. If fishing from a boat, be careful not to get too close to the shorebound anglers. Many of them utilize surf rods that can cast a 2-ounce lead like a .30-06 round. Just think about the guy driving the ball cart at the driving range and you get the picture.
When planning a trip to Guana, note that both live bait and artificial lures seem to work equally well. One of the most effective methods is to slowly drift the open bays while working a bait beneath a Cajun Thunder or other float rig. Either a live shrimp hooked just under the horn or one of the plastic shrimp is very effective on trout, while also picking up the occasional red or flounder. Chartreuse is a great color choice for plastic shrimp, since the water is always silty.
During the warmer months at first light, working a topwater plug in a walk-the-dog action will produce great strikes from trout and reds. If you are lucky and find fingerling mullet moving out of the cover into the lake, it just goes crazy. I have experienced over 50 topwater strikes and landed half that many trout during this magic hour. Although many of these fish will run 14 to 18 inches, there are some that exceed 26.
Another method is fishing a live or fresh dead shrimp on the bottom. Look for points and edges where depth transitions from one to three feet. Setting both a bow and stern anchor will keep the boat from swinging on the anchor. Cast multiple rods in various directions, secure them in rod holders, and let the baits lightly rest on the bottom. Schools of reds and drum slowly cruise these areas and when you get a bite on one rod, usually you’ll have another rod go down. On the business end, I prefer a 1⁄8-ounce jighead with a 3/0 black nickel hook tied to an 18- to 24-inch length of 20-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon. A double uni-knot will secure it to the main line.
When fishing a shrimp on the bottom, remember that these fish are feeding on scent. One trick that will bring you more bites is to pinch the fantail off at the first joint up; this releases more scent. Starting at the pinched end, thread the hook into the shrimp, bringing the point out on the underside. A fresh chunk of mullet, ladyfish or crab is also a good bait for reds and drum.
The appeal of Guana Lake is not limited to fishing. There is good waterfowl hunting here and seasonal opportunities to gather crabs and shrimp (see accompanying sidebars).
The scenic backdrop alone is worth the visit. Guana offers eight miles of beautiful, undisturbed dunes and coquina shell beach. There are three designated parking areas located along A1A with boardwalks over the dunes. On the beach, if you look closely through the coquina shells, you can find sharks’ teeth. There are no lifeguards or other amenities, so bring what you need.
On the main peninsula, hiking and horseback riding trails weave through coastal oak hammocks, palmetto flats and pine forest. Some lead to observation towers which provide spectacular views of the marsh. During the winter, it is not unusual to spot bald eagles soaring above the treeline or perched on nests, enjoying a mullet caught from the lake.
As Steve and I loaded the boat on the trailer, we both knew we had experienced a great day on a Florida treasure. The most difficult thing about going to Guana is deciding what to do first. If you enjoy the outdoors, you will not be disappointed with any of the opportunities Guana provides to all.
The FWC limits the maximum horsepower on Guana Lake at 10. No jet- or air-propelled watercraft are permitted. It’s a great place for johnboats or paddle craft, such as kayaks and canoes. Many species of water birds inhabit the northern end of the lake and there is no better way to get up close than with a kayak or canoe. If you happen to paddle into the turf of a bull ’gator, you may want to alter course since these have been known to stand their ground, especially during the breeding season.
“Don’t put your fish on a stringer,” advises Mike Kogan, creator of jaxkayakfishing.com. Other than respect for the alligators, Kogan finds Guana Lake very inviting to the paddling community, “since there are not any tides and for the most part, you can always find protection from the wind; Guana is made for what we love to do.”
Kayakers seem to be split between those who enjoy the scenic opportunities Guana provides and those who rig the kayaks for battle with Guana’s inshore lineup. One thing Kogan has found to work well in the shallow water found in Guana is using a stakeout pole.
“You can quietly deploy the pole when you want to work an area or when you spot a fish moving through the shallows. Toss a topwater or a weedless twitchbait and get ready to get slammed.” Because of the relatively placid water and lack of strong tides, large vessels and such, Guana provides a first class experience for paddlers.
A great online source of information is guanalakefishing.com, run by Stu Valentine. Valentine provides current reports and a wealth of information that any angler will find useful.
Waterfowl Hunts on Guana
Guana is one of the few publicly accessible waterfowl hunting areas in Northeast Florida. There is an early teal and wood duck hunt during September along with the regular season beginning in November. Hunters must check in and out of the Six Mile Landing located off of A1A. Hunting with a retriever is not recommended during the early duck season since there are too many large alligators lurking around. Once colder weather arrives, the ’gators are much less active. According to FWC Wildlife Biologist Justin Ellenberger, “Greenwing teal are the most abundant species with bluewings a close second, behind that, ringnecks.” Ellenberger adds, “Guana Lake is similar to Merritt Island and T.M. Goodwin in that it is an impoundment, where it differs is in its size. Guana Lake is by far the smallest of the three.”
When asked if Guana Lake is managed primarily for waterfowl, Ellenberger replied, “The management practices we use for the ducks are also good for the fish. One of the preferred types of vegetation is widgeon grass. In addition to it being an excellent food source for the ducks, it also serves as a nursery for shrimp and other marine life.”
After the close of hunting season, the FWC draws down the water level to expose the shorelines to the air and sun. This practice enhances the growth of desirable plants and at the same time, benefits the marine life once the water level is raised with salt water from the Guana River during the early summer.
Most all hunters use a boat to get to their hunting area. Due to the soft mud, walking in just is not practical. Of the 2,200 acres, roughly half is good habitat for ducks. This area is located in the northern half of the lake. Hunts are conducted on Saturday and Wednesday during the waterfowl season.
Ducks are not the only species hunted in Guana. Deer and hog are also targeted during archery, muzzleloading and general gun seasons. There are also six small game hunts that begin in December.
Crabs and Shrimp—Tasty
The north shoreline of the Guana River dam provides some of the best crabbing in Northeast Florida. If you look closely, you will see some elaborate crabbing rigs comprised of running a horizontal main line from stake to stake. From the main line, there will be tied multiple bait lines spaced evenly. A piece of fresh mullet, ladyfish or pogy will get the crabs chewing. Another favorite bait for crabs is a piece of chicken, which in most cases, is easier to obtain than other baits. Once all the baits are deployed, a sharp eye will detect a slight movement of a bait line. The crabber simply wades out and slowly handlines in the crab while sliding a landing net under the crustacean.
In addition to the crabs, during the evenings in the summer, shrimp are targeted. Shrimpers bait their stakes along the north shoreline of the dam and along the southeast and southwest edges of the lake. Making runs up and down the stake line throwing a castnet will produce some very large shrimp.