Less than 20 miles from Tallahassee, there’s a magic place where anglers can find quiet and solitude on the water—except when speckled trout, redfish, flounder and other inshore species of fish insist on crushing baits presented to them!
St. Marks presents anglers with the very best example of “Forgotten Coast” Florida. Bright lights, high-rise condos and long lines of tourist cars are not found here. However, for a very wide range of great fishing possibilities, it’s hard to beat St. Marks and Apalachee Bay.
And what about the bars that really rock? Well, these are not wild party-places. They are naturally occurring underwater structures covered up with fish.
Geography of the Area
Two major spring-fed rivers—the Wakulla and the St. Marks—combine to form the lower St. Marks River at the village of St. Marks, and from this juncture, the St. Marks River flows for a couple of miles until it reaches the wide open spaces of Apalachee Bay and then the Gulf. Oyster bars are thick along the entire run of the St. Marks River, and these bars lie just out of the well-marked channel which leads to Apalachee Bay.
A working lighthouse marks the land’s end of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and at this point, anglers and boaters will discover a most interesting situation. West of the St. Marks lighthouse, the bottom of Apalachee Bay consists of the sand typical of the Panhandle region. East of the lighthouse, the bottom assumes the limestone rock of the Big Bend. This junction of very different bottom types gives anglers a choice of great fishing bottoms. Also, the difference in bottoms makes for very different requirements when it comes to navigating the area.
West of St. Marks, contact with the sandy bottom with a boat hull or outboard lower unit is not such a big deal. However, contact with the bottom east of the lighthouse can very easily require an expensive visit to the repair shop.
Captain Mike McNamara guides anglers—both kayak and skiff based—on the St. Marks and the Apalachee Bay areas, and he says, “St. Marks has a heavy mix of oyster bars and limestone. There is a jetty at the point of the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge that allows wade fishing. The St. Marks lighthouse is centered in Apalachee Bay, and all of the creek or river mouths in the area have oyster bars adjacent. The unique feature of Apalachee Bay is the amount of lime rock that is spread across the grassflats. The flats are littered with small and giant-sized rock structures. Some are marked, but most are not. This makes navigation a serious concern when fishing the bay. This also makes the bay an awesome place to catch redfish and trophy speck trout.”
McNamara adds, “The most famous area of rock is named the Rock Garden. It is a 200-acre mess of rocks that lies three miles offshore, and the largest will uncover with the tide. Rock Garden is about three or four miles east and south of the lighthouse. Black Rock—the most prominent and easily seen structure in the Rock Garden—will be four feet out of the water on low tide.”
Fish to be Caught
The St. Marks/Apalachee Bay area presents anglers with almost too many choices. The typical inshore big three—redfish, speckled trout and flounder—are always to be found. Some of the most beautiful golden-sided specks I’ve ever seen come from the grass beds and rocks of St. Marks.
In season—after the water reaches 70 degrees—a wide range of migratory fish show up and want to eat.
Captain Seth Oaks guides the Apalachee Bay mostly out of the Ochlocknee Area, and he says, “Primary targets in Apalachee Bay consist of grouper, snapper, trout, redfish, flounder, cobia, sheepshead, tarpon, sharks, Spanish and king mackerel. We also have tripletail, goliath grouper and black drum. We have a great fishery in Apalachee Bay.”
For warm-season tarpon—usually from May until August—anglers will have success on plugs, flies—just about anything that resembles a bait fish. Live bait is probably the best bet because the tarpon are rounding up bait pods. A medium- heavy rod with 40- to 50-pound line and at least a 5000 series reel are needed—some really big tarpon come through the St. Marks/Apalachee Bay area in summer.
Captain Seth Oaks says, “My favorite warm-season big fish are cobia. I’ve seen some 90-plus-pound cobia. That’s a big fish!”
How to Fish the St. Marks Area
Bottom structure such as the bars and rocks are prime spots to focus on a St. Marks/Apalachee Bay fishing trip.
When fishing the oyster bars in the St. Marks River, anglers will need to first locate the bars. Captain Mike McNamara says, “I like going out on low tide and then fishing the incoming tide. This allows me to see and find the best bars and then fish them when the water—and the fish—come in.”
McNamara offers some good advice for anglers who are not familiar with the area. “All bars in the St. Marks River have a shallow side and a steep face on the other side,” he explained. “Probably the steeper, deeper side is better, but fish can be on the shallow side, too. Some of the steep sides drop off into 16-foot-deep water, and these places can be very good.”
For the northern Gulf Coast, St. Marks/Apalachee Bay has good tide swings. Tides commonly have a 3-foot variation, and 5-foot variations from low to high tide are not at all uncommon. Anglers have to be aware of these tide changes for not only navigation, but also for best fishing.
Besides offering fish a substantial cover, the rock-flats and bars of St. Marks can modify water temperatures. High tide water on large areas of rock can be significantly warmer from heating by the sun—and this can greatly improve fishing at times.
McNamara says, “Day in and day out, it’s hard to beat a white plastic jerkbait or paddle tail grub on a ¼-ounce jig head. Bounce this universal fish-catcher along the bottom. Use quick and energetic jerks in warmer water, and very slow—almost dead in the water—when the water cools off in fall.”
Cold weather means river fishing, as McNamara explained.
“When the water gets below 64 degrees, creek mouths and oyster bars in the St. Marks and East Rivers can be great. The trout will push upstream—sometimes as far up as past the Hwy 98 Bridge at New Port. They will congregate in springs where the water temperatures are moderated by the warmer spring water.”
Catching sheepshead is one of my favorite things to do, and the rivers at St. Marks are full of the black-and-white, buck-toothed fish all of the time. Finding the sheepshead requires finding the deep oyster bars which never show up even on low tides. This is where a good bottom machine can really pay dividends. When a solid rise and dropoff shows on the screen, that’s a good place to drop a live shrimp.
Speaking of live shrimp, having a bucket of shrimp to throw around the rocks and bars is the best way to ensure a fresh fish supper. However, when shrimp are hard to find, it’s almost always possible for anglers to walk along the shorelines and pick up fiddler crabs. A fiddler crab drifted along the side of a St. Marks River oyster bar is like putting candy bars before young children. Redfish and sheepshead love fiddler crabs, and they won’t allow one to drift alone for long.
For those anglers who like to paddle a kayak for their fishing pleasure, a great place to start and end a fishing trip at St. Marks is to drive to the lighthouse at the end of the National Wildlife Refuge access road and carry the kayak to the water—it’s then a 30-foot carry. There are some of the best oyster bars in the whole St. Marks River system less than a half-mile off the beach. Redfish, specks, even the odd tarpon and big bull shark work the points and the sides of the oyster bars, and kayak anglers don’t have to make an all day paddle to get to the fishing.
How to Navigate the Area
We don’t want to make the St. Marks River and Apalachee Bay sound more challenging than they are. There are well-marked channels which will take anglers safely out to the Gulf and back to the ramps in good shape. However, some pretty hard bottom can be found very close to the marked channels, and this is definitely not a place for cutting across bends and turns—at least until a little local knowledge is gained.
Captain Mike McNamara says, “There is no end to the rocks and bars in the bay. Anything inside the Wildlife Refuge boundary is subject to rocks and bars that will uncover. This bay needs a heavy dose of local knowledge to navigate. There are marked channels leaving the city of St. Marks, but do not miss a gate—it is maze of oyster bars.”
Captain Seth Oaks agrees: “Yes, there are navigational hazards like oyster bars, sand bars, shallow grass flats, and depending on the area, rockpiles. The best thing to do is get a map and study it because there are some places that can be dangerous.”
As far as putting boats in the water, the city of St. Marks has a very good boat ramp with lots of parking, and there is a good launch ramp at the National Wildlife Refuge. This ramp can be difficult to use in wintertime low-water conditions.
And the nicest thing about St. Marks/Apalachee Bay: Whether an angler goes on the water by power boat, paddle boat, or wading, the one thing that becomes apparent immediately is just how low-pressure this fishery is. Except for a few busy main-season weekends, it is not unusual for an angler to put a boat in, fish all day, and never see more than four or five other boats. Of course, when a big fish takes the bait and heads hard the other way, the sound of a protesting drag might break the stillness and quiet, but most anglers don’t have much problem
with that kind of disruption at all. FS
St. Marks Contacts
Captain Mike McNamara
St. Marks Outfitters
Captain Seth Oaks
Chasin’ Tail Charters
A good place to stay in St. Marks:
Sweet Magnolia Inn
803 Port Leon Drive
First published Florida Sportsman April 2014