May 16, 2011
Freshwater heavyweights pound out a comeback in Panhandle rivers.
By Jerry McBride, Associate Editor
Fishermen's tales. Rustic photos from old fishing trips. They could easily constitute the extent of striped bass fishing in Florida's Panhandle rivers today.
Common enough in the 1960s to be harvested commercially, two decades later the native population was reduced to a few fish in the Apalachicola River system. Dams, extensive river channelization and pollution all but wiped Morone saxatilis off the Gulf of Mexico map. Fortunately, fishery managers did not leave the survival of Gulf-strain striped bass to chance. Thanks to them, the fishery is experiencing a rod-bending revival.
Geography looms large in the striped bass fishery. They thrive in chilly Mid-Atlantic and New England waters. They aren't so comfortable in North Florida, which lies at the southern extreme of their range. To survive, stripers search out cool sanctuaries as summer approaches.
“South of about Cape Fear, North Carolina, saltwater bays are too warm in the summer for striped bass,” explained Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist Rick Long, who I initially encountered as he set out to capture brood stripers below Lake Talquin. “Stripers have a tough time surviving Florida's heat. They rely on thermal refuges in coastal rivers. They don't feed much, losing up to 30 percent of their body weight in the summer.”
Therein lies a major bottleneck that limits Florida's natural striper populations.
Thermal refuges include deep, natural springs that dot North Florida and Gulf coastal areas. Dams have placed many traditional upstream springs off-limits. And in prolonged periods of drought, some springs simply quit flowing—Spring Creek, the largest upwelling in Florida, recently went underground for an entire year.
Weak and undernourished, striped bass venture out of those holes when temperatures drop in October. They spend cooler months chasing food in coastal bays and rivers, putting weight back on in time for spawning activities in late March and early April. Males move upstream when water temperatures rise into the low 60s; females join them in time to share space when water reaches an optimal 68 degrees. Prior to the intervention of dams, Apalachicola River spawning runs might have journeyed as far north as Albany, Georgia on the Flint River (about where Lake Blackshear is now) and to the Georgia state line on the Chattahoochee.
Despite the human-induced roadblocks, the striped bass fishery appears on the path to recovery. In addition to stable populations at Lakes Seminole and Talquin, striped bass—including 30-pound monsters—have been restored as far west as the Yellow and Blackwater rivers near Pensacola. Annual stocking of fingerling striped bass commenced in the Blackwater in 1987, the Yellow in 1990. Brood stock emanating from those initial plantings have since been recaptured, and are the proud parents of six million fry produced at the nearby FWC Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center at Holt. The baby stripers have been transplanted not only into Panhandle waters but to river systems in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana under a regional striper restoration effort. More fish are produced at a federal hatchery at Welaka.
Researchers at the 1938 Holt facility have learned to manipulate light cycles and temperature to put stripers into spawning mode, rather than making them watch fish porno films. According to Blackwater Manager Dave Yeager, captured female stripers arriving at the hatchery receive hormone injections that induce spawning within 24 to 48 hours. “Once they're injected, we check ovulation hourly to make sure the eggs are harvested at precisely the right moment to maximize fertility. We maintain the water in the hatching jars between 66 and 68 degrees, and the eggs hatch in 48 to 54 hours. About five weeks later, they're 11/2- to 2-inch fingerlings ready for stocking. We produced 400,000 last year, plus another half-million fry for regional states.”
Preference is given to stocking Apalachicola waters to ensure the preservation of “Apalachicola race” stripers, as Gulf-strain fish are often referred.
Bill Greer, FS field editor for Northwest Florida, recently took me on a striper outing. Bill's article on catching Ochlockonee River stripers below Lake Talquin (“Tailrace Striper Secrets,” Feb. 2007) brought back fond memories of similar striped bass fishing 20-some years ago on Texas' Red River below Lake Texoma.
Greer says that more than a particular lure (stripers eat anything that remotely resembles a shad) or the right rod and reel, the key to catching stripers is to simply be there when the mood to bite strikes them. What gets striped bass in the mood are the right water temperature—upper 60s—and water flow to activate forage shad.
“Fishing for stripers below Talquin is a crapshoot,” Greer said as we eased upriver from a picturesque but unassuming private ramp just minutes downstream from the dam. “It can change hour to hour, let alone day to day. I always call the dam hotline (850-891-5990) for information on which gates are open and flow rates.”
An osprey streaked barely overhead as I tied off on the line of orange barrels blocking our own upstream migration. A bald eagle hot on its tail, the smaller bird lightened its load as it pulled out of a steep dive, missing us but bombing the wooded shoreline with a mullet-size shad. Blue herons and white egrets abandoned their waterfront perches and scrambled up the near-vertical hillside, searching the underbrush for the heaven-sent meal. Pretty entertaining stuff even before the stripers started biting. And we had it all to ourselves—not another boat in sight.
While I cast upstream toward the open floodgates blasting tannic water from the dreary gray walls, Bill worked the fast water adjacent to the rocky shoreline. Silvery flashes marked stripers as they slashed at shad.
We caught over a dozen fish to 20 pounds that morning on trout-weight tackle. Striped bass are powerful fighters, but not flashy surface brawlers like snook or tarpon. The fight is strong but predictable—bigger river fish may briefly head upstream when hooked, but they quickly figure out that fighting both the reel drag and current is ha
rd work. At which point they turn and go with the flow.
That's when striped bass fishing below Talquin gets interesting. The fish tears off downstream, forcing the angler to lie flat on the deck and pass the rod underwater from one hand to the other beneath the barrel cable, negotiating the current, waves, bouncing hull and drag-pulling fish at the same time. If that works out, patience—and a smooth drag—is required for the foot-by-foot give and take to ease the fish back upstream to the net.
Virtually dependent on hatchery operations, give and take pretty much describes Panhandle striped bass fishing these days. But it beats an old picture any day.
Map It Out
Jackson Bluff Dam at Lake Talquin is just upstream from where Hwy. 267/20 crosses the Ochlockonee River southwest of Tallahassee. The Lazy Daze Campground and boat ramp is hidden just off the highway a few hundred yards west of the bridge on the south side. Ease down the steep incline to the left. When you get to the bottom, you'll see the river, ramp and cleaning station to the right. There's a small launch fee.
About eight miles northwest, Ingram's Marina features friendly country ambiance and convenience on the north shore of Lake Talquin. The cabins aren't fancy, but they're clean, comfortable and reasonable. Groceries, tackle, licenses and access to excellent striper, bass and crappie fishing in the lake are all right there. Slow down if you arrive early or late—Bambi grazes in big numbers near the marina. Visit www.ingramsmarina.com or call (850) 627-2241 for directions and reservations.
Hatfields and McCoys
Georgia's Flint and Chattahoochee rivers feed Lake Seminole, then exit as the Apalachicola River to bisect the Florida Panhandle on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint (ACF) water feud goes back to the 1980s. In a nutshell, Georgia wants to retain increasing amounts of water—currently over 500 million gallons a day, but they'd really like over 700 million—to feed Atlanta's unfettered growth.
Downstream, Alabama cites the need for enough water to cool power plants. Florida officials invoke the Endangered Species Act to protect a flow valued at $5 billion a year. The Apalachicola is Florida's largest river and one of the most biodiverse on the planet. It provides 35 percent of the fresh water entering the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Reducing freshwater flow raises salinity levels, devastating oyster production in Apalachicola Bay (10 percent of America's oyster harvest), but the vast biodiversity of species dependent on sufficient fresh water entering the bay is felt throughout the Gulf.
In Oct. 2007, drought-stricken Georgia proposed restricting releases beyond agreed upon minimal flows under a Revised Interim Operating Plan. Downstream water managers objected, and in June 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection lawyers informed the Army Corps of Engineers of their intent to sue. Stay tuned.
Recreational fishing's stake in river water levels often goes unspoken.
Rick Long, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist, is immersed in restoring the Gulf-strain striped bass fishery.
“Water levels have a big effect on stripers. It even affects our abilities to capture brood fish. We're [FWC] looking at the correlation of flow and the effects on gamefish like striped bass and contributing species.
“The problem is, striped bass are dependent on thermal refuges to survive Florida's summers. Dams block access to traditional refuges farther upstream, and many of the lower refuges are in tributary creeks that feed the major rivers,” said Long. “As the rivers become more entrenched and channelized, water levels fall and these creeks become hard for the fish to access. Additional restrictions on flow make it even tougher or impossible to get up into these streams.”
Know Your Limits
Florida freshwater regulations allow a generous combination of 20 striped bass, white bass and sunshine bass, of which only 6 may be 24 inches or longer in total length. In the St. Marys River and its tributaries, Northeast Florida anglers can harvest a 2-fish combination, both of which must be at least 22 inches in total length. However, distinct rules apply to most Panhandle waters:
Suwannee River and areas north and west of the Suwannee: bag limit for striped bass is 3, with a minimum length of 18 inches, within the 20-fish combination.
Jim Woodruff Reservoir, Lake Seminole: 15-fish combination, of which no more than 2 may be over 22 inches in total length.