November 05, 2012
Chase reds and trout in this unique maze of waterways.
Canoe and kayak anglers wade and fish in nicely protected Johnson Creek. Lots of oyster bars here.
There are probably more unnamed creeks on Florida's Big Bend than there are ones with names. The named ones near the town of Suwannee include Little Trout, Big Trout, Barnett, Dan May, Moccasin, Hog Island, Salt, Double Barrel, Bumblebee, Sanders, Johnson and Shired Creeks, heading south to north. All of these creeks and their “no-name” cousins, with their winding courses, oyster bars, deep holes and mud flats, are magnets for spotted seatrout and redfish in winter. There are a few secrets to successfully fishing Suwannee creeks.
Not that the Suwannee area creeks are physically different than others along the Big Bend, but many veterans believe that proximity to the steady, freshwater outflow of the Suwannee River improves the fishing. Others are convinced that the reds and trout like to hide in the river's deeper holes on the coldest days and then venture out to the shallower creeks as the weather warms. I think both are factors, yet I'm always surprised to find trout, particularly, in the fresh water of the river the first day or two after a major cold front passes.
Few local creeks are as well-marked as Salt Creek.
I also think Suwannee's Gulf creeks produce lots of winter fish for the simple reason that they're relatively easy to access. All the above-mentioned creeks are within a 5- or 6-mile radius of protected, comfortable boat launches, making the whole experience, while sometimes frigid, an easy one. Worth mentioning are Suwannee's two full-service marinas, Miller's and Suwannee Marina. Both have adequate launching ramps, fuel, bait, tackle and ice, as well as lots of local knowledge. The town is about 24 miles from US 19/98, at the end of State Route 349; it's a comfortable day trip from Gainesville, and not out of the question for Tallahassee and Tampa-area anglers. Good fishing spots in the creeks vary day-to-day, so it never hurts to ask around about the bite.
An advertisement many years ago stated, “Getting there is half the fun.” At Suwannee, yes...and no. Marina owner and lifelong resident Bill Miller, Jr. advises, “The harder it is to get into one of our creeks, the better the fishing will be.” I'm always surprised to see large bay and small offshore boats in some of these creeks in the winter. However, my impression is that the fish tend to concentrate in the deep holes and sloughs as the tide falls, and this is not a place to be in a bigger boat when the tide runs out. Gainesville fishermen Charlie Courtney and Bernie Fowler rigged up aluminum johnboats with jet-drive outboards, pretty much just to fish Suwannee's creeks. For the farthest reaches, some anglers prefer airboats, but they're probably not a necessity. You can usually find good numbers of fish in the more accessible parts of the major creeks.
Barrier bars at the creekmouths are often productive on warmer days, but you'll need to be careful to avoid grounding or damaging your boat. Most Gulf creeks near Suwannee have these bars across their mouths. There are several, including the “no name” creek locals call Powerline Creek, which are almost foolproof. These are perfect places to begin your Suwannee adventure.
There are black bass in the upper reaches of some creks closer to the main river, particularly Dan May Creek.
Salt Creek is easy to find. Just run out the Suwannee River until you see the sign marking the channel. Salt Creek is the only creek near here with a marked channel, and you'll be able to maintain a safe cruising speed for most of it. There has been some recent shoaling and the channel shallows near marker 12, so be careful and slow down here. Once you approach the end of the marked channel, you'll have to reduce speed, but that's the time to start fishing anyway. Try fishing under some of the docks, and then move on to fish the deep pockets near the creek's edges and bars. This is pretty much a small-boat creek and not one to be stranded in. If caught by the tide, I guess you could always wade over and have a nice meal at Salt Creek Restaurant, a Suwannee favorite!
On the way into Salt Creek, you pass Bradford Island on your right. If you take a look at a chart or USGS Quad map, you'll notice a creek running through the middle of it. This is Powerline Creek. The best access, however, is from the main river. Heading out from either Miller's or Suwannee Marina, take a right at the end of the last seawall and dock. Take the first left, and you're in the creek. Take it easy here. This is a slow-speed area, and you don't want to spook the fish or disturb the residents of the nearby homes. This is a small-boat creek, too, and it's worth fishing the deeper curves. Many anglers claim that this is the first place the trout head when they leave the deep holes in the Suwannee, which happen to be just outside the turn you made into the creek.
Slot-sized redfish taken from the Suwannee system's myriad creeks.
One of the most popular local creeks is Dan May Creek. It's best reached by running upriver to East Pass (which actually runs south) and going almost to the Gulf. This is a deep river pass, and common-sense navigation will get you through it easily. Don't run out the pass unless you know exactly what you're doing or you'll suddenly find some shallow bars. Dan May is a big creek, and boats in the 23- to 25-foot class are often seen here on days when it's too windy to fish offshore. There also don't seem to be any speed limits, so don't be surprised to see a local angler dodging bars at a pretty good clip. Fishing here is good from the creekmouth all the way back to where the fresh water from the river slows the tide. It's not unusual to find bass fishermen making good catches in the upper reaches of Dan May Creek.
Just around the corner, to the south, are Barnett Creek, Big Trout Creek and Little (Li'l) Trout Creek. With some care to follow the shoreline along the grass and not approach these creeks head-on, you'll also find slightly saltier water. On some days, I think this has a positive effect on fishing, particularly as the water warms up toward spring. These creeks also have l
ots of scattered oyster beds and mud bars, which warm up on sunny days and attract bait and gamefish as the tide comes in. Try these three creeks on a day when the high tide is in the midafternoon, and you'll do well.
If you've satisfied yourself with the southern Gulf creeks, you'll probably want to spend some time exploring Moccasin and Hog Island creeks. Both of these run from the Gulf behind Halfmoon Reef. These small-boat creeks hold lots of fish, and Moccasin has some great oyster bars inside its mouth. The West, or Alligator, Pass of the Suwannee will get you outside the river, but I recommend that folks run close to shore, slow and easy, north from the entrance of East Pass in order to reach these two creeks.
Red-scaled holgraph plug, a top offering.
Fishing maps and charts really aren't much use once you head north from the entrance of the Suwannee. The main channel, or McGriff Channel, runs slightly north of west from the main river. It's a dredged channel, but does have a shallow spot or two where it cuts through the Suwannee Reef. I recommend that newcomers run out to McGriff No. 1 and head roughly northwest. Then, make your approach to your target creek from the Gulf, taking care to run the last half-mile or so at slow speed. Be on the lookout, too, for non-charted stakes marking the boundaries of clam lease areas and try to steer clear of these aquaculture sites. Larger stakes usually mark the corners. Suwannee locals and veterans run close to shore, but they know where the bars are!
Double Barrel, Bumblebee, Sanders, Johnson and Shired creeks are all similar to Big and Little Trout creeks. Expect lots of barrier bars, deep holes, mud and oyster bars. You'll see some simple stakes marking their entries, but don't rush. This is not a place to lose your lower unit and to row home from. Shired, Johnson and Sanders are good places to kayak-fish, as well. There's a nice public boat ramp north of the Shired Island campground, accessed by SR 351 and SR 357 out of Cross City. It's a good launching spot for shallow-draft and hand-powered boats, and some flats boats don't scrape bottom there on higher tides.
North Florida boating in January.
Once inside the creek of your choice, fishing rather than boating expertise takes front seat. Light-to-medium spinning or baitcasting rods and reels are the preferred tackle as these creek-bound winter fish are not huge. These are not the big trout that cruise outside bars during the rest of the year, nor are they the bull reds that school up offshore in late spring. These are nice slot-size fish and should you keep a few (remember, trout season is closed here in February) for dinner that night, they're tasty, too.
Livebait anglers seem to do best in the creeks using live shrimp on jigheads under popping corks, although I've seen lots of reds caught using dead mullet chunks dragged along the bottom. Corks seem to reduce snags, as well as catfish.
Fly fishermen are becoming a regular sight in the creeks. Most blind-cast near bars while wading or from small boats using 7- or 8-weight rods with weedless or “hook-up” flies such as the Redfish Candy or Clouser Minnow. Red-and-white and chartreuse-and-white are good color combinations to start casting. Make slow retrieves, as the fish can be lazy and lethargic, especially on colder days.
Far and away, the most popular bait used in the Suwannee creeks is a slow-sinking plug, retrieved very slowly just off the bottom. Many lures are used, including the D.O.A. Bait Buster, Corky Mullet and Rat-L-Trap, but the all-time, all-around favorite is the MirrOlure. Not only are these great lures for casting toward bars and into holes, but they also work well when trolled. In fact, many anglers slow-troll MirrOlure 52MRs down the middle of the creeks, sometimes only in 5 or 6 feet of water, until they get a trout or redfish strike. At that point, they stop, anchor and begin casting. The 52M, 52MR and the newer S52MR holographic styles all work well for trolling, while any of the heavier TTR (Tiny Trout) models are deadly in deeper holes. As a rule, the brighter the color, the flashier the lure, the better. There have been recent cold winters in which it was virtually impossible to find some colors and styles of plugs in north central Florida!
Jay Peacock hooked up in Johnson Creek.
At the end of a day of winter fishing in Suwannee's Gulf creeks, you're likely to be cold and wind-burned, but not to the extent you would if you had spent the day on open water. You'll probably have more fish in the box, too. Gamefish know when it's too cold. Their prey head toward more comfortable habitats, and they follow. And we follow them. FS
First published in Florida Sportsman magazine, January, 2006.
Click Here to Have Florida Sportsman Magazine Delivered to Your Door.