June 11, 2014
Fly fishing a pristine North Florida stream for Suwannee bass.
The Wacissa River is not a place where you concentrate on fishing and just give the scenery a once over when things are slow. Instead, it's a place so beautiful and so alive that it's hard to stay focused on the task at hand-namely dropping a fly in just the right spot to entice a lurking Suwannee bass.
Tom Logan and I were facing that dilemma as we drifted in a small canoe over one of the many springs that make up the headwaters of the Wacissa. There was a light mist rising from the water, and the low, morning sun was casting a halo of yellow light around every leaf and branch of the hardwoods and moss-draped cypress trees towering above the river bank. The whoosh of our fly rods cutting through the damp air was almost drowned out by the singing, chattering, splashing and buzzing of wildlife around us.
We watched as a flock of yellowlegs glided down to the water, kiting their wings in unison and slowing to a soft landing on a thick patch of hydrilla. A few yards away a little blue heron walked gingerly through a stand of lily pads, tilting its head back and forth to find a better angle for seeing beneath the surface. Along the shore, a green heron stood poised to strike from the vantage point of a small log, while nearby a limpkin picked its way through a stand of cypress knees, possibly searching for a gourmet meal of apple snails.
Beneath our canoe, in the clear spring water we could see soft-shell turtles sitting serenely on the bottom, bowfins cruising lazily against the current, and mullet-big mullet-grazing on algae clinging to the waving eelgrass. We could even see an occasional Suwannee bass holding position in openings in the thick vegetation and around the many spring outpourings we passed over.
Suwannee bass (Micropterus notius), which are in the same genus as largemouth bass, are unique to only a handful of rivers in North Florida including the Suwannee, Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, St. Marks, Wakulla and Ochlockonee. However, they don't grow anywhere near as large as their more famous cousins, seldom reaching more than 10 or 12 inches in length or weighing more than a pound or two. The Florida record is 3.89 pounds.
Many references, including Vic Dunaway's Sport Fish of Florida, suggest that the species is aggressive and tougher for its size than the largemouth bass. I found that to be very true, but wondered if it's because we may be comparing a wizened, adult 12-inch Suwannee bass to a yearling largemouth bass.
No question, however, this is a species that lends itself to fly fishing. Like catching brook trout in a small northern stream, the challenge is found in making the perfect cast to just the right spot, and tricking a wary fish living in water so clear you can read heads or tails on a dime lying on the bottom.
We started fishing the minute we pushed off into the river's headwaters. The area just downstream of the ramp is actually one of the best places to catch Suwannee bass because of a series of small fish-attracting potholes and spring vents in the limestone bottom. And just to prove the point, Tom caught two bass before we had gone 50 feet. I caught my first one about an hour later, and what a joy it was to finally convince the river to give up a little piece of itself for me to appreciate for a moment. Plus, there's the added pleasure of catching a new species on a fly rod.
Even up close it's difficult to distinguish the difference between a Suwannee bass and Florida's other black bass species. Fishing with a wildlife biologist helps. "The Suwannee has a deeper body and a smaller mouth. The mandible (jaw) doesn't extend past the eye, on a largemouth it extends well beyond the eye," explained Tom, who is the endangered species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While we drifted slowly with the current, guided only by the occasional paddle stroke, we worked at dropping our flies in open holes and narrow channels in the vegetation, and into pockets formed by downed trees and brush along the shoreline. Or I should say, that's what I was doing. Tom, the far better fly caster and undoubtedly the local Suwannee bass fishing expert, was taking a far more refined approach by placing his fly exactly at the down-current edge of the holes and just inside the edge of the vegetation in the small channels. (He was also catching more fish.)
As he explained, the bass tend to lie facing the current on the downstream side of holes in the vegetation. A fly that lands three feet away, or is preceded by a fly line slapping the water across the opening isn't going to catch many fish.
Tom prefers traditional or historic wet fly patterns, which he feels are very effective at mimicking natural foods. We were both using a fly he has developed called, simply enough, the Wacissa. It's a light-colored streamer made of Coq-de-Leon feathers. It has a pair of white feathers tied back-to-back to form a wing, and a light-brown hackle at the head to help it stand out a little in the clear water. It also has a flat gold tinsel body ribbed with oval tinsel.
Just for fun, and during a discussion about identifying food preferences for different species, Tom tied on a smaller wet fly, and immediately stopped catching Suwannee bass and started catching stumpknockers. I thought it was a pretty good trick, but he explained that by switching from a baitfish pattern to an insect pattern he had effectively switched from catching a predatory species like a bass, to a mostly insect-feeding species, like a stumpknocker.
Tom fishes with, and recommends, either a 3- or 4-weight rod. "I like the way they cast and the way the smaller fish feel as you're catching them," he says.
There's a tactical advantage to the lighter tackle, as well. Suwannee bass are easily spooked in the gin-clear water of the Wacissa. A 5- or 6-weight line hits heavy on the still water, beating the light fly to the surface and making a splash that sends the bass scurrying. On the other hand, a 3- or 4-weight line is light enough that it will, as Logan puts it, "float slowly onto the water, at about the same speed as a falling leaf."
Catching Suwannee bass on a fly is, or at least should be, a catch-and- release sport. Not only because the fish generally aren't going to exceed the state's 12-inch minimum size limit for all black bass, but because it just feels like the right way to treat such a rich and diverse ecosystem as the Wacissa.
Says Tom, "The whole package of fly fishing, including the use of a quiet canoe, light tackle, and so forth, is that instead of just taking something when you fish, you become a part of the system, and can enjoy that experience in a way that leaves everything the way you found it."
Fishing for Suwannee bass is a year-round activity in the river's headwaters because of the constant 70- to 72-degree temperature of the spring waters. The Wacissa Spring group is the seventh largest of Florida's 25 first magnitude springs. The group is made up of about a dozen large, named springs and numerous smaller outpourings that are scattered along the first mile of the river. Some springs, with names like Thomas Spring and Log Springs, occur in the upper riverbed, and help form the headwaters. Others, like Big Blue Spring and Buzzard Springs rise up in the nearby woods below the headwaters, and add their water to the river along narrow, canopied spring runs that are great fun to explore.
Big Blue Springs, the largest of the Wacissa Spring group, is located about a mile downstream from the headwaters. It sits about a hundred yards back in the woods and has a circular pool about 120 feet in diameter. The actual spring vent is about 70 feet in diameter and 45 feet deep. Two separate spring runs, about 40 feet wide, carry the spring waters to the river and paddlers back to the spring. Whether you're fishing or just exploring the river, Big Blue is well worth a visit.
The Way to the Wacissa
The headwaters of the Wacissa River are located about 25 miles southeast of Tallahassee, and about one mile south of the small town of Wacissa. From Wacissa, follow State Road 59 south, and keep going straight after the route turns west. The road will dead end into a small park and small boat ramp at the headwaters.
A second small ramp, and public campground, is located about nine miles downstream at a site called Goose Pasture. Camping is allowed except during hunting season. Goose Pasture can be reached by car from U.S. Highway 98 by turning north onto Limerock Industries Road about 8.5 miles east of where the highway crosses the Aucilla River. Follow Limerock Industries Road (the pavement will end) for 2.1 miles to an intersection of two unpaved roads. Turn left (west) and the road leads straight to Goose Pasture. Although passable by car, the unpaved roads can be very rough at times, and flooded after periods of heavy rain.
Nutall Rise, which is the take-out spot for one-way canoe and kayak trips down the river and through the Slave Canal, is located immediately east of the Highway 98 bridge over the Aucilla River.
A canoe livery operates on weekends at the headwaters of the river. You can rent canoes to explore the springs and fish around the upper portion of the river, or you can arrange for transportation back to your car from Goose Pasture or Nutall Rise if you want to take a one-way fishing-float trip. A canoe trip to Nutall Rise includes a challenging passage through the Slave Canal, an old and very narrow stream that was dug in the 1830s to create a passageway between the lower Wacissa with the Aucilla River. Today the canal is heavily overgrown, and the entrance is hard to locate without prior experience. For canoe rental information contact Alan Green at (850) 997-6030.
A River Protected
Thanks to Florida's conservation land acquisition programs, the Wacissa River is going to stay wild for generations to come. "We've had a lot of progress in buying land along the Wacissa River," said Doug Bailey, biological administrator with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Office of Environmental Services.
Bailey explained that due to some previous conservation land acquisition projects in the 1980s and '90s, much of the river's wooded corridor is already in public hands and will remain wild. Currently, and with the strong support of the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy, two additional projects have made it onto the acquisition list for the Florida Forever land-buying program. The two parcels, when purchased, will protect nearly 30,000 acres of forest land on both sides of the Wacissa and the nearby Aucilla River. Included in the project is some important acreage around the headwaters and around the springs that rise away from the river.
Once purchased, the FWC will become the lead management agency for the publicly owned lands, which will be managed for a variety of traditional recreational uses including hunting. Most of the area that is included in the overall purchase proposal is currently being managed by the FWC as a Type I Wildlife Management Area, and that designation is expected to be continued once the state owns the land.