May 16, 2011
Out of sight on the St. John's.
From the main river channel, cabbage palms obscure the view of fishy backwaters.
When the manager of my local grocery, bald as the Dali Lama and wiser, told me the exact hole and time of day the stripers were going to be busting schools of bait in the St. Johns River, I put it right up there with “Yes, the milk is fresh,” and “We'll be getting some more old-fashioned peanut butter in soon.”
When he said it was almost right at the ramp, I pointed out that description can be true for a guy like him with a motorboat yet untrue for me and Jack with a canoe. “Paddles are not propellers,” I added. He said yes, he knew that and the description still stood, it was just that close. If we put in around dawn, by eight thirty we'd be back on shore filleting stripers.
For me, a hot tip couldn't come from a stronger source than this feeder of the multitudes, icon of Norman Rockwell's America Kojak look-alike grocery man. As surely as if he had stuffed me in a cannon with some Quaker Puffed Rice and fired me there as a marketing stunt, I had to go. Jack was skeptical but I assured him this was a sure thing. Of course you know we were the first people at the Lemon Bluff ramp, sliding in the canoe in the dark, just to be on the safe side of time.
From now on I'll be sniffing the milk, stocking up on peanut butter and totaling my own bill. Granted it was fantastic, silently gliding along out there on that unique, quintessentially Florida stretch of the river all by ourselves. The cabbage palm-lined shore was enchanted by morning vapors emerging from the flat surface like aroma from a grilling cheeseburger. It wasn't until the sun started burning off the novelty that Jack began saying things like, “He said it wasn't far, even by canoe, right?”
We were aiming for a place just beyond some power lines that were supposed to be just upstream from the ramp. After an hour's hard paddling, having convinced ourselves we were going the right way, we became consumed with the fabled wires, straining to see them around each bend.
“Does this guy have it in for you for any reason?” Jack asked. “You didn't demand a refund on some melted ice cream or something?”
“Nothing I can think of,” I said, racking my brain. “Well, there was that time I found a live rat in my Cheerios and returned them, but that was a long time ago.”
I peeled an orange while he disappeared over the rise.
We kept dipping and pushing. At least we knew if we reached Lake Harney, some three or four miles away, we could turn around and go home. Our consolation was the return leg would be downstream.
Like a parking space close to the store on Sunday afternoon, finally the power lines stretched across the sky, though we didn't quite trust our eyes. The striper dining room was supposed to be just down from that so we mentally prepared ourselves for another grueling ordeal. The power lines, like the ordeal, turned out to be real and we never slowed down, constantly ready for action, three spinning lines each, tied to Shad Raps, spoons and jigs so we had every possible situation covered. By the time we were supposed to be on shore happily filleting our catch, we still hadn't seen any bait, much less feeding schools of stripers. Worse, the trip back would be a battle to avoid capsizing, as the speed boats had finally awakened to steal our Hiawathan experience.
If you can't snatch victory from the smell of your feet, or something like that, then you're not on the St. John's River. Familiar with the area from years ago, Jack had an idea.
Surprisingly, Lemon Bluff was not named after a local used car salesman. There actually are bluffs, berms and what you might even call a rocky cliff on this unique part of the river. We trolled Shad Rap and Beetle Spin lures back to the natural cliff we had passed, about 20 feet high looming over a deep hole, catching a bass and speck along the way, regularly having to turn 90 degrees into the swells of everything from bass to cigarette boats. Only one boater attempted to show us some consideration and he made it worse by stopping too late and pushing a huge swell at us. Our backs were getting sore from sitting endlessly on our tiny perches and I was curious to see how we were going to salvage the day.
When Kojak's striped bass report didn't pan out, Jack Raymond hopped the bank and found fast largemouth action in a hidden oxbow.
Jack pointed out a beach with a natural berm behind it and an eagle on top of a headless cabbage palm surveying his domain. We shot the canoe up onto the sand and then had to remember how to stand up. Stretching my legs and delighted to be off the cramped, canoe butt holder, no longer worried about swamping and losing my camera, I sat down on a cabbage palm root ball and peeled an orange while Jack disappeared over the rise.
Nothing magnifies the virtues of contentment so well as the relief of escaping adversity. Leaning against the palm trunk, dropping the occasional orange section into my smiling mouth in the dappled shade of a beautiful day on the St. John's, immune to the ravages of the boat traffic, I was absolutely inert, comfortable and satisfied with life, and could not imagine moving, even to catch fish. So naturally here comes Jack back.
“You've got to see this,” he earnestly tells a person who wouldn't budge if a Broadway musical with free hot dogs and beer were going on over there.
“Whatever it is, it can wait a couple hours. This is too perfect to risk.”
|St. Johns Oxbow Essentials
|Best to do when St. Johns River is low and the backwaters are distinct, usually in spring before the rains come.
Where is Lemon Bluff? Lemon Bluff road intersects Hwy. 415 outside of Sanford. Take it and look for ramp on left.
You can fish the main river, too. Plenty of specks, redbreasts and bass. Only problem can be keeping stripers off your line.
We saw lots of families pulling boats u
p and swimming and picnicking on bank across from high cliffs. It looked like a great way to enjoy a beautiful day.
I couldn't imagine what could be so consarned important for me to see, but he wouldn't let it rest, couldn't stand to see me happy. Finally with the greatest regret I slowly stood up and walked away from that spot, that feeling, that all so rare merger with the universe and it was like I was saying good-bye forever to a good friend. “This better be good,” I emphasized.
Well, I have to admit, it was. As I walked over the berm from the narrow corridor of the boat-choked main river, I saw an entirely different, unsuspected realm, and stepping down the other side, entered a different world of natural tranquility, pastoral beauty, vast green expanses, big blue sky, lily pads and dead calm water. And no, count 'em, zero people, or any evidence there ever had been any.
So, to heck with comfort anyway. I returned briskly to the canoe and got my medium rod and a box of lures. What we had here, that my clever buddy remembered from years ago, was an oxbow lake of sorts, a bit of the river left over when it changed course, effectively disconnected and entirely out of sight. “Were there bass in it?” was the question we had to investigate, “or was it shallow and filled up with decaying plants, silt and mudfish?”
At the back end of the lake, large swells were pushing water beyond some cattails.
Jack tossed a jerkbait straight out and we both watched it get nailed on the surface between some pads. As he pulled a small bass across the vegetation, he couldn't have looked more pleased with himself if he'd just given birth to alligators. “I guess there's bass in here,” he chortled. “You glad you got up?”
“Yeah. Nothing makes me happier than seeing you catch a fish,” I said, tossing a Beetle Spin down the side.
I worked my way down to the left where there was some surface action and Jack went right. At the back end of the rectangular lake large swirls were pushing water just beyond some cattails and lily pads, which usually means tilapia these days. It looked like classic gar and mudfish water, but I had stumbled upon bedding bass and one of them grabbed my spinner. That brought Jack on the run and between us we hooked several big bass though landing only one 3-pounder. We got bass along the whole perimeter, including a 4-pounder that smashed my purple speckled worm at the edge of some grass. It was a surrealistic experience, constantly hearing the roar of the motorized world like it was just sound effects, thoroughly separated and undetectable from it. While other fishermen raced around after bass in their water rockets, we had these at our leisure.
We could have stayed the rest of the day there. In fact, it being midday and the worst fishing time, I could have returned to the cabbage palm to resurrect my former state of bliss or at least taken a nap and fished the pond later, because if it was that good at noon, I wanted to see it at dusk. But we really didn't wish to paddle back in the dark so we moved on to other backwaters and sloughs between there and the ramp, that being our new pattern for the day.
A minnow plug earned plenty of strikes.
Our next backwater was on the opposite side of the river and unlike our previous pond, it snaked out into pasture land as far as we could see. This side slough reminded me of fishing the main river nearer the headwaters. I switched back to Beetle Spin to widen my variety and Jack stuck with worm. We just strolled along feeling kind of special, me getting specks and redbreasts and my partner the occasional bass, one to three pounds.
On from there to a fascinating backwater labyrinth we entered by paddling into a little creekmouth. This looked great—high, black sod banks descending to lily pad-lined shore. We exited the canoe and walked along jigging the beautiful bends and got nothing; maybe it was a bit low. But Jack's eagle eye had spotted something distant in the pasture beyond and I saw him striding through the grass like he was hoping to find a cow to milk. I had to follow in case he was onto something and sure enough, there was another lily pad-lined lake, this one shaped more like a road-killed Muppet.
There was no elevated bank but we placed our bare feet on solid ground, faced with scattered lily pads that dissipated into open water up to five feet deep. I tossed a 9-cm classic Rapala while Jack stuck with worm. Rapala, or maybe it was just me, seemed to rule this pond as Jack started feeling unjustly left out in the spot he had found. Bass regularly grabbed the wobbling stick as it weaved among the pads, climaxed by a 4-pounder. Eventually I said I was completely lost and Jack pointed to the cypress tree we had started by, having walked completely around and failed to catch either of the species I would have thought most likely, mudfish and gar. It was a great topper to another great day of fishing, magnified by the fact it wasn't what we had in mind at all.
I still shop the same grocery store, more for proximity to my house now, than level of advice. Paul the Grocer seemed genuinely shocked when I related the difficulty in matching up his world view of stripers with the one I found out there, but that's fishing for you. If it works out the way you planned, well, heck. What's the point of going?