May 16, 2011
Jacksonville anglers unlock the secrets of a striped bass fishery in the St. Johns River.
Frank Holleman checks the weight on a chunky St. Johns striper, caught under a downtown Jacksonville bridge.
Tne look at our fish box and you could tell we were making up for lost time on the water. A passing tropical system had kept us holed up for days. Now, after two hours of fishing, my dad Frank and I had boated twelve striped bass averaging seven pounds.
I cast a gray bucktail lure into the swift, dark water next to the same piling where I had just pulled up three fish on three consecutive casts. I felt a thump, set the hook and my rod doubled over. It was all I could do to keep this fish out of the pilings. Five minutes later, we brought a beautiful 35-inch, 19.6-pound striped bass into the boat—a very respectable fish in Florida waters.
Although we didn't get our limit (20 fish, six of which may exceed 24 inches), we were satisfied. Our catch totaled 16 stripers, one hybrid sunshine bass and three channel catfish, so we called it quits after boating our sixth striper in excess of 24 inches.
As usual, we were one of only a few boats fishing downtown Jacksonville. There are always boats cruising this narrow section of the St. Johns River, but most are pleasure boaters visiting the Jacksonville Landing and River Walk attractions. Others are out showing support for the ever-popular Jaguars. Many fishermen, I guess, become frustrated with the swift current and abundant snags in this stretch of the river, or are simply puzzled as to the behavior of the striped bass.
The key to exciting, all-season striper action in downtown Jacksonville is learning how these great gamefish react to seasonal changes. There seem to be plenty of fish in the river. The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (now the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC) began stocking the St. Johns in the 1970s. Now, over 200,000 stripers are put into the river each year. In addition to stripers, we also have hybrids, or sunshine bass, a cross between a white bass and a striper. The fish are similar in appearance, though a hybrid can usually be distinguished from a striper by its broken pattern of stripes. A hybrid also has a considerably smaller mouth and wider body than the more elongated striper.
Stripers are by nature cool-water fish. The larger the fish, the more sensitive it is to temperature. Adult stripers become stressed when the water reaches 80 degrees. During summer months, stripers move to thermal refuges—holes in deeper water, or springs where the water is cooler. Stripers in warm water are inactive and seldom feed; as a result, they lose a large proportion of their body weight during the summer. In contrast, from November through March, stripers are extremely active. They feed more and are much healthier fish.
No matter the season, stripers are structure oriented and you will find them in the pilings like other black-and-white striped fish, such as black drum, sheepshead and spadefish.
A cool day in November may offer optimal conditions. On one memorable fall trip, we were excited because similar weather and tidal conditions had yielded a magnificent stringer the month before. It was 50 degrees but felt much colder in the shade under the Main Street Bridge. It was so cold my hands were beginning to sting as I relentlessly flipped a shad-tail jig around the abutments with great anticipation.
“Look here!” said my dad as his drag began to scream. “He hit right at the boat.”
I scrambled to get all the lines in and out of his way. I reeled in the rig with a mullet and sinker, but left the mullet dangling on the surface to keep it alive. My father's striper just barely curled up in the net. We decided to break out the scale and weigh the trophy fish. “Sixteen five, sixteen six, sixteen pounds six—hey get that rod!” my dad yelled.
Something had inhaled my mullet and almost pulled my rod overboard. I saved the rod but the fish freight-trained for the pilings, snapped the line and sped away. After two hours of probing the bottom unsuccessfully, we decided we had stumbled across the secret to catching wintertime brutes, which was simply to keep our baits on the surface.
Cool-water stripers are much more exhilarating to catch than warm-water fish. With five times the fighting power and a propensity to strike topwater baits, who wouldn't get excited about these gamesters?
I pay close attention to light levels during the winter. When the sun is low, or if it's cloudy, stripers will be on the surface looking for food. They are eager to strike and readily telegraph their whereabouts. On the other hand, when the sky is bright and there is little cloud cover the stripers will suspend, usually about halfway off the bottom. In 40 feet of water the fish would be holding in 20 feet, give or take a few.
Finger mullet are my favorite cool-weather baits. They are very active, and swim on the surface at the same level as the stripers. During low-light conditions I fish live mullet under a neon Equalizer float, right between the pilings. The Equalizer is a short wire with a float sandwiched between several beads and two swivels. When you twitch your rod the setup makes a clicking sound that seems to really get the fish's attention. In addition, the action of the mullet keeps the float clicking constantly. I use 15-pound-test line and a 3-foot leader of 20-pound test with the Equalizer.
When fish are suspended deeper, I use a standard balsa-float rig like the ones used locally for spotted seatrout, except I adjust the stop knot to half the depth of the water. Even if the fish aren't exactly halfway down, I have a good chance at them—the fish are aggressive and their strike zone is pretty large. If fish are showing on my depthfinder, I adjust the float accordingly.
Topwater lures are the best low-light artificials. My favorite is a gold Husky Jerk Rapala worked tight to the pilings with a stop-and-go retrieve. I also like the Husky Rapala in silver-and-blue and the heavy-duty Long A Bomber in silver flash with a blue back. Other plugs would certainly work; just make sure they're equipped with strong hooks, as you'll have to apply a lot of pressure to keep fish out of the pilings.
In bright light, silver-and-blue Rat-L-Traps retrieved quickly at mid-depths work well. Curly tail grubs in light col-ors tipped with shrimp are also effective. The key is to keep the bait at mid-depth in the fish's strike zone.
Warm-water striper fishing is a whole 'n
other ballgame. From April through October, you need to focus on the bottom, where fish are seeking refuge in cooler water. The St. Johns has depths to 80 feet between the Fuller Warren and Main Street bridges, and this is an excellent place for summertime stripers.
The nice thing about lazy summer stripers is that we know they are on the bottom close to the pilings seeking cool water. The problem is they are not feeding. There are two approaches I use for targeting them: live bait deep and artificials around pilings.
The livebait rig is relatively simple. I use a 7-foot, medium-action spinning rod and 20-pound-test line. I thread an egg sinker and a bead on the line, then tie on a swivel with a 15-pound leader and a plain shank 3/0 bronze hook. Bait choice depends on what is available. In order of preference, I'll fish shad, menhaden, finger mullet, shiners, croakers, spots or shrimp. I generally soak these baits as close to the pilings as possible. Sinker size depends on current speed and depth. In deep water and fast current, I sometimes use 3 ounces; in shallower, slower water, a 1-ounce sinker is adequate. It is best to use as little weight as necessary to keep the bait on the bottom. During the summer months I seldom fish water shallower than 15 feet.
Artificials are more useful for locating fish. You can cover more water and more pilings in shorter time. Work lures right in the pilings, as close to the bottom as possible, and work them slow—these listless fish aren't in a chase mode. Virtually all of the pilings hold fish, so if you focus on one set of pilings and be patient, eventually some fish will pass through your area.
One of my favorite summer striper lures is a big Mr. Wiffle shad tail paired with a 1-ounce leadhead; the blue-and-clear metalflake combination is excellent. Giant Got-Cha grubs in nite-glow by Sea Striker are also effective, as would be any other type of similar soft-plastic lure. The Hyper Striper Stump Jumper has yielded three fish over 16 pounds for me; it's a specialized bucktail with a flashing blade and super-action tail. The gray shad with clear tail, blue shad with pearl tail and chartreuse with chartreuse metalflake tail have all been productive. I use them in 3/4-ounce, 1-ounce and 11/2-ounce sizes, depending on the depth and current. Another one of my favorites is the Bomber Flair Hair Jig in both yellow and white—basically a bucktail jig with a grub on it. I like this lure because it is well balanced and the hook always stays up, making it somewhat snag-proof. My tackle box is loaded with 1/2-ounce, 1-ounce, 11/2-ounce and 2-ounce Flair Hair Jigs. The 2-ounce Flair Hair is superb for probing the deep, turbulent waters around downtown's Main Street and Acosta bridges.
My jigging outfit is a 7-foot, medium-action baitcasting rod with 30-pound-test line—tough stuff for pitching big baits and pulling big fish away from the pilings. Smaller artificials are best worked with lightweight spinning tackle.
Where should you start looking for stripers? In one word: Pilings. Jacksonville stripers aren't as predictable as some of the other local inshore fish. One day you may catch 15 next to a certain set of pilings, then return the next day during the same tide and get skunked, or catch 15 fish next to 15 different pilings. Just when you think you have them figured you find out you don't.
When the water is fresh enough you can usually find stripers under all of the downtown bridges. The Mathews Bridge, Cesery Boulevard and University Boulevard bridges on the Arlington River, the Hart Bridge, the Main Street Bridge, the Acosta, the CSX railroad trestle, the Fuller Warren Bridge and bridges on the Ortega River are all good. Some overlooked spots that are very productive are the Maxwell House Coffee docks, docks in front of the Music Shed, the dock in front of the Sun Trust building, Jones College dock, the Southside Electrical Generating Plant dock and all of the piers lining the shore from Empire Point all the way to Millers Creek. The bulkhead in front of the CSX building is 26 feet deep next to the bank and occasionally holds fish. I find the mooring pilings alongside the Jacksonville Landing right before you enter the no-wake zone of the Main Street bridge to be one of the most consistent spots. On rare occasions during overcast conditions, stripers will deviate from the pilings and roam in schools along deepwater drops around Exchange Island.
Anglers should be aware of the no-wake zone from the CSX railroad trestle to the Main Street Bridge. On special event days, such as during football games, the zone extends all the way to the Hart Bridge. There are flashing lights on both the Hart and Main Street bridges indicating when the special event no-wake zone is in effect.
What I like most about downtown striper fishing is the size of the fish. They usually average around 24 inches and 8-pounders are fairly common. Surprisingly, there aren't many anglers targeting them. Maybe it's because the upriver section from the Buckman Bridge on into Palatka has a better reputation for stripers. Or, perhaps anglers simply haven't figured out the downtown fish. Whatever the case, there are hundreds of pilings lining the downtown stretch of the St. Johns, and every one has the potential to yield big striped bass.