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Six Days and 246 Miles: Suwannee to the Source

Florida Sportsman Editor Jeff Weakley takes a fishing trek on the fabled river.

Six Days and 246 Miles: Suwannee to the Source

A Suwannee bass in-hand of Jean McElroy, Florida Sportsman Production Manager and expert kayak angler.

There is a timeless charm to exploring a river from origin to outlet, and Florida has a true gem in the Suwannee River. It’s one of the few large, undammed rivers in the southeastern U.S., free flowing for 246 miles. Aside from shoals and snags which may warrant portage, you can Huck Finn your way by canoe, kayak or sturdy skiff from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico.

You’ll pass through diverse geography and unusual fisheries: Coffee-dark coves patrolled by chain pickerel; rocky shores where the rare Suwannee bass roam; huge cypress sheltering snook and largemouth; and finally the vast, savanna-like spartina marshes prowled by redfish and seatrout.

fs-suwannee-bassprofile
Closeup of Suwannee bass (note the turquoise belly).

Along the way you might camp by a sugar sand bluff, listening to barred owls and the wind in the live oaks.

Or you could do it like I did, staying in cabins, cooking on stovetops, sleeping in a bed, restocking groceries as you roadtrip upriver at your chosen pace.

My plan was to start in the salt and fish upstream in stages. I wanted to fish first out of the little town of Suwannee, on Florida’s Nature Coast. With gale force winds in the forecast, I deviated slightly—starting near Fanning Springs, 20 miles inland.

Ironically, the salt would find me.

At anchor not far from the Highway 98 bridge, I watched Captain Larry Blakeslee flip a live shiner into a tangle of cypress roots. We’d both pulled a few schoolie largemouth out of the spot. It looked to me like a million other spots on the river, but Larry had a reason for hanging here.

I’ve known the guide for many years. And Larry has known the Suwannee for going on 40 years. When he tells you the next bite might be a ten-pounder, listen up.

fs-suwanneemap
Map of Florida's Suwannee River

I watched the guide crank down and horseshoe his rod. A huge, bass-like head shook violently in the morning glare. For sure a ten-pounder—but no bass. It was a snook; unmeasured but near the 33-inch upper slot mark.




Larry was stoked. “We catch a few like this every season,” he said. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve caught one like that myself.”

I was stoked, too—I knew, but had wanted to personally confirm, that snook had been moving into the Suwannee watershed. Over two days of fishing, we caught a half dozen, all pretty big. At one point I mused, we could’ve been snook fishing and catching a few bass! The thinking has been that snook post up near the springs, where water temperatures stay at around 72 degrees through the winter.

redfish
I trailered my kayak downriver and caught this redfish—on a bass lure.

“They aren’t limited to the springs,” Larry said. “They find these feeding stations just like the bass. Also, I caught a small one all the way up near the Santa Fe, which indicates to me they’re spawning in the area.”

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Larry—who lives in DeLand—sources shiners from the Ocala National Forest. He keeps them alive in an aerated well in the back of his van. Soundtrack of Larry’s life seems to be John Prine, and after fishing the Lower Suwannee with this affable, expert guide, I was ready to blow up my TV, throw away my paper, and go to the country.

We saw hundred-pound Gulf sturgeon break the surface; ducks lift into crisp blue skies; cypress reddening in the decline of daylight. It was a miraculous two days of fishing. “River fishing is good for the soul,” Larry is fond of saying. Never much of a shiner fisherman myself, I found a groove with the almost telepathic game of urging that bait closer and closer to the strike zone.

boat on the water
Bass fishing with Captain Blakeslee (at helm).

“The bass in this river are almost like gag groupers,” Larry explained. “I’ve seen them on huge rocks, where they’ll rush out to grab a bait, then rush back down.”

At home, Larry keeps the March 1987 copy of Woods and Water, with a cover photo of a 12-pounder he caught early in his career. “Biggest one on my boat was 14 ½ pounds,” he said. A few miles below Fanning Springs, Larry gestured to a point by a small canal where a man he knew caught a 16-pounder. That’s the biggest one he’s heard of on the river.

After our last day of fishing, I made good on my commitment to fish Suwannee’s Gulf marshes. I drove from Chiefland to Suwannee, walked into Gateway Marina, paid $5 to launch my kayak, looked at my chart, looked at the scudding clouds, then drove away.

fishing bait rig
Capt. Blakeslee’s shiner rig.

I’d Google Earthed a little sand ramp on Salt Creek, west side of town. Under 20-knot winds, the creek looked more inviting than the wide-open river.

Technically I wasn’t fishing the Suwannee River—but I was fishing her bounty. Nutrient-rich fresh waters—brewed in southern Georgia, steeped and mellowed in cool, clear Floridan aquifer—pour into the Gulf here. It’s a fertile estuary loaded with shrimp, crabs, and oysters.

angler with snook
Captain Larry Blakeslee (386-717-5652) with one of the smaller snook caught on our trip. All were hooked on live shiners about 20 miles up from the Gulf of Mexico.

Saltmarsh composed of cordgrass and needlerush runs undisturbed for miles and miles, pierced only by tidal creeks. There is no beach here, no soul-killing coastal development. The town of Suwannee, an important outpost for recreational fishing, had some flooding during Hurricane Idalia, but it was obvious her marsh buffer had tempered the full fury of the Gulf.

I needed a buffer, too. I had winter weather coming in from the northeast and knew I had only about an hour to fish. As rain bands drifted in, I peppered shorelines and runouts with a Chatterbait. I’d about given up hope when I felt a solid thump. The fish was strong enough to turn my kayak.

The Suwannee—as I would discover again and again—is full of surprises: Fishing with Larry, I’d caught snook on shiners and bass tackle; now, down here at the Gulf, I caught a nice redfish on a popular bass lure.

My next move was 100 river miles up, to Suwannee River State Park.

bass fishing from kayak
Bill Sikora caught this plump largemouth bass on a small Chatterbait near the Suwannee River State Park ramp.

Rarer for me than a 10-pound bass, I’d scored reservations at a Florida State Park cabin. By pure luck, I’d clicked into the reservations portal just as bookings resumed following Hurricane Idalia closures.

At the risk of further clogging up reservations, I’ll say the cabins at Suwannee River State Park may be the finest $100 per night accommodations anywhere on earth: full kitchen with stainless fridge and glass stovetop; living room with couches and fireplace; separate bedrooms with doors. Bill Sikora, a friend from Tallahassee, and I shared the twin bedroom; our friend Jean McElroy, up from Tequesta, had the queen suite. It’s not a cabin, it’s a house. A very nice house. A screen porch wraps around the cabin and there is a fire-ring and grill out back, perfect place to talk story and plan strategy.

At this stretch of the Suwannee, about midway, the river flows 2 to 3 mph. Paddling upstream is feasible, but if you want to see much water, not really desirable.

At normal water levels, the river here is plenty wide and deep enough to launch a small bass boat or johnboat. If you’re coming with kayaks, it pays to arrange multiple vehicles and a trailer. Bill, Jean and I all have 13-foot Old Town Sportsman PDL kayaks—and they consolidated neatly onto my Yakima EasyRider trailer.

We piled our pedal drives, PFDs, crates and other gear into my truck for the 20-minute drive to Gibson County Park. From there, it’s a 7-mile drift down to the state park. Without fishing, the route can be done as quickly as three hours. Figure on at least six if you’re casting. (As with any river adventure, check flows: The Suwannee River Canoe Outpost, 386-364-4991, has a useful guide to water levels. Our trip took place during their “Normal” range for the river.)

Both days we fished, we stopped for lunch at a stunning white sand bluff topped by live oak and hickory. Undoubtedly, it’s the lunch stop for every paddling group that ever passes—but on a weekday, we saw no one. Amazingly, there was no trash anywhere—other than one ancient beer can we picked up. It’s obvious folks care about the river.

Scenery was amazing. The fishing was…slow.

Jean and I marked the unique Suwannee bass (Micropterus notius) off our life lists, one apiece. Bill’s catch of the day turned out to be a chunky, standard issue largemouth (M. salmoides). The Suwannees rarely top 2 pounds and make their living feeding on crayfish in swift, rocky stretches of the river. If that sounds a little like smallmouth bass to you, you’re well-equipped to fish for them. Both our fish struck new-penny colored soft-plastic crayfish on ¼-ounce weedless jigheads. They seem to be spirited fighters: I hooked a big one that jumped three feet and threw my jig.

Redbreast sunfish are abundant along the river, suckers for Beetle Spins and flies, and we caught a few of them on our bass lures. Channel catfish are said to be reliable…if one can sit long enough for a nightcrawler to do its thing.

Below the state park launch, the Withlacoochee River joins the Suwannee. It’s a fair-sized tributary with fishing potential. Gibson County Park is just upstream of another tributary, the Alapaha River, but that river goes entirely dry some years.

fishing lures
Crawfish-pattern fly and soft plastic.

The hydrology of the Suwannee is complex, to say the least.

Numerous springs bubble out of the limestone shorelines; Bill, Jean and I saw several of them on our drifts. Captain Blakeslee pointed out a few on the lower river. The springs bear the mark of ancient times when the sea lay across the nascent Florida Peninsula and shellfish and planktonic organisms lived, died, and settled by the billions, their calcium-rich remains piling and slowly compressing into stone. As sea levels fell and the limestone became exposed, rainfall and the acidic decomposition of vegetation eroded passages into and through it. Rainfall recharges the aquifer, and the flow is pressurized.

The spring water is alkaline and contributes greatly to the growth and diversity of vegetation and shellfish communities in the Lower Suwannee. The spring water looks clear—but experts say it’s darkened over the years, the result of nitrogen runoff from agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste. Making matters worse, the flow has diminished, evidently due to withdrawals for irrigation. I made plans to investigate further (see story below).

fs-suwannee-bridge
Abandoned bridge at Ellaville.

Saying goodbye to Bill and Jean, I would end my trip on my own, bound for the Okefenokee Swamp.

On the drive up, I made a side trip to Big Shoals State Park. One of the most spectacular examples of Suwannee’s unique hydrology is found here, where the river drops 9 feet in less than a quarter of a mile.

I hiked down to the shoals with my flyrod for a few exploratory casts with a crawfish pattern streamer. The fly had worked well on bass in small rapids on the Santa Fe River, a Suwannee tributary I also explored on this trip, but here didn’t turn up any hits.

The furious flow at Big Shoals is alien to anything you see in Florida. I decided I wanted no part in running the rapids in my fishing kayak. At around 60 feet, it’s rated Class 3 whitewater.

Southern gateway to the Okefenokee is Fargo, Georgia. It’s a zero stoplight town with a gas station open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and an old elementary school rebirthed as a restaurant. You may not see many—or even any—cars parked at Ole School Diner. If the Open sign is lit, just find your way to the gym; you’ll see!

I stayed two nights in Fargo at yet another $100 treasure of a cabin, one of the Suwannee River Eco-Lodges run by Georgia State Parks. I was the only person there.

Suwannee River
On the Suwanee, you’ll pass through diverse geography and unusual fisheries: Coffee-dark coves patrolled by chain pickerel; rocky shores where the rare Suwannee bass roam.

The river, much narrower than at Big Shoals, flows through Fargo. The young Suwannee is vaguely menacing, swirling around cypress and tupelo trees. It was hard to figure out where and how to fish it. I’d read that bass fishing is poor in the upper river, as the water here is acidic, subject to flooding, and low in shellfish and stream vegetation. But I tried anyway. I flipped a Carolina-rigged purple worm around the trees. Eventually I caught a small mudfish, a hard-fighter.

Angler’s vanity had me dearly hoping a mudfish would not be my final Suwannee species, and indeed I was rewarded with one more.

Chain pickerel, like mini pike, are said to be abundant in the Okefenokee Swamp and the upper river. Seething current, however, is not to their liking. I looked around for shallow coves. I found a thicket of gnarled tupelo on a little side channel and slipped a purple Dahlberg Diver in there with my 6-weight flyrod. A nice pickerel, maybe 2 pounds, waked up behind the fly and crushed it. Redfish to pickerel, I had checked off a healthy roster of Suwannee fishes.

From Fargo, it’s about a 17-mile drive to the Stephen Foster State Park and the true headwaters of the Suwannee. From the park, you paddle out to Billy’s Lake, and from there hang a left or right and go on forever into blissful wilderness. There’s 680 square miles of protected wetlands and islands in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1936. You can certainly fish here, but if you’re like me, you’ll be distracted. I got hung up watching woodpeckers jostle for cypress real estate. I also listened to the distant chortle of sandhill cranes.

river shoals
Self portrait of the author contemplating Big Shoals. Not today.

Two hours after sunrise, the cranes grew silent and the alligators emerged into the warm sun—some huge ones, too. Arguably, all of Okefenokee essentially flows toward the Suwannee, but I feel like I found the source. It’s a clump of tickseed sunflowers perched implausibly in the open water of Billy’s Lake. The golden blooms contrast vividly with the lakeside rust and rouge of fall cypress, tupelo and red maple.

If you’re there next fall, maybe camping at Mixon Hammock, find those sunflowers. Watch for a few minutes. Avoid the temptation to cast. Look for a single red maple leaf beginning its long drift toward the Gulf of Mexico. Keep your eyes on that leaf.

Taking the Pulse of the Suwannee

The health of the Suwannee River, including the rich seagrasses at the Gulf, depends on the health of the land around it.

Robert Knight, PhD, Director of the Florida Springs Institute in High Springs, Florida, recalls crystal clear plumes of vivid blue springs bursting with bright green grasses, seasons when the Suwannee River ran clear from shore to shore. Today,

Knight has a tough job. Literally nobody wants to hear what he has to say—whether it’s the starry-eyed tourists told they’re looking at tragedy, or the Florida legislators urged to stop unfettered water giveaways. Honestly, I didn’t even like hearing his answer to my first interview question: “So, let’s start on a positive note. Can you tell me three successes we’ve seen in improving Suwannee River water quality?”

“None.”

Awkward silence.

“Nothing has stopped the continuing trends of declining flows and increasing nitrogen pollution in the Suwannee waterway.”

Knight is the ultimate spoil sport, but he has reams of data.

bass in water
Suwanee River bass

“We have carefully quantified these things,” he explained. “I’ve been practicing environmental science in Florida for 40 years, and with the institute for 13 years. Today we’re seeing about 5,000 tons of nitrogen come downriver each year, that’s a hundred dump trucks of fertilizer. We see it in the springs—nitrogen levels above human health standards, and 15 times the standards set for these springs. Fanning Springs, almost no native vegetation; Manatee Springs, disgusting filamentous algae, not good for fish. Lafayette Blue Springs, dark and unusable for recreation much of the year. We’re seeing declining water flows in the Suwannee of roughly 40 percent on average—a direct result of excessive pumping for human uses.”

What’s happening, Knight explains, is that agricultural interests from South Florida and California have been moving to the Suwannee basin, lured by affordable land and free irrigation water. Essentially, they stick a straw into the aquifer and out it comes. Then they spread fertilizer on crops, and back it goes. This pressure, Knight says, has offset gains made in the 1980s and 90s, when the Suwannee River Water Management District began implementing plans to reduce nitrogen pollution and establish minimum flows for springs along the river. One step forward, two steps back.

There have been victories in the overall battle to preserve the Suwannee wilderness corridor. There’ve been huge land acquisitions over the years—Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (1979), state park (1945), Water Management District buffer zones (1980s).

trees
A key to clear water: Encouraging regional landowners to maintain timber.

In recent years, private landowners are being incentivized to maintain commercially viable pine forests, rather than converting to intensive agriculture.

A fishing buddy of mine, Matt Sexton of Stuart, Florida, has been on the vanguard of promoting conservation easements along the Lower Suwannee River. He is Senior Vice President, Southeast, with The Conservation Fund. The Conservation Fund to date has helped secure 78,000 acres of pine forest along the Suwannee.

As Sexton explains, these kinds of easements, with funding from state and federal sources, purchase not the land itself, but rather the development rights. The landowner keeps the land, profits from the sales of renewable timber, but forfeits the right to develop.

“Maintaining the land in forestry supports not only a natural, healthy water filtration system and supply of water for the river, but also supports a strong forestry industry,” said Sexton. “The biggest threat to water quality is converting those forest lands into more intensive uses like pivot water irrigation agriculture, row crops or cattle ranching.”

The Suwannee timber land easements, Sexton explained, also come with the stipulation that the landowner may not cut into cypress wetlands. Areas of mixed forest like these—mature cypress interspersed with slash and loblolly pine of varying age—are visible along the road from Chiefland to Suwannee.

bow of a fishing kayak
Last stop on my roadtrip: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Georgia. One Suwannee trip ends as another begins.

Ultimately, Sexton said, the health of the Suwannee River, including the rich Big Bend seagrasses at the Gulf, depends on the health of the land around it.

“Keeping land in forestry helps keep nutrients out of the river, and maintains natural flow of water into the river,” said Sexton.

Knight, of the Springs Institute, expressed support for programs like these, and was particularly enthusiastic about prospects for longleaf pine, historically the dominant forest species in the region and having special relationship to the ecology. Sexton says there is work underway, in the upper watershed, to buy lands and restore native longleaf.


  • This article was featured in the February 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.

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