May 16, 2011
When the summer crowds flee this scenic waterway, the trout fishing picks up in a big way.
In 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley moved his family to Fort George Island, seeking to acquire land and make a fortune in cotton, citrus, sugar cane and corn. Today, the Kingsley Plantation on the south bank of the Fort George River is an important historical site administered by the National Park Service. Across the river, on the north shore, is a natural reminder of even more distant history. Beyond the vast shorelines of spartina grass lies Little Talbot Island, a harsh yet pristine environment little changed through 6,000 years of human habitation. This 2,500-acre island and state park is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Florida. Little Talbot Island and Fort George State Park are both part of the Timucuan Ecological Preserve; in 1988 these precious lands were set aside for their historical and natural value for everyone to enjoy.
When the summer crowds flee this scenic waterway, the trout fishing picks up in a big way.
The waterways that twist among these historical lands account for a big part of the area’s natural beauty—and a huge helping of recreational value. The unspoiled Fort George River branches off the east side of the Intracoastal Waterway just a few miles north of the St. Johns River. On the incoming tide, clean salt water from the Atlantic Ocean flows west over white sand from the mouth of the Fort George River back into the ICW. At the rivermouth is Huegenot Park, where surfers, kayakers and surf fisherman regularly gather, free to bask in the sun.
In addition to its historical value and scenery, the Fort George River is also known for its fabulous fishing. The winter trout fishery is one of the best-kept secrets north of the St. Johns River. Large schools of spotted seatrout invade the Fort George area in November, taking up residence through early spring. As water temperatures rise, these seatrout start to migrate throughout the Intracoastal Waterway and St. Johns River.
A January trip might produce action similar to what the McConnell family and I found not long ago. Harry McConnell’s sons, Rusty and Andy, had enlisted my guidance in a Christmas gift for Dad.
We started out tossing shallow-running lipped divers and surface chuggers in Simpson Creek, a narrow tributary that branches off the Fort George River. Simpson Creek snakes all the way to Nassau Sound, from the southwest tip of Little Talbot Island to the northern tip where Bird Island intersects the ocean. Ocean-fed at both ends, Simpson is one of the clearest bodies of water in the Jacksonville area. I’d had several very successful trips here the week before Christmas, casting crankbaits and surface chuggers toward flooded spartina shorelines, but on this chilly morning the trout showed no interest in our plugs. I was tempted to yank up the trolling motor and head for the St. Johns River, but I just couldn’t imagine all those trout leaving the area—not to mention that it was too cold to comfortably run very far in a flats boat. Instead, I elected to change our fishing method. We put the topwater lures away. I dropped anchor and the McConnells started float fishing with live shrimp.
Our first drift produced a slot-size trout, then we caught a flounder and a hefty 5-pound redfish found its way to the boat. Our slam was proof that fish were still lingering in this skinny saltmarsh creek; they were just staying deeper in the water column than normal. It appeared the cooler water had altered the temperament of the fish. They seemed too sluggish to chase lures on the surface, preferring instead to take baits drifted near bottom. I was able to cast-net a few finger mullet at the boat ramp at Sister’s Creek that morning, and so we lip-hooked one and set it adrift beneath our balsa float. We freespooled our float down a 6-foot ledge close to the bank into an eddy that had formed off a grassy point. As the float passed this prime ambush point, it disappeared into Simpson’s clear green waters.
Sisters Creek Marina on Heckscher Drive is probably the closest and best boat ramp for visitors to the Fort George Area. Sisters Creek is one of several large tributaries entering the St. Johns River from the north. The marina here, on the west side of the creek, is headquarters for the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament—and as such is in great condition. It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Plenty of bait and tackle and lunch spots along Heckscher Drive, a scenic stretch of road that skirts the St. Johns River.
For campers, Little Talbot Island State Park (904-251-2320) offers shady sites and an unimproved boat ramp suitable for small skiffs and cartoppers. Farther north on the island is a larger state park boat ramp accessing Sawpit Creek and Nassau Sound.
Florida Sportsman Fishing Chart No. 01 covers this area, but be mindful of shoaling and extreme tides in the Fort George River and nearby waterways.
“That’s a redfish!” I said as I watched Andy’s rod double over. It’s common to catch a few nice-size redfish while targeting trout in the Fort George area. You generally can tell when a trout is on the line by the way they fight; once hooked they rise to the surface, simultaneously shaking their heads. Spotted seatrout aren’t near the drag-screamers that redfish are. I waited patiently with the net for Andy to bring the redfish to the surface. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when a huge trout surfaced right at the boat. We were sure we had landed a genuine 10-pound trout, but our scale revealed Andy’s fish to be an ounce shy of seven—still a respectable trout in any sector of the state. It was satisfying to watch Andy’s trophy swim back into the Fort George system, there to surprise another fisherman.
In summer, the Fort George River is the place to go. On any given weekend there’s usually a Fort George party ritual taking place on at least one of the numerous sandbars that become exposed at low tide. Expect plenty of pleasure boats and jet-ski traffic in addition to fishing boats. Winter is different, and although the trout are thick in the river you won’t find a crowd. The sandbars are a big reason for the lack of boats. Scattered throughout Fort George River, these bars can be hazardous to boaters unfamiliar with the area. Unfortunately, even if you do your homework, navigation still poses a problem. The sandbars have shifted over the years and navigational charts and markers aren’t necessarily accurate; a good example would be the channel marker that sits high and dry at low tide just east of the Kingsley Plantation. I can remember 15 years ago, when I w
as first learning to navigate the river. I ran aground right next to the channel marker during a falling tide. I got in the water and pushed my boat to the other side of the marker, thinking that I must be on the wrong side, only to find shallower water. The deceptive channel marker is still there to this day.
Even when it’s really cold I have found that you can still catch trout on lures in the Fort George area. Slow-sinking hard plastic baits such as the Bomber Sinking Mullet or MirrOlure 52M perform well this time of year. They are basically do-nothing lures; you cast them out and let them sink. I like to count them down. I let them sink for a 4-count, twitch the rod upward for a little action and let them sink again. Trout always hit the motionless baits on the fall. Slow sinkers are perfect baits for lethargic fish that don’t want to chase their prey. Suspending lipped divers are another good option. Crank down and pause your retrieve, and a suspending lure stays down in the water column, rather than floating to the surface. Suspending lures work well when trout are holding in water less than five feet deep. Soft-plastic shad tails on a jighead will probably produce more trout than anything else, but the bigger fish seem to go for the hard baits. I have found that natural colors produce the best in the clean water around Fort George. A clear-body, black-back mullet pattern is one of my favorites for hardbaits. I’ve had the most success with white or pearl colors when it comes to soft plastics.
Nathan Johnson "point-plucked" this gator trout off an irregular shoreline.
Shorebound fisherman will find plenty of opportunities around Fort George River. There’s excellent float fishing for trout on the Fort George bridge. One of the better techniques that locals often use for catching trout from the Heckscher Drive bridges is to fish on the upcurrent side of the bridge, allowing a float to drift back underneath the bridge close to the pilings. Huegenot Park, which is basically a beach on the shorelines of Fort George Inlet, is famous for its superb surf fishing; early in the morning finger mullet invade the shallows where trout, redfish, flounder and bluefish come to feast. Shorelines near Camp Alamacani on the south bank of the river give up gator trout regularly and Little Talbot Island State Park is probably the best kept secret in Jacksonville; at times you can actually see bull redfish riding the waves in the clear surf.
As I turn the corner around Garden Creek from the ICW and head due east toward the Fort George Plantation, there is a noticeable difference in the clarity of the water. Oyster mounds are fuller and healthier looking. The spartina grassflats are picturesque. The expression I see on the anglers’ faces as we meander through the sandbars in the green, salty waters of the Fort George River says it all. It’s as if they know they are entering fishy territory.