What started out as a writer’s conference turned into a quest for a fish that seldom grows more than a pound. Along the way I lost a fishing rod, got attacked by a swarm of wasps, ran into Naked Ed, and paddled a river from nowhere.
I was in Lake City for the Florida Outdoor Writers Association annual conference. A chance meeting with fisheries biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission swayed me from my writing endeavors. When the conversation turned to Suwannee bass my ears perked up with the thought of adding a new species to my fishing bucket list.
The Suwannee is a rare subspecies of black bass whose range is limited to a few rivers in northern Florida and southern Georgia. Some features that distinguish it from the more common largemouth bass are a smaller mouth, red eyes, and bright turquois highlights on the cheek, breast and ventral regions. Another distinguishing feature is their size. Suwannees seldom grow longer than 10 inches and the world record is only 3 pounds, 14–¼ ounces.
Lake City is smack in the middle of Suwannee bass territory. Contrary to their name, the best place to pursue them is not way down upon the Suwannee River. The biologists steered me to the nearby Santa Fe River. As luck would have it, the writers conference had a group kayaking trip on the Santa Fe hosted by Rum 138 Outfitters (http://rum138.com/). They dropped us off at the highway 27 river crossing to paddle and drift our way four miles downstream to the takeout point at Rum Island.
The biologists told me Suwannee bass hang around tree roots and woody cover along the banks and tend to feed on the bottom primarily on crayfish. I didn’t have any crayfish lures in my tackle bag so the closest match I had was a 2 inch biodegradable plastic shrimp made by Nikko Kasei (http://nikko-fishing.com/). I rigged it backwards with an R-bend worm hook with a 1/16 ounce bullet weight.
Twitching the little Nikko shrimp along the bottom worked splendidly. I nailed a small largemouth bass not a minute out from the launch. A few casts later I completed my quest with a beautiful little Suwannee bass. Action came so quick I had not yet pulled my camera from the dry box. I left the Suwannee in the water while I dug out my camera. By the time I got the camera out the Suwannee was gone. No problem, the first one came so quick and easy, I thought I was sure to catch more. I caught plenty of fish; largemouths, brim, crappie and bowfin, but the second Suwannee eluded me.
Several springs dump into the river along this stretch of the Santa Fe. I particularly wanted to visit Lily Springs in honor of my youngest daughter Lily. Ed Watts is the caretaker of Lily Springs and lives in a small hut beside the spring. Ed is a local legend better known as Naked Ed. His preferred attire is, in his own words, “nekkid.” Ed will chat with anyone who cares to paddle their canoe or kayak to Lily Springs, and he can dispense folksy wisdom as only a naked man in the woods can do. Don’t worry, when Ed hears visitors coming he dons a loincloth or stands behind a bar to cover what most folks consider to be the more offending parts of his nakedness.
I continued catching fish as I drifted down the Santa Fe. Near the takeout at Rum Island I was attacked. I’m not sure what started it. My theory is the spare rod in the back rod holder hit a nest in a low hanging branch because suddenly I was enveloped by an angry swarm of wasps intent on stinging any exposed flesh they could find. Frantic flailing and swatting ensued for the next 30 seconds or so and witnesses said they were amazed I didn’t flip the kayak. By the time it was over I was stung four times in the face, once on the back and several times on the legs (thank God for the Hoo Rag around my neck and my long sleeve fishing shirt). By the time I regained my composure I saw my fishing rod was gone. I wasn’t about to go back to try to find it (wasn’t much in the mood to continue fishing anyway).
A couple days later I wanted another crack at the Suwannee bass hoping I could get a photo this time. I launched at Canoe Outpost (http://santaferiver.com/) a little farther upstream on the Santa Fe. I told the folks at Canoe Outpost of my Suwannee quest and they said the river was too high for fishing. I still caught plenty of fish on my Nikko shrimp as I paddled my way upstream, but the Suwannee bass continued to elude me. Three miles into my paddle the river simply disappeared. Dark tannin water boiled up from a hole in the ground. Later I learned this place is called River Rise Preserve State Park. Three miles away the river disappears into a sinkhole in O’Leno State Park and returns to the surface at River Rise.
My float trip back to Canoe Outpost was peaceful, scenic and fish filled, but not a single Suwannee bass fell for my lure. At least I caught one on my first trip. I know, I know, no picture, no proof. I’ll have to return to the Santa Fe River (perhaps when water levels are lower) to see if I can capture a Suwannee bass with my camera (as if I need an excuse to return to the Santa Fe).