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"FLOAT THE ST. MARY'S"

By Dustin Hill

Dustin with St. Mary's River Bass

 

It was a typical early summer morning near the headwaters of the St. Maryís River.  A thin mist hovered above the swirling black water and the air held a hint of coolness left over from spring.  My Dad and I pushed our kayaks off the sandy beach and drifted slowly with the current.  A large log created a nice breakwater just to my right, and I cast my small popping bug just up current of the obstruction.  As the bug drifted into the slack water behind the log, it was instantly engulfed.  The fish put up an admirable fight on a 5wt. and it took several minutes to subdue a fat 2.5lb largemouth bass- quite a fish for the first cast of the morning.  We continued our drift several miles down river, catching an assortment of redbreast sunfish, warmouth perch, bluegill, spotted sunfish (stumpknocker), and bowfin (mudfish).  Popping bugs accounted for fish where overhanging trees didnít impede our backcasts, and small beetle-spins were readily taken in areas with tighter cover. 

Skip, Dustin's dad, shows his fly fishing skills  

The St. Maryís River originates in the Okeefenokee and Pinhook Swamps of southeastern Georgia.  The river winds through 130 miles of largely undeveloped forests, swamps, and marshes before itís confluence with Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.  It forms the eastern-most boundary between Florida and Georgia for much of the length.  The St. Maryís is a blackwater river, highly tannin stained by decaying vegetation in the adjacent swamps.  Despite itís color, the water is of superb quality and contains little suspended sediment.  Under normal conditions, the river is tidally influenced for approximately 60 miles, roughly to a point six miles west of the US-1 bridge.  Farther inland, the current always runs towards the ocean.  The middle and lower portions of the St. Maryís are characterized by very deep, hard-flowing waters.  The river is bordered by swamps and pine forests which ultimately give way to salt marshes and tidal creeks east of the US-17 bridge.  While the lower 60 miles of river provide excellent angling opportunities for fish ranging from bluegills to tarpon, these waters arenít ideally suited for kayak fishing.  In contrast, the narrow, winding upper reaches of the St. Maryís are a kayakerís dream.  The current is relatively lazy except for a few bottlenecks, and the river rarely stretches more than 100ft wide.  Snow-white sandbars dot the banks and the middle of the river, providing excellent places for wade-fishing, swimming, or simply taking a break for a shore lunch.  The high banks offer excellent wind protection.  The river is littered with fallen trees, stumps, and logs.  Together with the myriad sandbars, this obstacle course of obstructions prevents all but the smallest boats from navigating these waters.  With the exception of the busiest holidays, solitude is a guarantee.

 

In addition to its natural beauty, the upper St. Maryís River also offers very unique and productive freshwater fishing opportunities, particularly during the warmer months.  Fishing for a wide variety of panfish species is typically excellent from May-September, although redbreast and speckle perch are still available during the winter months in good numbers.  Redbreast usually make up at least 50% of the catch.  These scrappy fighters orient towards obstructions that break the current as well as creek mouths and points.  They hit harder than other panfish and definitely have the most brilliant coloring.  While redbreast will smack a popping bug, they canít turn down a 1/32oz beetle-spin in black/chartreuse or red/white.  Hand-size redbreast are extremely abundant, and itís not uncommon to catch one weighing 10-15oz.  Bluegills are also available in good numbers, particularly during June and July.  They relate to the same structure as redbreast, although any stretch of lily pads is always worth a few casts as well.  A #8 or #10 popping bug in either white or chartreuse will out-fish any artificial for big bluegills.  Early morning and late evening are best for topwater action, although bluegills hit on top all day if you pitch a bug into the shade of overhanging trees.  Sinking bugs can definitely be productive, but they are almost impossible to fish due to the labyrinth of underwater obstructions.  Speckle perch, warmouth, and stumpknockers are typically found in slightly slower water in pockets and small sloughs off the river.  The later two species are particularly fond of areas with many downed limbs and trees.  These three species eagerly hit beetle-spins or any other small spinner.  Shellcrackers (red-ear sunfish) are usually an incidental catch on artificial lures, but they can be taken more readily on worms.  While drifting with the current is effective, I prefer to beach the kayak and walk the banks/sandbars along good stretches of river with abundant structure.  All the panfish species are excellent table fare, particularly from oxygen-rich waters like the St. Maryís. 

 

For targeting panfish with a popping bug, I prefer a 5wt. fly rod.  Due to the continuous current, panfish in the St. Maryís fight noticeably harder than their counterparts in lakes and ponds (where a 3wt. might be adequate).  It doesnít hurt to have a little more backbone to pull big bluegills out of fallen trees.  Long casts are never needed, so a shorter 7.5ft or 8ft rod is ideal.  For tossing small spinners, an ultra-light spinning reel spooled with 4-6lb monofilament is preferable.  If casting a light fly rod or spinning rod isnít your forte, crickets fished under a small cork on a 12ft bream-buster or cane pole are always a great option. 

 

Bass fishing can also be good at times, especially during the fall and winter.  Start out with a small, floating Rapala early in the morning and switch over to a Texas-rigged plastic worm once the sun rises high in the sky.  Either a 1/8oz or 3/16oz bullet weight is sufficient.  Black-shad, red-shad, and black/blue-tail are always good colors for plastic worms.  Fallen trees and stumps near points and run-outs hold the greatest numbers of largemouth bass.  Mudfish, warmouth, and chain pickerel are also common catches on traditional bass lures.  Once again, short, accurate casts are the rule.  Therefore, a 6ft. conventional rod is a perfect length.  I typically spool with 12-15lb monofilament or 30lb braided line. 

 

The St. Maryís also supports a thriving channel catfish population.  Fish ranging from 6Ē to 30lbs are all available to anglers soaking dead baits on the bottom.  River bends and creek mouths are typically the hot spots.  For small catfish (which are absolutely delicious fried whole), wigglers or small pieces of shrimp get the nod, although just about anything stinky works well.  Larger catfish prefer pieces of eel, bream, or shiners. 

 

There are six published launch sites along the 45 mile stretch of river from the town of Macclenny on the Florida side to Traders Hill on the Georgia side, around 5 miles west of the US-1 crossing.  The optimal way to fish and explore the upper St. Maryís is to spend several days floating the river downstream, camping in the evenings on one of hundreds of high sandbars.  Some of the land bordering the river is private, but it will typically be marked.  Look for old fire rings to spot frequently used campsites.  No permits are required to camp on public land.  Moving at a leisurely fishing pace with the current, you can expect to cover 10-15 miles per day.  There are no facilities along the way, so bring the necessary provisions.  Since most sandbar campsites are not wooded, mosquitoes and flies are rarely a nuisance.  For help plotting your course, visit http://www.sjrwmd.com/programs/outreach/pubs/smr_guide/ for detailed maps, specific canoe/kayak launches, and information on the storied history of the St. Maryís River.  Short trips are also possible, but paddling against current in route to or from the ramp can become very tiring.  Florida anglers wishing to launch or fish creeks on the Georgia side will need a Georgia fishing license.  There is no demarcation line on the river itself. 

 

Before planning a float trip on the St. Maryís, be sure to view a graph of the current water level at http://www.srh.weather.gov/cgi-bin/ahps.cgi?jax&macf1.  Heavy rainfall over the swamps at the headwaters can drastically affect water level and current flow.  In general, very low water is the best for fishing.  The river transforms into a series of relatively landlocked pools bordered by sandbars.  Due to frequent shallow spots and exposed timber, paddling becomes more difficult, however, the fish populations are much more concentrated.  Very high water near flood stage should be avoided. 

 

The upper St. Maryís River is one of Floridaís truly scenic paddling trails.  It offers great fishing, camping, and wildlife viewing opportunities in a serene environment not found outside the Florida Everglades.  

LINKS TO DUSTIN'S ARTICLES

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