I first traveled to Florida to bass-fish as a kid. Many of you remember my stories of adventure from that period – a young, impressionable Midwesterner released in the wilds. It was like stepping on another planet. Here, massive alligators bellowed deep in the swamp, guarding enchanted waters filled with gigantic bass. Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jack in the Beanstalk all rolled into one.
I never lost that childlike wonder for Florida. Retracing the steps of my youth as a 40-year-old, I somehow convinced my wife to move to the Sunshine State and start a new life, the outdoors taking center stage.
Our jumping-off point was the central St. Johns River basin. Here, a National Forest hugs the west shoreline while a National Wildlife Refuge guards the east. Holding off Florida’s relentless development, my new playground still featured swamps filled with water moccasins and the maniacal call of the limpkin. And gators. My gosh, the gators.
Settling in over the next decade, I’d learn this section of the St. Johns as well as most, my modern findings blended with the advice and know-how of lifelong river rats still residing in the floodplain and keeping tally of the hurricanes.
Everything about the river was what I’d hoped for. Except the fishing.
Avid bass anglers will recall magical tournaments in the not-too-distant past, when 10-pounders showed off to the fans as they cart-wheeled across a placid Lake George. In the years following, we watched the B.A.S.S. greats capitalize on river-run largemouths, Lake George’s glorious grass beds a thing of the past due to prolonged high water. Scientists blamed the hurricanes, yet the grass never returned.
Meanwhile, a unique thing was happening. As the world’s best capitalized on a changing St. Johns River, the river’s bass fishery was dying. More recently, tournaments found half of the field unable to catch a limit. Any impressive stringers came from Rodman Reservoir rather than along the St. Johns proper.
My river-rat heroes tell me of the expansive grass beds all along the St. Johns back in the good ol’ days. But I see no grass. My local fish camp is stuffed with bass mounts from the '80s – fish of 10, 12, even 15 pounds checked in by local guides. Today, those mounts gather dust, the river rarely producing a fish in excess of 8.
Florida’s wildly popular Trophy Catch program confirms, the St. Johns River – all 300-plus miles of it – has been responsible for only one certified bass over 10 pounds checked in the last five years.
The submerged grasses on the St. Johns River are gone, everywhere. What little is left of rooted vegetation, like spatterdock, often struggles to grow due to prolonged high-water conditions. Floating vegetation is aggressively controlled by managers, further reducing any viable cover for gamefish. Exotic fish populations, notably tilapia and plecos catfish, have exploded with unknown impacts.
Things are not good on the St. Johns River. Old timers talk of two-year waiting periods at the fish camps back in the '80s. Today, most are closed, and the boat ramps deserted much of the year. There are more manatee watchers than bass anglers.
A number of Florida agencies (most notably the Florida FWC) have spent the last few years looking into the problem. A project aimed to re-establish submerged grasses in Lake George showed promising results. By building enclosures, the group found many of the native grasses would grow back. Eelgrass, wigeon grass and dollar pads showed up fast.
It appears the problem is a grass-eater, what the managers call herbivores, or grazers. Imagine planting a small turnip field in the middle of the deer woods, and you get the point. As soon as native grass re-appeared, it was mowed down. Enclosures were necessary to prevent that.
The effort was championed by Dan Kolterman, a tireless game and fish employee who spends as much time in the water as out. Kolterman made it his mission to figure out this problem.
After a few years and a large-scale investment, we saw the grasses of the St. Johns begin again to grow. Keeping up with the enclosures, however, remained problematic, and much of the grass never took due to pesky turtles, unknown fishes and alligators that hate fences.
In other areas of the river, though, a unique initiative is taking place. Private property owners are constructing their own enclosures, just off their shorelines. Together with Kolterman’s FWC, a group of enthusiastic bass anglers joined the St. Johns Riverkeeper to advise and and create corrals for eelgrass.
The outcome has been astounding. Photos can only begin to explain how well this is working; we’re talking topped-out, beautiful, lush-green habitat.
These efforts all exist in the lower portion of the river, north of the acclaimed Lake George fishery and in a different area code from my home in Deland. And, while these initial efforts are a good sign, much more needs to be done to address parallel issues, including exotic species, herbicide application (spraying), the effects of animals like manatees and turtles, user conflicts, fish population impacts and water quality.
I feel the need to be involved. That happens, I guess, when you get older.
A lifetime of work in the fishing industry, combined with an education in fisheries science and a job in journalism places me in a unique situation to aid in the efforts. So, effective immediately, I’m organizing a St. Johns River action group.
I should back up. Truthfully, I’ve already been hard at work getting this off the ground.
I’ve had numerous conversations with lifetime anglers and other users of the St. Johns. I’ve talked with government organizations, biologists, invasive plant experts, heads of non-profit groups and the organizers of the world’s largest ecosystem restoration project, occurring currently in South Florida. All have given invaluable advice.
But now it’s time to get things moving. I’m confident I’ve got the ear of important-decision makers, and meetings are being planned. But I need your help.
Anyone interested in issues affecting the St. Johns River is welcome to join. I can use your input, and you’ll be kept up to date on important issues in a transparent way. By joining together, we can make a difference in this fishery.
Yesterday, I drove by a sign proclaiming this to be the "Bass Capital of the World." The paint was faded. Despite the pleasant autumn weather, the boat ramp down the street was deserted. A couple kids rode their bikes around a lot where, just one generation ago, anglers fought for parking spots. The convenience store on the corner had closed.
What happened? Habitat loss.
My email address is Joe@mpromoinc.com. Contact me to help restore the St. Johns River to the bass capital of the world. Forward this article or contact to anyone you know who's interested in Central Florida bass fishing and the issues affecting it.
I ask nothing but your time.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)