Float-Trip Dreams Of The Withlacoochee River
Variety and the elusive Suwannee bass await anglers who float this south Georgia gem.
As a kid growing up in western Maryland, one of my favorite summer events was floating the Potomac River in a canoe with my dad, camping on islands in the river, and catching smallmouth bass, red- breast sunfish, and rock bass. When I moved to south Georgia over a decade ago, I figured my days of fishing rocky rivers were over with- out driving significant distances. That is, until I became familiar with the unique Withlacoochee River near Valdosta.
The Withlacoochee does not contain smallmouth bass, but it has the similar-looking Suwannee bass. And in exchange for rock bass, war- mouth are present. Rocky outcrop- pings complete the package, providing beauty, navigational challenges, and fish habitat. I fell in love with this river the first time I fished it in the early 1990s, as it reminded me of the rivers I grew up fishing.
This spring, my dad, Herb Deener, now of Waycross, and I rekindled our tradition and floated a stretch of the Withlacoochee River south of Valdosta in dad’s vintage Grumman canoe. Our stretch of choice was from the Knight’s Ferry Road access to the Clyattville-Nankin Road access, covering about 7 river miles. We had attempted the float twice within the last year, but each time monsoon-like rains sent the river out of its banks before our trip. Finally, we got the right conditions in mid-April and headed to Valdosta.
River levels that day were 3.8 feet and falling slowly at the Georgia Highway 84 bridge gauge west of Valdosta, and it was 7.7 feet and falling slowly at the Pinetta, Fla. gauge near the Georgia-Florida line. These levels are fine for navigating the stretch we chose. There is a fine line between the river being high enough to easily navigate without being too high to effectively fish. Weather for the day was stable, as we were several days after a cold front. We anticipated a good day, and we were not disappointed.
Water clarity was decent, with about a foot visibility. During a typical month of June, the water will clear up and visibility will increase to as much as a few feet. But, numerous pop-up thunderstorms like we have had the last several summers cause the river to rise, and blackwater flushed out of headwater swamps reduces visibility. One of my friends has a description of how to know when the clarity of a blackwater stream is “right.” He claims that if it looks like coffee with cream, it is still too muddy, but if it looks like black coffee, it is just right. Over the years, I have found his rule to be right on.
As the sun peaked over the trees, we dropped off a pickup vehicle below and made our way up to the our starting point. Knight’s Ferry Road turns from pavement to dirt and then ends right at a ramp — an old patchwork of concrete chunks disappearing into the blackwater. The small, off-channel basin is shallow, and it would have been difficult to launch anything larger than a canoe at the water level that day. After stowing our rods, tackle, coolers, and other necessities, we shoved off and were underway.
As we drifted along, we targeted casts to each piece of cover along the way. Unlike the multiple casts you make when positioning a boat with a trolling motor, you must make a precision first cast when fishing from a canoe because many times it is the only cast you get. Herb began by throwing one of his favorite panfish baits, the smallest size of a Rebel crayfish crankbait in the stream crawfish pattern. He also flung a 1/32-oz. Beetle Spin in the white/red-dot color. First thing in the morning I targeted bass with hard jerkbaits, both Bass Pro Shops and Bite-A-Bait versions. My favorite Bass Pro Shops version is a four-inch XPS Nitro Minnow in gold-black back, traditionally a deadly color for blackwater bass. Over the years, I have noticed that the Withlacoochee is chock full of brook silversides, which are slender, translucent, pike-like fish that average 2 3/4- to 3 3/4-inches long, so one of the jerkbaits I mixed in the day’s arsenal was a spring- green-minnow colored (chrome sides/green back) Bite-A-Bait Fighter, which almost perfectly mimics a brook silverside. Still within sight of the ramp a fat, feisty 1-lb. largemouth bass blasted out of a blowdown and inhaled the spring-green-minnow jerkbait. The river current caused the bass to feel twice as big as one of its lake-dwelling cousins. Much of the fun of river fishing is the strength with which the fish fight.
Not far into the float we were greeted with rocky outcroppings, which are uncommon in Georgia’s typically sand- and silt-bottomed black- water streams. Predator fish often use the eddies behind rock ledges and individual boulders as ambush points. We cast small crayfish crankbaits, Beetle Spins and jerkbaits to the current breaks to no avail. The rest of the morning was rather slow. We surmised that the cool April nights had slowed the morning bite. June’s hot days and warm nights will typically provide a great morning bite.
After we ate a quick lunch, the temperature began to rise, and the bite picked up. I switched to one of my black/blue, hand-tied, 1/16-oz., fox-hair jigs trailed with a black/blue, 1-inch, plastic crayfish and slowed down my presentation. That was the ticket to triggering bites. Jigs have been the prime bait on several floats over the years. The river is full of crayfish, and there is no better crayfish imitation than a jig.
The most productive stretches had slow-flowing water and were near the river channel. Frequently the canoe would float in the swift-flowing channel while we cast to cover in the slow- er areas. From a canoe, this was a tricky and often aggravating presentation. Oh, how I longed for the big casting deck and 82-lb. thrust trolling motor on my Mako!
As the afternoon progressed, it became apparent that wood cover of some sort was critical. Cypress knees, tree-root wads, and blowdowns were the best cover. The more dense the cover, the more likely we were to catch a spotted sunfish, or stumpknocker. Areas where foam and trash washed against a dense blowdown were hotspots for stumpknockers. We let the canoe gently wash against the blowdown and pitched the small hair jigs into the foam line. Each time we found such a situation we caught stumpknockers and a few redbreasts. The hotspots for redbreasts were sparse blowdowns and cypress knees. In those areas, the hair jigs, Beetle Spins, and crayfish crankbaits were each effective. The mouths of creeks and wood cover in eddies produced our largemouth bass. Later this spring, largemouths will move to cover closer to the current, as this water is better oxygenated than stagnant water.
We ended up catching more than 40 fish of seven different species. Largemouth bass inhaled jerkbaits and hair jigs. Redbreasts and bluegills ate hair jigs, Beetle Spins, and crayfish crankbaits. Spotted sunfish engulfed hair jigs. Bowfin and crappie pounced on jerkbaits. And, a chain pickerel was fooled by a hair jig and bit it off right before I landed it. Unfortunately, the Suwannee bass eluded us, but low flows and warmer temperatures in June put the odds of catching a Suwannee bass in your favor.
Suwannee bass are probably the least known of the six black bass species found in Georgia. They are typically a little deeper-bodied than a largemouth of comparable length. They have lateral bars (similar to smallmouth bass) on their sides, but in blackwater rivers some of the markings are not as obvious. In the Withlacoochee, where there are only largemouths and Suwannee bass, the defining characteristic is the jaw. If you shut the mouth of the fish in question, a largemouth bass jaw will extend past the eye, whereas the jaw of a Suwannee bass will not extend that far. Suwannee bass are found only in the Suwannee River basin and the Ochlockonee River. Because of their small geographical range, conservation of this species is critical. If you want to take home bass to eat, keep some largemouths and release the Suwannee bass. I have released all the Suwannee bass I have caught over the years, except a 2-lb., 8-oz. trophy I caught and mounted back in 1998.
During the numerous floats I have taken on the Withlacoochee, I have noticed that there are different habitat types you will encounter along the float. You can catch a variety of fish if you adapt your tactics for each.
Shallow Straightaways: This is a very common habitat, and one that is usually not worth spending much time fishing. Often there will be scattered blowdowns along the way. I usually target the blowdowns with crayfish crankbaits and small hair jigs, expecting to catch redbreasts or a stray largemouth. I paddle through these areas, only hitting the best cover.
Withlacoochee’s Wide, Slow, Deep Stretches: While some big fish live in these types of areas, the fish are very scattered and hard to pinpoint. You can burn up a lot of daylight trying to fish every nook and cranny of these areas. I usually paddle through these areas, making a few casts to prime shoreline cover along the way. If willows line the bank, I skip Bass Assassin Charm floating worms (pink or white are my favorites) among the tangle of willow limbs. Largemouth bass are the main quarry here. You will catch some bowfin, bluegill, and an occasional crappie from these stretches. I throw jerkbaits and larger, bass-sized jigs to the blowdowns and keep moving. When specifically targeting bass, either Suwannee or largemouth, I upsize my jig to a larger 1/8-oz. offering and a two or three-inch plastic crayfish trailer.
Withlacoochee Oxbow Lakes: Cover at the mouths of oxbows is worth several casts, as the junction between the flowing river and the still lake is a great spot to hold fish, both bass and panfish. During June I do not go back in stillwater oxbow lakes. The back of these lakes is worth fishing during spring for bass and bluegill, but most fish have moved toward the main river by late spring. If you like catching bowfin, the oxbow lakes are the place to be. Floating worms and spinnerbaits of all varieties will catch bowfin.
Rocky Shoals: Because of the swift current around the shoals, you can most effectively fish them by beaching the boat and wading the shoal. Crayfish are numerous in these rocky areas, so I usually use a lure that emulates a crayfish. Jigs and crayfish crankbaits are my lures of choice for fishing around the numerous current breaks and ledges. Expect to catch red- breasts, Suwannee bass, and large- mouths if there is a deep pool below the shoal.
Narrow, Swift Areas: These are the trickiest to fish, but they are often the most productive, especially in June. The challenge is to get your canoe safely in position to cast to the current breaks with shoreline cover. Unfortunately, sometimes the only thing you can do in these areas is wave goodbye as you fly through. These areas are almost always too deep to wade. Some of my best areas have small, deeper pools sandwiched between narrow, swift areas. Almost all of the Suwannee bass I have caught have come from such areas. Crayfish are a Suwannee bass staple, so use jigs or crankbaits if you want to catch one. Expect redbreasts to eat panfish-sized offerings in these areas, also. All that time you saved paddling through other habitats was saved for these areas and our next type, mainstream cover.
Mainstream Cover: Every now and then you will find a blowdown tree deposited in the middle of the river from a previous flood. During summer low flows, if at least a few feet of water surrounds this cover, you have found a hotspot. When the river is high, current is too swift around this cover, but during low flows the fish sit and wait for food to drift by. Largemouth bass, Suwannee bass, and redbreasts swarm around mid-stream wood cover. Jerkbaits and larger jigs are my go-to baits around this cover.
When fishing from a canoe, you want to keep your tackle simple, as a bunch of stuff gets cumbersome in a canoe. I usually take three outfits per angler, two ultralights and a medium action. Bass Pro Shops Micro Lite Rods are perfect for throwing small jigs and crankbaits. On the ultralight outfits, I prefer the tough Sufix Siege monofilament line in 6-lb. test. With rocks and limbs, you do not want to use a lighter line. On the medium outfit, I favor 8- or 10-lb. test mono.
When floating, always beware of potential hazards. The Withlacoochee is definitely in alligator and venomous snake country, and I have seen both during floats I have taken. As a rule of thumb, leave ’em alone and they will leave you alone. It is always a good idea to wear a life vest in case you flip the canoe. Your fishing buddy might not have as good of balance as he claims.
On narrow rivers like the Withlacoochee, a tree could fall at any time and necessitate a portage. Pack as light as possible in case you have to portage around a deadfall. The biggest hazard you will encounter is time. Because of the distance between accesses, these floats lend themselves well to overnight trips. Several of these floats are long for a day-trip, so make sure to leave early and plan to stay late. Several times I have fished longer than I should have and ended up paddling in the dark. Make sure to keep track of where you are and how much daylight is left. Shooting through a shoal at night is a very dangerous proposition. On trips when dark caught us, we walked our canoes through the various shoals to try to preserve our equipment. A good handheld GPS will help you track your progress. Make sure to mark your position when you drop off the pick-up vehicle so that you have an ending-point reference.
When planning a float on the Withlacoochee, river levels and rainfall within the basin are some of the most important factors. You can access current river levels at waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/rt. This USGS website reports several gauges along both the Withlacoochee and Little River. The book “A Paddler’s Guide to Southern Georgia” by Bob Sehlinger and Don Otey, is a great reference for access points and other information on all south Georgia rivers.
As we loaded the canoe that evening, I could not help but remember all those summer days float fishing for smallmouths during my teenage years. Nowadays after a float, my back and joints ache a little more, and that old canoe is just a little heavier than I remember it being, but the Withlacoochee River has etched a place in my heart equal to the rivers of my youth.
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