River Bass On Florida’s Santa Fe

On The Fly Freshwater

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

January 2021

When it comes to wading a rocky shoal, while casting flies into riffles and eddies for black bass, the Sunshine State is not the first place that comes to mind for most long rod aficionados. Such a scene more often takes place along the Fall Line between the Piedmont Plateau and the coastal plains of the southland. Yet, just such action is possible on north-central Florida’s Santa Fe River.

The On The Fly South crew recently dropped in on the river to check out the winter action. It was our first time hitting the water at this time of year, after having fished it in the warmer months in the past.

Of course, there is more than this fishing scenario that sets the river apart. The Santa Fe begins at the outlet of its twin namesake bodies of water, Santa Fe and Little Santa Fe lakes, just to the northeast of Gainesville. From there it forms an arc to the north of the city as it flows westward.

Once the stream passes under Interstate 75 and reaches O’Leno State Park, to the east of Fort White, it drops into a sinkhole to flow underground. Then at River Rise, just north of High Springs, it reappears on the surface for its final run down to the junction with the Suwannee River, on the border of Gilchrist and Suwannee counties.

It is this last stretch of water that holds the most promise for fly rodders. Additionally, the Santa Fe holds a two-fold fishery for the black bass. In the slower deeper sections, especially around shoreline logjams, the river teems with largemouth bass. These fish are regularly in the 2- to 3-pound range and 5-pounders are regularly encountered. Even bigger lunkers turn up, as well.

On The Fly South’s Polly Dean with a Santa Fe largemouth.

Tossing large, weighted streamers on an intermediate sinking line is an option for these fish. The best place to find them often is on the up-current side of the log jams. Let the current sweep the fly as close as possible  – or even up under – the woody debris.

While the lower portion of the river offers float trips in canoes or kayaks for targeting the largemouth – or even larger boats down near its mouth – wading also is possible in some upstream areas.  Those sites are often around the mouth of the many spring runs that flow into the river, but the best of these is located on the northern outskirts of High Springs just below the U.S. Highway 41/441 bridge. At this point, the public High Springs Boat Ramp offers easy access for launching small water craft, or simply walking into the shoals. Throughout this shoal, you rarely have to get into water more than knee deep.

The old bridge pilings at the High Springs Boat Ramp are in the background.

Some smaller largemouths turn up here, but the fish to target at this site are the Suwannee bass. This species of black bass is indigenous to the Suwannee River drainage and some of the state’s Panhandle rivers. The world record Suwannee caught back in 1985, weighed in at 3 pounds, 14 ounces. Most that are encountered on the Santa Fee are more likely to be in the 12- to 14-inch range, but like most river bass species, they are feisty fighters. You make pick up some spotted sunfish, redbreast or bluegill while targeting this area, as well.

An average-sized Suwannee bass from the High Springs shoals.

Some of the defining characteristics of the Suwannee bass are a shallow notch between the dorsal fins, a dark splotch just at the base of the tail and a lower jaw that does not expend back of the eye.

Although these fish occasionally take popping bugs, crawfish are their major food source. Fishing subsurface flies that mimic those crustaceans is a better bet.

At the High Springs Boat Ramp, there are some old concrete bridge pilings immediately in front of the launch site that are worth probing with your fly. From there, it is possible to wade downstream on a hard bottom of limestone rock and sand for roughly a quarter mile.

 Suwannee’s are noted for liking current, so tossing you offerings into the deeper, moving chutes and channels is a good tactic. Also, they are quite fond of hanging around the limestone rocks and wood debris. Often they are hiding in the undercuts on the edge of the rocks, to dart out and grab passing forage.

Just at the bottom of the shoal area, before the river begins to deepen, the run from Columbia Spring enters the river from the northeast side. This is a good area to spend a bit of time casting, since it has all the requisites for attracting Suwannee bass.

Wading at the mouth of the Columbia Spring run.

The fishing on the Santa Fe is a year-round option. The spring and fall are likely to produce the bigger fish, with more smaller bass encountered in the summer. The fishing slows in the winter, but the bass still bite. When the weather dips into the high 50s or 60s, you probably need to don waders to be comfortable in the water.

A Suwannee bass of 16-inches or larger is getting into trophy action!

If you are looking for a rather exotic experience of casting for bass in tumbling water, against a back drop of Spanish moss draped trees, the Santa Fe can fill the bill.

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