Whitewater In Florida?

Big Shoals on the Suwannee River offers some unusual Sunshine State angling!

On The Fly Freshwater

Featured photo: Big Shoals flowing at a 51-foot level.

January 2023

Article and Photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

If you think at all about whitewater in Florida, it likely is in regard to waves crashing on a beach or white-capping on a bay during stormy days. The idea of water gurgling through a rocky shoal in the pancake-flat Sunshine State seems a remote possibility. Yet, there are a few places where that situation is found in the state.

The best example is roughly 5 miles east of the town of White Springs in 3,772-acre Big Shoals State Park. This tract on the west side of the fabled Suwannee River features 80-foot-high limestone bluffs and 28 miles of hiking trails in the river valley. Additionally, it is home to Little Shoals and Big Shoals, two whitewater cataracts on the river.

In fact, when water levels in the Suwannee are 59 to 61 feet above sea level, Big Shoals is rated as Class III whitewater and recommended for running by experienced paddlers only. A 51-foot level offers the best option for fishing in the rapid. The Suwannee River Water Management District provides river level information on their website. Check the gauge at White Springs for Big and Little Shoals.

My first experience of fishing Big Shoals took place more than a decade back, when I first became aware of this stretch of river. I was planning a trip down to southeast Florida for some saltwater fishing and decided to stop off in White Springs to try to catch a Suwannee bass and fill a gap in my bucket list of species on the fly.

It was mid-February and the night before I was to fish, the temperature in North Florida dipped to an incredible 19 degrees!  Having seen a forecast and knowing it would be cold – but not that cold – I was prepared with my chest high waders. By the time I got to the parking lot and began the 1-mile hike along the Big Shoals Trail, it had warmed up to a balmy mid-30s level.

Since there is no road access to the shoal, the walk in my waders kept the chill off. Along the way I kept thinking fishing was going to be a fruitless pursuit, but I was already in the area. Upon arrival, the water temperature turned out to be a good bit higher than that of the air.

The first fish of the day.

Tossing a chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow just at the foot of the shoal, I was quickly surprised by a vicious strike. Upon netting the fish, it turned out to be a chain pickerel. That was soon followed by a bigger than hand-sized redbreast sunfish. The action was better than I’d suspected, but not for the fish I wanted to catch.

The Suwannee bass from Big Shoals.

Having only allotted a couple of hours for fishing before heading farther south, as the end of my time neared, I figured my bucket list would continue to have a blank spot on it. Then I got my third strike from what felt like a larger fish, but which was putting up a rather lethargic fight. Once netted it was indeed a Suwannee bass that measured 16 inches and pushing 2 pounds. The world record for the species is just 3 pounds, 14 ounces. Not only had I filled the bucket, my first Suwannee proved be bigger than any I’ve caught in the ensuing years.

Now, let’s fast forward a decade. It is springtime, the crew from On The Fly South was headed to the Florida Keys and we decided to drop by Big Shoals again. But it seems that Mother Nature doesn’t want me to visit that area under normal weather conditions. This time there had been heavy rain in the region and we feared the cataract would be running high. After hiking to the shoal, our concern was confirmed as the water was ripping through the rocks making wading a dangerous proposition. Still, we were there and the tannic-stained water was not muddy, so we made the best of the situation.

High water at Big Shoals.

This time we targeted the deeper, slower water, casting from a sandy bank just below the shoal.

Making the best of the situation.

Associate Editor Polly Dean was the first to hook up and it didn’t take long. The fish hugged the bottom, pulling hard, and causing us to speculate that she was into a big bass. Once landed, however, the it proved to be a rather smallish bowfin.

The first of the bowfins.

These primitive fish that first appeared in the Early Triassic Period about 250 million years back are also called mudfish, dogfish, grinnel or swamp trout. They can out fight other species twice their size, and are such voracious feeders that no lure or fly is safe from them. We soon discovered we had found the mother lode of bowfins, as several more were brought to the shore.

Bottomline is Big Shoals on the Suwannee River offers unusual fly fishing amid some equally exotic scenery. A couple of miles downstream, Little Shoals provides a miniature version, but the water is less accessible. It too does not have road access and must be reached via hiking trails.