What flows backward at 0.3 miles per hour, contains crystal-clear waters, blackwater streams, and over 3,000 lakes, and has earned itself the nickname “the liquid chameleon”?
Yep, we’re talking about the St. Johns River. It has so many unique characteristics that any attempt to describe it often sounds like a riddle that needs to be solved!
The angling action on offer here, however, is much simpler to explain. Beginning at Vero Beach, the St. Johns River then winds through 12 central Florida counties before eventually emptying out into the Atlantic. Its waters gradually transform from freshwater to brackish as it reaches the end of its journey.
What does this mean for prospective anglers? Well, with both freshwater and saltwater species capable of thriving here, a St. Johns River fishing adventure offers something for every visitor.
However, it’s fair to say that St. Johns doesn’t really conform to the mainstream concept of what a river is. You can forget all about your typical smooth-flowing, grassy-banked waterways, often flocked by famous landmarks and strolling pedestrians. The St. Johns River is another kind of beast altogether!
Running a whopping 310 miles, it’s so imposing that it’s actually categorized into three “basins.” They all offer some very unique angling opportunities. Read on for a quick rundown…
St. Johns’ Upper Basin begins just west of Vero Beach. This portion of the river is freshwater. It’s generally considered to be the most unpredictable section, thanks to its marshy, swampy waters. As it winds its way towards Titusville, where the Upper Basin ends, the river widens and becomes extremely fishable.
The Middle Basin is the shortest, clocking in at 37 miles. It’s a lot more navigable than the Upper Basin and offers access to Lakes Harney, Monroe, and Jesup. These are all veritable playgrounds for the freshwater species that live here!
Finally, there’s the Lower Basin. It generally includes the area just before Lake George and runs north through Jacksonville until it meets the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the Upper and Middle Basins, the Lower Basin is home to both freshwater and saltwater species – as well as plenty of angling opportunities!
You might have noticed that we mentioned a lake or two earlier. We know what’s on your mind: “So is this fishery actually a river or a lake?” Well, although it might sound like somewhat of an identity crisis, St. Johns River actually contains both.
Think of it this way: The river itself can be seen as the main “highway” and runs from beginning to end without stopping. It’s the longest river in Florida, though – that means that we’re definitely in need of a gas station or two to stop at along the way! This is where the lakes come in. Only instead of bad coffee and overpriced snacks, you’ll be greeted with world-famous fish.
Speaking of, it’s time to get onto the real meat and potatoes of what this blog is about. Below, we’ve outlined the top species to be found in all three St. Johns River basins, the best ways to hook these prized fish, and the best locations to cast a line from.
Top Catches in the St. Johns River
Something that makes the St. Johns River so desirable to anglers is the diversity of fishing spots that can be found here – and with this comes a huge diversity of species.
Every adventure is possible here – from an action-packed battle that mimics some of Florida’s offshore offerings, to a peaceful and meandering day of freshwater fishing. All you need to do is decide what you want your day to look like, and off you go!
If there’s one St. Johns River species that deserves to be described as “legendary,” it has to be the Largemouth Bass.
Beloved by anglers the world over for its hard-fighting spirit and game fishing properties, this freshwater fish is so prevalent here that the river is often locally referred to as “a Bass fishing paradise.”
You’ll generally find these fish all throughout the river, even as the waters get more brackish. The purer freshwater fisheries of the Upper and Middle Basins are generally the most productive, though.
Although the main “stem” of the river offers up plenty of Bass action, here’s an insider tip for you: The shallow lakes of these basins offer up a veritable Bass buffet, with the Upper Basin’s Lake Poinsett being a “must-visit” for freshwater fanatics.
Although Largemouth Bass can be hooked here year-round, it’s important to remember the river’s origins as a marshy wetland when planning your Bass battle.
During Florida’s “wet season,” which usually takes place between late spring and summer, St. Johns’ Middle and Upper Basins tend to flood, and the Bass move away from the river to explore these new marshy wetlands.
The “dry season,” which usually lasts from late summer or fall to early spring, is your best bet of enjoying a Bass bonanza!
We weren’t kidding when we said that this river is a Bass paradise! Although Largemouth Bass have long reigned supreme here, these waters are big enough for more than one Bass king – it is the longest river in Florida, after all.
For anglers who are more inclined towards saltwater species, or simply want to experience the thrill of hooking a fish that provides plenty of fight at the end of the line, a Striped Bass battle cannot be missed.
At one time, this much-loved game fish was underappreciated in the St. Johns River, and viewed as an unworthy match for the more popular Largemouth Bass. However, recent re-stocks have seen feisty Striper reaching sizes of 20 inches and more, with anglers flocking to the river’s brackish waters to battle ‘em. We do love a good old-fashioned comeback!
Although Striper usually cannot survive in warmer brackish waters, the unique nature of the St. Johns River really works in its favor. The cool springs that feed into the Lower Basin mean that this fish can thrive here.
And thrive, they do – especially in Lake George, which borders the meeting point of the Middle and Lower Basins. Anglers should plan their Striper adventure from fall through spring, when the river is at its coolest.
While we’re on the topic of Bass, it’s time to name-drop the third and final top Bass species here – the Sunshine Bass, also known as the Hybrid Bass. This species is the result of White Bass and Striped Bass being artificially spawned. It has the power of Striped Bass and the speed of White Bass. In our opinion, this is a truly winning combination!
Unlike Striped Bass, however, this fish thrives in freshwater fishing grounds, with the Upper and Middle Basin’s lakes being especially fish-filled.
…And the Rest!
It’s not just all about Bass on the St. Johns River, though. This winding waterway also offers visitors the chance to cast a line for a whole variety of other species. Here are the ones you should look out for…
First, there’s plenty of Panfish to be found, such as Bluegill, Perch, and the nation’s favorite, Crappie. Also known as “Specks” in this part of Florida, this species can be found throughout the river’s freshwater fishing grounds.
It’s a firm family favorite, too. The St. Johns River is the perfect place to introduce your little ones to the magic of hooking this tasty fish, thanks to its calm waters and bustling, year-round Crappie population.
Continuing on with the freshwater action, Shad is a popular target for local anglers, especially plentiful during Florida’s winter months as they travel up the river to spawn.
Experienced fishermen recommend that visitors familiar with using ultra-light tackle, as well as fly fishing fanatics, target this species. Why? Well, according to locals, using these methods to reel in a Shad can often feel like you’ve hooked yourself a mini-Tarpon!
Moving north to the river’s Lower Basin, there’s a whole host of saltwater species to come face-to-gills with, too. That famous trio of Redfish, Flounder, and Spotted Trout can be found throughout the river, as well as in Lakes Monroe and Harney.
Head further north, where the river meets the Atlantic, and chances are you’ll come across hard-fighting Snook, Tarpon, and even Shark species.
How to Fish the St. Johns River
So now you have an idea of what lies in wait for you on your St. Johns River fishing adventure. But how, exactly, should you go about casting a line for the fish of your choice?
This is the most popular way to fish the St. Johns River, due to its size and calm waters. If you’re looking to follow the fish as they move, or want to cast a line without the worry of seasickness, this is the way to do it! However, it’s not quite as easy as simply jumping on board a boat and heading out on your adventure.
As the Upper Basin of the river is mainly marshes, wetlands, and narrow, shallow waterways, it only becomes navigable from Lake Hell N Blazes, and for small vessels only.
When it comes to larger boats, the river generally only becomes navigable in its Middle Basin near Lake Monroe and remains this way for the rest of its journey towards the Atlantic.
Although it’s technically possible to explore the St. Johns River from your own vessel, we generally wouldn’t recommend it. As well as the restrictions mentioned above, there are also strict licensing regulations when it comes to who can navigate a boat down these waters.
Whether you’re new to fishing or are an experienced angler, the safest and most productive way to explore this river by boat is alongside an experienced charter captain.
Luckily, thanks to the sheer size of the river and the number of towns, cities, and counties it passes through, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from!
The river’s size is also a big bonus when it comes to anglers who prefer to cast a line while standing on solid ground. No matter what species you’d like to target, chances are you’ll be able to find a good access point to explore the river from.
Although bank fishing is technically possible throughout the entire lake, the marshy wetlands at the southernmost point of the Upper Basin don’t really lend themselves to fishing on foot.
Anglers in need of a freshwater fishing fix, however, will find plenty of lucrative spots around the river’s many lakes. Lake Monroe is an especially popular bank fishing locale, with miles of on-foot access to be found from the nearby town of Sanford.
Kayak fishing is a popular way to explore the St. Johns River. It’s probably the only way to access all 310 miles of this waterway! This method of fishing allows anglers to reach hotspots that are technically inaccessible for larger vessels, as well as on foot.
In addition to this, kayak fishing is the perfect way to experience the peace and tranquility that this slow-moving river is capable of providing. What could be better than drifting down these waters at your own pace, rod in hand, surrounded by nature?
You’ll be able to explore some of the Upper Basin’s narrowest, shallowest waters for your target species. Kayaks are surprisingly stealthy! Lakes Hell N Blazes and Sawgrass are especially popular with local ‘yakkers.
You don’t have to worry about bringing your own kayak, either – it’s possible to rent them from the many marinas and ramps that are dotted around the river.
Where to Go
So by now, we’ve outlined the river’s three basins, the species that can be found in each one, and how you can fish them. But where should you go to cast your line? Here are some of our highlights when it comes to departing on your adventure. Just pick your basin!
- Lake Poinsett. Located near the city of Cocoa, this is a must for Largemouth Bass fanatics. Come during winter for the chance to hook a trophy!
- Lake Winder. This body of water is small but deceiving. If you’re looking for quantity when it comes to Largemouth Bass, you’ll find a bonanza here.
- Taylor Creek. Flows west from the upper St. Johns River, is easy to access, and bustles year-round with Largemouth Bass and Crappie. What more could you want?
- Lake Hell N Blazes to Lake Sawgrass. This stretch of the river, accessible from Melbourne, is extremely productive when it comes to Largemouth Bass, Crappie, and Bluegill. Just visit when the hydrilla coverage is low!
- Lake Harney. Home to Largemouth Bass, Crappie, and Shad. Although access can sometimes be limited, here’s an insider tip: head to the Mullet Lake Road ramp to reach this fishery!
- Lake Jesup. Come here if you’re looking for a Crappie haul! It’s also located close to Orlando, making it the perfect detour for families and fishermen looking to escape the city.
- Lake Monroe. This is where the river becomes navigable for larger boats, meaning a larger number of charters can be found here. It’s also a Largemouth Bass haven, known for “lunkers”!
- Lake George. Depart from the town of Welaka to access this mighty Bass fishery! Both Striped and Largemouth varieties can be found here in abundance. Visitors looking for something slightly different can also access the lake’s unique Blue Crab fishery!
- Jacksonville. The Atlantic on one side, St. Johns River on the other, a plethora of fishing charters, and a bustling cityscape to explore when on land…what’s not to love? Some of our favorite spots are around the Mayport Jetties, Mill Cove, and the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier.
Rules and Regulations
As we mentioned above, the St. Johns River has some pretty strict regulations when it comes to exploring these waters.
Firstly, there’s your fishing license to consider. Anglers age 16 and above who choose to cast a line independently will need to make sure they purchase a valid Florida freshwater or saltwater license from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Looking to target a mixture of fresh and saltwater species? You’ll need to make sure you purchase both a fresh and saltwater license. If you’re a Florida resident, you’ll be able to get a combination license.
The good news is that if you choose to fish alongside a local charter operator, your saltwater license will be covered, meaning you just need to grab a freshwater one.
When it comes to keeping the fish you catch, the general rule of thumb is to follow Florida’s state-wide regulations. However, there’s one rule to be aware of when it comes to Largemouth Bass.
Fishing in the St. Johns River Water Management Area (Farm 13, including the Stick Marsh), or Indian River and Brevard counties? You’ll need to release any Bass you hook immediately.
The St. Johns River: A Riddle You’ll Love Solving
For a body of water that contains so many multitudes, the reason why the St. Johns River has stood the test of time as a top fishery is actually pretty simple. It’s true that if you want variety, you can definitely find it here. What really makes this waterway so special, though, is that it appeals to visitors from all walks of life.
Early, we described the river as a highway, but actually, it’s more of a vein that runs through Central Florida. It pumps life into the area, connects diverse communities, and brings people together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a saltwater enthusiast or freshwater fanatic. On the St. Johns River, there’s something for everyone, and everyone is welcome!
Have you ever been fishing on the St. Johns River? Which basin did you explore, and what did you catch? Any top tips, tricks, or advice for fishing this river? Let us know below!