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5/11 - 5/13 Three Days Cruising the Middle St. Johns aboard a Carolina Skiff J16

The wife and I planned a trip last month to cruise the St. Johns to do some exploring, adventuring and even a little fishing. I have childhood memories of the River up around Welaka because my grandparents once lived there, but neither of us has had any real experience with boating in Florida's freshwater.

We put in at Ed Stone Park on Friday just before lunch time. We were loaded with a cooler full of food and drinks, lots of water, my folding grill, a tent and the limited amount of luggage we'd need. My skiff is rigged for fishing the saltwater backwaters, so it's pretty well suited to bass fishing. I figured we could cover some shoreline on the trolling motor and just see if any of those famous St. Johns River bass wanted to play!

The plan was to camp at Hontoon Island the first night, meet some friends for the day at Blue Springs, then find a waterfront motel somewhere downriver. Other than that, we went with nothing but adventurous expectations.

Day 1

Heading south from the S.R. 44 bridge, we had nothing but beautiful skies ahead of us. I had never spent this much time on my skiff with another person, so I was a little nervous about how she'd ride with all of our supplies. Turns out my careful loading had the little boat balanced quite nicely and she planed out with only a slightly elevated bow, which actually helped her ride a little dryer. Most of the time were just going slow on the lookout for wildlife, though.

I couldn't wait to do a little fishing, so we rode on the trolling motor around Driggers Island. I started throwing a texas rigged worm, but was quickly distracted from something moving in the shoreline vegetation: a manatee. This one looked to be a younger one, around 1200 pounds would be my guess, and it had its head completely buried in the weeds. It ended up leaving the feeding spot and swimming across the little channel to the boat. It rubbed on the trolling motor and the hull and actually stopped to lift its head above the water several times as if looking at us. I'm guessing this manatee had learned to accept food and/or freshwater from people. We got some great photos, but I hope that this manatee doesn't come into contact with harmful intentions. Fear of humans is not a bad thing.

With no bites before we were sidetracked by the manatee, we decided to continue up the river toward our campground. We made it there to check in around 3pm, and found that there were plenty of open spots for the night. Only a couple of other families were there, so it made for a friendly but relaxed atmosphere. We set up the tent and then headed back out on the boat for an evening cruise in search of fish and gator activity.

We ended up around Blue Springs and I fished a nearby oxbow with live worms and a popping frog. With only a few bites on the worm under a cork floated near the weeds, I switched to the frog by sunset. I had several exciting blow ups on the frog, and I had a very interested owl swoop on it one time! My wife got some great photos of the owl and a few passing gators, and I got some much needed practice with the popping frog. I haven't flung one of those since living near golf course ponds 15 years ago.

Back at the campsite, we dined on black bean burritos with a nice 10knot breeze taming the bugs. In the middle of the night, an armadillo came sniffing around the tent and poked it with his nose--talk about an attention getter!

Day 2

We loaded up our gear and headed out to Blue Springs at 9am. We had a great morning swim before our friends arrived, then spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon picnicking on the bow of the skiff. The bimini top provided some nice shade and we even squeezed in a boat ride with our two additional passengers.

After saying our goodbyes, we started heading back downriver. It was apparent we wouldn't make it all the way to Astor before dark, so we decided to call a nice looking place called Riviera Resort. They had a room for us and it turned out to be an amazing place to stay! Beautiful views, excellent pool and super clean rooms! The owners were on hand and obviously take a lot of pride in their place. We had a little dinner from the snacks left in our cooler and enjoyed a couple of cold beers in our comfy hotel room before heading out for another after dark excursion.

We headed up a little creek and I threw my popping frog again as the light waned. I had several strikes before finally hooking into a little bass! I also had a very small gator interested in my frog, and my wife and I battled for space on the bow as I pulled my jumping fish from the weeds and she tried for the perfect angle on the baby gator.

After a couple of jumps, I lost my fish beside the boat, but she got her pictures. That gator kept swimming beside the boat and was really cool to see.

I fished at the mouth of the little creek with a worm on the bottom and had a catfish in the boat after just a few minutes. Yum--I love freshwater catfish!

Day 3

For our last day, we decided to explore the Hontoon Dead River on the recommendation of a very nice couple also staying at the Riviera. With south winds forecast, I decided to head down to the south entrance and cruise north on the Dead River, mostly on the trolling motor. Unfortunately, my trolling motor battery was finally starting to die. I tried to recharge it a little with the outboard, but my little 30hp could to little for the deeply discharged deep cycle.

We went a little ways up Snake Creek and saw a lot of gar, but only one gator. Then we headed back up the rest of the Dead River.

The Hontoon Dead River was very beautiful and we were both a little disappointed when we could see Hontoon Landing around the corner. We motored slowly all the way back to Ed Stone Park and pulled the boat out at around 6:30.

We had a wonderful weekend, did a little fishing, and came home with lots of great memories and the confidence that cruising on our little skiff can be done!
Angler for fun | Copywriter for hire
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