While the striped bass encountered in Florida aren’t of the cow variety commonly caught in the Northeast, there are two species of striped bass that inhabit state waters. Atlantic striped bass naturally range from the St. Lawrence River in Canada along the Eastern Seaboard to northern Florida. In the Sunshine State they venture up the St. Johns River to Deland, but only appear occasionally in Geneva. The best fishing typically occurs in the St. Johns delta near Jacksonville where anglers catch stripers to 12 pounds, with occasional trophies topping 20 pounds. Most anglers catch them when fishing for largemouth in the river or when targeting speckled trout in the estuary, but catches are becoming increasingly prevalent.
Stripers also exist in the St. Marys River and Nassau River near Jacksonville where the state supplements natural reproductions with hatchery reared stockings. Spanning 126 miles along the Florida-Georgia border, the St. Marys watershed connects to the St. Johns River through a myriad of waterways near Fernandina Beach.
In recent years we’ve been very careful to separate the Atlantic and Gulf stocks to make sure they’re kept genetically pure according to their historical ranges. Anglers can’t tell the difference by looking at them, but hatchery biologists can tell them apart by their spawning characteristics.
“Very little natural spawning of striped bass occurs in Florida,” advised Bob Wattendorf, an FWC biologist in Tallahassee. “Historically, a limited number of striped bass spawn in the St. Johns and St. Marys Rivers. Most fish are the result of stockings.”
Gulf stripers once ranged from the Suwannee River to the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and sometimes strayed as far west as Corpus Christi, Texas. Although common through the early 1960s, stripers largely disappeared from Gulf estuaries by the late 1970s.
“The Gulf and Atlantic varieties are actually listed as different stocks, not different species,” Wattendorf explained. “In recent years we’ve been very careful to separate the Atlantic and Gulf stocks to make sure they’re kept genetically pure according to their historical ranges. Anglers can’t tell the difference by looking at them, but hatchery biologists can tell them apart by their spawning characteristics.”
Striped bass require very specific spawning conditions. Like salmon, striped bass live in saltwater, but enter cool, flowing freshwater to spawn. They don’t build nests, but spawn in open water. The semi-buoyant eggs tumble with the current for about two days. If the eggs fall to the bottom while developing, they die. In many places, striped bass go through the spawning rituals, but never actually reproduce.
A few Gulf striped bass reproduce naturally in the Apalachicola River, but stockings boost the population. Below the Jim Woodruff Dam, which creates Lake Seminole, the Apalachicola River flows 112 miles into Apalachicola Bay. The river offers one of the best places in Florida to land a big striper. The state record 42.25-pounder came from the Apalachicola River in 1993.
“I saw stripers in the 30-pound range caught below the dam,” recalled Jody Wells with Jody Wells Guide Service in Sneads. “And I’ve heard of bigger ones. Most striped bass are caught in the tailrace behind the dam on live shad. Some deeper holes six to eight miles downriver from the dam also hold big stripers.”
Annually, the state stocks about 200,000 striped bass above the dam in Lake Seminole. Impounded in 1952 where the Chattahoochee River, Flint River and Spring Creek merge near Sneads, Lake Seminole covers 37,500 acres. Several springs keep temperatures a bit more comfortable for cold-craving stripers that roam deep, open waters looking for baitfish. Some anglers fish live shad under a float or on a free line to tempt stripers, but more often than not largemouth bass anglers catch them by accident.
“I don’t really target stripers, but it’s not unusual to catch them when we’re fishing for black bass on Lake Seminole,” Wells said. “Sometimes we catch a few 8- to 10-pounders. The biggest I’ve ever caught weighed just under 20 pounds.”
For targeting stripers on Lake Seminole, Wells recommends fishing near sandbars along the old river channels. The channel might drop to 30 feet, but a sandbar may rise up to about 14 feet deep. Stripers often lurk by those rises waiting to attack unsuspecting baitfish.
“When we go over the bar and look on the graph I can tell whether we need to cast or not,” Wells noted. “When they are down on the bars, I throw a Krocodile spoon and let it sink to the bottom. We reel it four times and let it sink back to the bottom. Usually, fish hit it on the second crank. Stripers often school in the summer when the water warms and shad move out into deeper water. When stripers school on top, anglers can throw anything at them and they’ll smack it.”
Besides Lake Seminole and the Apalachicola River, the lower Ochlockonee and St. Marks Rivers also hold some big stripers. The Ochlockonee flows into Ochlockonee Bay on the Gulf of Mexico just east of Apalachicola and the St. Marks flows into Apalachee Bay. Striped bass migrate up these rivers in the spring and congregate in cool spring-fed creeks during the summer.
Created by the damming of the Ochlockonee River, Lake Talquin holds the best landlocked striper population in Florida. The lake spreads across 8,800 acres near Quincy and averages 15 feet deep, but some holes plunge to more than 40 feet deep. Talquin stripers generally run 10-to 20-pounds, but some exceed 30 pounds.
“On Talquin, it’s mainly a winter fishery,” explained Cliff Mundinger of Lake Talquin Trophy Guide Service. “Starting in mid-October, when water temperatures dive below the mid-70s, stripers start schooling and chasing shad. On an overcast December day with little wind, we can chase stripers all over the lake and catch them with topwaters. When the fish sound, I like to run a jig or crankbait through the area.”
Farther west, anglers can find stripers in the Yellow, Blackwater, Choctawhatchee and Escambia systems. The Yellow River runs 118 miles before emptying into Blackwater Bay, an arm of Pensacola Bay. The Blackwater River also flows into Blackwater Bay. The Choctawhatchee River flows 96 miles from southern Alabama to Choctawhatchee Bay. The Escambia system feeds into Escambia Bay, another part of the Pensacola Bay system. With regular stockings, all of these streams produce striped bass to 20 pounds.
“I fish for striped bass in the upper bay systems around Pensacola during the colder months,” advised Brant Peacher of Angler Up Charters in Pensacola. “Until the past 15 years or so, there weren’t really enough stripers around to target them. However, the fish hatcheries are doing a great job keeping these fish stocked in this area. The past couple years have been phenomenal.”
Peacher generally starts targeting stripers in early September as the water begins to cool. He continues to fish for them through March, but the season peaks from mid-December until mid-January. While fishing in the brackish estuaries he frequently catches largemouth bass, redfish, trout and stripers on the same baits. Big striped bass often run with speckled trout and feed upon the same forage species.
Striped bass are structure oriented predators that regularly relate to rocky shorelines and concrete formations. Throw moving water into the mix and it is usually game on! Anglers who favor artificial lures work suspending swimming plugs and large plastic paddletails that perfectly mimic natural forage. When all else fails, it is impossible to deny the effectiveness of a frisky shiner.
When targeting striped bass, Peacher frequently uses live mullet or shrimp. He prefers a mullet about 6-inches long hooked through the upper lip or nose with a 3/0 kahle hook on 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader. He throws that rig out on a free line so the mullet can swim naturally. Much more finicky than redfish and trout, striped bass won’t hit anything that appears out of place.
“I like to use the least amount of terminal tackle possible because stripers can be very wary,” he said. “I want the bait to swim as lifelike as possible, otherwise a striper won’t touch it.
Virtually eliminated from Florida waters years ago, striped bass have made a comeback in the Sunshine State with help from intensive fisheries management. Thankfully, Florida anglers can once again experience the heart-thumping strikes of these magnificent game fish.