Keeping an eye on the electronics, we followed the drop-off that separates the St. Johns River channel from the main part of Lake Monroe. In front of us, eight rods arranged off the bow dredged a 40-foot swath through the ebony water.
The depth on one side dropped to about six feet. On the other side, in the old river channel, the depth drops to almost 20 feet. Depending on their mood, crappie will hold on the shallow side and sometimes on the deep side, so you’ve got to work the entire water column to find the action.
Because of the abundant baitfish supply flowing into the lake from the fertile river, many anglers believe Lake Monroe could produce the next state record crappie.
As usual, we tipped our rods with various soft plastic tube jigs sweetened with minnows, three different jigs per rod. We also used spinners to probe the deeper depths. The captain arrayed the shorter rods, those 10- to 12-feet long, toward the inside and placed all of the 14- to 16-foot rods on the outside. Baits plowed through the water at various intervals as the electric motor propelled the boat forward slightly faster than one mile per hour.
Suddenly, four rods on one side of the boat plunged simultaneously as we passed through a school of hungry crappie. We each grabbed a rod and boated the fish while hoping the others would remain connected just a little while longer. In the right spot, the bite can be fast and furious while trolling the river!
Most Florida anglers know the St. Johns River for producing tournament-winning largemouth, but it also holds enormous crappie and lots of them. During the course of its 310-mile flow to the Atlantic Ocean in Jacksonville, the river runs through or adjacent to numerous lakes. One of the best along the stretch, Lake Monroe covers 9,406 acres just north of Orlando.
The main river channel flows into Lake Monroe near Big Smokehouse Cove and the Monroe Canal connects to the main St. Johns River channel just south of the cove. Woodruff Creek enters the lake from the southeast side and DeBarry Creek flows in on the northwestern shoreline. The river flows out of the lake under Interstate 4 along its western edge.
Although mostly known as a numbers lake, Monroe produces abundant catches of crappie in the two-pound class, with true trophies topping three pounds. It routinely produces big black crappie as dark as the waters sloshing against the Sanford seawall. The entire system overflows with shad, bream, minnows and other forage species, keeping the lake’s inhabitants well fed. Because of the abundant baitfish supply flowing into the lake from the fertile river, many anglers believe Lake Monroe could produce the next state record crappie.
The lake averages six- to eight-feet deep and although much of the bottom remains featureless, a few humps and holes here and there offer crappie ideal staging points where they hunt prey. Some holes in the river channel drop to nearly 30 feet. Channel edges and where the river enters or exits the lake produces good fish, too. Grass beds scattered throughout create additional cover that congregates fish.
In the spring, when lake temperatures hit 65 degrees, crappie move into the shallows to spawn near cypress trees, brush piles and other cover. Typically, spawning occurs in March or April, but could begin in February and last through June. Not all crappie spawn at the same time. On any given spring day, anglers might find some crappie in pre-spawn, some actively spawning and some already in post-spawn patterns. This is when many anglers drop tiny plastic or hair jigs next to shallow weed beds, docks, stumps or cypress trees. Some crappie killers tip their jigs with live minnows or use bait by itself to coerce healthy slabs.
Anglers can also cast jighead spinners on ultra-light spinning tackle. Throw toward the bank, a hump, grass bed or other cover and let the jig sink to the bottom. Return it with a constant retrieve, allowing the dangling spinner to flicker and flash. The idea is to keep the lure just above the bottom contours, with occasional pauses often eliciting strikes.
During severe temperature fluctuations in winter or summer, crappie often plunge into the deeper river channel or suspend near drop-offs. Currents washing around river bends scour out deep holes where hungry crappie at times take up temporary residence. With sophisticated side-scan sonar units, modern anglers can easily distinguish bottom contours and baitfish concentrations in picture-like detail.
Some deep holes and grass beds between the Sanford seawall and the interstate bridge typically hold good fish. Anglers also fish under Interstate 4 as it crosses the St. Johns River and near the power plant on the northern shoreline. Grass beds near the largely undeveloped eastern shorelines also provide steady action.
When looking for crappie, many anglers troll tube jigs parallel to the grass beds or near humps. Trolling allows anglers to cover considerable ground in short order. If anglers can find grass, they can usually catch fish. And if you can nail down a pattern, you can frequently load up in short order.
A crappie fisherman who knows this lake well can score big. Finding the first fish is the tough part and looking for rises or channels, really anything that alters the contour of the lake bottom, is a big key to success. As a last resort, a low profile hump with some weeds on it stretches through the center of the lake and is enough to attract plenty of attention.
“I usually fish deep water in the river channel and troll Road Runners tipped with minnows,” recommended Gil Sipes, a professional crappie angler. “Frequently, big females drop into deeper holes, which is exactly where I pulled a pair of three-pound slabs from Lake Monroe, both on a Road Runner. When fishing deep, we normally add a 3/4 to 1 oz. weight to get the bait down. I rig a 1/16 oz. Road Runner above the weight and an 1/8 oz. Road Runner below the weight,” added Sipes.
Trolling depth can also be adjusted with the electric motor, usually moving forward at .5 to 1.5 miles per hour. Anglers can also fine-tune their approach by trolling in a zigzag pattern. As the boat turns, baits outside the turn rise slightly while baits on the inside dive a bit deeper. Pay attention to which baits work best and when. Once you’ve found some action, keep circling.
“I normally fish 12 to 16 feet deep, but we put out several poles at different depths until we catch a few fish consistently on one pole,” Sipes advised. “Then, we adjust accordingly. I might put about a six foot difference between the jigs. When fish suspend, spread the jigs as far as possible. Run one bait two or three feet below the surface and one close to the bottom. I recommend Vicious low-visibility green line in 6 to 10 lb. test, with the lighter stuff a better choice when fishing clear water.”
From Monroe Harbor Marina near downtown Sanford anglers can easily access the St. Johns River and associated waterways. From the marina anglers can also reach Lake Jessup and Lake Harney upstream. Downstream, boaters can run to Lake Woodruff and Lake Dexter near the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and the Ocala National Forest.