Florida Fishing: Dropping Down For Winter Slabs on The St. Johns River

Most Florida anglers know the St. Johns River for its propensity to produce double-digit largemouth bass, but it also holds some enormous crappies!

“The St. Johns River has a lot of big crappie with many in the 2- to 2.5-pound range,” said Don Collins, a professional crappie angler from Largo, Fla. “In the past, it produced some 3-pounders. A state record could come out of this area at any time.”

The longest river in Florida rises from springs around Fellsmere to flow gently northward for about 310 miles until it enters the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville, Fla. The watershed covers more than 1,888 square miles and runs through many lakes including Lake George, the second largest freshwater lake in Florida at 46,000 acres northwest of Deland.

Steve Putnam holds a crappie he caught while fishing in Lake Monroe near Sanford, Fla. (Photos by John N. Felsher)

In central Florida, it also flows through the 6,268-acre Lake Harney, which straddles Volusia and Seminole counties. Lake Beresford in Volusia and Lake Jessup in Seminole County can also provide good crappie action. South of Lake George, the 2,200-acre Lake Woodruff and the 1,800-acre Lake Dexter connect to the river through numerous tributaries.

Probably the best big crappie lake on the St. Johns, Lake Monroe covers 9,406 acres near Sanford, Fla. Abundant baitfish in the adjacent fertile river keep the crappies well fed. Although mostly known for excellent numbers, Lake Monroe does hold some slabs exceeding 3 pounds.

In cold water, big crappies may go deep. Although most St. Johns’ lakes average less than 7 feet deep, some holes dip to more than 15 feet deep. The river channel also plunges to more than 30 feet in places. Channel edges and where the river enters the lakes can produce some good fish. Also look for schools of baitfish. On Lake Monroe, many people fish over a few humps, several grass beds, by the Interstate 4 bridge and near the power plant on the northern shore of the lake.

For the tempting winter crappies in deep water, many pros troll Road Runner jighead spinners. They let out about 20- to 40 yards of line and push the boat forward with a trolling motor. Control the depth with the trolling motor speed, usually moving forward at about .5 to 1.5 miles per hour. Some anglers simultaneously deploy several rods tipped with different-sized and colored baits. They may tip some with live minnows, some with colorful scented pellets, and some without any extra enticement to see what the fish want that day.

“I caught two 3-pound crappies from Lake Monroe, one on a Road Runner,” said Gil Sipes, a professional crappie angler. “In the winter, I usually fish the deep water in the river channel and troll Road Runners tipped with minnows. Normally, we add a 3/4- to 1-ounce weight to get into the deep water. I’ll tie a 1/16-ounce Road Runner above the weight and a 1/8-ounce Road Runner below the weight. I might put about a 6-foot difference between the jigs. When fish suspend, spread the jigs as far as possible. Run one, 2 or 3 feet below the surface and one close to the bottom.”

Toni Collins, a professional crappie angler from Largo, Fla., shows off a crappie she caught on a Road Runner.

By trolling, anglers cover long stretches of water in a short time. Keep baits near the channel edges. Crappies often suspend along drop-offs. Currents washing around river bends can scour out deeper holes. A good side-scan sonar unit can pick up more underwater structure.

“I fish the river channels edges and holes,” Sipes advised. “Most of the time, big females drop into holes in the deeper part of the river. I normally fish about 12- to 16 feet deep, but we put out several poles at different depths until we catch a few fish consistently on one pole. Then, we adjust the rest to that depth. I troll Road Runners on low-visibility green Vicious line in 6- to 10-pound line. When I’m fishing clear water, I use the smaller line.”

Anglers can also cast jighead spinners on light spinning tackle. Throw toward the bank or other cover. In deeper water, count down. A 1/16-ounce jig sinks about 1 foot per second. Count down to different depths and reel steadily, occasionally pausing to let the lure fall. Keep the bait just above the bottom contours.

In the winter, dedicated Florida crappie anglers may find little competition on their favorite waters as hunters pursue game in the fields and forests. In addition, cold weather pushes most recreational boaters and all skiers off the lakes, leaving sportsmen alone with bulging livewells full of tasty fish.

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