Rivers of possibility

There's a veritable treasure trove of fish, crustaceans and invertebrates found in freshwater.

Published September 30, 2006

The boys from Credence Clearwater Revival were talking about something other than fishing in their 1969 hit Proud Mary, but their catchy chorus matches well for our area's coastal waterways.

Come on: "Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river."

Seriously, rivers represent a key factor in the sport-fishing equation. Two main elements here are food and shelter.

As far as gamefish are concerned, rivers serve as forage production facilities. The constant flow of nutrients yields bountiful vegetation and nursery environs for a diverse array of baitfish, many of which tumble out of the river mouth with daily tides.

Also, where freshwater meets salt, you'll find oysters. And where oysters congregate, their joint masses created distinct habitats for various crustaceans and invertebrates. Tides will dislodge some of these residents, but the growth of oyster colonies creates feeding stations that give anglers clear fishing targets.

Other likely spots include:

Backwater creeks: As incoming tides raise the water level and grant greater access, snook, redfish, jacks and ladyfish will push inside to see what meals they can find. The outside bends are deepest, so expect fish to settle there.

At the mouths of creeks, as well as the main river, falling water always forms deep depressions where predators will wait in ambush for hapless baitfish and crustaceans riding the tide. Decreasing water levels can reduce a creek's navigability or close it entirely, so plan your approach around the tide.

Docks: Structures near good tidal flow are likely to see actively feeding fish, as the current carries a buffet of food past their doorstep. In quiet coves far from the main channel, dock fish are usually less aggressive, but still worth a few casts.

Try free-lining or corking live shrimp or pilchards near a dock. With the latter, your bait will move quickly in a strong tide, so avoid casting into spots where the current will drag your bait under the structure or into other awkward reaches.

Even with properly-placed casts, consider that any hooked fish has plenty of line-busting structure at its disposal, and you can bet your opponent knows just what to do with it. That said, braided lines and beefy leaders greatly improve your chances of a face-to-face meeting with any big fish hooked around a dock. If the fish runs around a piling, just maintain steady pressure, as the chemically-bonded microfibers hold fast. Eventually, the fish will get tired of pulling and change directions. That's usually when you can ease him into the open.

Another popular river tactic involves trolling Rat-L-Traps past dock faces. When you get a strike, whether the fish connects or not, circle back for another pass or two. If the response indicates an active area, anchor within casting range and work the dock with crankbaits, soft plastic jerk baits and light bucktail jigs.

Dock trolling works best with structures adjacent to deeper dropoffs. Also, early mornings and late afternoons are generally most productive, as fish seeking shelter from the mid-day sun rarely leave their sanctuary.

After sunset, docks with lights become predator magnets, as the bright glow concentrates baitfish. Schools of forage species, along with the occasional passing shrimp or crab make easy targets for anything with an appetite.

Avoid spooking nighttime fish with light presentations such as small jigs, Texas-rigged jerk baits and slow-sinking flies. Plunking a heavy rig into the light ring will kill that spot.

For a deadly nightime dock strategy, rig a shrimp, pilchard or pinfish under a cork, toss it up current and let it drift through the light. Strikes are sudden and intense, so stay alert. You'll need to quickly pull your fish away from the structure.


On your way to and from coastal or offshore fishing grounds, running local river channels offers plenty of interesting scenery. Examples include:

- Tarpon Springs sponge docks and the commercial fishing fleet on the Anclote River.

- Warm sunsets casting gilded beams across the Bayport Fishing Pier at the mouth of the Weeki Wachee River.

- The Indian Mound at the Crystal River State Archeological Site.

- Monkey Island off the docks of Riverside Marina on the Homosassa River.

- The Progress Energy nuclear power plant north of the Crystal River.

The latter provides a landmark when approaching from the gulf, while its huge smokestacks clearly indicate wind direction.

Add to these stationary views the dynamic tapestry of nature and your river ride will give you plenty of wildlife photo ops. Ospreys nest on channel markers; deer, hogs and turkeys drink from still water pools; alligators bask in morning sunlight atop cypress logs.

Paddlers will find that kayaks and canoes allow deeper access into estuarine marshes common to many rivers. These quiet vessels can also afford closer proximity to nervous animals.

When operating a motorboat, be careful to not let local river splendor distract your eyes from navigational responsibilities. Area waterways weave a rocky web, so run only in marked channels.