Visiting and Fishing Florida’s St Johns River – Sanford to Lake George
The St Johns River, once billed as the “Largemouth Bass Capital of the World”, flows from its headwaters in Blue Cypress Lake near Vero Beach. The river continues 310 miles to the north and empties into the Atlantic Ocean east of Jacksonville. Some of Florida’s best fishing can be found on the St Johns River, particularly in the sections near Sanford and northward to Lake George.
Near Sanford, the St Johns River is relatively shallow and, except for Lake Jessup, difficult to navigate. Lake Monroe to the north of Lake Jessup is also a part of the St Johns River system. At 8,700 acres, its average depth is about 7-8 feet. Caution should be used when running Lake Monroe as the shoreline is shallow in places. The lake is surrounded by a ring of grass, reeds and cattails. Hydrilla is plentiful with density influenced by season and weed control efforts.
The most popular boat ramp is located on the west side of the lake where the river runs out of the lake to the north. Soft plastic artificial lures work well in Lake Monroe. In the spring, weedless lures such as spinnerbaits help catch fish in this part of the river, especially in the north west corner of the lake on the shallow flats. Small reed islands in the lake hold fish year round. Lipless crankbaits retrieved along the grass line also can also help catch many bass.
Wekiva River and on to Blue Springs
Traveling north of Lake Monroe, the St Johns River also flows and splits its way northward as a natural waterway. The crystal clear water of the Wekiva River joins the St Johns a few miles from the public ramp downriver (north) of Sanford, FL. Cruising up the springfed Wekiva in a small boat is well worth a visit. It’s one of the most natural rivers left in the state.
A little farther to the north on the east side of the river is the Highbanks boat ramp adjacent to the Swamp House Grill restaurant. The Swamp House is a popular stop with river cruisers with great food and a small marina. Along the river you will find a number of canals and small cuts left over when the river was natural. The backs of these areas hold good numbers of bass, especially in the spring.
Further down river to the north is Blue Springs, the winter home of numerous manatees. Blue Springs Park is located on the river where shoreline visitors can observe the manatees from a pier. No fishing is allowed in the run itself. The water coming out of the spring is warmer in the winter, making fishing nearby productive in the colder months.
But a bit more on manatees . . . Several significant changes have affected fishing on the St Johns River over the past seventy years. The greatest change has been the implementation of zones and restrictions created for the protection of manatees.. Manatees are an endangered species in Florida and to prevent the animals from harm, speed limits, no wake and restricted areas have been created on the river.
Fishing Local Water
From Blue Springs, the St Johns continues to flow north toward Lake Beresford just east of the main channel. Shoreline pads are the most productive bass holding areas. The outside bends of the river are deeper than the inside due to greater current flow. Fallen trees along the shoreline are favorite bass ambush points. Any area of significant current flow is a good place for a Carolina Rig. Use heavier weights as river current can be strong at times. Lake Beresford itself is mostly shallow with fishing limited to boat docks and grass beds.
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Just north of the High 44 bridge is the Ed Stone Park and Boat Ramp. This public park and ramp is one of the busiest on the river with a large parking area, picnic and public bathrooms. Adjacent to the park is a popular RV park, marina and the St Johns River Grille restaurant.
From the Lake Beresford area, the river splits into two branches, the deeper branch runs northwest toward Lake Dexter. The east branch runs through a shallow swamp into Lake Woodruff. Use the west branch if traveling by boat as it is deeper with some spots exceeding 10-15 feet in depth. And continue to focus on common local bass holding spots, including pads and fallen trees. In these areas, line flipping (or the technique of peeling off and retrieving extra line while dropping and lifting the rod on the retrieve) can be productive. Buzz baits often help catch bigger fish here when fished around the large pad fields.
Lake Dexter and Lake Woodruff are both full of grass, pads and reeds. If on the water, be on the lookout for Idle-only manatee zones that are numerous and well marked. Stiff state and federal fines are in place to protect the endangered animals. Anyone convicted of violating state law faces maximum fines of $500 and/or imprisonment of up to 60 days. Conviction for violating federal protection laws is punishable by fines up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison.
Traveling up the river by boat, the next busy section you will come to is the small City of Astor where Rt 40 crosses the river. Top water lures can be very effective in this part of the river as well as weedless lures in the grass. There are a number of boat ramps and marinas in this area of the river. A small city ramp is located on the west shore of the river. From here, the river flows into the open water of Lake George.
Lake George is the second largest lake in Florida at 46,000 acres. It is a large shallow lake rich in vegetation. Large expanses of eelgrass are present. The top of Lake George is tidal with brackish water, as tidal flow from the saltwater mouth of the river makes its way up to this part of the St Johns. Largemouth bass fishing on Lake George is excellent with an occasional saltwater species being caught. Three crystal clear spring runs on the west side of the lake are notable, Silver Glen, Juniper Springs and Salt Springs. These spring runs are popular with recreational boaters, so expect heavy boat traffic on weekends. The water in these springs is perfect for sight fishing. The deeper top section of the lake around Drayton Island is an excellent fishing area. Fallen trees, brush and shoreline vegetation are swept by the river and tidal currents. Running the open lake in windy conditions can be hazardous. The shallow depth of Lake George combined with its size and tides can make for dangerously rough conditions for lesser experienced boaters.
Overall, the St Johns River fluctuates in speed and depth. In times of greater rainfall, the river can flood its banks in many sections. During these times, passing boat wakes can damage riverside homes and property and create unpredictable conditions for boaters of all levels. Hurricanes can also shut down whole sections of the river to boat traffic. Boat traffic is often heavy in season and on weekends with houseboats, cruisers, party boats, and watercraft of all types idling up and down the waterway. Like fishing most anywhere on the water, be on the lookout for fish as well as other boats.
A day fishing on the St Johns River brings unique experiences whether fishing from shore or by boat. Large bass are frequently caught in these waters so some sections can get easily crowded. The scenery is beautiful with most of the river retaining its natural shoreline. Recreational boat traffic on the St Johns River is substantial at times and in different parts of the river. Regardless, the St Johns River is one of the top fishing destinations in Florida and worth the time and trip.