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by Darl Ostrander

When DeSoto explored this area 400 years ago the Aucilla River was a wild black water river. Today it would be one of the few places he would recognize. Wandering its way for seventy miles through swamps and hardwood hammocks this river somehow misses every major town or industry anywhere near its path. The Aucilla arrives at the Gulf as a tea colored river of medium size. The exact point of entry is the far eastern end of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The Aucilla forms part of the St. Marks eastern boundary right before it enters Apalachee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This is the part of the refuge that visitors to St. Marks rarely see.

This is definitely a place for people who want to get away from everyone else. On weekends it's busy if five boats launch in the same morning. During the week you're likely to have the river to yourself. Everything that is wild and wonderful about Florida is present along the banks of the Aucilla. Gators, eagles, herons, ospreys and cormorants by the tree full are all expected sights on just a short trip down this river. As you approach the mouth of the river it widens into a fairly substantial bay dotted with oyster bars. Surrounding the bay are vast expanses of salt marsh. The salt marshes are a huge maze of dead end creeks and tidal streams.

Fishing is what brings people to the Aucilla River but it is the sights and sounds of this wilderness that keep them coming back. These same sights and sounds make even an average day of angling better than an excellent day on one of the more crowded and developed north Florida rivers. Fortunately a bad day of angling is hard to have on this river. The Aucilla will almost always provide action even under the worst of conditions. On a good day the trout and redfish will wear you out before you wear them out. Leaving the fish while they're still biting may be hard to do but it's a great feeling.

 In spring, summer, and fall the most consistent action will be found on the flats just outside the mouth of the river. The flats are broken up by oyster bars and limestone outcroppings that pose considerable navigational challenges to those who are not familiar with the area. The best way to work the flats while your learning the area is to drift with the wind. After a few drifts you will see why running your boat wide open on these flats is not for the faint hearted. Some of the larger bars are marked, but the majority are not. It is generally not a good idea to run your boat wide open on the flats surrounding this river. Even anglers that know these waters well take extreme caution while running within a mile of the shoreline.

Once you get a feel for the area start targeting spots where the water is moving with the tide. Fish around the larger bars and in the gaps between the sawgrass islands. There are probably a hundred or more small tidal creeks and streams entering the bay on either side of the river. At anytime some of these little creeks can literally be loaded with redfish or trout. Not all of the little creeks will give up fish on a given day but if you visit three or four odds are you'll bump into something. There are times when a dozen reds will come out of a pool in one these creeks no larger than a couple of cars parked side by side. As you travel across the flats the action will seem to come in spots for no apparent reason. Anchor up in these locations and take a few extra casts. You may have drifted over or near one of many bars or limestone outcroppings that is holding fish. Some of these spots are such favorite haunts for the fish that you may never have to move again all day. Action around some of the bars lasts as long as the tide is moving and will pick up again when tide turns. Often when the tide starts to run in the other direction you will find that fish simply move to the other side of the bar.

A wide variety of fish inhabit the flats surrounding this river. This situation is made possible by the habitats offered in and around the river. There are seagrass beds, kelp beds, oyster bars and limestone outcroppings. These features combined with scattered holes and tide channels make for some of the best angling in north Florida. Seatrout and redfish are the mainstay, but other gamefish make regular appearances all through the summer and fall. Tarpon, bullshark, Spanish mackerel, cobia, bluefish, jack crevalle and flounder are all found around the mouth of the river.

Keeping a couple pinfish in the livewell can bring some unexpected bonuses. Keep a rod handy that is rigged with thirty pound test or higher and a wire leader. When you see a bullshark cruise by or some tarpon rolling, hook on a pinfish and see if you can hook up with one of these monsters. You may see bullsharks in the hundred pound class hunting along the shoreline in as little as three feet of water. They are never shy about taking a bait and can sometimes be taken on artificials. These sharks seem to have a preference for floating plugs that have a propeller action. Something about the rhythm created by this type of plug seems to be much more attractive than those that simulate wounded prey. Your best bet for tarpon is far and away live pinfish. Other options are cut bait and white leadhead jigs dressed with cut bait. Tarpon can be hooked on top water plugs but the action is not as consistent as it is with the live or cut bait.

The Aucilla also offers excellent fishing during the winter months. Starting in November and lasting until February seatrout and redfish move into the river in large numbers. Anywhere in the bottom mile of the river you will find fish in great abundance. Find a spot near the channel or any other submerged structure, set anchor and start throwing your favorite trout lure. The odds of missing the fish are almost nil. People come from as far away as Alabama to experience the quality fishing offered during the cooler months of the year. Some of the finest holes are within a hundred yards of the lower boat launch. Many anglers will never even start their motors except to load their boats back on to their trailers. There are some lures that work better than others. The best lure for redfish is a gold spoon and the best for trout is a hot pink shallow diving crankbait. The big decision is which fish is your primary target. You will find that you will catch both species regardless of the lure you choose. Any shallow running crankbait will catch its share of fish and of course all the usual natural baits are a sure success.

There are several reasons why the Aucilla river remains a quality angling area. First is the fact that it's located in the heart of Florida's largest publicly owned coastline. Being far from major towns and cities helps keep the Aucilla from feeling the same heavy fishing pressure that other areas along the coast are subject to. If you're planning an extended or overnight trip to the Aucilla river there are a few things to keep in mind. The nearest campground is twelve miles away. It's located on another quality river, the Econfina. If you stay there it will be easier to launch there, run out a mile and head west down the coast until you see the Aucilla River entrance marker. That will be just about four miles down the coast. Other than camping there are motels thirty miles to the east in Perry. If you are coming from the west your best selection for places to stay will be in Tallahassee proper but this will leave you with about a fifty mile drive to the river.

Access to the river is provided by two launch sites. The upper site is located one mile east of Aucilla River bridge on route 98. This will be the first left after the bridge if you are traveling east. The lower launch is located on the right side one and half miles beyond the bridge if you are traveling in the same easterly direction. The lower launch is the by far the launch of choice for saltwater anglers. By launching at the lower ramp you will avoid about three miles of very tricky running in the river. If you are coming from the east don't worry if you pass the road to the lower launch. You will be able to turn around just up the road at J.R.'s Aucilla River store. J.R. is a topnotch fisherman and knows the river as well as anyone alive. He is also the closest thing to a guide the Aucilla has. He will be happy to bring you up to date on the best patterns and locations as well as provide you with any of the lures, bait or fuel you may need for the trip. Take his advice about fishing or navigational hazards seriously. As the local saying goes "nobody knows the Aucilla like J.R.."

The Aucilla River is one of those places that takes a little more work to get to and a little more caution once you're there, but these are the very things that make any wilderness exciting. If you would like to see what Florida looks like without the tourist trappings and enjoy some great fishing while you're at it visit the Aucilla. This is one of the last wild Florida rivers.

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