Highland Park Fish Camp celebrated its 60th anniversary last month, and the Rawlins host family, entering a seventh decade of stewardship, had grown accustomed to the beats of the St. Johns River fishing scene.
Experience, you know.
Right now, for example, the speckled perch season has come to an end on schedule, the largemouth bass is going from quality to quantity, and all of those famous sunfish – especially the bluegill – are getting swell waiting for their entry. Some like it hot…or at least hotter.
And usually the locals are in control of the place, as the snowbird season slows down dramatically in April and comes to a complete halt in May.
usuallybut not lately.
Like many people in various facets of the boating/fishing world, Highland Park has seen the era of COVID upend the usual pace. But like so many industries based in the great outdoors, the rod and reel scene has been handled well.
“We saw a peak, yes,” says Capt. Bryn (Rawlins) Adams, third-generation operator of the rustic fishing lodge/marina/campground, five miles from downtown DeLand and covered in 23,000 acres Woodruff Lake National Wildlife Area. Refuge.
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“When COVID first hit, we hurt like everyone else with the initial shock,” she says. “But as things progressed, we got lucky. People were looking for us because we are outdoors.
“And it continues. Summer is always our slow time, but we’ve seen more business longer throughout the season.”
With an ear trained on the pitch, Adams suspects the new trends of the past two summers will hold again
“So far, I think we’re on track for another great summer,” she said. “We are still in shock because summer has always been so slow for us. But we are very grateful. We rent a lot more boats to families. Make many more daily boat rentals than before.
And why not? Highland Park is located in a very unique area of the 310 miles of St. Johns – in the middle of three main basins that slowly stretch from Indian River County across the state to its exit from Jacksonville in the ‘Atlantic.
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From Highland Park it’s a fairly short drive to productive Lake Woodruff, and a bit further to main St. Johns. And while the draw for most is what’s below the water, what’s above shore is also a draw – as wildlife sanctuaries tend to be.
“Visually, for us, what’s great is that there are no houses, no cars, no traffic,” says Adams. “It’s just wild, so we love it.”
It gets better, she promises, when you stop gawking and drop a line.
“I favor Woodruff Lake because we’re the closest camp, of course, but it’s a very plentiful fishery,” she says. “We are in the middle here. The water comes from the St. Johns, and you have all these streams and tributaries connected, so there are endless possibilities of places to fish.
Since we’re here, might as well let Bryn kick off this week’s roundup…
“We are now after spawning with largemouth bass,” says Adams. “We’re starting to study bass, which is always fun. April is still one of my favorite months. A good time if you want to fish with artificial ones. You’re going to get a lot of high-level action doing that.”
And there is no action like surface action. Or so they say.
“The size isn’t there,” says Adams, “but you’re going to get plenty of fish. You can catch 20 bass on a half-day trip.
The black drums are still beating positive notes, on the ground and close by.
Craig Patterson (Donald’s Bait & Tackle) hears nearby drums chasing blue crab and prawns from Dunlawton’s usual casting sites.
Jeff Patterson (Pole Dancer charter), no relation, still talks about black drum just offshore, in big schools and in the 20-40 pound range. “Literally eating whatever we threw at them,” he says. “Live shrimp, red mullet, even mud minnows.”
Plus, he said, plenty of whiting and sand trout on the reefs close to shore, while the cove offers plenty of sheepsheads — “when I can get my hands on some fiddler crabs,” says Captain Jeff.
Back to Craig Patterson for a discussion of the flounder as he gets a lot of flat reports from all up and down the Halifax and Spruce Creek.
“Mud minnows or slowly retrieved bait passed over a flounder’s head almost guarantees a strike,” he says.
Another pro tip from Craig: Dabs have hard, bony mouths, so a hook set isn’t always easy. To start, use a pointed hook. So what …
“The trick to landing a flounder is to catch the fish quickly or pull it to shore before its head pops out of the water. They’re famous for going wild.
At Ormond Pier, Ike Leary says the river has slowed down a bit this week, but he was hearing from across the bridge that Pompano was starting to tackle the usual baits, including Fishbites.
Dustin Smith (NSB Shark Hunters) says Bluefish is pretty excited right now. Good fighters, those blues, and damn good smoked, folded in sour cream and slathered on a Saltine. Somebody, quick, pass Texas Pete!
Stage 1: “Throwing spoons, ‘Gotcha’ plugs, or mule will give you a great fight,” Smith says.
To the north, Flagler Pier hosts large trout on deck, according to Captain Mike Vickers (Hammock Bait & Tackle). Also, some pompano, whiting, mutton, black drum, blues and Spanish mackerel.
More of the same along the surf, says Vickers, but expect to catch and release jacks and sharks as well.
“The hot bite this week was the sheep’s head and drum bite in Matanzas Inlet,” Vickers said. “This area also produces some trout, reds, mangrove snappers, smelters, bluefish, trevallies and sharks.”
The ICW (Matanzas River) has been host to much of the same, but includes our version of the Keys bonefish – the beautiful jumping and fighting ladybug. She’s having a good time, but too bony for the plate.
this and that
• Another reminder of the 21st Annual Offshore Challenge, hosted by the Halifax Sports Fishing Club. The dates are April 8, 9 or 10 — yes, Whereas each captain chooses one of the three days to compete.
Wahoo, dolphin and kingfish are the targets. The captains’ meeting will take place on April 6 in Ponce Inlet at Down the Hatch, which will also be the tournament weigh-in site.
More information: [email protected] Or contact Tournament Director Mark Hudimac: 919-306-3340.
Hook, line and clicker
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