The Suwannee Bass Sings a Drag-Ripping Song
A rendezvous with one of the southeast’s toughest pound-for-pound fighters
Words and Photos by Chris Funk
The sign at the bridge announced I’d arrived. It displayed a a few notes of Florida’s state song, "The Swanee River." The critter I was there to chase also took its name from the famous body of water. The only music I cared to hear was the drag singing on my spinning reel.
The Suwannee bass is a stocky and muscular fish that resembles a smallmouth in physical shape. They are a beautiful deep green and often have dark tiger stripes the length of their body. During the spawn some take on a turquoise coloring on their gill plates and belly. The colorful show only occurs in a handful of rivers in the southeast: the Suwannee, Ochlockonee, Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, St. Marks, Aucilla, Wacissa and the Withlacoochee.
It is not a large bass – the Florida state record is only 3.89 pounds. They rarely get over 12 inches and a 16-inch Suwannee is considered big by Florida Fish and Wildlife standards. What they lack in size is fully made up in their tenacity; these little scrappers will demolish lures and fight with every ounce of their weight. They prefer swift moving water and will use the current to their advantage in the battle.
The Suwannee’s primary forage is crayfish. The limestone outcroppings along the riverbanks are perfect ambush points. Small soft plastics on stand-up jig heads or shaky head style baits work well as do dark-colored jigs with crawfish-style trailers. Baits need to be heavy enough to get down in the current but not too heavy or you will spend most of the day hung up. Whatever you choose to fish, bring plenty of extras just in case. My bait of choice was a custom black and blue 1/4-ounce football jig tipped with a Z-man Punch Crawz in Okeechobee Craw color.
I caught a couple smaller largemouth and one decent Suwannee near the confluence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers and then paddled up past the ruins of an old sawmill on the bank. Large formations of limestone lined the banks, an eternity’s worth of wear etched across their faces. One swirling eddy behind a large boulder drew my eye. I skipped the jig into the slack water on the other side of it. As the line drew tight near the bottom I felt a healthy thump and crossed his eyes with the hookset.
I knew this fish was better than the others I had fought that day but the dark water kept its identity from me till a large, tiger striped bass with a big red eye broke the surface. I commenced to beg and plead for the fish to stay down while reaching behind my seat for a net. After several runs and heart stopping jumps I eased the beautiful bass to the kayak. It was shaped like a football and just a tad over 16 inches, a true trophy for the species.
Holding that gem of a fish in my hands was worth loading gear in the freezing rain the night before and the four hour drive to Suwannee River State Park. I gingerly placed it back in the dark water with the thought of reviving it before release. In a final act of defiance the bass jerked from my thumb and splashed me with a face-full of cold river water. From beginning to end it proved that although it is one of the smallest of the black bass species, it is a worthy adversary.