Over on the beautiful St. Johns River and its assortment of lakes, speck season is still strong and only figures to get stronger as the winter spawn approaches.
Perfect time for a little competition.
On cue, DeLand and the St. Johns will be hosts for the first-ever Winter Classic Championship, a Friday-Saturday speck tournament sailing under the flag of Louisville-based Crappie USA.
“Speckled perch,” or simply specks, is what we call crappie in this part of the world, but whether you’re the tomato or tomahto type, all agree the plentiful panfish liven up wintertime fishing and, if you have a sharp knife, also dress up a dinner plate.
If you enjoy a lively tournament weigh-in site (don't knock it), catch the drama at St. Johns Resort and Marina, beginning shortly after 3 both Friday and Saturday afternoons.
Fishing hours are 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the “playing field” stretching from Lake George south to the I-4 bridge.
Also, as part of its constant effort to hook the next generation of anglers, Crappie USA is hosting a free “fishing rodeo” for kids 12 and under, Saturday at Highland Park Fish Camp. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and the fishing, in Highland Park’s pond, runs from 9-11.
Crappie USA is beginning its 26th year of sanctioning tournaments. The Winter Classic carries a $15,000 purse. More info: CrappieUSA.com.
Now, regarding what’s in store for this weekend’s competitors, let’s begin the weekly roundup on the west side …
“It has slowed down a little but fishermen who are trolling are bringing in 20 specks a day,” says Highland Park Capt. Bryn Adams. “The size is still good and artificial jigs are the best bait.”
The official daily bag limit of 25 tells you how plentiful specks are in the St. Johns.
As for the king of freshwater targets, Adams says bass fishing is rather “steady” but a few trophies are starting to come back to the docks.
As for bait, “we’re mostly using wild river shiners,” she says.
They’re singing the blues and that ain’t a bad thing, frankly.
“The bluefish invasion is upon us,” says Craig Patterson, owner/operator of Donald’s Bait & Tackle on the Port Orange Causeway. He’s getting reports of blues doing their thing (attack, attack, attack!) in the surf and Ponce Inlet, and in the river from the Tomoka to the far reaches of Spruce Creek.
“Schools can be easily located by slow-trolling the channel with bucktail jigs or spoons,” Patterson says. “Once the schools are located, blind-casting around the boat will continue the catch.”
Daily bag limit is three, and minimum keeper size is 12 inches.
Web-search the words bluefish and voracious and you’ll get the drift regarding blues. They can make a school of hungry jacks look like a church picnic. Also, you don't want to learn this the hard way: Watch those teeth when dehooking.
Meanwhile, the Tomoka Basin continues to provide a bonanza for Capt. Jeff Patterson and his Pole Dancer charter boat. As the sun rises, he says he’s been getting some reds while free-lining live mullet or dangling one under a popping cork.
But the go-to fish these past couple of weeks has been trout, which are apparently hungry after their two-month catch-and-release season ended Jan. 1.
“The Basin has been very productive for seatrout,” says Patterson, who’s been catching them with both live shrimp and DOA artificial shrimp on a popping cork.
“We had our limit on seatrout in 10 minutes one morning,” he says. “We were literally getting bites on every cast at the first spot we tried.”
That daily bag limit, by the way, is small: Just two per angler. And there’s a narrow slot to thread: 15 to 19 inches.
Gene Lytwyn (The Fishin’ Hole in Daytona Beach) says the balky weather has kept many shore-based anglers huddled around structure.
“Inshore activity was strong with the sheepshead and black drum,” he says. “Fishing right up against docks, bridge pilings and rock piles with fiddler crabs or shrimp works real well for those species.”
Same ol’, same ol’ around the Granada Pier, where Ike Leary operates the bait store.
“Not much different from last week,” he says. “Everyone is waiting on snook season to reopen (Feb. 1).” Meanwhile, Ike says, “we’re getting mangrove snapper and black drum off the pier.”
The seasonal weather has made it “hit or miss” from High Bridge to the Matanzas Inlet, according to Capt. Mike Vickers (Hammock Bait & Tackle). Just some scattered reds, black drum, sheepshead, whiting, blues, etc.
“The bright spot in this past week’s fishing has been the creeks, flats, creek mouths, and canals,” Vickers says. “All are producing good numbers of reds, trout, drum, sheepshead, flounder, mangrove snappers and blues. The best fishing has been on the flats, with large sheepshead, drum and plenty of reds.”
Most of the reds, he says, have been under the 18-inch minimum.
Vickers leaves us with a tip: “If fishing the main river, use a suspending bait to cover a lot of water quickly and locate fish. Then switch to live bait, and be ready to repeat this process throughout the day.”
Who you kidding?
Capt. Mike Mulholland (Sea Spirit, Ponce Inlet) said midweek the rough conditions have kept them docked since Jan. 5 — got a nice haul that day, though. They’re gonna try again Saturday, one of the few upcoming days without an ominous wind forecast.
Meanwhile, it hasn’t been much nicer for the shore-based folks.
“Surf and ocean-pier fishermen tried to tough it out, but it wasn’t very productive,” says Lytwyn from The Fishin’ Hole.
And you certainly can’t look north for relief.
“The Flagler County beaches have been blown out by high winds and surf,” says Capt. Vickers. “Before this latest front, we were seeing good catches of big whiting, bluefish, and we had drum, reds, and trout around the rocks on the northern beaches.”
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This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: FISHING REPORT: Crappie USA tournament targets specks on St. Johns