Chipola River: In Search of Shoal Bass

Last fall I had the golden opportunity to take an amazing kayak fishing float down a section of the beautiful Chipola River in Northwest Florida. It is incredibly scenic, biologically diverse and fed by 63 springs. I had been dying to kayak fish it since my first visit eight years prior when my daughter treated me to a Mother’s Day tubing float with her friends. That trip took us through hardwood forests, limestone bluffs, caves and gorgeous clear waters with rocky shoals. Without much experience in doing shuttles, I jumped at the chance when invited to join up with friends who knew what they were doing! 

Oak, tupelo, sweet gum, cypress trees line the banks of the Chipola River

Our fishing adventure was led by two very experienced river kayak anglers, my fellow Jackson Kayak Fishing Team member, Travis Von Neumann and a seasoned river guide, Will Clements. I had met them both originally through River Bassin Tournament trail and they were chomping at the bit to catch some shoal bass and have me add this species to my black bass repertoire. 

Will, Travis and Jean getting ready to shuttle our Jackson kayaks for the fishing float. Coosa HD, Cruise and Kilroy

We had an added level of excitement when discovering that a 14 year old kayak angler, fishing with his dad, had caught the new state record shoal bass the previous day! It was a 22.4 inch, 5.95 pound beauty that was being officially certified by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at the take out point when Travis and Will arrived to camp after a day spent fishing the mighty Apalachicola River into which the Chipola flows. 

My first shoal bass! Travis approves.

I arrived to meet up the next morning and we set out right away to load up our Jackson Kayaks for the shuttle to our put-in at Peacock Bridge. The whole float was 6.5 miles to our take out at Johnny Boy Landing. This stretch of the Chipola, near Altha Florida and going between Jackson and Calhoun counties, is particularly abundant with shoal bass and is a catch and release area for this vulnerable species. They have a limited range in just a few river systems in Alabama, Georgia and Florida and FWC states that the Chipola River is the only known area in Florida where genetically pure shoal bass have a reproducing population. 

Porous limestone both above and below the water.

Shoal bass eat a variety of fish and insects but primarily eat crayfish. The state record catch made the prior day was caught on a jig/craw and you better believe we all had one tied on, too! This amazing spring fed river, and particularly this stretch we floated, is made up of limestone karst, with porous outcroppings above and below the water surface. There are rocky shallow shoals where the shoal bass congregate in the current and also in deep pools where sometimes larger shoalies can be found. 

Catching shoalies out of my Coosa HD on the Chipola River

The fall weather was spectacular! Despite the wind, we were protected by the high bluffs and colorful trees lining the banks and surrounding forests. There is such a wide variety of plants and trees, some with exposed roots that seemed to hold the whole cliff in their tangled grasp. The pourous limestone rock above and below us gave a feeling like we were getting a glimpse into the underground Floridan Aquifer. Even small rivulets of water poured from areas in the rocky banks. Just a magical and awe-inspiring place! 

Limestone karst shelf of rocks on the Chipola.

Not only were we mesmerized by the beauty but we also accomplished our fishing goal. We caught shoal bass all day long. I caught my first ever shoalies which happened to like my suspending jerk bait. They also bit jig craws, ned rigs,spinnerbaits and small cranks. Those bass are hard fighting, frisky and quite beautiful! No wonder they are a coveted species! 

Wonderful guides, Travis and Will, surveying the river and catching fish!

About halfway down our float my trusty paddle of five years finally decided that it had enough fun and just broke right in half. I tried to keep it together with a stick jammed in either side of the shaft but that didn’t work so I ended up maneuvering the second half of the trip with just a half paddle. It was a poor decision to not carry a spare. Lesson learned. 

Getting ready to enter some shoals in my Coosa HD on the Chipola River.

This section of the Chipola River, between Peacock Bridge and Johnny Boy Landing, is perfect for kayaks. Its shallow rocky shoals would make it tough going for bigger boats. There are no houses visible until right before the take out so it gives the wonderful feeling of truly going back to an ancient and simple time. I’m sure that summertime would bring lots of tubers floating by but on our special day there was not another person to be seen. As soon as we exited the river I longed to be right back on it again. 

Tangles of tree roots holding the bank intact.

https://floridadep.gov/sites/default/files/Chipola_Guide_0.pdf

*As a side note, a very devastating Category 4 Hurricane Michael tore a path of destruction through this area in October 2018. Much of the surrounding forest was destroyed. I have not been back there to survey for myself, but hope to go soon. Waters are too high now to paddle but hopefully, come later winter or spring…

Limestone caves and rivulets dot the banks.

Will, in his Jackson Kilroy and Travis, in his Jackson Cruise stand and sightfish on the Chipola River.

~Jean Wilson

Jackson Kayak Fishing Team

Comments on “Chipola River: In Search of Shoal Bass”

  1. Clay Grace
    January 23, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    Such a great blog on a magical river! Can’t wait to fish it with you one of these days.

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