SASSY BASS AMONG THE HYACINTHS
Rising inscrutably from a maze of bogs, springs, marshes and creeks and emerging at last out of a lake called Helen Blazes, where islands float mysteriously, flowing through a land that once knew the lion and the hippopotamus, as well as a race of giant pre-Indian men, the American continent's finest largemouth bass river proceeds slowly northward, confusing the stranger who thinks of downstream as south, upstream as north. It takes a bit of determined self-orientation to get used to it. Along the river's perverse course it occasionally becomes as wide as the Nile or the Mississippi, but no one who lives on its banks thinks that this is anything to remark about, since, after all, it contains so many other wonders. Finally, after quietly making its point, which is that it is the strangest stream that we know in our country, and one of the most beautiful in all the world, it empties prosaically into the Atlantic Ocean, just east of Jacksonville, Fla.
Exploring Frenchmen called it the River of May, the Spaniards knew it as the San Mateo, and no one knows for certain how it became the St. Johns River, except for speculation that this may derive from San Juan del Puerto, a Franciscan mission that once was established near its mouth, though the historians don't seem to know just when. One does know this: that it contains in all but satiating numbers some of the most superb specimens of the Florida large-mouth bass that ever have been taken—magnificently conditioned fish, fiercely eager for bait or lure, gifted with artifice and muscle and as determined to defeat a fisherman as bass have ever been. In some other waters really big bass fight with a ponderous sluggishness, with mere reluctance to be taken. In the St. Johns they fight to drag you out of the boat.
"Come on up an' ring de bell!" the Negro guide exhorts. A massive bass shoots obediently out of his deep hole, crashes through the surface and, with bell-like mouth extended in an improbable yawn, shakes himself from side to side in a dingdong battle against plug, line, rod and you. If he fails to break something that way he sounds deep, swerving inexorably toward a tangle of cypress roots or weeds. Stop him before he reaches his submarine jungle and he will likely jump again, perhaps as many as two or three times. Fail to stop him and you have lost a prize.
No need for weeping, though. The river is full of his peers and so are tributaries like the Oklawaha River, emptying into the northern end of Little Lake George, one of 10 major lakes through which the St. Johns passes on its eccentric 300-mile journey to the sea. You may wander up the Oklawaha or Salt Springs Run to find good bass fishing, and on Salt Springs you will see such fresh-water oddities as mullet and blue claw crabs of surprising size, though the run is about 100 miles upstream from the ocean. The water of Salt Springs is only moderately salty—it is, in fact, potable—but it suits these ocean creatures well enough.
In stretches of these two tributaries the water is so clear that you may sometimes see the bass take the lure, then enjoy not only the sight of his surge to the top but a fine view of his underwater fight as well. On a sunny winter afternoon on the Oklawaha it was fascinating to study a 4-pound bass which had decided that one particular blue catfish out of a drowsing dozen was his special pigeon, though the cat looked like all the others in the school. The catfish did have one peculiarity, though. He wanted to move about instead of lying in the hypnotic state that seemed to afflict the others. The bully bass singled him out, therefore, and insistently drove him back into the cat community whenever he ventured out of it. The bass didn't want to eat him; he just wanted to keep him in line. It was very like watching a good collie tend sheep.
Quite possibly the incident helps explain why bass strike those improbable lures. They are a fish who seem to resent anything that departs from normal patterns of design or behavior. A strange wiggle, a floundering on the surface, a limping, hesitant movement of a lure along the bottom, a plastic worm that is colored bright blue instead of a decent angleworm brown—these are what put bass in a dudgeon and what they hang themselves on.
Whatever the ecology of the St. Johns may be—and it seems not to have been studied too thoroughly—it is certainly among the most fertile producers of largemouths anywhere, as well as pickerel, crappies, bluegills and other pan-fish. It is not always easy to take a limit of 10 bass there, but it is always difficult to be skunked. Clue No. 1 to this fertility, perhaps, is the water hyacinth, lavender-flowered rafts of which drift with the winds and current, nestle along lee shores where there is a windbreak of trees and pile up on the windward side when there isn't. These wandering islands—quite different from the more substantial floating islands of Lake Helen Blazes—block channels and foul propellers unless they are negotiated with caution. They are obnoxious to boatmen who don't care about fishing. They are a blessing to the man who wants to take bass. The tangled roots of the hyacinth make a natural net to trap the passive plankton on which small bait-fish feed, and on which the bass feeds in his turn.
The great nuisance of the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-34 was the spate of fan dancers it spawned. What the New Orleans Cotton Exposition of 1884 spawned was the water hyacinth. Brought to the fair from Venezuela as a curiosity, its blossoms attracted a gentle Brooklyn lady of the old school who had a winter home on the banks of the St. Johns near Palatka. She brought some hyacinth plants back from the exposition, saw them flourish in her private pond, then decided, with gracious na�vet�, to decorate the river she loved. By 1894 the hyacinths were decorating some 50 million acres of the St. Johns and threatening to choke off a very profitable riverboat traffic in lumber and tourists. In the ensuing 68 years the federal government has spent hundreds of thousands to keep the river clear for navigation. It is still spending, and it will continue to spend forever, for the water hyacinth is as ineradicable as those other pesky immigrants, the starling and the nutria. No effort is made now to destroy it utterly, since that would be impossible, and in any case, when properly controlled, it is an attractive nuisance. It is attractive to the eye and to the bass, which uses it as both cover and hunting ground.
Aside from the water hyacinth, there are other basic reasons for the river's fertility. It is shallow, with a very slow current, and light-loving weeds grow plentifully everywhere, with nothing but an occasional storm to disturb them. These weeds, too, contain extraordinary quantities of plankton.