Paying a visit to Big Shoals State Park in Florida’s Columbia County is like taking a step back in time. The river bottom forests and swamps surrounding the Suwannee River seem untouched by the hand of man. And, if you bring along a fly rod for some fishing, the stream harbors a throwback to prehistoric times that can offer all the fight an angler could desire.
The waters around Big Shoals, which is the Sunshine State’s only Class III whitewater rapid, are home to numbers of bowfin. These fish often go by other names like grinnel, mudfish, dogfish or cypress trout. Fishermen who have hooked one only to have it destroy a lure also call them some names that are not fit for mentioning in mixed company.
The heritage of bowfins can be traced back to the Jurassic period and these fish have changed little in the intervening millions of years. Part of their survival story can be traced to their ability to breathe both air and water. When dissolved oxygen runs short in the water, they come to the surface to gulp air.
These predators will attack most any kind of bait or lure that crosses paths with them. But, tossing streamer flies into their haunts can give fly fishermen a battle to remember. The fish make strong runs, “bulldog” to the bottom, thrash on the surface and even sometimes jump clear of the water when hooked.
Though most folks consider bowfins to be poor table fare, they can be tasty when smoked.
The waters around Big Shoals are shallow enough for wading on low to medium river levels. When the river is high, sandy beaches along the eastern side of the river and downstream of the shoals still offer room for fly casting. In fact, eddies along this shore are some of the most likely places to hook a bowfin.
Most of the fish run 20 inches or less, but some weighing up to 10 pounds can show up. The current world record of bowfin stands at 21.5 pounds.
Other fish in the shoals that might take your streamer are largemouth bass, chain pickerel, or redbreast and spotted sunfish. There also is the possibility of hooking a Suwannee bass, a member of the black bass family found in only a few streams of North Florida and South Georgia.
Getting from the parking lot in the state park to Big Shoals requires a 1.25-mile walk through scenic sub-tropical terrain. But from spring to fall wearing plenty of insect repellent is a good idea. Also when fishing, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for alligators in the water.
Other attractions in the park are 33 miles of shaded hiking, equestrian and mountain biking trails, a picnic pavilion, the opportunity of canoe or kayak through the shoals and outstanding birding.