Outdoors

Anglers enjoy bass bonanza by airboat in Central Florida

Byron Hennecy of St. Cloud holds up a nice largemouth bass caught using a swim bait in the Upper St. Johns River Marsh.
Byron Hennecy of St. Cloud holds up a nice largemouth bass caught using a swim bait in the Upper St. Johns River Marsh. Miami Herald Staff

Byron Hennecy’s bass fishing boat is not what you would expect. There’s no metal-flake paint job or garish sponsor boat wrap. Instead the St. Cloud fishing guide conducts anglers from an airboat — complete with bow-mounted trolling motor and stern-mounted Power Pole shallow-water anchor.

“There’s no place you can’t go with this,” he said.

Hennecy wasn’t kidding. To reach Central Florida’s remote Upper St. Johns River Marsh — the headwaters of the river that flows more than 300 miles north to Jacksonville — he launched at the ramp at Kenansville Lake, then jumped three levees before stopping to fish.

Both Mark Blythe of the Orlando Sentinel and I were impressed; it was better than any thrill ride at nearby Disney World. And the bass fishing didn’t disappoint either: 30 bass in 2 1/2 hours, including a dozen of more than 3 pounds. Not bad for two days before the full moon, when daytime bass catching tends to wane.

“This whole area is a fish factory,” Hennecy said. “There’s so much cover, so much hydrilla, so much area for the bass to reproduce and ambush. It’s Central Florida’s version of the Everglades.”

The marsh appeared only a few inches deep in spots, the bottom coated with large clumps of hydrilla and scattered stumps. Smartweed and willow grew along the shorelines. Hennecy used his trolling motor to idle quietly around the cover.

He broke out spinning and bait-casting rods, tying weedless swimbaits on 20-pound braid. Blythe’s lure was a new-penny color; mine mimicked a golden shiner and Hennecy used one in purple. The guide directed us to cast and crank them in like topwater baits.

“Look, two bass right there, see ’em?” he said, pointing to a lone stump.

Blythe and I made parallel casts in the general direction of the obstruction and both of us hooked up immediately to bass in the 2-pound range, which we reeled up and released.

“Wherever you see brush or a stump, throw there,” Hennecy said. “If you miss, throw it back again. They’re not used to artificials or human contact. They’ll go back for it.”

He was proved right more than once that day.

Surrounded by levees, thousands of acres of the marsh are inaccessible except by airboat. Only a handful of fishing guides operate there. We saw no other parties on the day we fished. The St. Johns River Water Management District is in the midst of long-term restoration of the natural wetlands after dikes and drainage projects in the 1920s and ’30s created farmland and pastures.

Now, with low water levels, is prime time for bassing in the region. But Hennecy said the bounty often continues into the summer when some anglers enjoy 100-fish days.

We were well on our way, never casting more than five minutes without someone getting a bass hit. Blythe also caught and released a pickerel. I think he also released the biggest bass of the day at just over 3 pounds.

Hennecy, a retired Osceola County firefighter, has an extensive background in freshwater fisheries. Besides being a lifelong angler, he operated a successful barramundi farm from 2005 to 2010 in rural Holopaw, charging anglers $200 for several hours of catch-and-release fishing in enclosed ponds for the snook-like exotics from Australia. That operation closed down after the two-week hard freeze in January 2010 killed his entire stock, plus millions of wild fish — both native and exotic, fresh- and saltwater — all over the state.

Today, in addition to bass fishing, Hennecy offers guided alligator hunts, panfish trips, and day and night bow fishing for tilapia.

After 2 1/2 hours of near-constant bass hook-ups (and almost as many releases), we made the exhilarating, partially overland return trip to the boat ramp, scattering dozens of alligators as we passed.

Who needs a water amusement park when the natural landscape is so much fun?

If you go

To book a fishing or gator hunting trip with Byron Hennecy, visit www.osceolaoutback.com or call 407-908-3216.

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