Monday, September 6, 2010

The Aucilla River, Disappearing Water

The Aucilla River, Disappearing Water

In early 2005 while browsing fishing information on the internet, a story in the Gainesville Sun by Tim Tucker about the Aucilla River piqued my interest. The story stirred memories of days gone by and stimulated forgotten intrigue that had once caused me to long to explore the mysterious Aucilla River of the Big Bend area of North Florida. I decided to follow up on the desire that began in my early twenties before I was married. Somehow things like a wife and a career had deferred my dreams of exploring the Aucilla River, but now I had developed a new commitment. On a recent August Saturday afternoon we finished the Townsend family reunion in Lake Park, Georgia with some time to spare. I needed to wind up in Orlando that night which was southeast. Although I am now in my sixties, the boy in me made it seem logical to begin a trip to the southeast heading due west on my mission from the river god. I started out in a rental car to trace the Aucilla from the Florida State line to the Gulf of Mexico on my way to Orlando. This was the first step in my long deferred exploration that will include some fishing on each section of the river in Florida, and hopefully lead to me winning a fishing tournament along the way with some lunkers from this remote river.

Memories flooded my mind as I retraced the steps of my younger days. My Uncle Grady Townsend and I would leave Valdosta pulling boat trailer with a Volkswagen bug carrying a 12-foot plywood riverboat with a small Mercury outboard motor on the way to the Wacissa River where we would spend days catching stumpknockers, bass and freshwater mullet. First to Shan’s for some pond worms then west over to Quitman, Georgia and then south down to Ashville, Florida where we would turn west again and soon cross the Aucilla River. At the crossing point, Grady would invariably say, this where the Aucilla heads up. He then go on to tell me that it ran on top of the earth for a while then would go down into the acquifer only to rise again later. The river rises and submerges several times before the Wacissa River flows into it just a few miles before the then much larger Aucilla River runs into the Gulf of Mexico. Uncle Grady was right about all that except this was not where the Aucilla headed up. Having now studied topo maps and satellite photos, I know the river forms over just west of Boston, Georgia and up north a little towards Barwick, Georgia in Thomas County. Here where Uncle Grady and I used to cross the river, it is a wide, lake looking river on this Saturday afternoon as the river is near flood level due to recent daily thunderstorms.

A quick study of my map showed the next bridge crossing to be west of Greenville, Florida so I headed that way. Standing on the US 90 bridge west of Greenville, Florida, I noted that the river was running in several small channels weaving a spider web through the swamp here rather than one large defined channel. A dirt road south right at the west end of the bridge was marked enticingly, Blue Lake Road, but I didn’t want to risk some costly damage to my rental car so I looped back to the west and continued south.

The next bridge on the river is Interstate 10, which I did not visit on this trip since it is illegal to stop and explore on that road. I was in for a surprise because only about 2 miles down from Interstate 10 I came into a small community at the railroad crossing named of all things, Aucilla. I saw there the other end of the Blue Lake Road as well, which came into the town from towards the river. Believe it or not, in Aucilla there is a bear crossing warning sign on the Blue Lake Rd. and a sign cautioning that read “No Digging Bait on the Right of Way”. Again in deference to the rental car I did not go toward the river on that road but believe there must be access on the river from that road or the railroad bed.

Now I moved on down about 8 miles downriver to the bridge at US 19 & 27 just east of the town of the town of Lamont. The Aucilla seems to really have taken on the characteristics of a river now rather than the channels through a swampy bottomland that it had been at previous crossings.

Uncle Grady never took me to the Aucilla but many trips to the paralleling Wacissa River caused him to tell me stories relating the two rivers. The Wacissa rises in massive springs near Wauhkeena to flow for fourteen miles without a bridge crossing or public access until you get to Goose Pasture that is an access from the east gained by travel on a dirt road from Cabbage Grove community. The road to Goose Pasture crosses the Aucilla in a section where it is underground and marked only by a tree line through a wide prairie. I had been to Goose Pasture by boat many times as I fished the Wacissa with Uncle Grady. He always would say you get to this place by coming in from Cabbage Grove which is down the road from Lamont. Now for the first time I was in Lamont and the words of my beloved pipe smoking, fish catching uncle reverberated in my memory. Deceased since 1990, no one loved this area of Florida more than Uncle Grady and I never loved an uncle more than I loved him, so it was just a special day for me, filled with special moments of memories of the old river man who is now “Gone Fishin” as it says on his tombstone.

I went into the General Store (real name) at Lamont and approached the man behind a meat counter who said he knew little about the river but the old timer checking out at the register knew everything. I approached the old timer as he paid for his two smoked link sausages and a few other items asking him to tell me a little about the river. “I can do that,” he said with a toothless smile, “cause I was born on it and lived on it, and it has fed me all my life.” I will soon be sixty years old so you know that by me calling him old timer that he had to be eighty or so. He proceeded to tell me that there were two landings on the east side of the river north on the dirt road just east of Lamont. There is good access up that road he said and plenty of good fishing. I asked about down river and he said he never went down there but knew something about it. The section below Lamont where the Aucilla submerges and come back up only to go down again is called the Middle Aucilla. This section is where Junior Dice, who was referenced in the story by Tim Tucker published in the Gainesville Sun, has caught trophy largemouth bass. My older new acquaintance went on to say that there are rapids in there near what they call Rock Pile. Again the memories flooded back as I recall Rock Pile on the Wacissa where Grady and I would scoot the boat through a chute in a small set of shoals. I thought there must be a rocky fall line crossing through the Big Bend there that both rivers have flowed over since God created the earth. Later I found out this was the remains of a 19th century railroad crossing. This area has remained pretty much unchanged I would think since the waters receded form the flood and Noah landed on Mount Ararat. The old timer went on to tell of Cabbage Grove and Goose Pasture and Nuthall Rise. I will share more of these places later as I interviewed two more locals who mentioned them as well.

I went on down the west side of the river swamp. I came to a sign at a dirt road towards the river which said Middle Aucilla. An exciting part about the river here and on down is that the land is in a WMA and is for public use. I am sure that there is access down that road. I wished several times I had my 4WD F150 but I was in a rental car so I kept going. About eight miles from Lamont, SR 257 crosses a well-defined Aucilla River then the highway turns to dirt and becomes SR14. I guess I will see Junior Dice one day, maybe fish with him, and I will find out as much as anyone alive knows about this wild place.

Going on south on SR14, I saw a deer leap across the road as I came to the big open prairies that are on both sides of the Aucilla which is mostly submerged down through here except for Half Mile Rise where it comes up and stays up for about a half mile. I came to Cabbage Grove and took the road to Goose Pasture. There is network of roads between Cabbage Grove and US 98 and they are all dirt but high and well maintained by the graders. I came to a bad spot in the Goose Pasture Road and was meeting a truck towing a boat coming out so I stopped and got out. A man and his young son had been fishing in the Wacissa and were headed home. He stopped to talk and I found out that the only bad place in the road was where I was but I had best not try it for fear of hanging the bottom of the car in the mud. I didn’t need that advice but thanked him for it. They had caught a mess of bream mostly. I asked him about the area and he showed me the tree line where Aucilla crossed the prairie running submerged and then pointed way down the prairie to Half Mile Rise. He showed me where a public access is where the Aucilla goes down just above the Goose Pasture Road. He called that access Cattle Gap and although I found the WMA sign pointing out the access I never saw or heard another reference to Cattle Gap. I traveled on out behind him back to Cabbage Grove, then went on down to US 98 where there is JR’s Aucilla Store. I found a short paved street on the east side of the river with a few houses on it and at the end a fine boat landing. This is about 100 yards down from where the river comes up at Nuthall Rise.

Now my day got even more fascinating when I went into JR’s Aucilla Store. It was apparent that JR’s is the local hunting and fishing HQ. There is large hunting club operating out of there called Three Rivers Club. The three rivers are the Aucilla, the Ecofina, and the Finholloway. Back in 1982 I had a great adventure on the Finholloway but that will be the subject of different article. Reflecting on it now, I don’t know why they didn’t call it the four rivers Club and include the Wacissa. I will have to ask JR about that. The proprietor sort of eyed me as a green horn Yankee type from Atlanta driving a sports car but when we talked a little he warmed up. When he realized that I was part of a river fisherman and knew a thing or two about rivers he got real friendly. I got a map of the Three Rivers Club, which has a lot of good detail on it. I found out a lot about the section of the river from Nuthall Rise to the salt water, which is about 5 miles. Between the US 98 bridge and salt water, the Aucilla splits into two runs. The west run is the most interesting because JR said down it what he called the Slave Canal comes in bringing the Wacissa. The Wacissa turns into a vast area of flooded swamp land with a myriad of runs as it leaves Goose Pasture and is generally not navigable between Goose Pasture and the confluence with the Aucilla except for the Slave Canal which is not very long. I don’t think I have told you but as black as the Aucilla water am its entire length then the Wacissa is just as clear. So at the Slave Canal the clear spring water of the Wacissa meets the dark, tannic black water of the Aucilla. J.R. informed me that the island between the east and the west runs of the Aucilla, which come together about a mile down from the US 98 bridge, is 700 acres of land.

I went on down to the last boat landing on the river where the water is turning brackish and the tide moves it. This is where the salt-water fishermen put in and take out. Now as the sun sank low and I prepared to leave for the trip on to Orlando, I saw a boat coming up the river. It was a local who had been out to the flats hunting reds but had smelled the skunk that day. He had great things to say about the river, whetting my appetite by describing big largemouth up the Slave Canal. Had his line broken up there a few times he said. That reminds me that JR said the flurry of hurricanes coming through Florida had created so many blown down trees up the Slave Canal that no one traveled up in there for any distance.

I made one last stop to see JR again and thank him for his hospitality before heading for Orlando. I got his phone number and he sent me on my way with a strong welcome to come back and visit the area anytime. The scenery of that part of Jefferson County Florida is spectacular and the people are hospitable.

© by Blackwater Bill


Bill Prince

A minister teaching financial seminars based on biblical principles for the last ten years, Bill Prince retired from business after 38 years experience in the business world. A speaker, author, and counselor, Bill’s exploits as a leader in the business world have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek Magazine and he has appeared on Fox News with Neal Cavuto on the program Behind the Boardroom. Since co-founding Biblical Principles Inc in 2001, bill has conducted over 300 seminars in 25 states speaking to over 100,000 people and has counseled approximately 3000 people in private sessions at churches throughout America.