Rodman Reservoir’s history of big bass and controversy

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Rodman Reservoir’s history of big bass and controversy

As past Bassmaster Elite events have shown, anglers find competitive fish throughout most of the St. Johns River’s 310 miles — at least, those open

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As past Bassmaster Elite events have shown, anglers find competitive fish throughout most of the St. Johns River’s 310 miles — at least, those open to tournament competitors. However, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director Gene Gilliland points to a particular section of this week’s tournament waters where big-fish potential meets big controversy.

We’re talking about Rodman Reservoir — the 15-mile-long, 9,500-acre timber-strewn Ocklawaha River impoundment located south of Palatka. With the 7,200-foot Kirkpatrick Dam controlling the Ocklawaha’s flow, anglers reach Rodman through a 7-mile canal leading from the St. Johns River to the Buckman Lock.

We’ll save the fishing reports for the actual tournament coverage, but several anglers reported practicing in Rodman and most plan to spend at least some of their tournament time there. As Gilliland points out, Rodman’s relevance extends well past the tournament scene and that’s why it’s important to understand the issue at hand.

“This is an iconic bass fishery and it has been for decades,” Gilliland said. “Also, for those decades, there has been a strong push to remove the dam to restore the Ocklawaha to its natural flow and, essentially, eliminate the reservoir.

“That’s where the bass fishing community is at odds with the restoration community; the groups that want the river restored to its natural state.”

Before we dive in, here’s a background snapshot: Created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968 as part of the former Cross Florida Barge Canal project (a planned shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic), Rodman is jointly owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Forest Service, with FDEP handling dam operations.

Rodman was created with a navigational purpose, but sport-fishing quickly became the beloved byproduct. We have yet to see Rodman produce an Elite win, but last year, Patrick Walters spent four days there and finished fourth.

Opposing views

So, on one side of the issue, those in favor of restoration contend that Rodman Reservoir is an unnecessary disruption of the Ocklawaha — a relic from an abandoned project whose absence would hasten environmental healing and allow other recreational opportunities to flourish. Opposing that premise are the bass anglers who value Rodman’s sport-fishing bounty.

This debate has been well-reported, so our purpose here isn’t to stir the pot or even to solve anything. Rather, it’s important to understand why B.A.S.S. firmly supports this stellar fishery’s preservation.

Giants live here: Lore and legend run rich on Rodman, but the purest metric for this reservoir’s potential is found in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) TrophyCatch program, which recognizes three tiers of notable catches: 8-10 pounds (Lunker Club), 10-13 pounds (Trophy Club) and over 13 pounds (Hall of Fame Club).

Entry requires anglers to take a photo or video of their catch on a scale with the weight clearly legible prior to release and then submit the documentation via the program’s website: Anglers receive prizes for verified TrophyCatch submissions, along with entries into annual drawings for additional awards.

FWC Fisheries Biologist Travis Tuten recalls personally certifying a bass over 14 pounds. That’s on the upper end, for sure, but this reservoir’s abundant habitat (wood, pads, submersed vegetation) and rich forage base of shad, bluegill, crappie and lake chub suckers keeps the lunker factory running.

“It’s one of the better bass fisheries in the state,” Tuten said. “It’s known for lots of fish and lots of big fish.”

Amplifying that point Allen Martin, FWC Regional Freshwater Fisheries Administrator for the North Central Region said Rodman Reservoir has long been the statewide leader in TrophyCatch approvals. Complementing the habitat and food, Allen says Rodman benefits from active FDEP management. (See UPS AND DOWNS)

“In December, we had 58 approvals from Rodman,” Martin said. “In the 9-plus years of the TrophyCatch program, Rodman has been in the top-5 (in approvals). We’ve had 1,017 approved submissions from Rodman.”

According to TrophyCatch records, Rodman has already produced several tanks this year. February 7 saw anglers report bass of 10-8, 8-13 and 8-0. On Feb. 2, Rodman kicked out a 9-8 and three 8-pounders.

Cozy digs: “Depending on rainfall, there are times when the bulk of the water coming into Rodman comes from Silver Springs down Silver River and that is all 72-degree water coming from the springs,” Martin said. “It cools by the time it gets to Rodman, but (the reservoir) can hold a little warmer water at times.”

(During the rainy season, water is released from the Harris Chain of Lakes through the Moss Bluff Dam.)

Non-tidal: Linked to the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns experiences tidal impact, while the Buckman Lock insulates Rodman from these daily fluctuations. More depth consistency benefits fish and fishermen.

The business of bent rods: Like all angling powerhouses, local businesses benefit from Rodman’s magnetic appeal; specifically, the hotel stays, gas, food and tackle sales that anglers generate.

“This is not just a Florida issue, because Rodman is an iconic bass fishery, people travel from all over the country to fish here,” Gilliland said. “It’s an economic engine for Putnam County and the local communities.

“The restoration side says that if the river were restored, it would be just as valuable to ecotourism and that kind of stuff; but nobody knows how that would really play out. But we know what we’ve got right now. And we know it’s a valuable resource, both from a bass fishing standpoint and an economic standpoint.”

Ups and downs

Maintaining such a fishery requires calculated management effort, so approximately every three to four years, the FDEP lowers Rodman’s depth to purge excessive weed growth, while also allowing native vegetation to germinate. During these drawdowns, which start in the fall and continue through spring, the reservoir has a catch-and-release rule, so it’s not part of St. Johns River tournament boundaries.

“They will bring it up a foot or two before they draw it down to get a lot of the vegetation like water lettuce over to the shoreline and then they drop it,” Tuten said.

Tuten said the drawdowns have followed a 4-year cycle for the past two decades. The DEP evaluates each potential drawdown based on the reservoir’s condition, but if the pattern holds, the next drawdown will begin in the fall of 2023, so a 2024 Elite event would not include Rodman.

“It’s like any other reservoir — it cycles up and down, it has its good years and its bad years,” Gilliland said. “They do the drawdowns to control aquatic vegetation, but in a lot of respects it is a very dynamic system and that’s part of what helps make it a good fishery for the long haul.

“If you have the same old same old for years and years on end, Mother Nature gets stagnate and I think that’s one of the nice things about a reservoir system — they do have a little more control over things like water levels.

A storied past

 With the Rodman Reservoir debate spanning numerous chapters, Gilliland said the push to remove the Kirkpatrick Dam has ebbed and flowed for many years.

 “There will be a big push by groups (seeking to) get rid of the dam and then it will subside because it never quite reaches a point where there’s enough political will to pull the trigger, so to speak,” Gilliland said. “It will come back up and then it will go back down.

“In fact, in looking through a lot of the files that I’ve had for the B.A.S.S. Conservation program, every Conservation Director before me has dealt with this, going all the way back to the mid-80s.”

 Despite the persistence of the Ocklawaha restoration argument, Gilliland said the B.A.S.S. position is equally resolute: “Obviously, we are opposed to that from the B.A.S.S. standpoint, from the tournament anglers’ standpoint and from the general standpoint that it is such an iconic fishery.

“The money and the time that it would take to actually restore the river to its natural state — I don’t think there’s enough money in Florida for that, plus right now there’s not the political will to make it happen. That plays in our favor, but this is an issue that anglers need to know about.” 

In fairness, no one’s discounting the nobility of a restoration mindset. Nature should be valued and a fervent desire to effect what one views as positive change is a respectable pursuit. However, Rodman Reservoir is a case of weighing the theoretical against the concrete.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Summarizing, Gilliland said: “A lot of the claims about what would happen if the river were restored are just a lot of speculation. It’s been a political football for decades and every time a new push to eliminate the lake comes up, we have to stand on the side of our anglers and the bass fishing community and support them because that’s what we do.”

“With Rodman Reservoir, we know what we have.”

And what the bass fishing community has is something pretty special. Something worth fighting for.

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