By Jeff Samsel

“You’ll know when to turn around because you’d have to paddle through the woods to keep going,” the man behind the counter at Santa Fe Canoe Outpost told my son Asher and me. We were preparing to paddle to the River Rise, where Florida’s Santa Fe River indeed rises after traveling nearly three miles underground.

Folks at the outpost had recommended the River Rise trip because it offers very good fishing prospects and runs mostly through undeveloped public land that looks like Florida did a century ago. Being a six-mile round-trip journey, and starting and finishing at the same spot, this trip also would lend itself well to a leisurely fishing outing that would allow us to choose our own pace.

“As long as you’re back by dark, you can stay out as long as you like,” we were told.

Soon after, we were on our way, paddling upstream against a very light current, each armed with a couple of light spinning outfits. The paddling was sufficiently easy that I handled most of it while Asher fished, and I was still able to fit in a fair number of my own casts, even as we worked upstream.

As promised at the outpost, after we paddled under a bridge and past four houses, we left the rest of the world behind. Plenty of moss-draped live oaks, lily pads, bald cypress trees, palmetto thickets, wading birds and turtle-covered logs. Zero development and no one else using the same section of river.

Also as promised, we had no doubt when we reached the River Rise. It was like paddling to the back of cove, with the river simply disappearing beneath the woods. The river didn’t taper down or gradually back up into a swamp. It was fully river to the River Rise and then fully wooded, and the current began right at the River Rise.

Forming in Lake Santa Fe and winding 75 miles through Northern Florida before eventually feeding the Suwannee River, the Santa Fe offers a diverse fishery. We caught half a dozen species in about the same number of hours on the river, and that didn’t include any of the river’s plentiful largemouths or the region’s distinctive Suwannee bass. My favorite catches were several brilliant-colored redbreast sunfish, which we caught on Bighoppers and Micro Pop-Rs.

The Santa Fe is ideally suited for a simple float-fishing approach with a lightweight rod or two and a box of Rebel Crawfish, Pop-Rs, Minnows and critters baits like Bighoppers and Bumble Bugs. Knowing little about the river, we found good success simply by casting to stumps, weed edges, rocks and other visible cover.

Santa Fe Canoe Outpost offers canoe and kayak rentals and shuttle service for several possible river trips, including day trips and multi-day camping outings. Because of plentiful springs and stable Florida weather, fishing prospects are good and somewhat similar throughout the year. The water level is the biggest variable, and it’s worthwhile to inquire about river’s level and trip get recommendations from the outpost when you are planning a trip.