Upper St. Johns River Basin outback a haven

Mike Tipton takes folks to areas accessible only by airboat

scocking@MiamiHerald.comNovember 8, 2012 

  • If you go To book a bass fishing trip, sightseeing tour, gator hunt or duck hunt with captain Mike Tipton, go to bullgatorairboattours.com or call 321-288-3997.

— Plenty of freshwater anglers take advantage of the bountiful bass fishing in east-central Florida’s Stick Marsh and Farm 13 impoundments. But just a short distance away lies the vast, wild bass fishing outback of the upper St. Johns River Basin – accessible only by airboat.

That’s where captain Mike Tipton of Melbourne guides his customers to the catch and release of as many as 50 largemouth in one morning. It’s also where his parties catch large gators during the annual statewide public hunt and shoot limits during duck-hunting season in fall and winter.

“This is my office. It doesn’t get any better,” Tipton said, gesturing to the picturesque woods and wetlands surrounding his tricked-out airboat.

The St. Johns River Basin extends from a huge drainage area west of Vero Beach north to the confluence of the St. Johns and Econlockhatchee rivers in Seminole County. In decades past, it was dammed, drained and diverted, but now is nearing completion of a long-term restoration project.

To get to his favorite spots in the marsh, Tipton typically launches at his airboat club ramp off U.S. 192 in Melbourne and travels south through swamps, canals and Lake Hell ’n Blazes, jumping a levee before he stops. It’s an exhilarating ride past numerous gators, winging birds, glistening willows and tall cypress.

His 18-foot airboat features components not often seen on such craft: twin Lenco trolling motors and a Power Pole shallow-water anchoring system – both run by remote control. There are holders and storage lockers for fishing rods, Lowrance GPS chart plotter and fish finder, and even a portable toilet. The 454 Chevrolet engine can reach speeds of 50 mph.

On a recent morning outing, water levels were running higher than normal from the combination of Tropical Storm Isaac, which caused extensive flooding upstream and downstream, and heavy seasonal rainfall. The deep marsh gave bass a much wider habitat, allowing them to spread out and become difficult to locate.

“The water in the last two weeks has come up 18 to 24 inches, and it’s still rising,” Tipton said. “We depend on the river system for our water, but if it continues, we’re going to wish the water would go away a little bit.”

Fishing with Chug Bugs and Rapala crankbaits, Tipton and a customer caught and released about six bass up to 2 pounds in a morning trip. The guide used the trolling motors to offset the brisk winds and current and locate fish hiding in weed-lined coves and around partially submerged brush piles.

“I like the challenge of the cast with topwater, to put the plug where I want and then the explosion of the hit,” he said.

Tipton, in his early 60s, has been escorting customers on airboat tours of the marsh for the past four years. Raised in Melbourne, he hunted and fished for fun, working for most of his adult life for Allstate Insurance. Tipton retired nearly 12 years ago and launched a business buying and selling airboats. Friends suggested he get into the charter business, and these days, he keeps as busy as he wants to be.

Tipton loves showing customers a region they would never see aboard conventional watercraft.

“The fact that you can get places most people can’t get to,” he said. “I get away from everything, see all the pretty things God has made – the cypress heads, the birds, the outback.”

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