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 Rick Rawlins was 21 years old and attending Daytona State College when his father, Derris, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 51 in 1970.

“Three days later, my older brother Ron and I were running a fish camp,” Rick Rawlins said.

Not just a fish camp but Highland Park Fish Camp, which is situated just five miles north of downtown DeLand, on the edge of the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling, 20,000-acre slice of “old Florida.”      

 

Recently my family and I visited Highland Park Fishing Camp in Deland, Florida. Let me start off by saying if you’re looking for a family-friendly, old-Florida experience bathed in hospitality, and the finest fishing our state can produce… then look no more! It’s a 30-acre gem, carved right out of the Florida wilderness, located right along a portion of the St. John’s River.

 

These baits typically provoke reaction strikes, even from non-feeding bass. Nothing irritates a fish in shallow water like a buzzbait sputtering repeatedly over its head. However, reacting bass sometimes miss baits. To snag more short-striking fish, attach trailer hooks onto spinnerbaits. To secure trailer hooks in place, use an office paper hole puncher to cut small plastic disks from an empty milk jug. Slip the trailer hook onto the main hook, then run the main hook through the plastic disk. The disk anchors the trailer in place.

 

At age 23, Rawlins may be one of the youngest Coast Guard-licensed captains (and one of the only female captains) on the St. Johns River. She literally grew up fishing the St. Johns, and is the third generation of the Rawlins family to run guide parties out of Highland Park Fish Camp in DeLand. This family-owned camp was started by Derris Rawlins in 1962. His sons, Rick and Ron Rawlins began guiding in the late 1960s, while still in high school, and now run the camp. Bryn learned well from her father, Rick. In fact, on a warmouth fishing trip in the mid1990s with Rick and then 8-year-old Bryn, she watched me manipulate a canepole with a float and cautioned me, "You have to get your cork closer to the tree or the fish won't bite your minnow.
 

With the coming of fall, the bass angling on our biggest river can get red-hot. That’s especially true just downstream of Deland in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

HAD it been a century and a half earlier, the vessel that is slowly navigating this watery highway through central Florida in the middle of winter would have been an elegant steamer, not this small flat-bottomed johnboat, and its passengers would have been adventurous tourists, celebrities and hunters, who would have come by the thousands to see a tropical wilderness. Then, as now, the tannin-stained river would have twisted like a water snake along stretches of nearly impenetrable banks of cypress, live oaks and  palms.      

The stretch of the big river around Lake Woodruff in west Volusia County provides a glimpse of old Florida. But it also offers the chance to battle with some lunker largemouths! (October 2007)

 

 “This area is a rare gem in the middle of a rapidly growing central Florida,”
said Ron Rawlins.  “That dark, tannin-stained water and cypress trees festooned
with Spanish moss gives the area an air of mystery.”
After retiring from the Army in 1962, Ron’s father, Derris L. Rawlins, bought
Highland Park Fish Camp on Norris Dead River, a misnamed stream that
connects the St. Johns to Lake Woodruff at the edge of what became the refuge
two years later.  In 1970, Derris died, leaving the 30-acre camp in the care of
Ron, then 22, and his brother, Rick, then 21.  Today, the Rawlins brothers rent
boats, cabins and camping slots at the edge bass paradise.

Veteran guide Rick Rawlins, who has over 40 years of experience on the river as one of the owners of Highland Park Fish Camp, has a firm handle on that.

 

 

“Our spawn is largely over in May,” he stated, “but the bass aren’t going to move very far from where they spawned. In this area, the major spawning sites are in lakes Woodruff and Dexter. Those areas got hit pretty hard during the hurricane years and lost a lot of vegetation.