On my first trip to target shad on the fly on the St. Johns River, I found a place full of natural beauty that was essentially at my backdoor, yet I never really paid much attention to it. When my wife and I put our kayaks in the water for the first time to start the hunt for what would become a new found passion, I remember being intimidated by the black water, and what might lurk in its depths.
We paddled under the SR46 bridge and were greeted with panoramas of river, reeds, pastures full of cows and horses, and what seemed like palm tree islands off in the distance… it looked like something right out of a Highwaymen painting, but it seemed like a place I had actually been to before. The scenery quickly reminded me of weekend father-son camping trips I attended yearly as a young boy, and all of the sudden, I felt right at home. Those father-son camping trips are cherished childhood memories, as my brother and I (along with countless other boys) were allowed to run free with minimal supervision… fishing, shooting bb guns, and swinging on rope swings in to the river.
My wife and I found a creek mouth just a few minutes from the bridge, pulled our kayaks on shore and I saw something I had never seen before, an immense flock of white pelicans. I am a Florida native and was quite accustomed to seeing brown pelicans, but in all of my life, I had never seen a white pelican. Being none the wiser, I stepped clumsily in to the water, worked the fly line off of my reel and made a false cast. Hundreds of these immense birds took to flight due to my complete lack of grace. I laid a modest amount of line in to the river before me, and I just watched as the enormous flock circled and moved a hundred or so yards upstream of where I am pretty sure, they thought was just a guy that would be spooking fish the rest of the day. I am pretty sure that they were right, but I remember feeling truly lucky to see something so wonderful.
Each shad run, I would show up to the river and at some point, I would find the white pelicans. Some years they were there the first time I put my boat in the water and some years it seemed like months before I would see them, but every time that I put my boat in the water, I searched for white pelicans. This was something I did sometimes in lieu of fishing, sometimes it was just bird watching… I was not entirely sure why I was so interested in them, but I was.
Fast forward a couple of years… every time I see the flocks of white pelicans, I am still entranced. They are truly beautiful birds, but what I have now come to love most about them, is that those birds are the tell tale sign that shad are in the water! It took some time for me to fully understand, but white pelicans are not simply wintering here because it is warm, they are here because it is warm and there is an ample supply of easy food.
Its not to say that you can’t catch shad on the St. Johns River if the white pelicans are not there… I have certainly caught them, but when the pelicans are there, there is a good reason why. If you are fly fishing for shad on the St. Johns River, and the white pelicans have made their journey to the same place that you are fishing, you know that the shad are there in great numbers. If I see flocks congregating in an area, I will make my way to their general vicinity, and fish there… albeit with much more grace and a lighter foot than my first year.
While it would seem common sense that white pelicans would show up to scoop up slow and dying post spawn fish, what actually happens might surprise you. Observations have actually shown that white pelicans become more lively during the evening when the shad are spawning, and rather than scooping up gullets full of fish, they are there to feast on the eggs that the shad broadcast in to the river. Watching shad wash in the St. Johns River is truly amazing to see, and with enough time on the water, you will find yourself casting a fly in to a mass of rolling bodies morning or mid day, only to find a rare hookup. Notice however that the white pelicans sit quietly on shore, uninterested in you or the shad. To see the main event, and fish dry or floating flies while watching white pelicans gorge themselves on shad eggs, you will need to stay until evening… sometimes late evening.
It wasn’t until I took my dad out for a shad fishing trip a year or two after my first trip that I fully realized why I felt so at home where I was fly fishing for shad. After a morning of fishing, we decided to have some lunch and drink a beer or two on the water. I talked about how I had started to love this place, and how it reminded me of my childhood. My dad then told me that the camp that we visited annually was near Lemon Bluff, which of course is in the heart of Shad Alley. I had no real recollection of where that camp was, only that it seemed like we spent hours in the car (really it was probably less than an hour,) but when we got there, we got to do things that kids nowadays would not probably get away with. It seemed like the universe had just taken me back to where I really belonged.