Last Monday I had the opportunity to fish for shad with friend and mentor Captain Mark Benson. For those that may not know Mark, he has been fishing in Central Florida all of his life and has done his fair share of fly fishing all over the world from the Caribbean to New Zealand and back. He is the current Director of Fly Fishing at the Ritz- Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes where you can find him most days teaching and putting clients on some of the nicest trophy bass around. When he is not at the Ritz, a lot of the time you will find him guiding, fishing, or exploring the St. Johns River.
While Mark has fished in some pretty exotic places for species such as trout, bonefish, and even shark, he is still absolutely passionate about fly fishing for shad on the St. Johns River, and he is not afraid to tell you that the American Shad is still his favorite species. He has spent countless hours studying, stalking, and catching these fish. Add to that a background in biology and a true gift of gab, and there may not be anyone more qualified to help you become a better shad fisherman. I have fished with Mark out at the Ritz-Carlton and even on Andros Island, but had not been able to sync up with him before during a shad season, so I was really looking forward to this trip!
I have been interested in getting out on the water with Mark as he spends a lot of his time upstream of most of the spots I frequent. Outside of a few hikes out to 7 Palms and Tosohatchee, the water upstream of SR50 is foreign to me. Add to that the swift current and large numbers of alligators in the area, I have always been hesitant of paddling this section of river.
We met up at the SR 50 boat ramp around 1:30 where I was told I would need to hand over my phone, and that I would be blindfolded. I was then frisked to make sure I did not have any secondary GPS units on my person and made to spin around 50 times until I was dizzy before setting off on a trip that I can only assume, but not confirm, was upstream. Okay, none of that was true… although there were discussions, and clear rules of engagement were agreed upon. 🙂
In all seriousness, the area upstream of SR 50 is not top secret, in fact Mark often sings its praises during talks and seminars he presents. This is an area of river that receives less pressure, and the shad can be plentiful when the conditions are right, namely around six feet (or more) on the SR 50 gauge coming in to the new year, dropping steadily in to January and February.
This was certainly one of those years, but with the addition of the fact that most of the fall we had pretty low water, and then got a mess of rain in December. This meant less time for minnows and grass shrimp to build up on the flooded pastures and then be swept off in the channel as the water receded. This may be one of the reasons we did not see the shad stall, congregate, and feed in the places that most shad fisherman frequent every year (and yes, they do feed!) Instead, there were reports of fish being caught near SR 520 at the end of October, and while most of us have had dismal days down by CS Lee, Mark has had consistent double digit days since early January fishing upstream of SR 50.
As we made our way upstream through the winding turns in the river, my hesitancy to paddle this section of river was completely confirmed. Folks, this is alligator country, and while I have seen my fair share of gators, I have never seen this level of sheer biomasse in a single trip. I am not exaggerating when I say, I reckon the number to be three to four HUNDRED large sized alligators. Looking at stills on some of the video I shot, I easily counted 42 on one turn alone. We saw this turn after turn after turn. I was blown away, but to Mark, it was just a typical day on this section of river.
While I don’t want to be too specific in this post, I can tell you that Mark and I fished gorgeous areas of river well upstream of 7 Palms, making our way down to that well know section of river, and found fish in all the likely suspects. If you have been considering the 7 Palms hike, now is a good time. Runs with good current, pools with depth and eddies, and water stacking up on cut banks all had shad clearly washing in them, all the way downstream headed towards Paw Paw Mound. While I have not really seen any signs of spawning activity downstream of SR 50 this year, fish were clearly visible in this section of river, which was a very nice change.
My thanks to Mark for the opportunity to fish with him. I enjoyed the fishing, scenery, and company! If you are interested in fishing this or any other section of the St. Johns River, I highly recommend hiring Mark as your guide. He will put you on fish… the rest is up to you!
Contact Captain Mark Benson: