Snowhill

Yes, believe it or not, there are still people fishing for shad in Florida in mid-march, and there are still shad to be had. I will admit it though, its harder to get motivated as the temperatures warm and the water levels drop. After much deliberation between whether to return to Tosohatchee by boat, or to hike upstream from Snowhill with hopes of sight fishing for shad, thinking that we likely had a similar shot at catching fish at either spot, the weather forecast (highs in the mid 80’s) helped make my decision last Saturday. Ray and I decided to give Snowhill a go.

I picked up Ray at 8am and we made the quick trip to the bridge. From there we set out upstream by foot and scouted several shallow sections of river where we had either seen or caught shad in previous years. With the the gage at close to 2.0 feet, the water level was perfect, albeit a bit stained, and while the lower section of river was full of fry, we did not see cruising shad. We did see good numbers of bass and panfish though, which was a stark improvement since Ray and Todd had run in to each other on this section of river a couple of weeks prior.

As the foot traffic increased, we decided to book it to the Double Gator Pool, a popular picnic spot, to stake our claim. There we found one nice sized alligator, around 8 feet long parked half on the beach, with its head in the water. I mentioned to Ray that it had been a while since I had actually seen two alligators in this spot, and wondered whether the big alligator had been culled. We both quickly got to work with the ultralights, covering the water from two perspectives, and two different setups. This spot offers limited space for a backcast, and while I did have my short 6 foot fiberglass 5 weight rod with me for some single Spey action, the ultralight is more efficiently used as a fish finder. Ray quickly hooked up with a nice sized red breast. Soon after Ray landed the fish, I hooked up and said we must have found the school, right as the fish jumped. To my surprise it was a nice, fresh, fat, unblemished shad caught in the depth of the pool just outside of the current.

Five or six casts after, Ray hooked up with and jumped a nice shad, only to lose it as he reached down to grab it. We continued covering the pool, Ray on the ultralight and me making single hand Spey casts. Ray was rewarded with another nice catch on an orange grub, the bottom lure on his tandem setup. Again, this fish was a nice fresh fish, unblemished and thick.

In years past at Snowhill in March, most of the time if we found fish, they were generally at the tail end of the spawn, even to the point of emaciation, but that did not seem to be the case this day. I suspect because the Econ was low most of the early part of the season compared to the St. Johns, we did not see an early rush of fish head up river. In mid February, we got some serious rain in central Florida, and saw a very nice bump in river level and flow. As the St. Johns leveled out, this freshet was likely a beacon to later run fish, and some of them diverted up the Econ later than usual, hence the clean breeders in the river this late. Add to that, a late cold snap, and cooler evenings even in to mid March, and you have comfortable water for shad to continue doing their thing. That said, who the heck really knows, I am just documenting, so I can later scrutinize, overanalyze, and study water levels while preparing for a future season. 🙂

Of significant note, even prior to the Econ’s water level bump, Zain Khalid (FB Group member) caught a very nice shad under the Snowhill bridge on February 13th, nearly a MONTH before I would generally bother checking this section of river. So water levels, shwater levels, there are fish moving up regardless, and not just the hickories we know come up every year, but likely Americans as well. Note to self, there is still ALOT to learn, check early and check often, its close enough to the house.

It was clear that there were fish in the Double Gator Pool, but Ray and I were both on the board, so there was no reason to beat up the pool. Now that we knew there were fresh shad still in this section of river, we figured we would find them in other spots too. Its much more interesting to catch fish in different places and in different ways, than just pounding pools. While Double Gator is always a likely suspect, sight fishing it is not.

We decided to venture upstream to the Willow Pool, but hopped down to some clear water past the tail of the pool and found a small pod of fish that I have now decided to call bouncing shad, maybe 6-12 fish. I say bouncing, because these were not cruising fish, headed up or downstream where you may get to take one or two shots (at best) and then they were gone, and not holding fish, that set up stationary somewhere in a bigger school where they are comfortable waiting to spawn and you can take multiple shots at them as long as you don’t spook the school. Rather, these fish were in super shallow, clear water, well aware of our presence, moving between one small trough in a sandbar, to the next, then down to a shallow divot, then up under a log, to the outside cut, and back again in the same general area of river just 30-50 feet long. THIS is sight fishing, and frankly, it can be every bit as challenging and frustrating as targeting small pods of bonefish on a shallow flat, just in miniature. I made about a dozen decent presentations with long leaders/ tippets and small Partridge and Peacocks and could not get them to eat. I did manage to pick up a small bass and red belly though. Of note, the head of the Willow Pool is not what it used to be. While the outside trough is still there, the current was not as swift, and the bottom was dark. Downed trees have likely changed the bottom structure and the current, clear water, and sand bottom are now at the tail of the pool.

We continued upstream to check out the second turn below the footbridge, and along the way I spotted two very nice sized bass holding so we jumped down to the river. Ray took some shots at the bass and about the same time, I saw another group of 15-20 shad. These fish seemed to be cruising, and while I took a few shots, I did not have any takers. As we worked upstream we found another group about the same size, and just as unwilling to eat. We did arrive at the second turn, only to find a lot of downed trees, making the bend that Luc Desjarlais considered one of the best on this section of river in his book, essentially unfishable. Similar to the Willow Pool, the tail of the pool has nice current and clear sand bottom which would normally be worth checking out, but there was a couple having a picnic on the outside bank and we decided to give them room.

We made it to the footbridge, had a quick lunch and began fishing, only to be interrupted by a group of noob paddlers that put in at 419. The racket, the complaining, the need for a break… completely miserable with being outdoors, all landed essentially at our feet, as one of the canoes tipped while trying to land on the sandy beach where we were fishing. Uuuuuhhgh, Ray and I never even looked at each other, but both in just about unison wound the reels, packed it up, gave a few words of encouragement to the paddlers and set out down steam.

We returned to the Double Gator pool to take some final shots and this time found the big boy parked high and dry up on the beach. Ray took a high perch up on the bluff and could clearly see shad coming to the surface just outside of my swing. With both gators clearly visible and Ray spotting, I got brave and waded in to get to a small spit of submerged sand where I could take some shots in to the strike zone. I made a few good presentations before a couple of hikers arrived just down stream of us, and the gal decided to randomly cannonball in to the river for a dip… Uuuuuhhgh. This spooked the female gator directly across from me, and she slipped in to the water and quickly made a direct beeline at me. I twinkle-toed my fat butt out of the water, back on to dry land, and called it a day.

We found shad at Snowhill, and even got to take some pretty solid shots sight fishing for them. SIGHT FISHING… for shad! I mean come on, even to just have the opportunity to do that is so frickin’ cool! We both caught shad, and multiple other species, while many others hung it up weeks ago. In all, that is a pretty solid day in my book!

Hike to Paw Paw Mound

Last weekend I ended up hiking to Paw Paw Mound with Ray. I say ended up because that was not part of the original plan. While I had originally contemplated Paw Paw, with temperatures forecasted to be in the high 80’s, I was not real thrilled about the idea of having to cross sloughs that were a bit deeper than average for this time of year. With the recent rain the gage height at SR50 bumped to 4.6 feet, and with the heat, we knew alligators would be active.

After looking at Google Earth, I co-conspired with Ray during the week to maybe do some exploring of a section of river not easily accessed from either launching at the power lines, SR50 or 520. This section of river is near 528, and while Luc Desjarlais does offer up a potential access by way of Old Road Trail in his book, the wooden foot bridge to cross the canal has washed away since its writing. Crossing the canal the wet way, did not sound appealing with potential gator activity.

Instead Ray and decided we wanted to give the Main- Back trail a shot, which looked to be around a mile hike to the river, and from there we would be high and dry, and would either see if we could find fish in the west channel, or find a shallow spot to cross and try the east section. Additionally we could walk upstream to potentially access the section of river that Old Road Trail previously provided access to.

As they say, the best laid plans of mouse and men often go awry. After picking Ray up at 7am, stopping for provisions, making the 45 minute drive to the gate, navigating around a running club that was entering the gate as well, and then driving another 20 minutes on the dirt roads within Tosohatchee, we arrived at the Main-Back trailhead only to find it completely flooded all the way to the road from the recent rains. Crap!

After contemplating an upstream hike to fish the first couple of bends from Powerline Road which both of us had already fished this year, we decided instead to drive to the Canaveral Marshes trailhead and hike to Paw Paw mound, something new for both of us.

Helicopter pads

We decided to take the trail that heads west off of the southbound service road to make the hike. This takes you right past the helicopter training area, so if hiking during the week, you may get to see them train up close and personal. After making it to the end of the road, we found a fence, which you can unlatch and enter. You then follow the fence line until you reach the pasture and you are rewarded with gorgeous panoramic views. You can basically see all the way to 50 in one direction, and all the way to Paw Paw mound in the other direction.

While taking the trail west does add an extra half mile to get to Paw Paw compared to taking the southbound trail and then following the water line northwest, the extra distance is worth it because it is basically high and dry and an easy hike (at least when the gage is under 5 feet.) We suspect that it may be very doable above 5 feet, but accessing the water you want to fish might be difficult because the sloughs you would need to cross would be at best guess, thigh to waist deep. Doable, but only on a cold day.

When we arrived at Paw Paw mound, we were surprised to find some guys already there. Louis, Jeremy and Oakley were doing some exploring and recording videos for the 21st Century Expeditionist and Wild Florida Facebook groups. They showed us some ancient pottery shards and a couple of fossils. Very cool, and super nice guys!

Paw Paw Mound

After studying the water around us, and a quick call to Todd for advice, Ray and I found a shallow area to cross the sloughs to gain access to the edge of the shoreline accessing the straight main channel run. This shoreline was just barely above the waterline, but the sloughs were no more than about shin to knee deep where we crossed. Here we found awesome current and some depth, along with numerous large alligators in the water. I fished the single hander (for the first real time of the season) and Ray threw the switch. I worked downstream, casting, swinging the fly, and moving 5 steps at a time, considering whether I would be willing to cross the wider area of the slough to get back to dry land. About that time I noticed two heads between me and shore, and decided not to proceed further downstream, but rather head back to where Ray was fishing. After about an hour or so of fishing, we were pretty convinced the shad were not there, likely falling back in to deeper pools as the water warmed.

The airboats had gathered at Paw Paw by the time we walked back. We decided to eat some lunch and drink a beer. We contemplated making our way down to 7 Palms, and as the airboats left in that general direction, we decided to see what the hiking conditions were like heading that way, knowing we could pick up the main trail, rather than make our way back the way we had originally come.

The hike in this direction was still fairly muddy, although not terrible. Your natural inclination was to hug the high grass, but with the streams running through it, that was just muddier and buggier. Sticking to the shoreline was actually better. As we reached the junction, and with another half mile hike ahead of us to get to the shelter, we decided we had had enough of the 88 degree heat, and didn’t want to go fish with all the airboats at 7 Palms. Instead we made the two mile hike back to the car, and enjoyed a frosty beverage.

In all, we covered around 6 miles. I am not sure I would do it again in the heat, but I will definitely do it again in the future, just a little bit earlier in the season when there should be more fish hanging around. I could see this run being every bit as good as the main run in front of 7 Palms, you just have to catch it at the right time.

CS Lee and the Econ last Saturday

Just a quick post as I have seen some questions about the general conditions around CS Lee.

Last Saturday I fished with Ron Flak on his boat. We put in at CS Lee around noon and made the quick run to the mouth of the Econ. The water conditions were perfect and there was great current after the recent rains. We fished the mouth as well as the channel near the east bank and did not find shad. However we did witness a C-17 Globemaster make a low pass at around 300 feet off the deck at full speed. It dipped a wing and waved at us. It must have been coming out of Patrick Airforce (Spaceforce) Base. I have seen them take off and land there, but I have never seen one so low at full speed. Pretty cool!

Joel catching a nice crappie

We decided to make the run to the area of the Econlockhatchee River accessible by foot from Brumley Road. Along the way we ran in to Joel Volpi, a snake wrangler extraordinaire from Georgia and Facebook group member. Nice guy! I snapped a picture of him as he hooked a nice crappie and we talked briefly. He had not found shad either.

We arrived at the Lilly Pool and found folks camping there again, so we proceeded up to the Wives’ Pool. We fished the head and depth of the pool pretty thoroughly and did not find shad. After lunch we proceeded back down to the Lilly Pool and took some shots there and found no joy.

On the way back down river we talked to Joel again. He had caught panfish but no shad. We fished the mouth of the Econ for a bit, enjoyed a beer, and then called it a day.

While it might be possible to get another wave of fish, as we approach March, I suspect that possibility will wain quickly. If you plan to go out, I would focus my effort upstream of SR 50, 520, or 528 at this point.

The fishing was slow, but I enjoyed the weather, boat ride, fishing, and company. Thanks again Ron!

Hike to 7 Palms 02-06-21

I am almost two weeks behind in posting this entry. Between work, leadership training, and family life, I just did not have a chance to sit down and write. The Facebook group gets the quick updates along the way, and others have since fished 7 Palms with good success, but I did want to add an entry for my own record.

After opening an invitation to join us for a hike to do some shad fishing in both the Shad on the Fly and Orlando Kayak Fishing Club groups, Phil and I managed an early list of a total of six anglers willing to make the walk. Unfortunately, by Friday the weather was looking sketchy, with a strong storm system headed our way, with potential rain off and on throughout the day, and a chance for a late day thunderstorm after 5:00pm. With the gloomy forecast and some house work to do, Philippe decided to call it on Friday.

Rain does not generally sway me in and of itself, although at 7 Palms after a rain the muck can be a challenge. That said, by Saturday morning, the potential for a late day thunderstorm had moved forward to around 3:00pm, and that even had me contemplating calling off the trip. I sent a DM to the event group very early in the morning but did not receive a response. I texted Ron, we spoke briefly, and he decided not to risk a wet, mucky hike in as well. Not being able to contact the others, I decided to just press on, and make whatever we could out of the day. Note to self, next time collect everyone’s phone numbers to help coordinate.

I rolled up to Ray’s house at the agreed upon time and found him happy to oblige. Ray and I have had a few rainy days on the water together over the last couple of years, and have always had fun. Ray is laid back, so am I, and we have a similar outlook on fishing. We like to catch fish (like everyone else,) but it is not a numbers game really. Its about the experience and adventure of it all. We fish when we can fish, and try not to overthink it. Some days are better than others, but every day you are on the water, there is something to observe and learn. This year has been incredible to observe, pick apart, and try to figure out fish that are as selective as trout feeding on a hatch out west. Fish at your feet, behind you, within rod’s length… its fascinating.

We arrived at the Canaveral Marsh Trailhead at 8:00am and I was happy to find Anthony Guarino in the parking lot. We quickly packed our gear and set out on an easy walk along the service road. When we arrived at the pasture, we found that it was still mucky around the slough, but there was plenty of high ground to use to get to the shelter. While your natural inclination is to hug the water line as you make your way to the shelter, you are better served to find the high ground around the tall grass patches. Just be careful of snakes.

After about 45 minutes, we made it to the shelter and I donned my waders (I hate hiking in waders in warm temps.) Similar to prior trips to the area this year, we quickly found fish actively feeding up top, and got to work trying to get them to take a fly.

High Tie Gambusia

Following my last two trips to the general area, where it was very clear that the shad were feeding all around us but I could not buy a bite, I had gone back to the vice to tie some very small minnow patterns to try to match the hatch. Looking at the size of the gambusia in the shallows around us, it was clear that even the original gambusia pattern that had worked for me early in the season, was still too big. What I came up with was sort of a hybrid of the Gambusia Hair Wing, the Fry Fly, and the High Tie Minnow which I now refer to as the High Tie Gambusia. I tied the pattern in both grey and brown, with both kip tail and marabou, and on size 10 and 12 sized hooks.

TJ’s Aluminium Guppy

In addition, TJ Bettis (Orlando Outfitters) had posted his Aluminum Guppy pattern (or as a like to call it, the Aluminium Guppy, in a British accent to make it sound fancy) on the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, which seemed to be a remarkably simple (particularly for the owner of a fly shop) and affective pattern at matching the hatch as well. I whipped up my interpretation (ala silver sparkle braid rather than aluminum foil) and decided to run both in tandem, the High Tie Gambusia up front, and the Aluminium Guppy trailing behind.

The tandem rig was a winning pair, and I caught several bluegill, sunfish, and crappie before hooking and losing my first shad of the day. I hooked another soon after and touched leader, but “quick released” the fish at my feet before I could get a picture. Keeping shad hooked on small size 10 or 12 hooks can definitely be a challenge!

Ray fished the Aluminum Guppy as well and caught many panfish and hooked a couple of shad. Anthony fished multiple patterns and caught several panfish as well. As he fished upstream of me, both of us in the water maybe thigh high, he yelled over to me to make sure I had seen the alligator between the two of us. I had not, mistaking its beady little eyes for floating hyacinth. It was not a big gator, but sometimes those are the ones with something to prove, so I watched it closely as it slowly crept within around 30 feet of me and submerged. I promptly left the water. It is important to keep your wits about you, particularly in temperatures above 70 degrees. Even better, fish with a friend, or two!

Wee Beady Eyes…

Throughout the day I counted around ten or so alligators come and go in our general area. In addition, a very large gator parked itself upstream of the little grass island and never moved the entire day. In front of him, four or five significant sized gators kept watch, and never ventured too far.

We decided to grab some lunch under the shelter, talked tactics and all things fishing. After checking the weather forecast, we decided to play it safe and hike out around 2:30 to beat the the thunderstorm, which gave us around an hour and a half to continue fishing. The first half an hour was slow going, but all of the sudden, the entire straight run in front of the shelter came alive. I managed to hook another shad, but again lost the fish as I grabbed the leader. Ray and Anthony also hooked, jumped, and lost shad. As the time ticked ever closer to our departure, I managed to land one, and Ray was kind enough to snap a pic. Out of the four shad I hooked, two had taken the front fly, and two had taken the trailing fly.

Its difficult to stop fishing right when you know things are just starting to heat up, but with everyone landing plenty of fish for the day, at least hooking shad, and dark clouds looming on the horizon, we did just that. The walk out was a little slower, but we arrived and packed up our gear in the cars right as the downpour began. In all, it was a good day, I enjoyed the hike and the company, and I am glad we decided to brave the elements.

If there are Rivers in Hell

If there are rivers in Hell, this is what they are like. Just an endless line of airboats buzzing you ten feet from shore as you fruitlessly cast in to pools loaded with fish… with fish literally eating minnows in a foot of water at your feet, and you catch nothing, not one single fish, for all of eternity. THIS is the penance due to a sinful fly fisherman, full of lies about the size and numbers of fish he caught, coveting your neighbor’s expensive Sage flyrod, skipping church to fish on a Sunday, and taking the LORD’s name in vain when that trophy fish breaks off before you touch the leader. You better get right with GOD while you still have the chance!

Alright, between the fire and brimstone above and the Facebook group, I have about beaten this one to death, but have to still write it down for posterity.

Last weekend by brother drove down from Jacksonville to do some shad fishing with me. The plan was to put in at Tosohatchee and then motor down to 7 Palms (and beyond.) That plan came to an immediate and noisy end, the moment we reached the river as a pack of about 15-20 airboats went by. Shortly after we took the canoe off the Jeep, another 5-10 passed by. Now it is certainly not unusual to see airboats in this area, but I would say 5-10 in any given Saturday would be “typical.” With around 30 having already passed us, I had absolutely no intention of taking the canoe downstream in alligator infested water to 7 Palms.

Now I have experienced something like this years ago, but down river. There was a big airboat meetup at Loughlan Lake and an early line of traffic left CS Lee, making quite a racket. Frankly, had my brother not driven all the way down to fish with me, I probably would not have even taken the boat off the racks, and just went home.

After a 3rd group of airboats passed, I decided to do a Facebook check-in to figure out what the heck was going on. I found out there was an airboat race going on at Paw Paw Mound. Intent on showing my brother a good time, I decided we would just make the quick run upstream to fish the turns there, figuring the worst of the traffic had likely already passed. Yea right!

We arrived at the turn and found fish feeding aggressively, pushing minnows in to the shallows. What proceeded from there was just absolute insanity, airboat after airboat after airboat. Did they use the wider/ deeper east channel? No! What fun would that be? Its much more fun to choose the narrow west channel where you can clearly see two people fishing.

After easily another 15-20 airboats passed, we decided we had had enough and moved to the east channel, where we wouldn’t get buzzed every couple of minutes right? Guess what? It didn’t work! Just about every airboat still coming used the east channel now. My brother hypothesized that airboat operators just naturally follow the path where people are, almost instinctually, without even thinking, when they are not real sure where they are going. I think they just like an audience.

For what it was worth, the east channel was loaded with fish too, but getting fish to eat a fly with two solid hours of airboat traffic coming one way, and two solid hours of them coming back the other way… well all I can say is, it was like fishing at a monster truck rally! We decided to have some lunch, drink some beer, and watch the insanity ensue.

After eventually growing tired of the lunacy, we donned our PFD’s and braved the wake to make the run back to the launch. Thankfully we only had to endure 3 sets of airboat wake before landing, and another dozen or so, sometimes just 5-10 feet away from us, while unloading the boat.

We estimate we saw upwards of 200 airboats! I have since signed up for the Lake County and Seminole County Airboat groups so I can see their posts and hopefully never be on the water again when they are racing!