Sunday Econ Run

It is few and far between that I take any time on a Sunday nowadays to fish, but here and there I do make exceptions. This past Sunday was one rare instance where I did so. My wife decided to take my two girls over to her mom’s house, as they all had MLK day off, making for a nice 3 day getaway. I had to work, so I stayed back and decided to do back to back days on the water.

After a successful day at Tosohatchee on Saturday, I decided to mix it up and put in at C.S. Lee, but rather than fishing the regular spots which have been slow this year, I decided to make a run up the Econlockhatchee to see if I could double down on fishing spots earlier than normal in the season, and catch some more fish.

Some of you that know me, may have heard me in past years talk about wanting to fish a couple of turns upstream of the Yarborough Shelter on the Econ. It looks fishy on the maps to my eyes, and is sort of out in “no man’s land,” a shallow 7.5 mile upstream run by boat from C.S. Lee, or about a 4.5 mile downhill run from Snowhill, where technically I believe you can’t run gas motors, even though Ray and I have held on for dear life as multiple jetskis swamped us.

This is a section of the river that may be accessible to an adventurer willing to hike in from Brumley Road, but is well past where the standard trail designated by white blazes ends. I have targeted this section by foot in past outings, but found fish downstream that kept me occupied, and in 2-3 planned attempts, have never even started a real effort to actually get there. I decided this was my target (once again,) but because the water level on the Econ was still a tad high, and because I left the canoe on the racks and my gear in the Jeep the night before, I decided to motor in from C.S. Lee rather than hike.

Yarborough Shelter

Similar to Saturday, a chilly morning on Sunday meant I dragged my feet, enjoyed a couple of coffees at home and then made my way to the launch a little later. After talking to a nice gentleman in the parking lot, who won a boat in the shad derby of ’86, and was kind enough to give me a couple shad darts in the winning dressing named Potato Bug, I was on the water by 11am.

Since I was going the distance in a canoe with a 2.5hp outboard, I decided I wanted to keep some detailed notes along the way. Here they are for future reference…

Launch from C.S. Lee0 min
Mouth of Econ9 min
Culpepper Shelter 29 min
Yellow/ White Trail Marker60 min
Lilly Pond1:10 min
Wives’ Pool 1:15 min
Deep Pool1:18 min
High Bank Pool1:25 min (stopped to refill gas)
Yarborough Shelter1:31 min
Target Turn1:43 min
Faster by foot? Mmmmhmmm.

Needless to say, it was a haul, but a really enjoyable ride. I saw egrets, herons, hawks, bald eagles, ducks, and cormorants, plus a couple of deer and some turkeys up on the banks. When I finally made it to my target turns, I found the water to be big, and still just a tad high to really see any noticeable current coming in and out of the turns, plus it was silty, and that is not good. I fished it as best I could, methodically with the ultralight. I found no shad. I might consider it again, but a little later in the season next time. That said, the run between Yarborough and this spot was already shallow, so by foot may be optimal.

I ran down to the Wives’ Pool, a place I know well and have fished thoroughly over the years. I picked apart the water, with both the switch rod, and the ultralight and found no shad. Honestly, it was not that surprising, as this was at least two weeks earlier than any of us had traditionally fished it, but, it was a worth a shot, particularly since the reports at C.S. Lee have been dismal.

I did not fish the Lilly Pool on the way back downstream. First, there were folks camping on the high bluff there, with a couple of boats in the water. They were lighting a fire and obviously preparing for dinner. I wasn’t looking for an audience, nor were they. Second, the Lilly Pool, to me, is somewhat of an anomaly. For years I never caught fish there, and then had a couple of years where it turned on. In my experience though, if the Wives have not found fish, then rest assured, the Lillies were likely still waiting too.

I enjoyed a cigar on the way back down river, shaving about 10 minutes off the return trip with the downstream current, and fished the east bank at the mouth of the Econ. The water is still above the banks about ankle to shin deep. Again I did not catch shad, but caught about a dozen nice sized crappie. If you are going to C.S. Lee this year, bring a cooler and limit out on them. You can keep 25 of them per angler, per day.

Early in the Season at Tosohatchee

Last Saturday I decided to do something I have not done before, fish from Tosohatchee early in the season. Last year I learned the area downstream pretty well after adding a motored canoe to the fleet. However, the low water last year prevented me from checking out some of the areas well upstream of the launch, and to that end I decided to launch from the power lines and head upstream to where the east and west channels meet.

A cold snap the night before meant I was not in any hurry in the morning, and I hit the water around noon. Unfortunately that also allowed the wind to come up to full speed before even casting a line, and what was forecasted as 10-15 mph wind with 20mph gusts, was actually 15-20 mph with 30 mph gusts (and plenty of them!)

Never a good sign

After a short motor, I made it to where the two channels converge and found a spit of land that was just barely noticeable because the tips of grass were just peeking out of the water. With the S.R. 50 gage at 5.3 feet, the water is still a foot or so high for optimal wading and walk-ins, but I managed. With the wind in my face I opted to use the ultralight rather than the switch rod, and fished the area very thoroughly with a Hardcore Shad Spoon. While there was a ton of current, and decent depth, I did not find shad in this spot.

I decided I wanted to continue upstream and set sail, quite literally, to my next intended spot. However, with the water up I found it difficult to find the channel, and kept hitting bottom with the motor, eventually having to pull it up and paddle… well, try to paddle. What I learned was, a square stern canoe with 80 pounds of ballast up on the bow to keep the nose down, tracks like total crap, and is nearly impossible for me to turn to get the bow upwind by myself in 30 mph wind. The rodeo that proceeded would probably have caused more than a chuckle if I would have had an audience, and after a comedy of laughter mixed with expletives, I gave up the effort to make it upstream, and got out and walked the boat using the painter line back downstream to the east channel.

In hindsight, I guess I could have dumped the ballast bags and rowed on my knees from the center of the boat to make it upstream, but at the end of the day, 30 mph wind just isn’t that fun to paddle in either way. Instead, I motored just downstream to a spit of exposed cut bank on the north side of the west channel, that when the water is lower, splits the channels in two. Todd and I fished from the same place last year and there is significant current and depth in this area. With the water high, wading was a challenge but doable. While Todd and I had no luck from this spot last year, this is where I picked up my first fish of the season, and a couple more.

I generally would not leave fish to find fish, but I noticed a considerable amount of bird activity a turn or so downstream and decided to investigate. My interest was rewarded and I not only found busy birds, but shad feeding on the top of the water column. I removed the T8 tip I was using, opting instead for an intermediate, and tied on a Gambusia Hair Wing Fly (instructional video to come) and proceeded to pick up several nice shad, including nice big fat hens. The activity was solid enough that I was able to test out the double version of the Gambusia fly, along with a single trailing behind it, and caught fish alternating back to front, and even managed to hook two very nice fish at the same time. What a ride that was, as both fish cartwheeled over each other until one popped off!

Generally I like to catch a few fish and then move on, always careful not to pound pools to death. The fish are here to spawn, and we should respect that, particularly this early in the season. However, I was pretty disgusted to see 4-5 guys cast netting just downstream, and while they were respectful of my space (for the most part,) they were keeping shad, and it was clear that they were just waiting for me to move, so they could pull every fish they could out of there. On this day, I spent the better part of two hours in the same spot, until the bite finally turned off, in the hopes that maybe at least some of the fish I caught, decided to head upstream to get away from me, and by proxy, the cast netters. At the end of the day, these guys were not doing anything illegal, and perhaps were just trying to feed their families, but at any rate, I just found it to be incredibly unsporting, and disrespectful to a fishery that I love. Add to that, information that came to me after the fact, with a conversation with a regular pack at the parking spot, that these very characters have been seen feeding alligators in the past, and my anger level increased even further. Feeding alligators IS illegal!

As the sun hung low in the sky, and the airboat noise finally way out in the distance, I decided to visit the well known airboat stop one turn downstream of the powerlines known as Catfish Hotel. Most days it is full of folks drinking beer and barbequing, but late in the day when they head back to the boat ramp, its worth trying. While the current is not as swift on this turn, there is nice depth, and acceleration coming in and out of the pool. I was happy to find good numbers of fish here as well, and caught my fill until just before dark. Tosohatchee closes at dark, and I would say I pushed it to the very end, getting the boat loaded and making my way down that long dirt road, headlights on. It was a great day on the water on a beautiful section of the St. Johns River.

First Trip of 2021- Plenty of Crappie but no Shad

Just a quick report. After recovering from Covid-19, I was ready to finally start my season today. I met up with Todd at 10am at CS Lee. When we arrived the weather was still in the mid 40’s and the wind was brisk. Thankfully I had packed an Under Armor thermal layer and had a wind breaker in the dry bag, as I had opted not to grab a jacket on the way out.

We packed the boat and set out to do some fishing, stopping at the creek mouths first. With the gage at 3.5 feet, the west bank is still partially submerged, but wadable ankle to thigh high. The current was booking, still at around 3000cfs, and a 10 foot T3 tip and hourglass eye fly was not enough to bounce bottom here. Todd fished a T8 tip and felt like he was getting down, but neither of us hooked shad. After I caught a little red belly, we decided to move upstream to the mouth of the Econ.

The east bank at the mouth is wadable shin to waist high, which made things chilly. Add to that a good 10-12 northwest wind, and the chop was stacking up a good foot. Even with the backup, the current still warranted T8’s and heavy flies. I switched tips and worked the likely areas without a hookup. Todd on the other hand found the crappie hole, and pulled numerous slabs out on a pink fly. These were some of the biggest crappie we had seen in this section of river in a good while.

Eventually, the cold and wind in our face took its toll and we decided to poke around on the west bank, which was again wadable shin to waist high, but found no takers.

After a quick stop at a creek mouth that Todd likes that can produce fish on days where they are warming up in the shallow water, on a whim, we decided to run down to the big turn downstream of the Jolly Gator, as it had been several years since either of us had fished it. I recalled catching shad there early in the season, but it was always a gamble, and a bit more of a commitment in the kayaks. Under motor, it is a quick run downstream and back up if there was no action.

When we arrived, we saw more activity than anywhere else on the river all day. Birds were diving at the confluence of the slough and main channel coming out of the turn, and we did see some surface activity, but the water level on the west bank was still pretty deep, and made reaching the main water of interest difficult, even with the switch rods. If you are going out by boat this week, you may want to take a look and anchor up just outside the main current.

We decided to call it a day around 3:00. There were plenty of nice crappie to be had today, and had we really focused on them, we probably could have filled a nice sized cooler. They definitely liked the pink or orange flies, and were hanging in holes or just outside the main current. However, we are shad fanatics, and nothing else quite quenches the thirst… except maybe a cold beer! 🙂

Shad Season Retrospective- 2019/2020

It seems like the middle of March just snuck up on me. As the temperatures have warmed rapidly and the chance of rain dropped in to the single digits, the reality starts to set in that yet another shad run is coming to an end.

Early in the season, it looked like we would have an amazing run for spots like CS Lee, Hatbill, and beyond, with reports of fish being caught in Shad Alley in early December and nice sized fish already being caught at CS Lee late in December. Heck I even caught a couple before Christmas, which is a rarity, as in recent years I generally force myself to wait until after Christmas before wetting a line. However, like many I struggled to locate fish in the typical spots upstream of Lake Harney. This all but forced me to change focus, and make this a season of exploration and study.

So what made this shad run a struggle when everything seemed to be lining up so perfectly, so early? As I mentioned in a prior post, I think a lot of this just had to do with water levels and timing. While it felt like conditions were coming together perfectly, upon closer inspection, we actually had lower water this summer coming in to fall. Less water during summer and fall meant less time for minnows and grass shrimp to build up on the flooded pastures, and what bait was there, was swept off in to the channel early as the water receded within its banks for the first time during this season which was in late November/ early December. I generally consider the window of time between 3.0ft- 2.5ft on the USGS 02234000 gauge to be what Mark Benson refers to as the “squeegee,” that brings all that bait in to the main channel near CS Lee, and will become the target I more specifically track in future years.

After the early squeegee, we then got a pretty decent amount of rain in late December through early January that bumped water flow up considerably and likely pushed what little food may not have already been consumed, back outside of the banks. This set of conditions is likely what caused the typical December wave of fish to just continue upstream rather than congregate and feed in this section of river. As mentioned in an earlier post, good numbers of fish were being caught well upstream of SR 50 (and beyond) in November and December. Of course while that may have been the case, the conditions were not quite favorable for fishing for them outside of the boat, something that is an important consideration for those of us fishing by canoe or kayak. While I am still getting comfortable with the area of river south of SR 50, somewhere between 5.0ft- 4.5ft on the USGS 02232500 gauge is when I will consider making my way out there to do some bank fishing.

As others began to hang it up and call it an early season, I decided to slow down and focus less on writing and more on exploring new sections of the river. While I did plenty of fishing, I made a conscious effort to be more observant of flow in different areas, and note details like confluences, structure (both onshore and in-water,) and water features like seams, lines, and eddies. To help expand my confidence in my new boat, and also my range and knowledge of different areas shad may congregate year to year in different conditions, on two back to back Saturdays, I decided to drop the canoe in at the Power Lines at Tosohatchee and motor downstream towards 7 Palms and beyond. This is something I had considered doing by kayak in prior years, but the large alligator population and stiff current eventually swayed me from doing it.

The first outing was on February 22 with Todd. We made our way downstream of 7 Palms to a pool where we found good current and fish active on the surface. Here we found floating lines and light flies to be more successful than the usual sink tips and weighted flies we typically catch fish with downstream. We both caught several fish from the first pool, and then decided to motor back upstream to 7 Palms where we would spend the majority of the rest of the day, before fishing each interesting turn while heading back to the launch. Unfortunately plans changed when mysteriously, Todd broke the tip on his switch rod in a freak accident as we loaded up.

While we did stop at 7 Palms and fished with my switch and spinning rod, we quickly decided to motor back to the launch to grab Todd’s spare single hand rod from his car and then try upstream of the launch. Unfortunately we found the water upstream to already be too shallow to motor, even in the shallow draft canoe, and being that Todd had to be off the water at 3:00, decided not to park and hike or portage the boat upstream to the deeper pool we had hoped to hit. We did fish the turns closest to the launch, which are also accessible by foot but we did not find shad there. While we had some issues, overall this trip was a success, where fishing a new area of the river gave me the confidence to come back again, and explore further.

Fast forward to February 29 and Ray and I launched the canoe from Power Lines in to a stiff 20-25 mph NW wind, meaning we would be running downstream through some pretty good white caps. Thankfully while I was outfitting my canoe, John Hawko had warned me about his experience almost sinking a motored canoe while running in similar conditions, so I decided to stop by the time we got to 7 Palms to see how much water we had taken on while underway. It was a good 5-6 inches in about 20 minutes of motoring.

Ray’s first shad on the switch rod!

We bailed out the water and set off downstream to the pool Todd and I had fished the week prior. Again, we found fish active up top, and I fished a Fry Fly while Ray threw a small EP Minnow. We both caught several fish including Ray’s first fish (not just shad) on the switch rod!

Rather than beat up the pool we decided to keep on moving and exploring. After a short run, we found another nice pool where we both caught several more fish and where I believe both of us hit double digits for the day. There were so many fish stacked up on a seam leading in to the pool, that Ray was quite literally high sticking them almost as if he was euro-nymphing out west.

The highlight of the afternoon for me was trying to move the canoe solo back upstream (so we didn’t have to walk so far to get beers of course,) and because the bow of the canoe was up in the air two feet due to my rear-heavy ballast (i.e. @ss,) the wind blew me all over the pool… eventually having to pull the motor, grab the paddle (all the while cracking up,) and paddle while kneeling mid stern. As we made our way back upstream to the launch, we saw fish active up top on nearly every turn, and even the straight away between Catfish Hotel and the Power Lines. It was a fun day on the water for sure, and yet another successful trip!

I finished the season with a walk upstream from Snowhill last Saturday with my wife and two daughters. While I did bring rods, the primary goal was a diversion from the coronavirus-forced change in spring break plans we had. While a river hike may not be quite the same as a week stay at Disney’s Fort Wilderness, my girls really enjoyed fishing with their Olaf rod, playing in the creek, and digging in the mud. I enjoyed seeing dozens of cruising shad, large bass, groups of small bass, mudfish, tilapia, armored cats, and CLOUDS of tens of thousands of shad fry making their way downstream. I could not capture a picture of the fry because of the glare, but thankfully Ray and his family visited shortly after, and his daughter Gabby Lopez got this AMAZING picture!!!

Photo Credit: Gabby Lopez

I took some shots at cruising shad but did not connect. I did however catch panfish, catfish, and even chain pickerel. I am not sure I have ever seen that many fish/ species on a single day on this section of river.

As next season approaches, I will try to be mindful about posting more regularly. That said, I will likely still focus more on fishing and posting short format posts in the Facebook Group the weekend of a trip, particularly as the group continues to grow, and give myself 3-5 days to post the detailed long format stories here. Until next year…