Plenty of Water and Current…

I have spent the last two Mondays on the water at CS Lee and can say without a doubt, there is plenty of water and current… now we just need the fish to show up! Last Monday Todd and I hit the water with high hopes of catching fish. After catching three shad on a half day outing the week prior and with a nice 5 inch bump in water since our last visit, we figured we had a decent chance. Unfortunately we were wrong.

The bump in water brought the gauge height above 2.5 feet, bringing the water up just enough to distribute the mosquitofish back in to the grassy pasture, and out of the river’s feeding frenzy. Paired with a looming front moving through, this meant we swung a lot of flies for a few bi-catch, and no shad. We worked all of the normal suspects, creek mouths, east and west bank at the Econ, using T3 and then T8 Tips to cover the water column and found no joy.

Fast forward a week to this past Monday, and we found the water had moved up yet another foot with all of the recent rain, spreading the minnows out even further, and making it a real chore to wade. While the water and weather are still relatively warm and waders are not particularly necessary, spots like the creek mouths required knee to thigh high wading. Bringing the waders would have probably been more comfortable and I may have ventured deeper than I was willing to without them. That said, we worked the area thoroughly with the switch rods using T8 tips and 5/32 flies and were not bumping bottom with the +1000cfs discharge and a decent south-southeast wind. I tied on a T11 to go dredging, and while I felt bottom, never anchored nor felt I was pulling up mussels every cast. I also did not find shad.

We moved up to the east bank of the St. Johns River near the mouth of the Econ where I promptly broke my ultralight 7 foot Fenwick Eagle while landing the canoe in the brush… real smooth! I actually have a second one at home so not too big of a deal, but if I break that one, I am going to have to find something different as that would make three in two years. While I like the rod’s 7 foot length for extra reach, I am beginning to think the tips are just too dang delicate for kayak/ canoe/ backpacking life.

The water here also required knee to thigh high wading and again waders would have been nice, but that said, they would not have helped me much when I fell off the east bank and went chest deep… a real possibility any time one decides to take on the challenge of wading the east bank when the gauge is 3.5 feet and the water well outside the banks. SMH… the things I do for this fish. 🙂

Again we worked the area very thoroughly, and just as we were about to move, Todd was the first to hook up with a nice shad, although it was quick released before I could get a picture. I continued dredging for another 20 minutes or so, picking up a couple of decent crappie before finally landing my first and only shad of the day. We continued fishing up and down the east bank, and found no other takers. After lunch and a beer, we moved over to the west bank where the water was ankle to knee high and the wind was at our back, allowing for truly beautiful hero casts, but even as we covered tons of water, we again found no takers and called it a day around 2:00

The fish are around, but MAN… do you have to work for them. The recent rain will be good for the run in general, hopefully allowing the fish to move further upstream, and extending our season. However, they are not moving through or congregating around CS Lee in great numbers yet. I will likely wait for the river to recede within its banks and drive the minnows back in to the river (I estimate somewhere around 2.6-2.8 on the gauge depending on the wind) before returning, unless we get a run of cold weather that drops the water temps and maybe gets the fish moving. Timing getting out there for round two of the feeding frenzy may prove tough though, as my Christmas vacation is quickly fading.

Fortunately I have some work to do on the new (to me) square stern Indian River Canoe I bought from a friend to get it setup the way I want for motoring either tandem or solo to keep me busy. Also, I have purchased my first gas motor, a modest 2.5hp 4 stroke Suzuki which I will need to do an initial break in on before taking it out on the river. I am excited to see what the expanded range this little motor will bring to my fishing adventures will be over the next season or two. Between these two projects, I may be able to resist the siren’s call for a couple of weeks. 🙂

First Trip of the Season, First Shad of the Season

Just a quick post here for posterity, as it was a short trip, and I did not get many pictures. I planned on making my first trip out to do some shad fishing the week of Christmas, but my girls had plans to go see a play last Sunday after church, which meant I had a free afternoon. I pinged Todd to see if he could swing it after church as well, and found out he was game. We met up at CS Lee around 12:30 and hit the water by 1:00.

Since we would only have half a day, the original plan was just to stick around the bridge to see what we could find, as reports near the Econ have been onesy-twosies for the day. Also, we already have a trip planned for next week, where we might focus a little more near the Econ. As we started fishing the first set of creek mouths, we ran in to Suede Langston, winner of the 2017/2018 First Shad of the Season Contest and got a report of a successful day on the water before he paddled in. We fished the creek mouths and I managed to catch two nice shad, but “quick released” them before getting a picture. Oh well, the cost of using barbless hooks.

After fishing for about an hour and picking up a couple small panfish, it became evident that there were not alot of fish congregating or making their way through, so we decided to motor up to the mouth of the Econ. There we ran in to Brandon McGraw who reported catching a lot of bass and crappie, but had not run in to any shad that day. Always good to run in to members of the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group!

We spent another hour or so swinging flies through a trickle of a current. I managed to hook up with one more shad and lost it after a jump or two. Again it did not seem like there were many fish congregating or moving through yet. We motored back down to the creek mouths and fished for about another hour with no takes before calling it a day around 4:15.

Not a ton of action, but there were fish there. Let’s hope that the rain this week gets them moving!

Upstream from Snowhill

Single Hand Spey Casting on the Econ River

After taking a week off from shad fishing, I needed some time outdoors, and decided to make the hike upstream from Snowhill Road on Saturday. Recent rain had pushed the water up to about 3.5 feet on the Snowhill gauge, which is about a foot, to foot and a half higher than ideal for sight fishing, but fishable. I invited Ray to join me, and found out that he was already planning his first trip to this section of river, so we decided to team up.

We arrived at the river around 9:30 and made our way upstream, where we found another fisherman working one of the first bends for bass. We decided to give him room, and proceeded to hike along the river until we made our way to the pool that Todd and I call the double gator pool. Care to take a guess why? 🙂

The double gator pool has a feeder creek that dumps in to it, which creates a nice whirlpool eddy in its depth. The fish tend to sit outside of this current, and it is always a good spot to try. Interestingly, we did not find alligators here this trip, but did see a significant amount of surface activity. There is an opening at the water’s edge with just barely enough room for a backcast. Ray worked that area with the fly rod, and I opted to move slightly upstream to fish the head of the pool. With newly downed trees on the shore, and water levels higher than ideal, we found already confined quarters to be even more challenging, as comfortably wading to allow more space for a backcast was difficult.

One should note, that the Econ River upstream of Snowhill has a deceptive quality about it. While there are areas of white bottom “sand bars” that beckon to you like a Siren’s song… “wade in, come stand on me,” if you become too enchanted by the thought of better reach, you will quickly find that some of them are not sand bars at all, but quick sand! I have actually found myself in crotch deep sand before, which is creepy enough in clear, shallow water, and definitely something I would not want to do in an areas of river we fondly refer to as the double gator pool. Before you step, check… then check again.

Ray fished the area with the fly and had a take, but did not connect. I worked the head of the pool with the spoon for a while without a bite. Ray clearly spotted shad washing towards the inside of the bend, but outside of his reach, so I came over to take a shot with the spinning rod. After a few casts, I had a hard take followed by a solid run in to the drag. As I reeled in, the 7ft ultralight bent right down to the butt of the rod. Just as I said “man, this is a nice fish,” it made a strong run in to the drag and Ray shouted “it’s about to jump!” Right as I lowered the rod tip, we were both surprised by a leap in the air, and a tarpon like head shake… not from a shad, but by a GIANT gar that landed in the water like someone had thrown a bowling ball in to the river! Alas, the 6lb test on the ultralight was no match for the beast, and I broke him off before coming to hand. It looked to be the largest gar I have ever hooked.

I re-rigged as Ray took some more shots with the fly. After a few more casts in to the strike zone with the spoon, I managed to hook and land a shad that was very emaciated. While I was excited to answer the question as to whether shad had made it above Snowhill, this was also a sign that we are in to the tail end of the run. I switched to my 7ft fiberglass fly rod, and made some single hand spey casts in to the strike zone, but found no takers.

We continued upstream to an area I call the willow pool. It was a pool back in 2017, but the river has changed since then and the depth of the pool seems nonexistent. I would say its actually more of a soft bend now, so maybe I should call it willow bend… Ehhh, I still like pool.

Pool or no pool, there is still a head where there is decent current, and some trough like structure along the north bank. Just as prior years, fish were stacked up in this trough, and downstream of them, sat an alligator that will likely find plenty to eat as the fish continue to spawn and die off as water temperatures continue to rise.

Can you spot the gator???

An alligator on the shore is your best friend… better to be able to clearly see them than to wonder what all those bubbles are across the river from you. In the past I have made many casts directly in front of a beached gator, even plopping the fly right on top of them at times, hooked and landed fish, without even a flinch. Ray did just that, working the area directly in front of our pool mate, as I looked for a decent entry to fish the head of the pool. Again I found newly downed timber along the shore to further tighten already confined areas for a backcast, but I was able to manage, wading in about knee deep to make single hand spey casts to where I saw fish washing.

About that time we saw our first paddler, making his way upstream on the Econlockhatchee. Being a good man, he took care to move out of the way of where Ray was casting. Unfortunately on water this narrow, that meant he hugged the shore where the alligator was sunning himself, and it quickly slid in, not to be seen again. An alligator in the water is not your best friend, particularly in water this narrow, so back on shore we went. I switched back to the spinning rod, and after casting the spoon several times, watched two shad end up at my feet, even though I never saw them in the mud stained water I was casting to. They nipped but did not take.

Several more paddlers came by, spooking the pool… or bend, whatever you prefer. We decided to make the hike up to the pool downstream of the Flagler foot bridge, a solid bend in the river with good current at its head and tail. We found no fish, but did find more people. We continued up to the foot bridge, and I was surprised to see it was closed for renovation.

We half-heartedly fished the stretch just downstream of the bridge after a lunch break, but honestly just laughed because there were so many kids with their families, jumping and playing in the water, and paddlers coming downstream. With temperatures in the mid 80’s… at the beginning of March, who could blame them? We were sweating through our quick dry apparel, chasing a herring that swam a couple of hundred miles upstream on a freshwater river to spawn, until they were dead. I was starting to question why I didn’t bring a bathing suit so I could join them… the kids, not the spent shad! 🙂

Ray and I made our way back downstream, fishing the spots we already knew had fish, struggling to make casts, getting a few takes, and one more fish to hand. We watched more and more people paddle up and downstream and I have to say, I am pretty sure I saw more people on the water than I have ever seen above Snowhill in one day, even on a Saturday. We joked that the new neighborhoods in Geneva and Oviedo likely had something to do with it. Its probably true. More interest in the river, might end up meaning more respect for its riches, and that is never a bad thing. Time will tell.

As February fades away, and hopes of shad jumping in to boat at the mouth of the Econ do the same, consider this… there are still good numbers of fish upstream of Snowhill, Ray and I can surely attest. It is humbling to watch what they do unfold.. sometimes right outside of even a modest cast, but it is incredible all the same.

If you made it out to Brumley this year following reports of fish, I encourage you to now make the same journey with them upstream. In this new territory, you will find conditions tight, technical, and challenging… distinctly different than the conditions found further downstream. Backcasting is difficult if not impossible in a lot of the areas you will find fish. This is single hand spey casting water at its finest. Short rods, versus long switch rods, shine here. If spey casting is not your thing, a conventional rod is a good choice too.

As the water drops below three feet, you will be able to see shad clearly, and sight fish for them. You will watch them chase a fly, and turn a cheek, just as selective as any western trout, or discerning Bahamian bonefish. But with the right fly and presentation, you will catch them, and you might even be able to do so until April!

Great Conditions but Slow Fishing

Econ River below Snowhill

With recent rain pushing the Econ River up 1.5 feet, I decided to give the pools at Brumley a break, and make the paddle downstream of Snowhill again on Saturday. The plan this time was to make my way down to the pool below the power lines, as I have wanted to fish this area for multiple years. After recently finding out that Ray Ayala lived quite literally two minutes away from me, I asked whether he wanted to join me, with the caveat that this was a lower probability trip, but we would get to fish some lesser traveled areas.

This section of river is indeed a gamble, but there is some quality water to fish, at least in years where the Econ has good current relative to the St. Johns. In this section you will find sand bottom, good current, pools with eddies and some with whirlpools… all the makings of perfect holding areas for shad making their way upstream to spawn. With the rain and a report or two of slower fishing at Brumley, my thoughts were filled with good numbers of fish moving upstream, but alas, it is more difficult to think like a fish than it may seem.

I picked up Ray at 8am and we made the trip to the bridge on Snowhill Road. We were greeted with more cars parked along the bridge than I have seen in a while… Boy Scouts making the paddle to C.S. Lee, with an overnight stay on the Econ. This is actually a trip that Ray and I had been considering ourselves. We loaded up the canoe and decided to get in front of the crowd, using the current to our advantage to quickly make our way to the confluence where I caught fish last trip. Ray fished the head of the pool with the fly rod, and I covered the depth and tail of the pool with the “fish finder” and found no takers.

The Pool above the Power Lines
Ray fishing the pool above the power lines

Back in the canoe, we skipped the big pool with the nice whirlpool, and decided to stop at the pool above the power lines. We were greeted by a nice gar, actively working the surface of the pool, along with considerable surface activity. Same story, different pool… we covered the area by fly, and by spoon, and found no takers.

We continued downstream another 1.5 miles through a section of deep, straight, slow moving water and arrived at the pool below the power lines at around 11:00. There we found two nice sized alligators, one of which slipped under, not to be seen again that day, and the other just meandered, guarding the stagnant side pool outside of the current of the river. There was considerable current at the head of the pool, which came to a crawl at the center and then accelerated in to a run below the tail of the pool in to the next turn. It looked like prime water to find shad. Next verse, same as the first… Ray began working the area with the fly, me with the spoon on the spinning rod. After several casts, I hooked up with what looked to be a small hickory, or a large blueback herring, but I lost the fish right as I slipped my hand in the water to grab it, so I did not clearly identify it.

The Power Lines

We fished the area thoroughly from the inside bank, but found no other takers. However, from nearly the moment we arrived, I noticed non-stop surface activity outside of the best of the current coming in to the turn, near that stagnant side pool. This was an area we could not reach from the inside bank, so we mustered up some courage and jumped back in the canoe to see if could drive the alligator out, circling behind it, through the stagnant pool, banging on the side of the canoe with the paddles.

The gator submerged, and we opted not to fish the shoreline that would have given us prime access to the surface activity until we had waited long enough to ensure the gator did not surface again for air. Instead we fished just upstream of the stagnant pool on high and dry bank, and a section of submerged land bridge just about knee deep. Fourth verse, same as the first… Ray worked the area with the fly, and I with the spoon and found no takers. I finally rigged up the switch rod for some extra reach, trying heavy flies with sink tips, and light flies on floating tips to no avail. Right as I started to consider moving over to better shoreline, our buddy showed back up, dashing any hopes of wading in that area.

The Pool Below the Power Lines
The Pool Below the Power Lines

What we did start to figure out though, was just why that gator was so interested in guarding that side pool. We began to see surface activity not just right outside of the current, but right in to the stagnant pool itself. While the recent rain had reconnected the pool to the river, after looking at satellite images of the area, it is now clear to me that once the water receded just another foot or so (a couple of days in Econ time,) that pool would once again be cut off from the river, likely trapping fish and creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for our reptilian friend(s.)

After swinging flies, a couple of beers, some conversation, and something like four hours, we finally saw those boy scouts pass us. I have no idea what took them so long, but we decided to motor our way back upstream. On the way we stopped and fished the pool above the power lines again where Ray caught a bluegill. We continued up river and fished the pool with the whirlpool, and later fished the opposite bank at the confluence and did not find shad. We did however nearly get swamped by three jackasses on jetskis, I kid you not, under a mile from the Snowhill bridge. The river is what, 20-30 feet wide here?? Idiots!

It was a good day of exploring, and I enjoyed fishing with Ray. I am glad he is as laid back as I am, just enjoys being on the water, and doesn’t mind trading a sure thing for a chance at catching fish in new places.

Fantastic Saturday at Brumley

Econlockhatchee River

Todd and I plotted and schemed most of the week as to where we were going to fish this weekend. We have not fished together since New Year’s Eve, so I think we were both looking forward to some comradery in addition to swinging flies in the middle of nowhere. Earlier in the week there were talks about making the trek from the trailhead at the Seminole Conservation Area on Hatbill Road, down to the swift current near the second junction. This is a hike that both of us have wanted to make, but have not done solo, as there is some wading to be done to get there, and this area in general, is gator city. Better to go with a buddy, at least the first time. We have both had success in this area before, but have made the journey by boat. Ultimately the forecast for 15-20 mph wind and rain eliminated this trip as an option.

Brumley Trail Map

Where there is wind, there is shelter on the Econ River. There were a couple of reports of shad upstream of Snowhill, but Todd walked the upper section of river there prior to our planned trip and did not find fish. I contemplated another canoe ride downstream, but we decided with potential for rain again, the easiest option would just be to head to Brumley. The question was, were there fish there? A couple of recent reports after my last successful trip to Brumley had seen slow fishing there. With rain that bumped the gauge at Snowhill two and a half feet in one day, I was beginning to wonder if the fish had just booked from that area of river, upstream of the section accessible from hiking Snowhill.

Todd was not going to be able to join me on the river until around 1:00, so I decided to hit the trail early and see if I could find fish. If not, we would do some bushwhacking to see if we could make it to the turn above the Yarborough shelter, a particularly fishy looking section of river not accessible by marked trail, and a paddle and a half to reach from Snowhill.

White Trail Marker
White Trail Marker

I arrived at the trailhead around 9:45 and it took me about 10 minutes to make it to the white trail marker on the service road by bike. There I locked up the bike to make the short hike to the yellow/ white junction at the river. For what its worth, it should be noted that technically these trails are not designated for bike use. In my mind, riding a bike on the service road, even all the way out to the pasture that gives you access to the river near Culpepper Bend, does no damage, and even if you saw a ranger or FWC, no one would likely give you a hard time. That said, the section of trail leading to the yellow/ white junction, and then the section of trail that runs along the river is more sensitive, and if dozens of us biked it, the trail would quickly become very well worn like the areas around Snowhill. This would likely garner more attention from the powers that be. So if you choose to make this journey by bike, please lock the bike up at the white trail marker at the service road, and make the remainder of the trip by foot. The bike does not buy you that much of a time advantage on these trails anyway.

After making it to the white trail, I decided to fish a tail of a pool I generally do not spend much time at. There was some surface activity that caught my attention, so I decided to work it with the ultralight, and if I found fish, move to the switch rod. After several casts in to the best of the current, I let the spoon swing outside and downstream of the seam where I got a hit, but did not hook up. I focused several casts in the general area and quickly landed my first of the day. I rigged up the switch rod with a Scandi Head, Type 3 ten foot tip, about 6 feet of level mono, and attached a white bead chain Soft Hackle Shad Fly. After making several touch and go casts, I hooked up again, but lost the fish before coming to hand. I continued to patiently work the tail of the pool and was rewarded with my first shad on the fly of the day.

Shad on the Fly

I decided to move to the head of the same pool, and proceeded to hook up and lose a fish or two, and then land a couple. Its a familiar ebb and flow, the price you pay for pinching the barbs on your hooks, but it is the responsible thing to do. As I continued working upstream, a light rain started, and almost on queue, a flurry of surface activity erupted. I actually stopped fishing and just watched with amazement as the surface of this pool began to boil with spawning fish. There must have been fifty to sixty fish all doing exactly what they had made the long journey to come and do. After ten or so minutes, the rain stopped, and the fish returned to the depths below.

Around 1:00 I got a text from Todd that he had arrived. We decided to meet at the “Wives Pool,” an area of the river that we had both brought our wives to for a picnic, on an outing a couple of years ago. I swung a fly through the usual suspects, and landed fish. When the fish are in the Econ, this pool generally holds fish at the head, depth, and tail.

As Todd biked/ hiked in, I grabbed some lunch, and while sitting there, decided there were enough fish in the river that I could change up flies and try some different techniques. The Soft Hackle Shad Fly is a solid performer on the Econ, but it is good to have a few different patterns to swing in front of the schools when they seem to become weary of a particular fly they have obviously seen come by their faces several times.

Electric Bugaloo
Electric Bugaloo

Days when the fish are thick are perfect for testing new patterns. I picked up some Enrico Puglisi UV Brushes from Orlando Outfitters on Thursday, and tied a couple of new flies with it. The Thunderstuck color really caught my eye, and I used it similar to how I would a soft hackle. What came to life was a translucent, yet electric, flashing buggy profile. I fished the fly in to the depth of the pool, and landed a nice, big, fat hen right as Todd arrived.

Todd rigged up and quickly began fishing. Without problem he began catching fish on a Soft Hackle. I quickly shared my latest creation with him, and we jokingly decided to name it the Electric Bugaloo, named aptly after a movie we both remembered from childhood, Breakin’ 2- Electric Boogaloo. And just like that, a star is born. 🙂

We continued fishing the pool, switching flies as they would become weary, until we had caught enough, and began to feel like we should stop bothering them. We moved downstream to the pool I had seen the washing on earlier in the day and continued catching fish as the sun started to get low in the sky. I decided to make a hike down to the first turn on the yellow trail, and left Todd to happily continue swinging flies. The first turn on yellow has slow current, but I have seen shad washing in this area before. When I arrived I thought it was hardly worth the effort, but I cast the spoon through an area where I saw a bit of surface activity, and was rewarded with my eleventh fish of the day.

Todd with a nice shad
Todd with a nice shad

As the sun continued to sink behind the trees, we met back up at the yellow/ white junction where I shared that I had surprisingly caught a fish in a spot that otherwise looked “unfishy.” Todd caught ten fish, in just a half a day of fishing, and as we recounted the day, we both agreed that we had hooked and lost around ten more each. As we made the trip back to the cars, discussing the finer nuances of all things fly fishing, we both agreed, the Econlockhatchee is loaded with both Hickory and American shad right now.