Double Digits on the Econlockhatchee River

Econlockhatchee River

After postponing my trip to the Econlockhatchee River last weekend due to a cold that hit me with a 101.7 fever, and the body aches and general malaise to go along with it, I decided to make the hike out of the Little Big Econ State Forest trailhead on Brumley Road on Saturday. This is a great hike that puts you right on top of some pristine spawning areas for shad, that do not receive a lot of pressure most years, particularly when the water is low. Most boats do not venture this far up the Econ when launching from CS Lee, and while you may see the odd airboat or maybe a few mud boats, it is generally a quiet area to fish.

White or Yellow Trail, you choose

I hit the trail at about 9am and made a brisk but purposely quiet hike along the service road hoping to spot some wildlife. I was rewarded by seeing a large flock of sandhill cranes, two bald eagles, and a very large group of maybe 30ish deer that leapt across my path not far after making the turn off of the service road on to the single track trail marked by the yellow post, and white blazes. I made it to the white/ yellow trail junction at the river in about 30 minutes, which was quick enough to warm me up enough to shed the jacket, even with temperatures hanging in the low 50’s.

While there were likely fish down the yellow trail, particularly in some of the faster moving water upstream and around Culpepper Bend, I decided to stick to the white trail and fish the pools on each of the bends leading up to the Yarborough shelter. It is an easy hike, but maybe a little more advanced than the yellow trail, as the trail is definitely less traveled and certainly not as clearly defined, and the white blazes can be hard to spot. I have made this hike several times over the last three years, and have just come to accept that I will get turned around at some point, and have to figure out how to get back on the trail. The good news is, in lower water years, the creek and small ponds that usually make navigation a little more challenging are just about dry, so you can fast track from destination to destination without coming to a stagnant dead end that you would rather not wade through. If you are new to the hike, do not fret, just stick to the river and you will be fine, you will end up on the blazed trail soon enough.

The infamous palm tree
The infamous palm tree I fell off of trying to cross one higher water year

One thing to consider about this section of river is, it is not super conducive to single hand fly fishing where false casting is necessary. You will be alright on the first two turns, but further upstream, the banks get high. In lower water years, you can climb down the banks in areas to get to sandy footing below, but that high bank will present some problems to your backcast in a few choice areas that have nice pools with good flow entering and leaving them. This is perfect for Spey casting though, where waterborne casts give you access to river most single hand fishermen will skip. The other option, and one I have recommended on this section of river in the past, is to bring an ultralight conventional setup with you as well. I actually opted to bring both my switch rod and my ultralight rod, and leave the single hand rod at home this trip.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, it should come as no surprise that I am a Spey fanatic, and fishing the Econ with a switch rod is an absolute dream. In this section of river, the water sits down well below the tree line where the wind will not bother you, even on the breeziest of days and in most areas, you will have no problem dropping a fly quite literally on the opposite bank with a well executed Single Spey or Snap T. Using the short, medium, and then long cast method, you can cover a lot of water with just this one tool. However, I decided to use a “run and gun” technique this trip and use the ultralight to accelerate this methodology.

I rigged the ultralight with a Hardcore Shad Spoon and four splitshot about 18 inches above the spoon and started fishing around 10am. I can’t hit the opposite bank with this particular setup, but I don’t need to (I have the switch.) I can however, cover a lot of water faster than swinging flies, which means I could fish areas I would generally skip because of lower flow, slow eddies, or otherwise less attractive water to find fish. If I found fish using the “fish finder,” I would then change to my preferred method, the switch rod. For this trip, I rigged the switch rod with the Rio Scandi Versitip Short head system, paired with the Type 3 tip. Heavy tips and flies are not necessary in this section of river when the water is low, so the Skagit head was not needed, and the Scandi lays out more delicately which is helpful in the shallower water where fish can be spooky. Even though the water is relatively shallow, the Type 3 tip ensured I could get down to the depths of the pools, but not anchor the head in the shallow runs coming in to, or leaving the pools.

Shad on the Econ

This approach was very successful, and I was surprised by where I found and caught fish. The heads and tails of pools are always normal suspects, and of course I found fish there, but interestingly enough, those fish seemed to be hickories or smaller males. In the depths of the pools, where there was hardly enough current for me to bat an eye at, little less spend much time swinging flies through them most years, is where I found big, fat, healthy, hard-hitting females… full of energy, making strong runs, and multiple jumps. The males were feisty and fresh as well, but the hens made the day.

I used this tactic successfully, covering a lot of water quickly, catching a fish or two, and then moving on. While I likely could have sat in one general area most of the day and caught fish, I didn’t want to pound the schools to death. They are here to spawn, and we should respect that. Rather, I chose to explore and try new areas of the river where I have not spent as much time, and was rewarded by landing fish in new places I have never fished, or have fished but not found them in prior years.

Lunch Spot
Perfect place for lunch

By 2:00 I had made it up river to the turn just downstream of the Yarborough shelter. I caught fish in the slow pool just below that, and feeling famished, decided to have lunch on the high, sandy bank. This is my usual spot for a break, but today I kicked it up a notch. Because of the chilly weather, I brought a little alcohol penny stove with me to heat some water and have a hot lunch riverside, courtesy of Mountain House. My plan was to continue upstream after lunch, but a couple of boats that had passed me earlier had obviously set up there and were firing what sounded to be full magazines of .223 at God knows what. I opted to eat my lunch quietly, keeping my head down low, and then make my way back downstream. 🙂

By 4:00 I had caught ten shad on the switch, and at least that many on the ultralight. I decided to call it a day, don some dry socks and make the hike back to the Jeep before the sun got too low. On the way back, I inevitably got turned around trying to make my way down to the white/ yellow junction, and found myself upstream of where I put on dry socks, which added 15 minutes extra to my trip. It happens. I course corrected and made my way out of the forest back to the service road. On the way, I saw a bunch of turkeys very close to where I saw all of the deer earlier in the day. Shortly after, I ran in to some long horn bulls blocking the service road. I mooooooo’d, waved my hands, yelled “GO On Now!” They just looked at me, so I carefully proceeded with no “goring details” to report.

In all it took me about 45-50 minutes to make it back to the trailhead. Slower on the way out, but that is what happens when you have had a successful day of shad fishing on the Econ.

One note of interest, early in the day of fishing, when the sky was blue and the sun was bright, I could not buy a bite on flies with hair wings. I knew there were fish there because I caught them on the ultralight, but they would not take the kip tailed clousers I was throwing. I switched to hackle flies and immediately started catching fish. Later in the day when the clouds moved in the hackle flies stopped working. I tied on a chartreuse and white clouser, and caught fish. Not sure what exactly it was, but having options helped.

December Double Header

St. Johns River

While I had a trip planned with Todd for New Year’s Eve, I had the opportunity to hit the St. Johns River yesterday for the first time of the 2018/ 2019 season, and decided to do some solo scouting. Because it is still early in the season, I took my time in the morning, enjoyed some time with my girls, a couple cups of Crio Bru, and ate some sweets left over from Christmas before hitting the road. As a bonus, this gave plenty of time for the dense fog to lift before I would be dropping the kayak in the water.

While still pretty early in the run, I decided to do some scouting from C.S. Lee to see if any fish had made it this far upstream. I contemplated heading down to the turns upstream of Alderman where I have caught fish early in the season in years past, and then maybe meandering all the way to the mouth of Lake Harney. The forecast for highs in the mid 80’s changed my mind. Rather than sweat to death paddling back and forth to Alderman, I decided to stick to the water right upstream of the SR46 bridge, purposely avoiding the mouth of the Econ, as I knew I would likely venture up there with Todd. If I found shad great, and if not, no big deal. Frankly, the extra 10 pounds I put on since Thanksgiving likely had some input in my overall disinterest in paddling any real distance in the kayak. 🙂

I was on the water by noon and made my way to the creek mouths upstream of the bridge. With a slight south breeze, there was enough discharge for me to swing a Skagit Head with a 10ft t3 tip, and a dumbbell weighted Kip Tailed Clouser. I covered a fair amount of water quickly, making a short, medium, and long cast before moving down stream ten steps at a time and caught several red bellies and several respectable sized crappie, but did not find shad.

Nice Crappie

I walked back upstream to the kayak, and decided to grab the ultra light spinning rod and continue working downstream to see if I could locate fish. Early in the season when the fish are sparse, I find this to be an effective way to cover the water and locate fish. After making several casts with a Hardcore Shad Spoon rigged with 4 split shot about 18 inches above the spoon on the line, I hooked up with my first shad of the season, a small hickory!

First Shad of 2018/ 2019
First Shad of the 2018/ 2019 Season

After landing the fish and snapping a quick picture I grabbed the switch rod, and proceeded to work the same area of water. After a dozen or so swings, I hooked up with another small hickory, which was “quick released” before I could snap another pic.

I continued working my way upstream, fishing each of the creek mouths all the way up to where the two channels converge, and landed countless bycatch throughout the day, but no more shad. I ran in to Cas Summers, this year’s winner of the First Shad of the Season Contest, and he reported slow shad fishing as well. At close to 3:00, the wind died down, and I was sweating to death in my waders, so I started to contemplate heading downstream towards the bridge where I could wade in the cool water, when I got a tug on the fly, which quickly turned in to what felt like a bowling ball on the end of my line. I fought the fish for several minutes, while it just seemed to keep putting its face down in to the deep water, not really making any runs, but slowly taking line. Figuring I had a large catfish on, imagine my surprise when I finally brought the fish to surface and landed this guy…

Gar on the Fly
Fun way to end the day!

Fast forward to this morning, and I met Todd at C.S. Lee at around 8:00am. We loaded up the canoe, and motored up to the mouth of the Econ where we found absolutely no one. With a fair amount of trailers in the parking lot, we figured it was likely going to be busy, but it seemed they must have been duck hunting, or possibly crappie fishing down at Lake Harney.

Crazy Charlie Fly

With a 10-15 south wind forecasted, and switch rods in hand, we decided to fish the east bank, which is still partially submerged, but wadable. I decided to fish a Crazy Charlie, tied in traditional bonefish tan ,in memory of the legendary guide, and creator of the fly, Charlie Smith, whom I found out yesterday had passed away.

We wet waded and fished for an hour and a half or so, catching several small crappie and red bellies as we made our way downstream, but no shad. Right as we were talking about moving to the other bank, almost on queue, I felt a strong tug on the end of that Crazy Charlie, followed by a jump, and a run on the drag. I quickly landed the fish to find my first American Shad of the season!

First American Shad of the Season

Well, you don’t leave fish to find fish so we decided to keep fishing the east bank, even though the wind had shifted slightly to the west, and was pushing our swings quickly in to the cut bank. Now that we knew there were indeed fish here, the mission quickly shifted. Todd has never landed a December Shad, and even though it was the last day of the year, there was ample opportunity to make that happen. I happily yielded the downstream position, and Todd skillfully began working the area with his switch rod. After several swings, wading near waist deep, he hooked up, and landed his first December Shad!

Todd with his first December Shad

We continued working the area but did not hook up again. A couple of boats joined us, and we decided to yield the spot, and try the west bank. We fished for 20-30 minutes without a bite, even with the wind at our backs, and firing cannon like casts.

American Shad

We made our way back downstream to fish the creek mouths and covered the water thoroughly without success. Jokingly I told Todd I was going to grab the “fish finder” and relented to fishing the spinning rod with the spoon. After I think just 3 casts, I landed another American. I immediately switched back to the switch rod and both of us worked the area thoroughly, as well as the area just upstream of the bridge without another bite. We called it a day just short of 3:00.

While there are indeed fish here, you are going to have to work for them. If you are looking for them to jump in to the boat near the Econ River, I think we still have a couple of weeks.

By the way, if you are ever fishing the St. Johns River and wonder who those nuts are in the canoe with a trolling motor hanging off the side, and/ or wading in places that make you do a double take… that is likely us, so stop and say Hi! LOL.

The Shad on the Fly Sled
The Shad on the Fly Sled

We Have a Winner- 2018/2019

Cas Summers with the first shad on the fly of 2018/ 2019

We have a winner for this year’s First Shad of the Season Contest! Congratulations to Cas Summers! Not only did he land a December shad, he did it on the 16th of the month at that! Way to go Cas!

I will contact you directly via PM to coordinate how best to get that $50 gift card to Orlando Outfitters over to you.

First Shad of the Season Contest – 2018/ 2019

It’s that time of year again! Let’s get the 2018/ 2019 shad fishing season started, with this season’s First Shad of the Season Contest! The winner will receive a $50 Gift Card to Orlando Outfitters!

First Shad of the Season Contest 2018/2019 Rules:

  1. The contest begins December 6, 2018 and ends once I have confirmed a winner
  2. This is a catch, photograph and release contest
  3. To be eligible you must:
    • Be a member of the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group. Membership is free, but the Facebook group is a closed group so you must request to be added as a member
    • Download the Shad on the Fly 2018/ 2019 Official Token image above and print it out. You may trim it down to size. 
      Alternatively, you can save it to your cell phone and use your phone to display the token as long as it is CLEARLY visible (just don’t drop it in the water!)
  4. To win you must:
    • Catch a shad using a fly rod and fly
    • Be the first person to upload a picture of the fish, fly reel, and fly with the Official Token clearly visible in the image to the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group
  5. I will message the winner in Facebook to get their address and mail the prize, or setup a meetup on the water if possible. Whatever works best for the winner

 Official Facebook Stuff:

The Shad on the Fly- First Shad of the Season Contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, administered by, or associated with Facebook. Participants understand that they are providing their information to the owner of the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, and not to Facebook.           

Skunked at Hatbill

I probably should have heeded the old saying, when the wind blows from the north, don’t venture forth, as I got skunked at Hatbill yesterday. However, the high pressure made far too pretty of a day for me to stop myself, and I was on the water by about 9:30. I made my way up to the second junction, by way through Baxter Point this time.

Big gator, thankfully not the one I hit

This decision put me in a very narrow and shallow (maybe 15 feet wide and 6 inches deep) side channel as I weaved my way downstream. The side channel was so narrow, I would soon come to regret my choice of paths when I hugged the inside of a turn, only to find an alligator sunning itself in the shallows of the south bank as I came around a bend. With a 20-25mph North/ Northwest wind, and no brakes on the Hobie, before I could even start to back paddle, I HIT said alligator with the bow of my kayak! Thankfully I scared it more than it scared me, and it quite literally ran on water (just 6 inches deep) until it reached deeper water and slipped under. Ummmmm… yea, clean undies anyone!?

I arrived at the convergence of the East (or is it North?) and West (or is it South?) channels only to find the current completely backed up on the west channel. There was a fair amount of surface activity just upstream on the west channel, but I could not determine if it was just bass or panfish. With the north wind pushing the current upstream swinging flies was a futile effort, but I stripped kip tailed clousers and fry flies through the activity and found no takers.

I moved over to the north bank on the east channel and with the wind at my back was able to make cannon like casts with the switch rod. The narrow east channel is much faster anyway, and even with the stiff wind, there was plenty of current to swing flies. I worked the area very thoroughly, 10-15 steps at a time, making a short, medium, and long distance cast each time before moving, making one full pass with a bead chain fly and then decided to head back upstream to do it again with a 5/32 hourglass fly to make sure I thoroughly covered the water column.

The bull is in there somewhere

As I got back upstream to start the next pass, a head of cattle started running my way. Noticing I was basically standing on a cattle trail, I started yelling mooooo! and waiving my hands like an idiot to persuade them to find another path. As they approached, the cows stopped, but one of the bulls in the group did not! Now he was not in a full heads down charge like you see at a bullfight or anything, but he had that confident swagger that said to me I am a handsome boy, these are my girls, and YOU had better get out of my way! With seconds to make a decision, a narrow stream behind me, and a river (I had already had an alligator incident in) in front of me, I actually drew my gun! Thankfully as I disengaged the safety and brought the pistol up to get a sight picture, the bull stopped in its tracks, I kid you not… right about where you see the point near where I am standing on said cattle path in the picture. I’ll take a second order of clean undies for the day, and the check please!

The bull turned around and joined the group, and there they sat and stared at me as I worked my way downstream, fishing the heavier fly. When I reached my kayak, I saddled up and made my way upstream, finally yielding the spot back to the cattle. I fished the area just upstream where there is good current and depth and did not get a bite.

At around 2:00, I decided I had enough and started to make my way upstream. I opted NOT to take the same path back, and instead head towards the first junction. I fished it for maybe thirty minutes, before I had enough of the wind and the lockjaw. As I paddled back to the launch, and made my way through what I will forever call the gators-in-the-mist pool, I counted eight heads, still hanging there even in the afternoon.

I have to say, it has been an adventurous year out of Hatbill Park, and I think I am done with it… for this year! 🙂