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…

I Fished the CRUD out of Hatbill

Last Saturday I decided to put in at Hatbill again for my first solo trip in the new (to me) canoe. I wanted to try a couple of new spots I had not visited by kayak before, primarily the big turns and the T Split upstream of Orange Mound. I have spent a fair amount of time in the section of river downstream of Orange Mound, and feeling relatively confident in running the boat with a buddy, I wanted to do some exploring by myself.

I arrived at Hatbill around 9:00am and was met with a 20-30mph wind… sigh. I quickly loaded up the canoe, and since I was running solo, filled two 30 liter dry bags with water and attached them with carabiners to the lacing at the bow of the boat, and stuffed all the rest of my gear forward as well. This ballast really did a good job of keeping the bow down, offsetting the weight from my big fat butt plus thirty additional pounds of outboard motor. I have a small stool I can use as a “jump seat” to move my weight more towards the center of the boat, but really only needed that in the shallowest of water.

I set off downstream and decided to make my way up to the T Split by way of the secondary Bear Bluff channel. I have never traveled via this channel and was quickly met with shallow water. The initial 1/4 of a mile is so shallow, it required me to pull up the outboard and hop out to pull the canoe with the painter line. Thankfully there was also no sign of alligators in the area, and after a brief walk and a short period of push poling the boat with the paddle, I was able to crank up the motor and make my way upstream.

Bear Bluff Shelter

I arrived at the Bear Bluff Shelter and as I was about to start fishing, I was joined by two airboats that pulled up to the shelter. I decided to yield the spot and head further upstream. While the pool in front of the shelter had decent current at the head and tail, I did not have high hopes for finding shad, figuring the shallow water in the secondary channel had already cut fish off from making their way upstream via this path.

After a short motor, I arrive at the T Split where I found fantastic current at the actual split, and the run upstream of it. I fished both the east and west egress spots of the split and picked up some panfish but no shad. I did work my way up the run a bit, but spotted a couple of gator heads about 50 yards from where I wanted to be, so I decided not to wade any further.

I made my way upstream to the next set of big turns where I found two very nice pools and a nice run between them. Unfortunately with the stiff wind, the current was backed up on the run, making swinging a fly futile. The first pool had a good amount of surface activity just out of comfortable wading reach. Unfortunately I had three very nice sized buddies hanging out closer than I would prefer to wade any further than about knee high. My gut told me there were fish there, but it was not worth a close encounter in the middle of nowhere.

The view from Orange Mound

At about 12:30 I decided to make the run down to Orange Mound and have some lunch. Along the way, an airboat came up behind me on a very narrow channel, so I pulled over in the shallows and let him pass. The channel was maybe 30 feet wide.

When I arrived at Orange Mound, there was one other airboat on the beach, and after a friendly greeting by them, I landed my boat well downstream to give them some space. While I had not needed my little “jump seat” for the most part, it made a perfect little place to sit up on the midden, and I enjoyed an ice cold beer, a sandwich and some cashews.

Shortly after finishing my lunch, the airboat took off, so I decided to fish the run and small pool in front of Orange Mound. Again I picked up a few panfish, and about the time I was about to give up and was reeling in line, I saw a swell of maybe 4 or five fish come the surface, one of which took the fly hard and made a fast run straight upstream and then jumped. Unfortunately I lost the fish when it jumped, but it was clearly a nice shad. The experience of multiple fish coming up to surface like that reminded me of fishing upstream of Snowhill Road, where I have seen multiple fish in the clear water peel off from the pod and chase down a fly. With aggressive feeding behavior like that, I expected to catch more fish, but unfortunately after working the area thoroughly at different depths and with different flies, never had another taker.

I made my way downstream towards First Junction by way of the west channel, which I found to be very shallow, even for my boat. Another foot lower on the gauge and I am not sure the outboard will even be worth the trouble around Hatbill. As I approached First Junction, I studied the water for any activity, and after 5-10 minutes of idling, decided to make my way down to the Second Junction by way of the east channel.

Just upstream of Second Junction

Upon arriving, I found the run just upsteam of the junction to be high and dry compared to my last visit. I have caught fish from this very spit of land that narrows the channel in to very fast moving current both at the head and tail of the run. I also like the deep pool just upstream of this spot. However today I found no takers on the run, and while I fished it, a skiff landed at the pool and fished there for around 20 minutes. I did not see them catch anything, so I decided not to bother.

I ran back down the east channel to First Junction where again, I fished the area very thoroughly at different depths with different flies and again found not joy and decided to call it a day near 5:00pm. In all, I covered around eight miles, fishing both new as well as familiar spots and all I can say is, it has been a difficult year. While I enjoyed exploring, and now feel completely comfortable running the new boat alone (which is a win,) I would say I am done with Hatbill for the year. The question is, where to next?

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.

Downstream from Snowhill

Econlockhatchee River

I decided to try something a little different yesterday, and make the paddle downstream from the Snowhill Road bridge, to see if I could find shad in areas that are not fished as often, and are not necessarily considered “prime” shad spawning habitat. I found fish last weekend at the prime spawning grounds found off of the white trail hike from Brumley Road, and figured the huge surge in water (nearly 4 feet in a single day) from rain that pushed discharge close to 700 cfs would get the fish moving upstream. The question was, just how far upstream? I gambled and chose to paddle downstream versus a hike upstream.

Snowhill Road Bridge

I think more than anything, I just wanted to do a little solo exploring and this is a section of river I have not spent any time on. I loaded up the canoe with fishing gear, provisions, and the trolling motor (for the ride back upstream) and hit the river at 10am. The current was fantastic and I quickly made my way downstream with little effort. I arrived at the first turn, parked the canoe and started to work the area with the ultralight, rigged again with a Hardcore Shad Spoon, and 3-4 splitshot. The plan again this weekend was to move quickly, work an area methodically with the spinning rod, and if I found fish, move to the switch rod and further canvas the water, and if not, move on.

I did not find fish in the first few turns, despite the good current and depth. I did run in to a couple of fishermen in a Gheenoe (man I have to buy one of those someday) that had made their way up from CS Lee. They reported catching a couple downstream, but reported slow fishing. They were making their way upstream above the bridge to see if they could find fish. Shortly after, it started to rain, and I contemplated whether I wanted to venture too much further downstream, particularly with the lack of fish in the turns I had already worked, and that report. I decided to suck it up, and just explore, if I found fish great. Even a rainy day on the Econ beats a day at work.

I fished each of the turns, as I made my way downstream, enjoying the scenery, taking my time and studying the current, and did not find fish. After an hour or so, the Gheenoe passed me again. I asked if they had any luck upstream. Nada. I continued my journey until I found a hard turn with a confluence of a small stagnant pool, and a runoff creek. The current was really booking through this natural chokepoint, and I figured if there were shad anywhere, they had to be here. I would work the area thoroughly, and if I did not find fish, attach the trolling motor and head home.

Shad downstream of Snowhill

After a half a dozen casts with the shad spoon, I hooked up with this beauty that took line and jumped five or six times. I quickly moved to the switch rod and started swinging a white Soft Hackle Shad Fly (see bottom picture in link.) I caught two more fish with the fly rod and then the action just turned off. I figured this spot was likely just a good choke point to catch fish as they traveled upstream, but they likely were not congregating there. I switched back to the ultralight and worked the pool just downstream of the head and found no takers.

I continued downstream and caught one more fish on the ultralight, and one more on the switch. After making a couple casts in to a nice pool with a good whirlpool eddy with the ultralight, I kept breaking off the spoon and splitshot. It took me three lost rigs before I noticed I had lost one of the ceramic inserts in one of the guides, and that was what kept snapping the line. Looks like I will have to figure out how to replace the guide, or I will be buying a new ultralight, as it has become a trusty part of my system.

In all, I made it about 2 miles, which put me down at the big pool a mile above the power lines, that Luc Desjarlais, mentions in his book Wade Fly Fishing The Upper St. Johns River Basin (Florida) for American Shad. I did swing some flies through the pool, but with the extra water in the river, struggled to reach the “fishy” areas. At about 3:00, I called it quits, attached the trolling motor and made my way upstream. Running wide open around 3 miles per hour with the 55lb thrust motor, I made it back to the bridge in about 40 minutes, had no problems navigating obstacles in the river with the high water, and even with the swift current, my battery still had about 64% in reserve.

I enjoyed the trip, and indeed caught fish, but I am not sure I would recommend a visit. I probably will not return this year, but will indeed consider it in similar runs when the flow on the Econ is higher than that of the St Johns, particularly early in the season. My gut tells me there are a lot of fish in the Econlockhatchee this year, but with the recent rain, they are spread out all over the river. With depth and good current, there is a lot of good water to keep fish happy, and I do not think they are congregating in typical areas in large numbers, at least not yet. As the water levels continue to recede over the next week (or two,) I would think we should start to see them again in the spots accessible from Brumley Road, and likely upstream of Snowhill Road, if they are not already there. I LOVE fishing for shad on the Econ River, and the later it gets in the season, the more technical the fishing becomes. If you want to try out trout tactics with shad, I think this year is shaping up to be one of those years!