I have been wanting to fish the Econ upstream of Snowhill Road for several weeks, but with so-so action and the very shallow water we found lower down the river hiking from the Brumley trailhead, I questioned whether the shad had made it that far upstream in good numbers. I had missed a couple of planned trips with Todd and others due to prior commitments, and I have to admit, I was just about to hang it up for this season when I got a call on Friday night. Todd had made it out to Snowhill and reported seeing good numbers of fish. On top of that, he told me that this section of river was so shallow and clear, you could essentially sight fish for shad. The fish were spooky, and he managed to land a few, but thought that if he could have cracked the code, he could have caught quite a few more.
As we discussed potential tactics, I decided I had to get out there to experience the unique set of conditions that this year’s run had presented us. While it is not necessarily unusual for shad to make it this far up the Econlockhatchee River, it does generally require the flow on the St. Johns river to be low, and the flow on the Econ to be high relative to the St. Johns, and that does not happen every year. While I did see a shad take my fly a couple of weeks ago while fishing the section of river accessed from the Brumley trailhead, I cannot say that I was sight fishing for them. This I had to experience!
I grabbed my gear and made it to the Snowhill Road canoe/ kayak launch at about 9:30am on Saturday. This can be a busy area, especially on the weekends, as people enjoy the waterway by boat, and enjoy the wilderness while hiking or biking the Cross Florida Trail through the Little Big Econ State Forest. There were a couple of cars when I arrived, but not a lot of activity this early in the day. As I walked down to the river under the bridge, I immediately saw a pod of shad in the shadows, another downstream, and another upstream. The water was clear and shallow and without a doubt, this was looking to be sight fishing at its best.
I quickly rigged up the five weight with a Kip Tailed Clouser and swung the fly in front of the pod of fish. After a few decent presentations, I clearly saw a fish on the outside of the group break off and follow the fly as I figure-of-eight retrieved. Right when I thought the fish was going to take the fly, with a discerning eye it turned its cheek and returned to the group, spooking the rest of the fish, almost as if it had told them exactly what was going on. The experience was vaguely reminiscent of fishing pods of small bonefish in Belize.
I made several more casts and the process continued. Every few swings I would make a good presentation, a fish would break out of the pack and follow the fly, then turn away before taking it. I changed flies several times as I made my way downstream. Shad Dart, nope. Crazy Charlie, nope. Tandem, nope. Different colors of all three flies, nope!
While fishing out west for spooky trout and even on days here when nothing seems to be working, I have learned by trial and error that less is often more. I decided to apply some trout tactics to my shad fishing. When facing fish that seem unwilling to take, tying on a smaller fly is generally a good idea and shad are no different. While we generally consider bright, flashy flies best for shad, when fishing in clear, shallow water, natural colors often perform better. While we generally fish for shad using a short level-leader, only 5-8 feet in length, spooky fish may require something longer, and to my 8 feet of level 2x leader, I added 2 feet of 5x tippet.
While trout enthusiasts will tell you that the fly pattern is less important than the presentation, I have learned that one style of fly seems to work very well when you have thrown everything in your box at them, Soft Hackles. The fly I chose was a size 10 Soft Hackle with a peacock body and mallard flank wing. I have had good success with it on trout out west, and I have adapted it to fish for panfish on the Wekiva River here in Florida by adding some bead chain to it and tying it upside down. The bead chain helps the fly ride hook tip up and avoid the grass and other snags we find in most of our water without effecting its “buggyness.”
I made a short cast and let the fly swing in front of the fish, and almost on queue I saw three shad break free of the pod, follow the fly, and clearly saw one take the fly, shake its head and make a short run before coming to hand. I caught two more just downstream of the bridge before I decided to make my way upstream.
The hiking on the Cross Florida Trail is very easy near Snowhill Road and the trails are very clearly defined due to the volume of mountain bike riders. There is a trail that basically hugs the river and I saw shad on nearly every stretch of river that had current and enough depth for fish to rest. Add to that, I even saw shad in very shallow areas of the river, but they were cruising either up or downstream and were much more difficult to target. They were quite content swimming within arm’s reach of you. Here is a video of them swimming right under me:
Each of the turns and their pools also had groups of fish congregating in them but, beware, there was an alligator (or two) on each of the turns with dark water. I was actually surprised I saw as many gators as I did on such a small, narrow, shallow section of the river that is very busy. While they are not nearly as big as the ones downstream, my guess was still an average of 8 feet.
I hiked about 1.5-2 miles upstream and caught another three shad and missed one more before I lost the last of the sized 10 soft hackle flies that I had. The river is full of snags and the 5x tippet was just no match. I tried other flies and for the most part found no takers. There was a nice pool where a large group of shad had congregated where I hooked two of them on a Shad Comet with a white hackle, but lost them before they came to hand. While the small soft hackle flies and trout tactics work, you will burn through flies so bring twice as many as you think you need, and then double that again. 🙂
This section of the river is beautiful and the sight fishing is superb. I am not sure if I will be able to make it back out before the fish are gone this season, but I cannot wait to try it again when the conditions are right in the future.
Thread: Olive 8/0
Hook: Size 10 Streamer Hook
Body: Peacock Ice Dub (or natural Peacock Hurl) tied 3/4 length
Hackle: Natural Hen or Hungarian Partridge
Wing: Mallard Flank