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…

South of SR 50 with Captain Mark Benson

Last Monday I had the opportunity to fish for shad with friend and mentor Captain Mark Benson. For those that may not know Mark, he has been fishing in Central Florida all of his life and has done his fair share of fly fishing all over the world from the Caribbean to New Zealand and back. He is the current Director of Fly Fishing at the Ritz- Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes where you can find him most days teaching and putting clients on some of the nicest trophy bass around. When he is not at the Ritz, a lot of the time you will find him guiding, fishing, or exploring the St. Johns River.

While Mark has fished in some pretty exotic places for species such as trout, bonefish, and even shark, he is still absolutely passionate about fly fishing for shad on the St. Johns River, and he is not afraid to tell you that the American Shad is still his favorite species. He has spent countless hours studying, stalking, and catching these fish. Add to that a background in biology and a true gift of gab, and there may not be anyone more qualified to help you become a better shad fisherman. I have fished with Mark out at the Ritz-Carlton and even on Andros Island, but had not been able to sync up with him before during a shad season, so I was really looking forward to this trip!

I have been interested in getting out on the water with Mark as he spends a lot of his time upstream of most of the spots I frequent. Outside of a few hikes out to 7 Palms and Tosohatchee, the water upstream of SR50 is foreign to me. Add to that the swift current and large numbers of alligators in the area, I have always been hesitant of paddling this section of river.

We met up at the SR 50 boat ramp around 1:30 where I was told I would need to hand over my phone, and that I would be blindfolded. I was then frisked to make sure I did not have any secondary GPS units on my person and made to spin around 50 times until I was dizzy before setting off on a trip that I can only assume, but not confirm, was upstream. Okay, none of that was true… although there were discussions, and clear rules of engagement were agreed upon. 🙂

In all seriousness, the area upstream of SR 50 is not top secret, in fact Mark often sings its praises during talks and seminars he presents. This is an area of river that receives less pressure, and the shad can be plentiful when the conditions are right, namely around six feet (or more) on the SR 50 gauge coming in to the new year, dropping steadily in to January and February.

This was certainly one of those years, but with the addition of the fact that most of the fall we had pretty low water, and then got a mess of rain in December. This meant less time for minnows and grass shrimp to build up on the flooded pastures and then be swept off in the channel as the water receded. This may be one of the reasons we did not see the shad stall, congregate, and feed in the places that most shad fisherman frequent every year (and yes, they do feed!) Instead, there were reports of fish being caught near SR 520 at the end of October, and while most of us have had dismal days down by CS Lee, Mark has had consistent double digit days since early January fishing upstream of SR 50.

As we made our way upstream through the winding turns in the river, my hesitancy to paddle this section of river was completely confirmed. Folks, this is alligator country, and while I have seen my fair share of gators, I have never seen this level of sheer biomasse in a single trip. I am not exaggerating when I say, I reckon the number to be three to four HUNDRED large sized alligators. Looking at stills on some of the video I shot, I easily counted 42 on one turn alone. We saw this turn after turn after turn. I was blown away, but to Mark, it was just a typical day on this section of river.

42 Alligators on this turn
7 Palms in the Distance

While I don’t want to be too specific in this post, I can tell you that Mark and I fished gorgeous areas of river well upstream of 7 Palms, making our way down to that well know section of river, and found fish in all the likely suspects. If you have been considering the 7 Palms hike, now is a good time. Runs with good current, pools with depth and eddies, and water stacking up on cut banks all had shad clearly washing in them, all the way downstream headed towards Paw Paw Mound. While I have not really seen any signs of spawning activity downstream of SR 50 this year, fish were clearly visible in this section of river, which was a very nice change.

My thanks to Mark for the opportunity to fish with him. I enjoyed the fishing, scenery, and company! If you are interested in fishing this or any other section of the St. Johns River, I highly recommend hiring Mark as your guide. He will put you on fish… the rest is up to you!

Contact Captain Mark Benson:
Website: http://www.markbensonoutdoors.com/
Phone: 407.257.5750
Email: markbenson.outdoors@gmail.com

Hatbill- Junction One, Two, & Beyond

I am again running two weeks behind posting here, as frankly it is not much fun to sit down and write about slow fishing days, and it has been a tough year so far. Mix that with work, sick kids and then sick parents, and an unexpected kitchen remodel and well… you know. That said, I committed when I started Shad on the Fly to keep honest accounts of my fishing adventures, good, bad, or indifferent. I have post dated this blog entry for my record, and while the fishing was not great, it was a fun day!

I decided to take a half day off on Friday to fish with Todd. With slow fishing both experienced and reported down by CS Lee, we decided to try upstream, and met at Hatbill around 12:30. As we were loading up the gear in to the canoe, I realized in my haste to get everything loaded in and on the Jeep, while also listening to my weekly showcase meeting, I inadvertently forgot to grab a paddle… smh. This is not the first time I have done this either, nor is this the greatest place on earth to be “up sh!t’s creek without a paddle” if something was to go wrong.

After some deliberation and a vocal comment by me that I need to buy one of those little emergency paddles and just keep it in the truck, we decided what the heck… I have a brand new motor that is running well, we should be alright. Todd grabbed a stick so we would at least have something to push off with, and off we went. Oh boy.

As we made our way downstream through the first set of turns with all of the high reeds, we had a close call with a gheenoe that decided to take the inside of a blind turn while I took the outside. Nothing major, the sponsons again did just fine with the wake, but another reminder of how difficult it is to see and be seen in this claustrophobic section of river. I need to get a new flag for this boat.

The water was still a bit high for this section of river with the guage at SR 50 showing around 4.0ft. This can make finding the channel a little challenging in some areas where there are sloughs, creeks, and junctions so we found ourselves in skinny water… you know, where a paddle comes in awfully handy. 8\

Waist high at 1st Junction

It took us about 15 minutes to make it to the first junction where we found great current and fished for about 30-45 minutes, covering the water well with switch rods and a spinning rod and only managed a small panfish.

We decided to make the run down to the second junction by way of the west channel to check things out. The west channel takes longer but it is deeper… you know, where a paddle is less necessary… smh. It took just another 20 or so minutes of motoring to make the trip.

When we arrived, we found even better current, a fair amount of surface activity, as well as a 5 foot section of PVC in the shallow water… a perfect push pole and replacement for the stick Todd donned at launch. We fished for about an hour and found that the surface activity was just crappie, likely in a feeding frenzy as the receding river swept grass shrimp and minnows off the grass. Unfortunately we did not find shad.

We continued motoring downstream, not very far from where the Indian mounds are. While we found decent current and surface activity, we did not find shad. While we there, we could hear an airboat off in the distance really going to town… revving, slowing, revving, slowing. As anyone that frequents the river can attest, the sounds of airboats are common place on the St. Johns. Love it or hate it, it’s just a part of our river culture. I am pretty sure I have said the phrase… “you hear that Todd… that’s the sweet sound of horsepower,” quite literally every time I have been on the river with him since we met. However this was something different enough that it made me stop and study what was going on.

Working dog

Instead of finding an airboat doing doughnuts or some other BS off in the distance, I noticed an interesting symphony of horsepower, barking, whistling, and hootin’ and hollerin’. At first, I figured they must have been hunting hogs, but then saw what looked to be someone riding a horse way off in the distance. As the airboat continued revving, I soon saw that what was actually going on, was a roundup. The airboat was working in unison with a couple of guys on horseback and a dog or two to get cattle to cross the river. I found it fascinating. I never really considered an airboat to be anything more than an annoying, noisy, utilitarian vessel to navigate otherwise difficult to travel wetlands, and here it was, being used as a versatile tool the same way a cowboy uses a horse. I stand corrected.

On the way back upstream, we chose the west channel again… for obvious reasons, and with the slightly higher water level, found ourselves off the beaten channel path. As we wandered around what seemed like a small pond looking for a cut back to the main river, we spooked what seemed like 50 large bass or gar that gave us serious pause. Note to self, I need to go back there… you know the spot on the map.

The sun was getting low and the water skinny. Thankfully we had our new push pole aboard which made short work of the shallow water we needed to cross to get back to the river. After finding the channel and a brief scare with a motor that would not restart (8|), we made our way back to the launch by dark, questioning where the heck the fish were.

If you have been around a while, you know I have a unique relationship with this section of river around Hatbill. This is yet another feather in that cap. Every trip is an adventure… sometimes, no maybe most times, of my own making. Fish or no fish, I can’t help but smile as I write this, as I am already planning another trip to Hatbill, in to the wild… no one for miles!

Maiden Voyage

I am more than a week behind on getting this posted, so this is more for my own personal record than a fishing report. After a week of nearly daily work modifying the new (to me) square stern canoe to meet my needs, and completing the initial break in of the new motor in a trashcan, Saturday the 18th was the maiden voyage of the newly outfitted boat and Suzuki 2.5hp motor. This is my first gas motor, and I am very excited about the expanded range it has given me!

Todd and I met up at C.S. Lee at around 8am, got everything setup and hit the water. The initial run was a little shaky as I tried to figure out the steering with the tiller extender. The tiller extender I purchased has a universal joint on it, and I quickly learned that needs to be positioned properly and the turning tension on the motor itself needs to be just about nil in order to best steer the boat using it. We stopped at the creek mouths where I got everything adjusted to my liking. The water was still pretty high, just shy of 3.2 feet on the gauge, so we both used heavy t6 and t8 tips to do some dredging. In addition, I searched using the spinning rod, and after 30 minutes without a bite we decided to move up to mouth of the Econ.

The new motor is a nice upgrade from the trolling motor, adding easily another 3-4 mph and we quickly made our way to the east bank. Along the way the new sponsons I added to the canoe got their first test as a couple of boats passed us at speed heading up river, putting off a pretty good wake. While I was kind of skeptical at what difference a bit a foam that is essentially a glorified pool noodle sawed in half would actually make, I am happy to report that the increased secondary stability they added was really impressive. Gone are the days of grabbing the gunwales and taking a roller coaster ride every time a boat passes. It has become more of a gentle rolling action, and that feeling that you might tip is just about non existent now.

Again we swung flies with the switch rods for about a half hour with no luck. I did not have high expectations, as all of the recent reports at C.S. Lee have been no better than maybe 1-2 fish for the day. However, the main purpose of the trip for me was to complete the final 1 hour of break in on the motor where you have to keep the throttle under 3/4 speed, and I am most comfortable with this section of the river. Add to that the steady boat traffic in this area and I knew we could get help if I had any mechanical issues or at minimum have an easy paddle back downstream if need be.

We decided to give the motor a good run and make our way up to Culpepper Bend. The current was very slow here, as the St. Johns River is still pretty high compared to the Econ, but we fished the area very thoroughly with both the switch and spinning rods. Again, no shad.

We ate lunch, drank a beer, smoked a cigar and then decided since I needed to run the motor anyway, why not make our way up to the section of river we would typically hike to by way of the trailhead at Brumley road. No one had posted any reports from this section as its still pretty early in the season and with so much water in the St. Johns, there probably were not many fish up there. However, hickories generally make their way up the Econ every year regardless, so why not give it a shot? This is a section of river we would generally not make a paddle to because of the time involved, but with the little outboard, we could now add it as a destination.

It took around 30-40 min to get to what we fondly call the Wives’ Pool, but again, keeping the speed under 3/4 throttle because of the break in. We began fishing, and I think on my second cast, I felt a heavy tug but missed the hook set. As Todd and I bantered about whether it might have been a shad or not, a nice gar rolled near where I had been hit. Right as I was saying that the gar was likely what I hooked, due to the “dead weight” I felt, Todd hooked up with a shad, that was fresh and full of fight. Unfortunately it was quick released before I could get a picture, but Todd touched the leader, which is always a catch in my book. Todd managed to hook up and lose one more fish, but neither of us got a bite beyond that.

We made our way back downstream and did stop at the lilly pool of 2018/2019 season fame and did not find fish. I should note, last year was the only time I have ever found fish in the pool.

The only other story of note that I have to mention as we made our way back downstream to the launch is, as we made our way down past Culpepper Bend, the Central Florida Airboat Tours operator at the Jolly Gator passed us at full speed with a full load of tourists on a straight away, no more than 30-40 feet off my port side. That boat throws a serious wake that we had no other option but to take just about broadside as I tried to get out of his way. While the sponsons had clearly been tested earlier, I think the wake size combined with the narrow section of river had Todd and I reaching for the gunwales again. However, the sponsons did their job just fine. Thanks Bruce… while you made us crap our pants, I now know I can stay upright, even with the big tour boats barreling past me. I am pretty sure I now have the perfect little river boat for my shad adventures!

To be clear, while we did surf a serious wake in the canoe, no prop wash was involved. It was a close encounter, but no harm done.

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. 🙂