Double Digits at Hatbill

Double Digits at Hatbill

Yesterday I decided to launch the kayak from Hatbill Park and do some scouting, as no one has reported catching shad there this year. I was a bit apprehensive when I left the house, as Hatbill tends to be a fickle area of the river in years of late, and the water is still a tad on the high side at about 4.5 feet on the SR50 gauge. However, being that it was a Saturday, I knew CS Lee would be packed and usually by February I am ready to get off the beaten path, do some exploring, and catch fish in new places. My original plan was to try fishing the Econ, hiking in from Brumley, but a broken toe and a report from Todd confirming there were not fish there set the new plan in motion. I was pretty confident I could find fish, knowing there were already good numbers well upstream.

I arrived at Hatbill around 9:00am with the intention of heading to the first junction, and then making my way to Orange Mound if the action was slow there. I arrived at the first junction in near record time thanks to some great current and a 15-20mph southeast wind pushing on my back like a sail. There was a lot of surface activity, but it seemed to be bass and small panfish. I fished the switch rod rigged with an intermediate tip, and tried several different flies with no success. After about 30 minutes of fishing I decided to make the trip a run and gun scouting session and scrap the run to Orange Mound.

I decided to use the south wind to my advantage and make my way down the west channel, hitting any place of convergence or spot with good current along the way. If I did not catch fish in 20-30 minutes, or see clear signs of shad washing, I would move on to the next spot, with the plan of reaching the second junction and then looping back and hitting any of the spots with good current on the east channel on the way back to the launch. My hope was that the wind would die down later in the day before making the paddle back upstream (yea right!)

My audience

The west channel had great current, but it was shallow, maybe half a paddle’s length anywhere I checked. There were also a lot of alligators. I fished but did not hookup, and did not see any real surface activity so I stuck to my plan and moved quickly, spending no more than 20 minutes or so anywhere I stopped. When I arrived at the second junction I was greeted by two very large gators that were not terribly interested in yielding the area, and a slew of seagulls feeding on the surface. Alligators or not, I was definitely fishing this spot.

There was an exposed point on the east bank overlooking the orange navigation marker that offered enough dry land to make me comfortable, so I hopped out and got to work. It was not long before I hooked up and landed a very nice shad, only to turn around and notice there was a gator in the water to my left, and a bigger one to my right, no more than about twenty feet away from me. It seemed I had an audience that was quite interested in what I was doing, likely looking for a handout, so I was quick to land and return the fish to the water. This continued for about half a dozen more fish until I decided I would yield the spot and move to the next location I saw birds feeding.

I continued fishing the east channel on my way back to the launch and found that there were fish in every area of convergence or accelerating current. The fish were definitely keyed in on mosquitofish just barely wider than your knuckle, and they were feeding just subsurface as they were blown off the pasture. I figured out that lengthening my level leader of 10lb mono with a two to three foot section of 6lb mono, and then pairing that with a size 10 Fry Fly, did a good enough job of matching the hatch. In fact, the Fry Fly was the fly of the day, and I went through every last one of them in my box. Interestingly, once I had used them up and then had to tie on a similarly sized Kip Tailed Clouser, I never got another bite. I am not sure if the jigging action of the beadchain turned them off, or the wobbly darting action of the keel-like tear drop head of the Fry Fly turned them on. I may never know, but I will be tying more of them!

Mosquito Fish

In all, I paddled around five miles, caught a dozen shad, and lost about another six. I made the paddle back upstream (and upwind) and landed at dusk to find I was the last off the water. As I packed up my gear, I noticed a car that seemed precariously close to the river. I looped the Jeep over to have a look, and saw that the driver’s door and trunk were open, and that the rear window was smashed out. I was going to mind my own business and just leave, but then had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to check to make sure there was not a dead body inside. Thankfully there was not! It just looked like someone had stripped all of the electronics out of it and then tried to dump it in the river. When that didn’t work, they tried to set it ablaze. I reported what I had seen to the Brevard County sheriffs and went on my way.

There are definitely fish in this section of river, but be aware that Hatbill Park is at the end of a five mile long dirt road in the middle of nowhere, so don’t leave anything valuable in the car. At least the dirtbags did not steal my Jeep while I was out fishing. Perhaps that is a bonus of driving a 2006 Commander that rarely gets washed. 🙂

A Shad Fly Fishing walk in the St. John Wilderness- 7 Palms

A Shad Fly Fishing walk in the St. John Wilderness- 7 Palms

It has taken me a couple days to sit down and write a BLOG entry, so a lot of this has already been recounted on the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, but I have to log it for the books! Unfortunately my phone mysteriously reset itself in the middle of the trip, and once again when I got home, so I lost a lot of the pictures I took on the hike. I will do my best to paint a nice picture with words below. 🙂

On Monday I joined a group to make a hike that Philippe Richen was kind enough to organize, to the 7 Palms shelter in the Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area, a 12,644 acre area, that is essentially a large floodplain, and a well known hunting ground for shad. This is an area that I had not visited, so I was very much looking forward to fishing there. The group met around 9:00 and determined the high water from this year was still very much evident, as should be expected of any floodplain I suppose, and most of us decided to make the hike out in our waders. The day was warm and humid, and I would generally hike out and then put on my waders, but I was glad I opted to wear them, as there were several areas we crossed that were knee high.

The hike was relatively straight forward, consisting of about 2.5 miles of service road out towards the river, and then a section of marsh to work through to get to the 7 Palms shelter, nothing too uncomfortable, just some mud above the ankle or low shin in certain areas, and enough of a workout to get sweaty in the waders. I would say if the gauge height at SR50 was much above five feet, I would likely try something down river instead. In our case though, the heavy rain the night before is what got things on the mucky side.

The walk out took a leisurely hour or so, where we traded stories and caught up on happenings over the prior year. It’s funny and I am sure there are many others that can relate, some of us may not connect much after the shad run is over, but as soon as November/ December arrives, everyone begins scheming and plotting, and when we finally get together, we pick up right where we left off. Our love of stalking this fish brings us all together, and I hope it continues to do so for years to come.

When we arrived at the 7 Palms shelter, we were met by Mark Benson (shad fanatic and fishing guide,) and T.J. Bettis (shad fanatic and owner of Orlando Outfitters) who both had come by boat, and had coordinated with Phil to bring the supplies he provided to cook a hot lunch for us later that afternoon. Mark fishes the area often and pointed out areas where fish have been congregating and provided us some tips. The group quickly rigged up the rods, spread out and began working the area of river that surrounds 7 Palms.

Of immediate note as I approached the water, were the amount of alligators in the area. Fishing, and particularly wading here is not for the faint of heart. Now I am used to seeing alligators mind you, but this is not like hey… there’s a gator way down there, cool!  This is, whoa… that is a big freaking gator that just slid in right across the bank from me, I think I am going to take a step (or 10) back until I see that knobby nose pop back up for air.

Gator near 7 Palms
Gator near 7 Palms

All kidding aside, this is one of the biggest concentrations of large alligators ON EARTH, so if you choose to wade, mind your bits and pieces, go with a friend (or 10,) watch all around you, consider carefully as to whether you really want to be more than knee deep, and I would recommend avoiding wading all together on a warm day. On cool days though, the gators tend to stay up on shore where the sun is warm, and if they do slide in, they pop up in a few minutes near where they submerged, and keep just as keen of an eye on you, as you do on them. While the day was on the warmer side, it is still winter here and the river temperature is still cool so the alligators were fairly sedated.

For this trip I decided to bring my single hand rod, and after starting to fish, I quickly wished I had brought the switch rod with me instead. The river here is sweet two-hander water as it is, but add to that a 10-15mph headwind and the other wildlife, and the extra reach would have been nice. However, I made do with backcasting to deal with the wind, and after braving up enough to wade in waist deep, I landed one shad and lost one more before lunch time. The guys downstream caught a few as well.

For lunch Philippe was kind enough to grill up some sausages and sides for everyone and we enjoyed a sit, some conversation, and a warm meal. That sure beat my typical lunch of jerky, cheese, and maybe a handful of nuts. Thanks Phil!

After lunch, Mark was kind enough to shuttle Keith Browning and I to a turn where there were shad washing all around, as well as panfish popping surface and blueback herring schooling around the inside of the pool. I worked the head of the pool diligently but could not crack the code.  After trying nearly everything in my box… bright flies, dark flies, longer leader, sink tip, no tip, fast retrieve, slow retrieve, no retrieve, I finally hooked up with what felt like a nice fat American Shad, but lost it before coming to hand. Meanwhile Keith proceeded to clean my clock, catching several large shad as well as panfish, I kid you not like ten to fifteen steps away from me. Way to go Keith, I don’t know what you were doing different, but they liked it!

A short time later, Mark brought T.J, Reid, Philippe and John up to the turn and we proceeded to work our way up and down stream of the honey hole. Philippe caught, after looking at the pictures, one of the largest fish of the day, if not one of the largest I have seen of the season. We continued fishing until the sun started to get low in the sky and I did not manage another hookup. Mark shuttled us back to the rest of the group, where we found that most of the group had caught fish. There was also some talk about a close encounter with an alligator that had submerged and then re-emerged behind where they were wading… yikes! We decide to play it safe and hike out before dusk. 🙂

This was a great hike with a good group, and there are certainly a lot of fish in this section of river. We just happened to visit after a pretty significant storm system moved through, and I think that slowed down the bite some. Many thanks to Philippe for organizing the walk-in, and for cooking lunch! Thanks to Mark for the shuttles and the knowledge. Reid, John, T.J. and Anthony, it was great fishing with you again. Keith, Ray, Charlee, and Lars, it was great to meet you and I look forward to fishing with you again soon. I am looking forward to our next hike!

Here are some pictures contributed by the folks that hiked since most of mine were lost due to phone problems. Note to self, don’t depend on Google Maps to get you home, take a trail map as your phone may crap out on you! 😉

Fly fishing for Shad at 7 Palms

 

Great Day in spite of the Forecast

Great Day in Spite of the Forecast

I got up this morning expecting to head to church, but the river, well she is a siren. The original plan was to meet up with Todd and one of his friends from out of town, but a last minute business trip and the forecast pushed Todd out a day. I have a hike in to Seven Palms scheduled for Monday, and while it was initially starting to look like that was going to be rescheduled, well, the river she is a siren. Unfortunately with both trips now falling on Monday, I had to make a decision, and after much deliberation this morning, I chose to stick to the original schedule and join Phil and team tomorrow on the hike (sorry Todd and Tigg.)

So what to do about Sunday? The weather forecast seemed to indicate that by 2:00 there was a 90 percent chance of rain, and the wind was supposed to be in the twenties. Looking at the radar, it seemed like the majority of the front headed our way due to a winter dip in the Jetstream, was tracking well north towards Tallahassee. Being an amateur meteorologist, as any fisherman should be, I hemmed and hawed for a bit… figuring the weather brainiacs were likely off by a few hours. However, add to that reports of tons of airboats on the water yesterday, and I just didn’t think it was worth the effort. The wind forecast, while high, was from the Southeast, the river was basically within its banks, and I was pretty darn sure there would be mosquitofish in the water.

Incapable of making a decision, I decided to put it all on the table and let my wife decide. Without hesitation, Marci said something to the effect of “this is your time of year, you were already planning on fishing… JUST GO! What’s the worse that happens, there are tons of airboats and the weather is crappy, it still beats a day at work.” Decision made (thanks Birdie!)

With all of the deliberation I did not get out on the water until 11:00. I found a stiff SSE 15 mph wind gusting in to the twenties. To my excitement though, I found the entire stretch of river from the ramp, bridge, creeks, and every inch of water up to the mouth of the Econ (and likely far beyond) boiling with fish on the surface. It has been a few years since I have seen that much activity.

While the ramp at C.S. Lee was not busy, it seemed that all of those boats were anchored up around the Econ. I decided not to venture up and fished around the bridge, creek mouths and beyond. I found the fish were taking flies just subsurface. Fishing the switch rod, I used a floating tip, 6-8 feet of level 10lb leader, and fished flies like the Fry Fly, Crazy Charlie, and Kip Tailed Clouser until about 2:00 when the surface activity disappeared, and the fish dove deep, likely due to the drop in pressure, and increase in wind (gusts up to the high 20’s, low 30’s.)  I then switched to a T8 tip and heavier flies. I got 8 shad to hand, and lost at least that many (the price I choose by pinching my barbs to minimize stress on the shad.)

I was hoping to hit double digits today, and I likely could have, but I decided to call it quits around 3:00. The wind really picked up to solid mid twenties, gusts well in to the thirties, and the rain started. Not worth the trouble, as I have a hike planned tomorrow. 🙂

Spey Casting Clinic on the St. Johns River

Spey Casting Clinic on the St. Johns River

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a Spey casting clinic on the St. Johns River conducted by Leslie Holmes from Leslie Holmes International School of Fly Fishing, and hosted by TJ Bettis from Orlando Outfitters. We met up at C.S. Lee around 9:30 and then made our way down to the mouth of the Econ. Leslie demonstrated casting a long belly line, a Scandinavian head, plus a Skagit head, showing us the difference in cadence when casting each line, and then walked us through the fundamental casts such as the roll cast, switch cast, single and double Spey, as well as the snap casts.

The class was made up of six anglers, which allowed Leslie to then provide individual attention and instruction to help us to work through any issues we were having with individual casts. I have been Spey casting a switch rod since 2014, and this was the first time I have been able to work with an IFFF certified Master Casting/ Two Handed Casting Instructor, and I learned a lot! Leslie worked with me on my snap casts, changing how I approach the sweep by starting from a high position rather than placing the rod tip to the water. This small change dramatically improved the tightness of my loop while also reducing the overall circumference required to make the cast. This change will allow the use of the cast in tighter quarters, which will open up new sections of the river to me, and the tighter loop will allow further reach and better wind penetration.

Perhaps even more exciting is that in watching Leslie perform the double Spey, I was able to apply a change to my cast that has transformed the cast for me. The double Spey is a simple cast, that most of us make more complicated than it should be. Applying what Leslie showed me in lifting the rod to 10 o’clock and then bringing the rod tip to the opposite shoulder, resulted in an immediate and repeatable change in proper anchor placement. Also, keeping the tip of the rod high, and following the “brim of my hat” as Leslie pointed out, opened up a new world of power to my cast, while allowing for tighter quarter casting. This was absolutely transformational to my double Spey cast, and I will forever be in Leslie’s debt. Thank you Leslie!

The fishing was solid this day, and the mouth of the Econ was busy. There were several boats anchored up in the channel, a couple others on the west bank, and of course six of us swinging large sticks in the air. My favorite quote of the day was to the effect of “this is likely the nucleus of guys Spey casting for shad on the St. Johns.” While there are surely others that have caught the two handed bug here in Florida, there is a high probability that if you see a strange guy making water borne or aerial casts with what looks to be a strangely long fly rod while you are shad fishing, it is one of us. We are a friendly bunch that will talk your ear off about the joy of Spey casting, so don’t be afraid to say hello to us.

My numbers were not great, catching three for the day, including the smallest shad I have ever caught. It is pictured above, and I believe it actually might be a blueback herring. I have never caught one before, so while its size may not be impressive to some, the fact that it is another anadromous fish making its run to spawn, and I managed to hook one is pretty neat. To be honest, I was really more focused on casting this day than racking up numbers anyway, and I was happy to see just about everyone at the Econ catching fish throughout the day. While the run is not super thick yet, there are indeed good numbers of fish in this area now, which I know is what folks really want to hear. 😉

Many thanks again to TJ Bettis and Leslie Holmes for putting together the clinic!

Cat on the Fly

Cat on the Fly

Not much of a report here, but I will log it. I was not planning on fishing today as the shad fishing was slow last weekend, and the water is still outside of the banks of the St. Johns river. However, the river calls me this time of year, and I decided to make an impromptu solo trip. I thought about heading downstream to the turns before Lake Harney, but that seemed like a lot of work, and I was feeling lazy. I purposely avoided the mouth of the Econ as it was busy up there.

I spent time working around the bridge, creek mouths, and trying some new spots anywhere I found a decent current. I fished for about four hours, working the upper water column with the single hander, then the deeper water with the switch rod and did not hook a shad. They may have been slaying it up by the Econ for all I know, but I suspect the front moving through may have shut things down.

I thought the skunk was on me and double checked the kayak for bananas. Luckily for me the catfish pictured above decided he wanted a taste of the orange Shad Dart that was trailing behind a pink Kip Tailed Clouser I was swinging, and he proceeded to darn near spool me on the six weight switch rod. Good fun, but this is Shad on the Fly, not Cat on the Fly. 🙂

It was a productive day none the less. I probably made hundreds of Spey casts, taking my time and really working on technique to get the rust off of my fundamentals. My casting is coming in to good form again, just in time for a Spey casting clinic I am attending next week. When the fish arrive en masse, if they decide not to eat, it will not be because of a bad cast if I have anything to say about it!