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! 🙂

Big gator, thankfully not the one I hit

The bull is in there somewhere

Looking downstream on the west channel

Moooo

Plenty of Cattle

Bycatch at Hatbill

Misty Panorama

On Saturday I returned to Hatbill Park to complete the trip I had originally planned the week prior. The plan was to launch early at the boat ramp, head to the first junction, then make my way upstream to Orange Mound and back again. I awoke at 6:45am only to find a dense fog advisory on my phone. Hatbill is not an area of the river you want to paddle on with low visibility, as there can be a fair amount of airboat traffic. I spent some extra time with my girls, drank an extra cup of coffee, and then made my way to the launch.

When I arrived around 9:00, I was happy to find a travel trailer doing some boondocking. With the added activity, I figured there was less chance of running across nefarious characters upon my return. I also found an absolutely still morning, where the thick fog produced a grey, mirror-like image on the water, and limited visibility to maybe a couple of hundred feet. I took my time setting up, and did a little fishing from shore for about a half hour before my patience got the better of me, and I set out in to the grey void. As I made my way down to the first junction, close to the third turn, I clearly saw more than a dozen alligator heads in the pool I would shortly be crossing.

Gator in the mist

 

The still, foggy air, mixed with the fact that I was sitting just inches off the water in the kayak made the experience extra creepy, but I kicked up the pedaling to aerobic levels, making extra effort to make sure the Hobie’s pedals slapped the hull each stroke, all the while whistling nervously, and crossed the pool without issue.

 

The river remained quiet as I arrived at the first junction, and I fished from the west bank for a while without a bite. Around 10:30, the slightest of breezes picked up, the fog began to retreat, and I began to see activity near the east bank. I moved positions and as I swung an intermediate tip and weighted fly through the area for nearly thirty minutes, the top water activity picked up to a feverish pace of tiny flicks and splashes, but nothing was taking the fly. Figuring the activity was likely small bass or panfish, I switched to a floating tip and tied on a Fry Fly to see if I could hook up. After several missed takes, I found my initial assumption to be incorrect, and I landed a blueback herring. I continued to fish the size 10 fly through the concentrated activity and landed several more. After landing 10, I decided I had enough and needed to shift my focus back to catching shad.

Generally if there are bluebacks around, there is a good chance there are American or Hickory shad there too. The bluebacks seem to give their position away more often than the shad and seem to spend more time up top, but if you find them, you know you found an area suitable for any of them to spawn. In an effort to target shad and minimize the bycatch, I switched back to the intermediate tip and tried several different weighted flies, working the area ten steps at a time. While there was nonstop activity up top, assumingly from the bluebacks alone, I did not hook up with a shad by working the mid to lower water column with the heavier setup.

Orange Mound

 

At noon I decided if I was going to catch shad I needed to move, so I made the paddle upstream to Orange Mound. The paddle is straight forward from the first junction and I made the trip in about 20 minutes. I arrived to find a beautiful panorama of blue sky over wetland, and just the slightest increase in elevation where the midden mound protrudes from the river. I was taken back by the difference in water clarity, and the distinct look of silver and gold hues created by the sun reflecting off of the mussel shells polished by current over time, and the tannic water.  Interestingly, there is a very nice gradient on the run near Orange Mound where the current picks up relative to the water downstream. Just upstream of the mound, there is convergence of channels that creates a series of eddies similar to the “toilet bowl” that Mark Benson shuttled us to on the trip to 7 Palms.  Both the area of convergence and the run itself had nice “crispy” bottom, and seemed to offer all of the attributes that shad prefer to spawn in, but there were no signs of activity like I saw at the first junction. I spent about an hour and a half working the area, ten steps at a time and did not catch shad there. Orange Mound is a popular landmark in the area, and at around 2:00, several airboats arrived so I decided to head back downstream.

When I arrived back at the first junction, the same activity I left continued. Still figuring it was blueback herring, I continued to work deeper in the water column and did not hook up. Tiring of all the activity, and fish not taking the heavier flies, I switched back to the floating tip and Fry Fly, but could not buy a bite.

I was about to call it a day, but with the amount of continued activity on the surface, I decided to try one last change in tactics. I rigged the intermediate tip back up, tied on a long 10 foot leader with 4x tippet, and to that tied on a size 10 pink Little Richard, a small dear hair fly that floats. When used with some upstream mends, this setup allows the intermediate tip to slowly sink and drag the floating fly down well above it, imparting a slow diving motion to the fly at the beginning of the swing. As the swing completes, and the intermediate tip tightens, the floating fly accelerates through the turn and rises once again. After a few casts, I hooked up with what I thought to be another blueback, but when I got it to hand, found it was a small American Shad. Unfortunately, I did not snap a picture before its “quick release.” I continued this technique and while I did not hookup with another shad, I caught many more blueback herring, panfish, and small bass.

While I originally thought all of the activity up top was bluebacks, there were likely shad intermingled with them the entire time. In contrast to years prior, the fish just seem to be less interested in taking flies near bottom, and I continue to do better using flies and techniques that put the fly in the top third of the water column, if not just subsurface. Just when you think you have it figured out, the fish change the game. It has been such an interesting run this year.

Not a shad, but it will do

Silver and Gold water at Orange Mound

Look at that color!

Orange Mound

Mirror Image view at the First Junction

Blueback herring

"Crispy" Bottom

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. 🙂

Hatbill Route

No one for Miles

My audience

White Pelicans

My Sled

Gator Swimming

Gator Swimming

Large Alligator on Shore

The "other" car

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. 🙂

Selfie

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!