Trout Tactics for Shad

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!

Soft Hackle with Bead Chain EyesWhile 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.Shad fishing on the Econ River near Snowhill

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.

Fly Fishing for Shad on the Econ River near Snowhill Road

Fly Pattern:
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
Eyes: Beadchain

A Paddle in to the St. Johns Wilderness

I met up with Philippe and Bill today for a paddle in to the St. Johns wilderness. I arrived a bit early and fished from the sandbar near the SR46 bridge and did not find shad. Bill and Philippe arrived and we made our way down to the mouth of the Econ where we worked both the east and west banks for some time. The weather was pushing in to the mid 80’s so I decided to wet wade the east bank. I have fished the east bank quite a bit this year and felt very comfortable working my way downstream five steps at a time, making single hand Spey casts to prevent snagging the high grass with a backcast. I found a nice hole and pulled up several panfish while wading about thigh deep, when for whatever reason, I looked back towards my banked kayak, maybe 20 yards behind me, and saw a head, a BIG head… like bigger than I am used to seeing, particularly in this area of the well traveled river. Bill was working the west bank across from me so I yelled over to him to confirm that it was an alligator and that I was not just letting my imagination get the best of me.

About that time, the gator submerged, right as Bill yelled back to confirm. Needless to say, I got my butt out of the water, got back in my yak, and never returned to the water further than knee deep the rest of the day. The potential for inserting yourself in to the food chain is a sobering reality that it fairly unique to shad fishing in Florida. I am sure there is potential for the same in shad runs all the way up to North Carolina, but I am not sure that alligator encounters are near as common as they are here in the Sunshine State. Beware of the big lizards, the weather is just getting too warm too quick.

We made our way up the Econ a few turns and Bill hooked a shad while trolling, but lost it before coming to hand. I moved upstream a bit and managed to land one. While each of us caught fish today, it was slow and it got hot quick. We called it quits early and stopped by the Jolly Gator for lunch. This will be the last trip out of CS Lee for me until next shad run.

Saturday Fishing Report with Mr Murphy- Hatbill Park

Shad Fishing Hatbill Park St. Johns River

I had been wanting to do some shad fishing in the Hatbill Park area for several weeks. With the rain this week, I saw an uptick in current and depth on the SR 50 gauge and decided that today was the day. My plan was to head to the first junction and fish that thoroughly, then maybe make my way to the turn just downstream, and if neither held shad, to head up to Orange Mound to fish that pool for shad and tilapia. However, it seemed that Mr. Murphy, you know… of Murphy’s Law fame was riding tandem with me today.

A turn or two downstream of the launch, right where the river narrows and there are high reeds that might block an airboat from seeing a lowly canoe, I ran aground and cracked my hand-me-down trolling motor’s case. Broken Trolling MotorLuckily there were no airboats coming or going and the circus that ensued by me trying to turn said broken trolling motor off, failing at that, getting out of the canoe to reach the battery in the bow to disconnect everything while trying not to lose the canoe, while cursing (but also laughing at myself,) went completely unnoticed by anyone other than a few white pelicans that must have thought I was nuts! Or at least a total NOOB. By the way, I was not too broken hearted at the damage to the trolling motor, as this had obviously happened before, as the copious amounts of epoxy filling the cracked case would testify.

Luckily I had not forgotten my paddle, as I did on a trip with Todd this year, and I made my way the short 3/4 mile trip to the first junction quickly. Of course when I did arrive, I realized I left my cooler in the car, water and all. SMH. Anyway, I found great current at the first junction and just upstream of it. There was also decent depth in the main channel, maybe waist high. Since I was now motor-less, I decided I would fish the crap out of this junction, and skip the rest of the scheduled trip. I hooked up with two nice bass at the head of the first junction on an orange over white size #4 Kip Tail Clouser Minnow, and got a couple of pics (see below.) I worked the first junction, 5 steps at a time, from had to tail, and picked up two more dinky bass.

At about noon the wind kicked up to 15-20mph, and everything seemed to turn off. I worked the first junction thoroughly for about 3.5 hours and decided I had enough of the wind. I made my way back to the ramp slowly and I fished each interesting turn with current or depth, and did not find shad. I did see one spent shad in it’s dying throws drifting in the current. Some days are better than others, and I am just thankful for the two respectable bass on the five weight today, in lieu of Mr. Murphy!

Bass on the St Johns River




President’s Day on the Econ River

Fly Fishing for Shad on the Econ River

I decided to take Monday off for President’s Day to hike in to the Little Big Econ State forest. Todd and I planned a day to bring our wives along to experience the peace and tranquility of the stretch of the river that we have come to enjoy over the last couple of years. We decided to make the hike from the Brumley Road trailhead again and make our way up river some on the white trail to a turn we knew had a good grassy area that would be comfortable for a picnic with the ladies. Todd, always the optimist, thought we might get lucky and run in to shad, as he had seen fish moving up the Econ River a week or two prior. A little bit of rain had pushed the discharge up ever so slightly, so I thought anything was possible but, I tend to be a bit more of a pessimist and fully expected to switch over to tossing poppers for pan fish pretty quickly.

We got to the river close to 11am and setup a spot for a picnic. Todd and I quickly setup the 5 weights and started working an area where he had caught shad on his last trip out. Within a couple of casts I had a fish on, but was not initially sure what I had hooked up with. As I got the fish about 15 feet away from me I did indeed identify it in the clear shallow water as either a small male American, or small Hickory shad. However, I lost the fish before it came to hand. I was just happy to finally hook one this season, and even better, now we knew that they were indeed there.

Todd was gracious enough to yield the head of the first pool to me and continued upstream to the next bend. There was decent current there as well as several deep holes, at least one of which was 8 feet deep. There was a ton of activity at the tail of that pool, and both of us at one point clearly saw a shad leap from the water not once, but twice. However, no fish were caught there.

I continued working the head of the pool I was on and hooked a better fish than the first. This fish made two decent runs as well as a couple of small jumps before a quick release. A quick release in my book is when I have touched the leader, but lost the fish before coming to hand. I count that as a catch even though I can’t provide photo evidence. 🙂 That shad was my first catch of 2017.

I continued working downstream through the head of the pool and hooked up with my next fish. The water I was fishing was maybe knee deep and I clearly saw the shad take the fly, then make a run to a jump. This is the first time I have actually seen a shad take my fly! However, I lost this fish as well. Fighting shad in such shallow water is a unique experience. The fish seem to shake their heads more than I have felt in open water, and I think that gives them a slight advantage as they are more easily able to throw the pinched barb flies that I typically fish with. That is my theory at least. 🙂

After a quick break for lunch and a couple of beers, I continued fishing downstream through the slack water of the pool and hooked up with a nice hen there. I got this one to hand and managed a quick picture.

Shad on the Fly- Econ River 2017

Todd made his way to the head of the pool that he yielded to me earlier and I continued down to the tail of the pool where I hooked up with two more fish but lost them as well. Todd faired a lot better. He managed to land five fish, lost four more, and was even good enough to let the ladies fight a couple.

Fly Fishing on the Econ

The fishing is still tough this year and while we thought it might be possible to find shad, we were pleasantly surprised to have made it to the right place on the right day. I never did tie on that popper by the way. It seems our wives were our lucky charms and brought the shad right to us, further solidifying one of my favorite sayings…

If a man is truly blessed, he returns home from fishing to be greeted by the best catch of his life.”

Hike to the Indian Mounds

Indian Mounds Panorama

Better late than never, here is the report from my hike to the Indian Mounds on 01/14/17. If you are interested, check out the video below to see a timelapse of the hike to Heifer Mound.

The fishing has been slow the early part of the shad season, and I decided I needed a change of scenery, even though folks are having 1-2 fish days near the Econ. With hopes of finding good current with some depth, and potentially finding shad that had decided to pause there, I decided to make the 3.2 mile hike through the Charles H. Bronson State Park to an area known as Indian Mounds on the St. Johns River. This area is peppered with mounds that were created when ancient Indian tribes discarded the mussel shells they ate. These mounds are now grown over, and most of them have palms that can be seen for miles. One exception is Heifer Mound, which is completely void of trees, so I decided I wanted to see that with my own eyes.

Trailhead at CurryvilleI left around 9:00am from the Trailhead at the end of Curryville Road. I started my walk and within just a few minutes, I startled 8-10 deer and they went flying across the road about 20 yards in front of me. I guess there is a reason this area is known for its hunting. If you are interested in making this hike, check the hunting schedule here before making plans. The trail here is a simple service road, and is well defined as hunters with a permit are allowed to drive to their destinations in season. The road is flat and basically takes you through several pastures along the tree line. This hike is not technical, just stay on service road #3 for just under three miles and you will come across a 3 way split. Two of the three are service roads, and the last is a little less clearly defined. You will see a fence to your left, a gate nearly in front of you, and a gate off to your right. Walk in the gate that is nearly in front of you and you notice a lesser defined path that leads along the fence line to a rise with a large oak and palm trees on it, that is Saddle Mound, and from there you can clearly see Heifer Mound.

A view of Heifer Mound from on top of Saddle Mound
A view of Heifer Mound from on top of Saddle Mound

It took me about an hour and a half to reach Heifer Mound. I took my time, stopping to take pictures along the way, so I would say this could be done in an hour. I also started down the path upstream and changed my mind. Think about it this way… how long does it take you to walk a 5k? If you don’t doddle (like I did) and as long as the water is low and roads are dry, it is no more difficult than walking a 5k. Take a mountain bike and you could cut that in half easily, even with 15-20lbs of gear on your back.

The river near Heifer Mound did not seem to have much current so I headed downstream. Here I found several turns where the current was substantial and the water was deep on the outside cuts. I was able to swing a polyleader and hourglass eye fly without issue on each of the turns. When I did not hook up with shad, I switched to a beadchain eye fly paired with a polyleader and then eventually removed the polyleader and fished with just the beadchain eye fly. When that did not work, I swung an unweighted fly. I caught several panfish with just the beadchain eye fly and the unweighted fly. While “Crappiepalooza” can be fun, that was not why I was there and moved back to the heavier setup. I methodically fished each turn this way for nearly four hours, up past Nellie Dora Mound and did not catch shad.

Panfish on the St. Johns River
Panfish on the St. Johns River

At about 2:00 I could see a larger front coming in and the wind picked up to about 15-20mph. It started to pour rain, so I donned my poncho and packed it all up. I made the trip back to the trailhead in a little over an hour. In all, I covered nearly 12 miles, and never sat for a rest. I was ready for a whiskey when I got home!

Alligator near Heifer Mound
Alligator near Heifer Mound

While I did not catch shad on this trip, I very much enjoyed the hike, and would definitely return again, although most likely on a mountain bike. I could see why shad would spawn in this area. There is good current and deeper water on the turns. I also enjoyed the remoteness of the area. I only saw a couple of boats early in the day and just two airboats during the afternoon.

The view is gorgeous in this area and the wildlife is plentiful. You can see for miles as the terrain is so flat. I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes, white pelicans, herons, ibises, and kingfishers. I saw deer and of course tons of cattle. I was surprised to only see two alligators the whole day. If fact, I saw more alligators the last time I was out with Todd when we explored the mouth of Puzzle Lake. No complaints here.

Hopefully the fish start to arrive in better numbers this week. Decisions, decisions… where will I go next? 🙂

Here is a map of the area that I hiked today. Many thanks to Luc Desjarlais and Tom Choma for the time they spent exploring these areas, and for sharing their knowledge with others that are willing to venture off the beaten path.

Indian Mounds