First Trip of 2021- Plenty of Crappie but no Shad

Just a quick report. After recovering from Covid-19, I was ready to finally start my season today. I met up with Todd at 10am at CS Lee. When we arrived the weather was still in the mid 40’s and the wind was brisk. Thankfully I had packed an Under Armor thermal layer and had a wind breaker in the dry bag, as I had opted not to grab a jacket on the way out.

We packed the boat and set out to do some fishing, stopping at the creek mouths first. With the gage at 3.5 feet, the west bank is still partially submerged, but wadable ankle to thigh high. The current was booking, still at around 3000cfs, and a 10 foot T3 tip and hourglass eye fly was not enough to bounce bottom here. Todd fished a T8 tip and felt like he was getting down, but neither of us hooked shad. After I caught a little red belly, we decided to move upstream to the mouth of the Econ.

The east bank at the mouth is wadable shin to waist high, which made things chilly. Add to that a good 10-12 northwest wind, and the chop was stacking up a good foot. Even with the backup, the current still warranted T8’s and heavy flies. I switched tips and worked the likely areas without a hookup. Todd on the other hand found the crappie hole, and pulled numerous slabs out on a pink fly. These were some of the biggest crappie we had seen in this section of river in a good while.

Eventually, the cold and wind in our face took its toll and we decided to poke around on the west bank, which was again wadable shin to waist high, but found no takers.

After a quick stop at a creek mouth that Todd likes that can produce fish on days where they are warming up in the shallow water, on a whim, we decided to run down to the big turn downstream of the Jolly Gator, as it had been several years since either of us had fished it. I recalled catching shad there early in the season, but it was always a gamble, and a bit more of a commitment in the kayaks. Under motor, it is a quick run downstream and back up if there was no action.

When we arrived, we saw more activity than anywhere else on the river all day. Birds were diving at the confluence of the slough and main channel coming out of the turn, and we did see some surface activity, but the water level on the west bank was still pretty deep, and made reaching the main water of interest difficult, even with the switch rods. If you are going out by boat this week, you may want to take a look and anchor up just outside the main current.

We decided to call it a day around 3:00. There were plenty of nice crappie to be had today, and had we really focused on them, we probably could have filled a nice sized cooler. They definitely liked the pink or orange flies, and were hanging in holes or just outside the main current. However, we are shad fanatics, and nothing else quite quenches the thirst… except maybe a cold beer! 🙂

We Have a Winner- 2020/2021

We have our winner! Congratulations to Steele Doxtater, for the SECOND YEAR IN A ROW!!!! This is the first year we have had a back-to-back winner for the First Shad of the Season Contest, so not only did Steele win, he’s making history! Similar to last year, Steele caught this beauty near Marina Isle while fishing with the 2018/2019 contest winner, Cas Summers. These guys play to win, and they know Shad Alley like its their own backyard! Way to go Steele, congratulations AGAIN!

First Shad of the Season Contest- 2020/2021

Let’s get the 2020/ 2021 shad fishing season started, with this season’s First Shad of the Season Contest! I have decided to start the contest in November to see if we can coax competitors to get on the water early and catch a coveted November shad! The winner will receive their choice of a $100 gift certificate to Orlando Outfitters, or a box of shad flies tied by yours truly!

First Shad of the Season Contest 2020/2021 Rules:

  1. The contest begins November 6, 2020 and ends once I have confirmed a winner
  2. This is a catch, photograph and release contest
  3. To be eligible you must:
    • Be a member of the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group. Membership is free, but the Facebook group is a closed group so you must request to be added as a member
    • Download the Shad on the Fly 2020/ 2021 Official Token image above and print it out in color. You may trim it down to size. 
      Alternatively, you can save it to your cell phone and use your phone to display the token as long as it is CLEARLY visible (just don’t drop it in the water!)
  4. To win you must:
    • Catch a shad using a fly rod and fly
    • Be the first person to upload a picture of the fish, fly reel, and fly with the Official Token clearly visible in the image to the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group
    • Must share the general location you caught the fish (e.g. downstream of Mullet Lake, Upstream of Lake Harney, C.S. Lee near the Econ, etc.)
  5. I will message the winner in Facebook to get their address and mail the prize, or setup a meetup on the water if possible. Whatever works best for the winner

 Official Facebook Stuff:

The Shad on the Fly- First Shad of the Season Contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, administered by, or associated with Facebook. Participants understand that they are providing their information to the owner of the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, and not to Facebook.

I Fished the CRUD out of Hatbill

Last Saturday I decided to put in at Hatbill again for my first solo trip in the new (to me) canoe. I wanted to try a couple of new spots I had not visited by kayak before, primarily the big turns and the T Split upstream of Orange Mound. I have spent a fair amount of time in the section of river downstream of Orange Mound, and feeling relatively confident in running the boat with a buddy, I wanted to do some exploring by myself.

I arrived at Hatbill around 9:00am and was met with a 20-30mph wind… sigh. I quickly loaded up the canoe, and since I was running solo, filled two 30 liter dry bags with water and attached them with carabiners to the lacing at the bow of the boat, and stuffed all the rest of my gear forward as well. This ballast really did a good job of keeping the bow down, offsetting the weight from my big fat butt plus thirty additional pounds of outboard motor. I have a small stool I can use as a “jump seat” to move my weight more towards the center of the boat, but really only needed that in the shallowest of water.

I set off downstream and decided to make my way up to the T Split by way of the secondary Bear Bluff channel. I have never traveled via this channel and was quickly met with shallow water. The initial 1/4 of a mile is so shallow, it required me to pull up the outboard and hop out to pull the canoe with the painter line. Thankfully there was also no sign of alligators in the area, and after a brief walk and a short period of push poling the boat with the paddle, I was able to crank up the motor and make my way upstream.

Bear Bluff Shelter

I arrived at the Bear Bluff Shelter and as I was about to start fishing, I was joined by two airboats that pulled up to the shelter. I decided to yield the spot and head further upstream. While the pool in front of the shelter had decent current at the head and tail, I did not have high hopes for finding shad, figuring the shallow water in the secondary channel had already cut fish off from making their way upstream via this path.

After a short motor, I arrive at the T Split where I found fantastic current at the actual split, and the run upstream of it. I fished both the east and west egress spots of the split and picked up some panfish but no shad. I did work my way up the run a bit, but spotted a couple of gator heads about 50 yards from where I wanted to be, so I decided not to wade any further.

I made my way upstream to the next set of big turns where I found two very nice pools and a nice run between them. Unfortunately with the stiff wind, the current was backed up on the run, making swinging a fly futile. The first pool had a good amount of surface activity just out of comfortable wading reach. Unfortunately I had three very nice sized buddies hanging out closer than I would prefer to wade any further than about knee high. My gut told me there were fish there, but it was not worth a close encounter in the middle of nowhere.

The view from Orange Mound

At about 12:30 I decided to make the run down to Orange Mound and have some lunch. Along the way, an airboat came up behind me on a very narrow channel, so I pulled over in the shallows and let him pass. The channel was maybe 30 feet wide.

When I arrived at Orange Mound, there was one other airboat on the beach, and after a friendly greeting by them, I landed my boat well downstream to give them some space. While I had not needed my little “jump seat” for the most part, it made a perfect little place to sit up on the midden, and I enjoyed an ice cold beer, a sandwich and some cashews.

Shortly after finishing my lunch, the airboat took off, so I decided to fish the run and small pool in front of Orange Mound. Again I picked up a few panfish, and about the time I was about to give up and was reeling in line, I saw a swell of maybe 4 or five fish come the surface, one of which took the fly hard and made a fast run straight upstream and then jumped. Unfortunately I lost the fish when it jumped, but it was clearly a nice shad. The experience of multiple fish coming up to surface like that reminded me of fishing upstream of Snowhill Road, where I have seen multiple fish in the clear water peel off from the pod and chase down a fly. With aggressive feeding behavior like that, I expected to catch more fish, but unfortunately after working the area thoroughly at different depths and with different flies, never had another taker.

I made my way downstream towards First Junction by way of the west channel, which I found to be very shallow, even for my boat. Another foot lower on the gauge and I am not sure the outboard will even be worth the trouble around Hatbill. As I approached First Junction, I studied the water for any activity, and after 5-10 minutes of idling, decided to make my way down to the Second Junction by way of the east channel.

Just upstream of Second Junction

Upon arriving, I found the run just upsteam of the junction to be high and dry compared to my last visit. I have caught fish from this very spit of land that narrows the channel in to very fast moving current both at the head and tail of the run. I also like the deep pool just upstream of this spot. However today I found no takers on the run, and while I fished it, a skiff landed at the pool and fished there for around 20 minutes. I did not see them catch anything, so I decided not to bother.

I ran back down the east channel to First Junction where again, I fished the area very thoroughly at different depths with different flies and again found not joy and decided to call it a day near 5:00pm. In all, I covered around eight miles, fishing both new as well as familiar spots and all I can say is, it has been a difficult year. While I enjoyed exploring, and now feel completely comfortable running the new boat alone (which is a win,) I would say I am done with Hatbill for the year. The question is, where to next?

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