Mullet Lake Park

The weather last Saturday was forecasted to be cold, windy and rainy, and cold, windy and rainy it was. In fact, I did not make the final call to venture out until 7:30am that morning when I pinged Ray, and told him that the forecasted rain was just going to be an off and on drizzle, but the high was in the low 50’s with a NNW wind at 10-15. With slow fishing south of SR50 and at least a minor improvement reported downstream of Lake Harney, I decided to put in at Mullet Lake Park and fish some backwater to get out of the wind (thanks T.J,) and picked up Ray at 9:30.

Those that know me know that I do not have a particular affinity for this section of river. The water is wide and deep with nowhere to get out and fish, requiring you to anchor up outside of the main channel, or drift through runs and turns, and it is not particularly friendly to small vessels. I often say, I enjoy joining others on this section of water, but I would rather launch my own boat elsewhere. I think part of the problem in this area, is the river markers are frankly confusing, particularly to those new to operating their shiny new jet skis, race boats (literally,) and giant offshore center consoles (seriously… why do you have a 40+ foot boat with THREE 400hp outboards this far upstream???)

There are different sections of river marked with faded No Wake During Flood Conditions, No Wake, and Idle Zone signs. The problem is, there are also signs that seem to be covered with other signs which contradict the sign below it, and when the wind blows just right, the top sign shows, and when the wind direction changes, it flips the top sign and the bottom sign shows. This weekend, we literally saw it flip flopping… No Wake… no wait, now it’s No Wake During Flood Conditions, and back again. My little 2.5hp doesn’t really produce an actual wake, so I am not particularly concerned with it for compliance’s sake, but I can see how it could get real confusing to people operating boats that do produce wake, and they ultimately just say “screw it,” and blaze through all of it wide open, including Idle Zones (with THREE 400hp aboard.) For the record, there are plenty of regulars out there that are courteous (particularly the bass fishermen,) but I do think this area attracts a fair amount of people that are relatively new to the water, particularly on weekends.

All of that said, with the crummy weather I figured it would be quieter than usual and as we passed Cameron Wight on our way to Mullet Lake, my assumption was confirmed by the parking lot. Likewise, the parking lot at Mullet Lake Park was empty as well, and we hit the water around 10:30.

We made the short run downstream and anchored up just west of a nice bend and began fishing with the ultralights. GASP! What do you mean ultralights??? THIS is a FLY FISHING blog/ community! You would think this was some sort of sin against GOD if you looked at the comments in the FB group for pictures and reports posted this same day by those that opted for efficiency over blind casting for hours… for absent fish… in the cold… in the rain… upwind. Wait, please remind me again how well your remote control caught shad on your couch. Now read this in a Shakespearean tone… Ohhhh sage and all-powerful and talented wizard, with your 9ft staff… casteth thy magic into thee great wind, and produceth if you will, a beautiful roe shad from that place from which yesterday’s lunch, doth stink.

People take this stuff way too seriously. One of these armchair quarterbacks literally had the audacity to report each post to the admin (me) that had a picture of a spinning rod in it, a lure instead of a fly, or a fish that was not a shad, stating that it violated the rules of the group, citing Rule #2, Keep on Topic… and to quote, “This is a group dedicated to fishing for shad. Keep the conversation relevant to fishing, boating, fly tying, etc.” Fishing with a conventional rod is not off limits in my book, particularly when you are sharing intel on where shad were caught, and hence the rule does NOT include the phrase “fly fishing.” Posting pictures of bycatch is just fine too, it is actually a fun part of fishing for shad. I have made it no secret here, that while I certainly prefer fly fishing, I have no bones about using conventional gear, particularly early in the season, to locate fish. I am certainly not going to disparage someone else based on their decision in tackle, especially when they are CATCHING FISH. Neither will you, not in my group. If that in some way offends you… pound sand (like Mr. Elitist did on his own accord!) Facebook is a plague to civility.

Pound Sand!

Where was I? Oh yes, sitting in the canoe, swinging a shad rig consisting of a shad dart trailed by a shad spoon downstream of the boat, where it was taken with a heavy hit and dragged to the depths. I played the fish, but in my excitement horsed it a bit too hard and lost it before catching a glimpse, but Ray agreed, that was a shad. We fished for a while longer without a hit and then decided to pull the anchor and drift the run, letting the wind push us from the north bank to the south (and then paddling back again,) and the current push us downstream. It’s a good technique and we covered the water thoroughly that way, finding darn good current as we drifted further from the pool, and did not hookup again.

We continued downstream a couple of turns and found a nice area where the water narrowed, about 6ft deep with firm sandy bottom, and a slough feeding into it, with hyacinth on one side of us, and high brush on the other, protecting us from the wind. We anchored up just outside of the channel and Ray made the first set of casts near the edge of the hyacinth as I cleared a rat’s nest I made of my braid. It wasn’t long before he hooked up, and this time the big girl jumped. We knew without a doubt it was a nice American shad before it was quick released at the boat. What did surprise us, was the fish grabbed the lure on the drop on an upstream cast, right against the hyacinth mat, not downstream in the channel. Interesting. While we both have caught bass and panfish while fishing hyacinth mats in the past, neither could recollect catching shad there.

I continued fishing the tandem rig without a bite. Ray hooked and quick released another, similar to the last fish, near the hyacinth. I decided to try something different than the tandem rig and tied on an all-species favorite, a 2-inch white paddle tail. On my second cast downstream near the hyacinth, it got clobbered and the fish made a run in to the drag. I saw it was a Hickory before losing it at the boat. Both Ray and I caught one more each on the ultralights, each very nice Americans, each lost at the boat. I will admit that I am not used to boating shad, as I fish from shore 99% of the time, and even with a net on hand, we did not manage to take a picture of one of the fish. Oh well. Perhaps we should try McPhee’s “matador method” next time.

We spent the next hour or so fishing with the fly rods. I felt comfortable standing and fishing the switch rod from the stern while anchored. The Sportspal is stable. Ray opted to stay seated. With the cold temps, he did not want to tempt fate. While we covered the water thoroughly, both at anchor and adrift, we did not connect. Flies were not what they wanted today, but it was still a successful day, and dare I say, I even enjoyed fishing this section of river, wind, rain, cold and all. I just need to be selective of when I go and spend time off the beaten path.

I doth casteth these into thy wind, in spite of thee, ye pounders of sand!

NOTE: I have revisited John McPhee’s book Founding Fish, this time on Audible on my daily walks, and this week a particular anecdote caught my ear. I have been pondering it, along with the account above all week, and I have formed somewhat of a hypothesis in my own mind. McPhee mentions that shad traveling from the Bay of Fundy back to Florida to spawn, have already burned around 80% of their stored calories before even reaching the spawning grounds in the St. Johns River, compared to maybe 50% in the Connecticut River, and those fish being significantly larger (i.e. more stored fat.)

While Floridians have long been told that our shad “do not eat,” that consensus has now changed, even amongst biologists. There are plenty of us that have watched the behavior and there is growing evidence of such. Before you provide commentary to this statement, I encourage you to fully read the #doshadeatinfreshwater tag on the FB group, as this has been beaten to death, and the photo/ video evidence is pretty hard to dispute at this point. That said, it is generally observed further upriver, and later in the season.

So why in my account above would multiple shad be caught on the hyacinth mat line, not in the depth of the channel? Maybe warmer water after the cold snap? There was not a significant change in depth from where we were fishing, perhaps less than a foot, and these fish tolerate cold way beyond the low 60’s. Why would a shad absolutely hammer two and three inch conventional lures but not touch a fly swung through the same areas they were congregating? I guess we could have caught a school moving through, but I suspect we would have caught more fish had we kept fishing conventional. Maybe the presentation was off, or we were not getting down deep enough, but I don’t think so, we were in six feet of water.

Here is what I think:

  1. The shad started their run upriver late due to warm water temperatures
  2. They have burned through their reserves and are feeding earlier
  3. They were congregating near the hyacinth as there is food there (shrimp, copepods, minnows, etc)
  4. A larger source of protein is more enticing because the return on energy expenditure is better
  5. As they continue upstream, food will become scarcer as the squeegee is already complete, and what bait is left, is under significant pressure

My hypothesis is, unlike last season where the bait was so abundant that fish were keyed into the smallest (latest hatched) gambusia in the water, and you could not buy a bite while shad gorged themselves all around you, even throwing tiny flies that “matched the hatch,” this year (and maybe similar subsequent years) I suspect larger flies (#2-4, 2-3 inch long) are going to catch more fish. I have tied some larger clousers to put it to the test and investigate.

Double Decker South of SR50

I had a three-day weekend for the Martin Luther King holiday, so I was able to spend two days on the water last weekend. I decided to combine the posts, so here are the reports…

Upstream from SR50

On Monday I fished with Todd and while the original plan was to put in at the SR50 bridge and head downstream to fish the spawning areas near Lake Cone, the weather report made us decide to skip the bigger water and head upstream instead. I met Todd at the launch a little after 9:00am and was greeted by temps still in the low 50’s and a solid 20mph wind. Honestly if Todd had not have been with me, I probably would not have taken the boat off the Jeep, as I figured the front likely shut the bite down, but he kept me honest to my mantra… you fish when you can fish, and this was a free day off work.

We loaded the boat and quite literally set sail upstream, braving the chop in the Sportspal. The new boat definitely runs drier than the Indian River, likely because the small deck at the bow, and I felt more comfortable running it in the blustery conditions. We rounded the turns I recognized from my first trip to this area, a trip a couple of years prior on Mark Benson’s boat, but unlike that day, each turn was not covered with upwards of 40+ alligators, as the cold had likely put them on the riverbed in lethargy.

Without issue we made it to our first area of interest, a nice bend near the stand of cypress that used to have the white crosses on them. The crosses are basically gone now, but the current remains. We fished the area for a half hour or so and I caught a small bluegill, a good sign for a cold, windy day.

My first shad of the 2021/ 2022 Season

We continued working our way upstream and positioned ourselves on a bank with our backs to the wind near Paw Paw mound. There is a good run there with firm sand bottom and accelerating current that I had visited last year on a hike with Ray. Todd and I fished this run very thoroughly, wading waist deep in the chilly water until it sucked the heat right through our waders. I eventually gave in to the cold water and 25-30mph gusts, returned to the boat and found a spare wind breaker I keep in my dry bag to add to the layers. Long sleeve shirt, gloves, windbreaker, softshell jacket, neck gator, Buff fashioned into a beanie, windbreaker’s hoodie, followed by my hat kept the upper half warm and long pants, wool socks, waders, and wading boots kept the bottom half warm for a while when wading the water in the high 50’s. The air temperature never made it above the low 60’s for the day… I know, I know, that is nothing to the steelehead guys up in Michigan, but with the nonstop wind, it was plenty cold for this native Floridian.

After working the run five steps at a time, making a short cast, medium cast, and then long bomb cast with the switch rod, I was just about ready to call it quits and lifted my rod tip up, made two turns on the fly reel, and BAM, I get hit with what I immediately know is a shad. It made a couple of decent runs and two small jumps before getting it to hand. This fish reminded me of the successful technique I probably don’t use often enough, one that Luc Desjarlais mentioned in his OKFC presentation years ago, where you lift the rod tip rapidly and then return it to neutral, causing the fly to rise rapidly in the water column, and then drift back down. It has worked for me in the past on several occasions, and it worked for me again, even if inadvertently.

For no real reason in particular (other than slow fishing, and maybe a touch of motor madness) we broke the cardinal rule, don’t leave fish to find fish, and continued upstream fishing another fantastic looking run with tons of current and firm bottom and did not find shad. Rather than returning to where I caught the shad, we continued upstream to fish a number of good bends, figuring with the cold and wind, maybe the shad had congregated in the deeper, calmer water in the pools, including a great pool where Ray caught his first shad on the switch rod two years ago. I mean, if they were anywhere, they should be there, right? They were not.

Around 4:30 we decided we should start making our way back, knowing that the white caps may slow our return to the ramp. I reversed the order of my layering and put the windbreaker on over my softshell to prepare for the inevitable wet ride home. However, the wind shifted and died down a bit, and only a mild chop remained, making the return trip fairly uneventful.

Along the way we ran in to Mark Benson and stopped to shoot the breeze for a while. Mark continued upstream to chase the dusk bite, and we continued to the ramp… not before taking a few more swings through that run near Paw Paw.

This was the first time I had put in at SR50 under the bridge. This launch has a bit of a reputation, and I would say probably rightfully so. There is a bigger, paved launch down the road, but it’s not as conducive to unloading and loading the boat from the top of the car. Ultimately my 2006 doesn’t have much to offer a would-be burglar, so I will definitely be going back.

Powerlines to 528

On Saturday I fished with Ray out of Tosohatchee, and with reports of fish being caught still very spotty, we decided to utilize the down time to do some exploring in the hopes of maybe finding a congregation of early run fish way upstream.

There has been talk of potentially trying to organize a hike into the area of river near 528, with Ray and Philippe Richen even making and attempt to scout it a couple of weeks ago, only to find recent rains made the trails unpassable, so we decided to make the run by boat.

With a cold front moving through the night prior, there was no reason to be on the water at the crack of dawn, so I picked up Ray at 9:00am and made the drive to Tososatchee, and down the Powerline Road. When we arrived, temps were still in the high 50’s, so we donned our waders and packed up the boat. As we set sail, I was surprised to see an airboat pull up, but traded a cordial wave. Evidently there are now airboat tours picking up clients at this launch. I have no idea whether that is legal, but it is concerning because of the already limited parking at the end of the road. Thankfully we were there early enough.

Stuck in the Mud

We made the run upstream and I was surprised by how shallow a lot of the channel actually was. There were stretches where we were bumping bottom, even in areas where I was following my hand marked channel precisely, and both Ray and I commented that if the water dropped another foot, we likely would have to get out and drag the boat in a couple of areas. That said, while spending the time marking the channel using Google Earth and having it in hand is useful, it is not a perfect science. Actually, it’s probably more art than science, as unless you put it to the test on actual water, it really is just a set of pretty lines. Put it to the test we did, and while a good deal of that work paid off, it is still quite possible to veer off course in the skinny maze of braids, some of which are just feet wide. One of or deviations did provide an interesting sight though, a cow stuck in the mud.

Ultimately the east channel revealed itself to be the most consistent depth (something I have righted in my channel markings in two places) and after an hour of motoring and course correcting, we landed at our first designated fishing spot, a hard bend roughly three quarters of the way to the 528. Here we found hard bottom, nice depth, clear water, and fantastic current at the head and tail of the pool. Ray got to work with the switch rod, and I admittedly grabbed the ultralight to begin canvasing the area with a shad rig consisting of a shad dart up front and shad spoon trailing behind. We fished the area thoroughly and only found panfish.

We made the final run to the Indian mound just downstream from the 528, where again we found fantastic current. Ray again fished the switch rod, and after a quick lunch I joined him. We both fished the East channel thoroughly, the river is so narrow here you can cast the fly to the opposite bank with the switch, and while again we found steady surface activity, we only caught panfish. Wondering what the access to this area would be like if hiking in, we checked the west bank of the mound and with the SR50 gage around 4.15ft, found the ground to be mucky… the type of muck that you sink to the shin in (or maybe further) before it sucks off your wading boot and feeds it to the bog.

The view of 528

Seeing the cow stuck in the mud earlier was an omen enough to keep Ray and I from attempting to walk through said bog before seeing whether we could cross the west braid. While that intel might have helped with a future hike, it was not in the cards today. I have never hiked into this area, but I have read the section of Luc Desjarlais’ book a dozen times, and honestly I cannot get my head around how to do it. Ultimately, I will just have to try it by foot someday, likely when the water is lower, and there has been enough time for the banks to dry out.

We decided to head back downstream to see if we could catch the evening bite somewhere, slowing down at the channel convergence to have a look and also checking the East Channel near the first turn upstream of Powerline Road. We saw no activity there and made our way down to Catfish Hotel where two airboats were parked. We yielded the spot and continued downstream to a place I call Crazy Gator Bank, a high bluff with a slough draining into it. We found surface activity all over this run, and once again fished it thoroughly and found no shad. As the sun was hanging low in the sky, the two boats we saw at Catfish Hotel passed us on the way back to the launch at SR50, so we decided to check it out. Again, we found plenty of surface activity, but no shad.

We put in some good miles this day, and while we did not find shad, it is still pretty early in the season. Ultimately, I know any time spent exploring, finding new spots, putting your eyes on places the average Florida shad fisherman will likely never spend the time to get to, will pay off in spades. Every minute I spend on this waterway will make me a better fisherman in the future. In my mind, I am putting in my time, building a database in my mind and in my journal (aka BLOG,) that I will be able to draw on later. This week on the Facebook Group, a fisherman new to shad fishing was interested in where to focus his attention as he only had limited time to fish this week and mentioned in a comment that he did not want to waste his time in the wrong area. While we all want to catch fish, I will say it again… there is no wrong area on the St. Johns River, and a minute is never wasted exploring its riches and beauty.

SR415 to Iron Bend in search of Shad

A special thanks to Todd Labellman and his brother Alex for inviting me out for a Sunday fishing/ scouting trip. We launched from Cameron Wight and found a good amount of surface activity near the power lines as the south/ southwest wind blew nutrient rich water out of Lake Jessup into the river. Unfortunately, we could not get them to take a fly (or conventional rig,) so we made a run up to the Osteen bridge at SR415 to do some dredging before making the run upstream to the Iron Bend, then fished a couple likely spots on the way back before returning to the power lines for the evening bite. I managed a sandwich sized crappie, and Todd caught a hickory shad on a full sink line, so a slow day of fishing, but a nice day exploring and fishing with Todd and his nephew Austin.

We ran into Philippe Richen and John Hawko on the water, and they reported slow fishing as well, but Phil said he did manage to land his largest hen to date, which is promising.

It’s still thin, but they are around, and you are not going to catch them sitting on the couch, so get to it!

We Have a Winner- 2021/ 2022

Well, he has done it again! Congratulations to this year’s First Shad of the Season contest winner, Cas Summers! Cas also won the contest during the 2018/ 2019 season, and definitely knows his stuff! He and Steele Doxtater continue to dominate the leaderboard, so if there is someone out there that wants to take next year’s prize, and bragging rights, I would encourage you to fish early, and fish often. Way to go Cas!

Maiden Voyage for the 2021/ 2022 Season

Happy New Year to all my fellow shad addicts! May this year be prosperous, full of shad, and rid of this stinking pandemic… it’s enough already!!! SMH

Just a quick post. I got out on New Year’s Eve to do some shad fishing with Todd Labellman, something that has become an institution for us at this point. We met up at C.S. Lee at 9am to find a heavy fog and the parking lot full. It must have been a lot of hunters looking for snipe, or boats fishing for specks on Lake Harney, as the boat traffic was relatively low upstream most of the day.

While the water was high from recent rains (~3.8 ft on the Lake Harney Gage,) and we knew the odds were not in our favor, I was excited to get on the water, as over the Christmas break, I purchased a new (to me) boat, a 2008 Meyers Sportspal S-15. The Sportpal is a 15 ft long aluminum square stern canoe made in Michigan with a beam of 44 inches, a flat draft bottom and simple 1″ keel design, just the right amount of rocker up front to keep the bow from digging in over chop, a freeboard higher than what I had on the 14 ft Indian River Canoe, and it can take a 5hp motor (something I have not upgraded yet, but if you happen to have one for sale, ping me.)

What all of that means for me, is a good amount more space, a lot more stability, and a significant increase in weight capacity… something my big butt needs (New Year’s resolutions aside.) While I have been eying Gheenoe Classics (I love Ron Flak’s boat) as well as 16 ft Jon Boats (Mark Benson’s recommendation) for a year, I do not have room to store a trailer at the house (already have a popup camper in the garage) and cannot justify in my own mind paying to store it. This boat gives me similar stability as the Classic (albeit with less HP) while still being light enough to put on top of the Jeep. They are a rare find in Florida, as there is not a local reseller anywhere close, and new, they are pretty pricey plus require freight shipping to get one.

Truth be told, I have been looking for one of these for some time and the Sportpal was the inspiration for some of the upgrades I made to the Indian River 14 (e.g. whitewater lacing and the added sponsons.) They are revered up north and out west for their stability for cold water lake fishing, category 1-3 whitewater camping/ gear haulers, and duck/ fowl hunting boats. Evidently, they are so stable, two dogs can leave, retrieve, and return to the canoe with their prize, with two well fed men aboard, without tipping. I will definitely be testing out that stability this season.

We quickly made our way to the normal haunts and immediately noticed the increased stability of the new boat. It is much easier to exit and re-enter with two aboard. I was able to stand without issue to start the motor and refill the gas tank, something that required some contortion work and a trusting gunwale grabbing passenger to pull off before. Riding over boat wake is a cake walk too. I would say it is about a knot slower on the water than the Indian River 14, but the added stability is worth it to me.

We wet waded (thigh to waist deep) and fished the creek mouths and the east bank near the mouth of the Econ with Skagit Heads and T-8 tips and did not find shad or any bicatch. It is not abnormal to swing flies all day to pick up one or two shad a piece this early in the season, but generally you catch some specks, bass, etc. along the way. Not today!

At noon the fog finally lifted, and the sun came out without a hint of wind, so we decided to make our way in to Puzzle Lake. I have not spent a lot of time in Puzzle, as my range was previously limited when I primarily used a kayak, and I just had not taken the time to run the Indian River 14 through it, but there are some areas with some really nice current and firm bottom to explore, if you don’t get lost. Off and on over the last two seasons, I have spent time manually mapping the natural channel of the middle and upper basin of the St. Johns in Google Earth using low water imagery. This came in real handy when navigating the lake while the water is out of its banks. I think it will help a lot upstream of Tosohatchee too, where I struggled to find the channel last year while the water was high.

We stopped at each confluence of channels through Puzzle as well as a spot that Todd had caught fish in prior years, eventually making it well into the Indian Mounds area, covering 13 miles roundtrip, and did not find shad. The motor back downstream through the lake took about an hour and we once again stopped and fished the east bank at the mouth of the Econ hoping to catch the late day bite and found no joy.

While we did not find shad, it was a great day on the water exploring and scouting new spots that will likely hold fish once they start to arrive enmasse. I love the new boat and will be looking to sell the Indian River Canoe soon, so ping me in the FB group if you are interested. We did see plenty of grass shrimp and gambusia around, so the second squeegee (3.5- 2.5ft) will likely be decent if you can get out there. Hopefully the shad congregate in this section of river a little longer than they have the last couple of years, as I wouldn’t mind spending some more time in Puzzle Lake fishing this year.