St. Patrick’s Day Shad

Sportspal on mirror glass like water

What a difference a couple of weeks can make here in Florida! We went from considering hanging it up at Hatbill because the water was so low (last post,) to a time warp back to early January water levels in a flash. With the gage height back to around 5 feet at SR 50 and water temps back down into the 60’s due to torrential rain and multiple cold fronts, I fished out of Tosohatchee last Thursday and had the whole place to myself… well, almost.

Due to Spring Break, there was an increase in large tour airboats running a regular circuit, with at least 4-6 out at any given time for most of the day, but the pattern they were running tended to stay well downstream, only venturing close as they ran across Mud Lake. Outside of that I only saw 2-3 other airboats all day, and not another soul fishing, at least with a fishing pole.

Selfie while Underway

I took my time getting to the water as it was a weekday and when I arrived at 10:30am at the river at the end of the almost 6-mile-long dirt Powerline Road, there were two cars with trailers, one parked and one pulling in, both looked to be commercial cast net fishermen. Tosohatchee does not allow trailered boats to launch here, as there is not a ramp and parking is already limited, but I proceeded to watch a gentlemen unhitch his trailer, walk it with the boat (maybe a 12-footer similar to a Carolina Skiff with a 25hp) still attached down to the water’s edge, and leverage a downed telephone pole width post to roll his boat in to the water from the steep highbank. It looked difficult enough to get in the water, I am not real sure how they planned to get it out, but I loaded up my boat and minded my own business. They went one way, and I went another.

Running solo, I quickly made my way downstream of 7 Palms to a turn I had not fished before (the turn that had the dead cow on it a year or two ago,) but that had significant surface activity. Along the way I saw dozens of large alligators on the bank, and when I arrived at this turn, found four that slipped into the water, but never yielded the spot. They stuck close, popping their heads up for a look periodically as I began to fish the pool with the ultralight. I quickly caught a shad that did not put up much of a fight but looked fresh (albeit thin) when I got it to the net. I moved to the switch rod and pulled another from the same bend that did make a run on me though.

Shad in a net

Being content with even finding fish this late, I decided to move on and see if there were fish in all of the normal suspects. There were, and I was pleased to pull a fish or two (and there were plenty more to be had) from every place I stopped before moving to the next. I wanted to continue all the way to Paw Paw Mound, but as I ventured further, the alligators grew larger, and bolder in the warm weather. As I made my way past Mud Lake towards the next big pool, I counted 17 large alligators as they slipped from the bank into the water. There were a few more that stayed parked where they were, and likely several that were skittish enough to move before I saw them. Add to that the fact that the airboats were stopping along the run upstream of Paw Paw as part of their circuit, and I decided to turn back. They were stopping there each time for a reason, and I did not want to ride the wake of these big boats in the canoe. Biomass if what the Spring Breakers came to see after all, and I did not want to end up in the water there.

As I returned upstream, I stopped at a spot I have marked as “Crazy Gator Bank,” as it often has around a dozen alligators on it. It is high and dry and has a slough that feeds into it, and regularly has surface activity. Ray and I have stopped to fish it before without luck, as the river is wider here, and the activity is just out of reach of even the switch rods while fishing from bank. Based on its namesake, wading is not really a good idea here, particularly this late in the season. Instead, I anchored up the Sportspal using the anchor trolley just upstream of the slough and proceeded to catch several small warmouth before bringing a shad to hand.

It was an impressive day of fishing for this late in the season, and I would say we likely have a few more weeks left based on the numbers of fish still in the system, more heavy rains coming, and even another cold front. I plan to keep at it a while longer.

A Weekend of Returns

I am running two weeks behind on this post. With a busy week trying to tie up loose ends at work before a week of spring break with the kids, I just did not have time to process pictures and to sit down and write. However, I need to put it in the books.

After finding fish at Snowhill Thursday after work, Ray was already planning a trip there on Friday (03/04.) I pinged him after my workday was done, and he asked if I wanted to join him.. heck yea I did! We returned to Snowhill and made the hike straight to the Double Gator Pool. Ray picked up a small bass, sunfish, and gar, but unlike the day before, we did not find shad.

We made the short walk up to the Willow Pool and fished it briefly. We did see a small school of shad, but they were moving downstream at speed and didn’t even give us the opportunity to make a cast. They were likely post-spawn Hickories booking it downstream in their return to the ocean. I must have got lucky and found some fish holding on Thursday, because fast movers are a tell-tale sign they are done doing what they came for.

We decided to leave Snowhill and take a look at the Econ River at the SR 419 bridge, as neither of us had ever stopped there. For whatever reason, I expected the river to be bigger here, but to my surprise, even with the gage at 11.5 feet at the bridge, it looked a lot like Snowill (or Barr Street,) but with steeper carved banks, and the main channel must obviously be deeper. That said, even with the deeper water, from what we saw, the water was relatively unnavigable due to the sheer volume of downed trees in the channel. Maybe it gets better downstream, but if not, you would be doing some regular portaging to get around all that timber.

Also to our surprise, there is a series of trails near the river similar to Snowhill. I did not know that. We did some exploring upstream and found the confluence of the Little Econlockhatchee River and the Econlockhatchee River. The Little Econ had some serious current pushing out of it, however with all the trees in the water, it would be tough to fish. We did not explore downstream, but it may be worth doing some scouting off-season to determine whether there are any fishable spots accessible by foot, and whether the river clears up downriver. Note to self, see if you can track down any maps to see how far the trails go.

Sportpal canoe on the water

Fast forward to Saturday morning (03/05) and Ray and I returned to Hatbill. I had a family function and needed to be off the water early. After a successful trip further downstream the previous weekend, we thought that maybe there would be more fish around First and Second Junction and that we may not have to venture too much further than that. However, we did not see activity at First Junction so quickly made our way to Second Junction by way of the east channel.

With the SR 50 gage height at 2.5ft, the section of channel just upstream of Baxter Point was so shallow I had to pull the motor and paddle it. However, once we made it to Baxter Point it was navigable once again. We fished at Second Junction and Ray quickly landed a nice shad that was still clean and full of fight. I fished the switchrod and the little 5/6 Eagleclaw Featherlight. Somehow I broke the stripping guide on the little yellow rod which made things interesting. Its also proof that riverlife in the canoe is hard on gear. Those glass rods are built like tanks, the guides… not so much. I landed several species of panfish on the fly but did not connect with a shad there.

Ray with a Nice Shad at Second Junction

With limited fishing time, we decided to continue to push downstream and do a little recon, then circle back to where we caught fish the weekend prior. We made it to the spot approaching Nellie Dora Mound on the east channel with the hard bend and long run that I had eyed the previous weekend (we never made it that far because we found fish upstream.) There was good current, a nice eddy, and a ton of surface activity, but we did not find shad.

After spending the better part of an hour picking apart the run downstream and the pool, we made our way back upstream to the spot we caught shad the previous weekend, only to find the wind had picked up to 25-30mph. We both switched gears and began fishing the ultralights and quickly hooked up with shad again, even though they were not showing themselves up top.

I moved back to the switch rod and caught a couple more before swapping again to the little EagleClaw where I managed to pick up another, on the inside of the cut that fed into the slough, again VERY cool!

Author holding an American Shad

We could have caught plenty more, but with the wind, the satisfaction of finding shad once again, and the need to get off the water early, we enjoyed a lunch and a beer instead, and then made our way back to Second Junction.

We fished Second Junction thoroughly for the second time this day. Ray got brave and crossed the slough to the spit of land near the marker before a gator got a little too close for comfort. When it raised his head, then body, then tail out of the water… something alligators do to show their dominance, and assert that this was THEIR spot, he high tailed it back to where we landed.

I managed a very nice hybrid on the switch rod, but lost it on a jump before coming to hand. It was the largest I have ever hooked, and I clearly saw its football sized chunky body. It was that fish’s lucky day, because I would not have returned it to the water. They are fun to catch, but I feel we are doing a disservice to our native species by continually introducing them. The amount of large “Sunshine” Bass caught this year should make you question if our resources could be better utilized in other places (i.e. not on a sterile hybrid that devours everything it can fit their mouth around, in the name of “sport.”)

There are still fishermen pursuing shad in March… perhaps only two, Ray and me (but seriously, there are still a committed few beyond that.) We saw one bass boat, and one commercial Hoplo Catfish boat the entire day. We can attest, there are still plenty of fish in the system though. I still have another entry to write that confirms this fact. 😉

Run to Snowhill after Work

Alligator on the bank of the Econ River

Quick post. I made the hike into the Econ from Snowhill yesterday after work and found fish. I did not get one to hand, but I jumped multiple shad. The water is LOW, but they are there. Look for depth and current.

I fished the ultralight and the little yellow EagleClaw fly rod, and hooked shad on both. In my haste, I grabbed the 3/4 from the quiver instead of the 5/6 and paid the price. There were fish feeding ever so slightly out of my reach at the Double Gator Pool, just downstream of the big gator’s tail (above.)

I used to like wading in at the head of the pool here, and casting downstream right into the eddy, but a willow tree fell just upstream a couple of years ago and fouled the back cast. I contemplated it today so I could single-hand Spey cast, but where was the second gator? This is the Double Gator Pool after all. Just as I was getting ready to step in, I saw her. Do you??? Close, real close… with her muddy back. Clever girl!

alligator in the mud on the Econlockhatchee River

Sight fishing it was not, as the sun was low late in the day. With the water as low as it is, I am not sure it is going to be a year to sight fish for them anyway. If we get some rain, it may be a different story, but they are around.

I Love It when a Plan comes Together

East Channel at Second Junction near Hatbill Park on the St. Johns River

Last Saturday Ray and I launched out of Hatbill, a late decision that paid off. We figured with the increased reports of double-digit days near the mouth of the Econ and in to Puzzle Lake, C.S. Lee would likely be crazy. Add to that the thought that those fish caught earlier in the week had likely moved upriver and it seemed like a decent plan, and a change of scenery.

I picked up Ray at 7:00am and we were on the water around 8:00. The plan was to motor straight through to Second Junction, then pick that water apart for an hour or so. If we did not find fish, we would then push forward to some of the turns in the Indian Mounds section of the river that take some effort to get to from either launch, but slightly closer to Hatbill.

Prior to even making it to First Junction, we found a run with good surface activity and stopped to have a look. After a few casts, I caught a nice sized crappie with the spinning rod, followed by another on the switch. Ray caught a nice bluegill. While there was good current on this run, we decided all the activity was likely just panfish, so we left fish to find fish. We likely could have limited out on crappie, but shad were what we were after.

I used the west channel to reach Second Junction. With the SR50 gage at 2.85ft, the west channel was shallow, and I bumped bottom plenty, even in the canoe. Two turns up from Second Junction I actually had to kill the motor, lift it and paddle. Another foot and we would have to hop out and walk it in several spots. I imagine the east channel would have been the same, as there are sections of that I have had to get out of the kayak and walk in years prior. Of note, the west channel has ALOT of alligators in it, but interestingly, most of them were on the smaller size (4-6ft.)

Ray holding a bass he caught with the Euro Tackle

We arrived at Second Junction and got to work on the east run. This run is narrow, and really accelerates the current. With clean firm bottom, it is a perfect spot for shad, and I have caught plenty on this stretch over the years. It is accessible by foot, but I have yet to make the hike. Again, with the water being low, it might be advantageous to do so rather than even messing with the boat.

I walked upstream on the east bank and began working the run three casts (short, medium, long) then five steps at a time, and caught several bluegill, redbreast, and crappie but no shad. Curiously, I noticed Ray had never left the spot downstream of where we parked the boat. When I asked what was up, he said there were fish everywhere, and that he had hooked and lost something on the shallow flat that put a serious bend in the rod. I noticed large needlefish slashing bait upstream and figured that was likely what broke him off. After playing with a couple of presentations, Ray ended up catching two very nice largemouth bass, a mess of panfish and a shad that were working the bait. I wished I had brought the one hander to pick apart the flat!

While there were fish around, and we figured if we just stayed in one spot we would likely run in to more shad, there were a couple of turns further downstream that I really wanted to check out. Along the way we saw activity up top on the turn I fished with Todd the year prior, but there were a couple large gators hanging on the inside turn, and high brush on the outside (where the fish were.) With temps in the mid 80’s we figured a snake encounter would be more likely on the outside bend, so we kept motoring.

Before we could reach the bend I had targeted, we found a run with a ton of surface activity. We landed on the east bank with the wind at our backs and began to fish the run with the spinning rods. We caught multiple crappie. The wind was picking up steadily and during a gust, I was able to launch a cast almost clear to the other bank, where a shad took the paddletail the moment it hit the water, made a run, and a nice jump before I lost it.

fishing for shad with a switch rod

I told Ray we should switch banks (even though the wind would be in our faces,) as that fish was right up against the bank, and just out of reach of the switch rod. We hopped in the boat and paddled across the run, while probing the bottom for depth with the paddles, along the way. It was more than a paddle deep near the cutbank, and obviously had really good current, the perfect place for shad to congregate, and congregate they did. A near 200-yard-long run, the slough behind it, and the turn below it boiled with fish. We were able to catch fish on both sides of the exposed bank we were standing on, a very cool experience.

We caught fish on the bottom, in the middle, and up top of the water column but by far the most productive, was up top when the wind died down ever so slightly, and the chop calmed. I caught a nice fish on the 2″ white Kip Tailed Clouser, but the Fry Fly was by far the winner of the day. At first, you could high stick it with just the leader and fly in the water, and the fish would come up and take it. Eventually making short (maybe 20-30 ft) casts and then quickly throwing a hard “J” in the line with a couple of upstream mends is what really got them going. Doing this causes the fly to really accelerate and rise to the top of the water column as the fly reaches the end of its downstream swing. I caught three fish in three casts this way, and likely could have kept going, but no need to beat them up. I enjoyed a cigar and we both enjoyed a beer instead.

Ray Releasing a Shad in the Water

In all, it was a great day and both Ray and I got double digits. If we counted all the other species we caught, we were well beyond that. On the way back to the launch, Ray got to experience just how sketchy this section of river can be. First, when I had forgotten to open the air valve on the motor’s tank, which caused a vapor lock and a subsequent stall out miles from anywhere. As I worked to figure out what was going on while still adrift, a large alligator surfaced literally right next to the boat to check us out.

Second, being that this was Ray’s first journey down the river from Hatbill, he had never experienced the claustrophobia caused by motoring through the high banked turns surrounded by even higher brush. Even with the sun still relatively high, we both got to experience this first-hand on the way back, as multiple airboats ran up and downstream, running through sloughs and popping out through cuts in the brush just in front of us, as well as behind… the cacophony was disorienting, but nothing another cold beer could not cure once our feet were on firm ground. Ahhhh… Hatbill. 🙂

Evelyn’s First Shad Fishing Trip

Evelyn fishing the creek mouths near the SR 46 bridge

Last Sunday I took my eight-year-old daughter Evelyn on her first shad fishing trip. We have been preparing and talking about this trip since October, after the whole family had taken a canoe trip down the Wekiva Springs run, then up the Rock Springs River a bit, where we were able to get out, wade, and do some fishing. Evelyn really enjoyed fishing with her Barbie rod, and with a little help from Dad, caught and landed some bream. After that trip, Evelyn asked if she could join me this shad run, and I said I thought she was ready.

I quickly ordered her first “real” spincast combo, a 4-foot purple and pink Zebco, an upgrade from the Barbie rod that has some actual backbone needed to fight a shad if she hooked one. Throughout the coming months, we worked together to improve her casting skills, both on the water and off, and she quickly became quite proficient and able to make a 20-30ft cast with a light 2″ paddle tail attached.

Next came the waders, in a fashionable teal color, a new Buff in pink of course, a fisherman’s cable merino wool turtleneck sweater in coral (which would not be needed this day,) and of course some sunglasses. I opted to wet wade knowing the highs were going to be in the mid 80’s, and recommended Evelyn do the same, but nope, she had every intention on wearing those waders. I am pretty sure she was more excited about the fashion statement she would be making on the water, than fishing with Dad. 🙂

snake in the grass
Be careful where you Step!

With reports of fish being caught near C.S. Lee (the only place I felt comfortable bringing her since the alligator population increases exponentially upstream,) we set sail from there on a warm, windy, and busy Sunday morning. Our first stop was the creek mouths, the very place I caught my first shad years ago. This is normally a great spot as there is a shallow sandbar there, as well as the ability to walk the whole west bank when the water is below 2.8ft on the gage. I say normally, but this day as we started the exercise of 3 casts, then 5 steps downstream, I spotted a good-sized snake catching some rays in the brush. I casually said “be careful where you step, because there is a snake over here” with every intention of working around him, but she was having NO PART OF THAT, so off we went to the east bank at the mouth of the Econ.

Evelyn holding the panfish she caught

When we arrived, there were a couple of boats anchored up in the channel, and we parked the canoe in the shallow cut just downstream of them (something I generally try not to do out of courtesy, but there are only so many options with kiddos.) There is plenty of firm bottom there, and that gave Evelyn the chance to really give the waders a spin. I was in the middle of giving her instructions on how to properly cast, let the paddletail sink, count, and then begin the retrieve somewhere downstream of the cast, when on queue she felt a tug and set the hook like a pro. She hooped and hollered and was so excited to land her first “real” fish, a nice slab of a sunfish, without assistance from Dad (I just got the net.) She did it all on her own, from cast to catch… a real proud-Dad moment! The release on the other hand, well… one step at a time! 🙂

Applause erupted from the boat just upstream of us, to Evelyn’s delight! I later found out that was Sherry Parker and her husband (thank you both.) I am glad they got to see her catch that fish, but also hope they did NOT see me pull off a Fred Flintstone, “twinkle-tow-on-ice,” slip and fall… right on to my back, and I mean FULL fall where your soul gets knocked out of your body, in the slick mud on shore shortly after. New wet-wading shoes were ordered that evening.

While shad were indeed being caught near the mouth of the Econ, eight-year-old little girls only have so much patience, and lunchtime was approaching. I gave her the option to keep fishing and get that first shad, or a nice boat ride through a river with twists and turns to a pretty picnic spot up the Econ. Which one do you think she chose?

Picnic at Culpepper Bend

Before making the ride up the Econ, I reminded Evelyn that if a boat passed us, I may slow down, it might get a little bumpy in the canoe as we ride over their waves, and that she could hold onto the gunwales if she got nervous. Multiple boats passed us on the way upstream, and she laughed while bouncing over their wake, hands up as if she was on a roller coaster ride.

It was a short trip to Culpepper Bend, and along the way I pointed out a couple of Indian mounds, some herons, white pelicans, a king fisher, and several other bird species. When we arrived, we found the shelter was no longer there (I hope a new one gets built,) but a picnic table remained on a smooth white sandy beach, a perfect place for a picnic, sans shade.

Evelyn shed the waders as the temps warmed and we enjoyed a lunch of sandwiches and potato salad, re-applied sunscreen, and then I fished the bend five steps at a time while Evelyn opted to explore and play in the sand. I fished the bend thoroughly and did not find shad.

We decided to move one bend upstream where there was more shade, and “coincidently” it was a place I have caught shad in the past. Evelyn continued playing on shore as I picked apart the pool for 30 minutes before deciding to call it quits and motor back to the launch before it got too late. I did not find shad.

In all, I think Ev fished maybe 45 minutes total throughout the day, and that was quite okay by me. She caught her fish and was quite content with that, no reason to overindulge. I was happy to keep motoring, exploring… sharing places I have come to love, and I really enjoyed seeing it again… fresh, new, and through HER eyes. The shad were just a reason to make some time together, just the two of us. That time, was my catch of the day… maybe the catch of the season.

As we motored downstream Evelyn continued to delight in the experience. I found myself thinking about how big this place must have seemed to her through her eyes. It blew me away as an adult the first time I experienced it! It took years of exploring it by kayak before it became “comfortable.” It reminded me of my time back near Lemon Bluff as a child, at Father-Son Camp with my Dad and Grandpa. Those experiences deeply shaped me, and truth be told, they are probably why I feel such a deep connection to the St. Johns River today. It was pretty neat to start that journey with my own daughter this day. Now when do I introduce a fly rod… hmmm???