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A Shad Fly Fishing walk in the St. John Wilderness- 7 Palms

Beautiful panorama of the Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area near 7 Palms

It has taken me a couple days to sit down and write a BLOG entry, so a lot of this has already been recounted on the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, but I have to log it for the books! Unfortunately my phone mysteriously reset itself in the middle of the trip, and once again when I got home, so I lost a lot of the pictures I took on the hike. I will do my best to paint a nice picture with words below. 🙂

On Monday I joined a group to make a hike that Philippe Richen was kind enough to organize, to the 7 Palms shelter in the Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area, a 12,644 acre area, that is essentially a large floodplain, and a well known hunting ground for shad. This is an area that I had not visited, so I was very much looking forward to fishing there. The group met around 9:00 and determined the high water from this year was still very much evident, as should be expected of any floodplain I suppose, and most of us decided to make the hike out in our waders. The day was warm and humid, and I would generally hike out and then put on my waders, but I was glad I opted to wear them, as there were several areas we crossed that were knee high.

The hike was relatively straight forward, consisting of about 2.5 miles of service road out towards the river, and then a section of marsh to work through to get to the 7 Palms shelter, nothing too uncomfortable, just some mud above the ankle or low shin in certain areas, and enough of a workout to get sweaty in the waders. I would say if the gauge height at SR50 was much above five feet, I would likely try something down river instead. In our case though, the heavy rain the night before is what got things on the mucky side.

The walk out took a leisurely hour or so, where we traded stories and caught up on happenings over the prior year. It’s funny and I am sure there are many others that can relate, some of us may not connect much after the shad run is over, but as soon as November/ December arrives, everyone begins scheming and plotting, and when we finally get together, we pick up right where we left off. Our love of stalking this fish brings us all together, and I hope it continues to do so for years to come.

When we arrived at the 7 Palms shelter, we were met by Mark Benson (shad fanatic and fishing guide,) and T.J. Bettis (shad fanatic and owner of Orlando Outfitters) who both had come by boat, and had coordinated with Phil to bring the supplies he provided to cook a hot lunch for us later that afternoon. Mark fishes the area often and pointed out areas where fish have been congregating and provided us some tips. The group quickly rigged up the rods, spread out and began working the area of river that surrounds 7 Palms.

Of immediate note as I approached the water, were the amount of alligators in the area. Fishing, and particularly wading here is not for the faint of heart. Now I am used to seeing alligators mind you, but this is not like hey… there’s a gator way down there, cool!  This is, whoa… that is a big freaking gator that just slid in right across the bank from me, I think I am going to take a step (or 10) back until I see that knobby nose pop back up for air.

Gator near 7 Palms
Gator near 7 Palms

All kidding aside, this is one of the biggest concentrations of large alligators ON EARTH, so if you choose to wade, mind your bits and pieces, go with a friend (or 10,) watch all around you, consider carefully as to whether you really want to be more than knee deep, and I would recommend avoiding wading all together on a warm day. On cool days though, the gators tend to stay up on shore where the sun is warm, and if they do slide in, they pop up in a few minutes near where they submerged, and keep just as keen of an eye on you, as you do on them. While the day was on the warmer side, it is still winter here and the river temperature is still cool so the alligators were fairly sedated.

For this trip I decided to bring my single hand rod, and after starting to fish, I quickly wished I had brought the switch rod with me instead. The river here is sweet two-hander water as it is, but add to that a 10-15mph headwind and the other wildlife, and the extra reach would have been nice. However, I made do with backcasting to deal with the wind, and after braving up enough to wade in waist deep, I landed one shad and lost one more before lunch time. The guys downstream caught a few as well.

For lunch Philippe was kind enough to grill up some sausages and sides for everyone and we enjoyed a sit, some conversation, and a warm meal. That sure beat my typical lunch of jerky, cheese, and maybe a handful of nuts. Thanks Phil!

After lunch, Mark was kind enough to shuttle Keith Browning and I to a turn where there were shad washing all around, as well as panfish popping surface and blueback herring schooling around the inside of the pool. I worked the head of the pool diligently but could not crack the code.  After trying nearly everything in my box… bright flies, dark flies, longer leader, sink tip, no tip, fast retrieve, slow retrieve, no retrieve, I finally hooked up with what felt like a nice fat American Shad, but lost it before coming to hand. Meanwhile Keith proceeded to clean my clock, catching several large shad as well as panfish, I kid you not like ten to fifteen steps away from me. Way to go Keith, I don’t know what you were doing different, but they liked it!

A short time later, Mark brought T.J, Reid, Philippe and John up to the turn and we proceeded to work our way up and down stream of the honey hole. Philippe caught, after looking at the pictures, one of the largest fish of the day, if not one of the largest I have seen of the season. We continued fishing until the sun started to get low in the sky and I did not manage another hookup. Mark shuttled us back to the rest of the group, where we found that most of the group had caught fish. There was also some talk about a close encounter with an alligator that had submerged and then re-emerged behind where they were wading… yikes! We decide to play it safe and hike out before dusk. 🙂

This was a great hike with a good group, and there are certainly a lot of fish in this section of river. We just happened to visit after a pretty significant storm system moved through, and I think that slowed down the bite some. Many thanks to Philippe for organizing the walk-in, and for cooking lunch! Thanks to Mark for the shuttles and the knowledge. Reid, John, T.J. and Anthony, it was great fishing with you again. Keith, Ray, Charlee, and Lars, it was great to meet you and I look forward to fishing with you again soon. I am looking forward to our next hike!

Here are some pictures contributed by the folks that hiked since most of mine were lost due to phone problems. Note to self, don’t depend on Google Maps to get you home, take a trail map as your phone may crap out on you! 😉

Fly fishing for Shad at 7 Palms

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