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Bycatch at Hatbill

Misty Panorama of the St. Johns River near Hatbill Road

On Saturday I returned to Hatbill Park to complete the trip I had originally planned the week prior. The plan was to launch early at the boat ramp, head to the first junction, then make my way upstream to Orange Mound and back again. I awoke at 6:45am only to find a dense fog advisory on my phone. Hatbill is not an area of the river you want to paddle on with low visibility, as there can be a fair amount of airboat traffic. I spent some extra time with my girls, drank an extra cup of coffee, and then made my way to the launch.

When I arrived around 9:00, I was happy to find a travel trailer doing some boondocking. With the added activity, I figured there was less chance of running across nefarious characters upon my return. I also found an absolutely still morning, where the thick fog produced a grey, mirror-like image on the water, and limited visibility to maybe a couple of hundred feet. I took my time setting up, and did a little fishing from shore for about a half hour before my patience got the better of me, and I set out in to the grey void. As I made my way down to the first junction, close to the third turn, I clearly saw more than a dozen alligator heads in the pool I would shortly be crossing.

alligator in the water with fog
Gator in the mist

The still, foggy air, mixed with the fact that I was sitting just inches off the water in the kayak made the experience extra creepy, but I kicked up the pedaling to aerobic levels, making extra effort to make sure the Hobie’s pedals slapped the hull each stroke, all the while whistling nervously, and crossed the pool without issue.

The river remained quiet as I arrived at the first junction, and I fished from the west bank for a while without a bite. Around 10:30, the slightest of breezes picked up, the fog began to retreat, and I began to see activity near the east bank. I moved positions and as I swung an intermediate tip and weighted fly through the area for nearly thirty minutes, the top water activity picked up to a feverish pace of tiny flicks and splashes, but nothing was taking the fly. Figuring the activity was likely small bass or panfish, I switched to a floating tip and tied on a Fry Fly to see if I could hook up. After several missed takes, I found my initial assumption to be incorrect, and I landed a blueback herring. I continued to fish the size 10 fly through the concentrated activity and landed several more. After landing 10, I decided I had enough and needed to shift my focus back to catching shad.

Generally if there are bluebacks around, there is a good chance there are American or Hickory shad there too. The bluebacks seem to give their position away more often than the shad and seem to spend more time up top, but if you find them, you know you found an area suitable for any of them to spawn. In an effort to target shad and minimize the bycatch, I switched back to the intermediate tip and tried several different weighted flies, working the area ten steps at a time. While there was nonstop activity up top, assumingly from the bluebacks alone, I did not hook up with a shad by working the mid to lower water column with the heavier setup.

beautiful panorama of Orange Mound
Orange Mound

At noon I decided if I was going to catch shad I needed to move, so I made the paddle upstream to Orange Mound. The paddle is straight forward from the first junction and I made the trip in about 20 minutes. I arrived to find a beautiful panorama of blue sky over wetland, and just the slightest increase in elevation where the midden mound protrudes from the river. I was taken back by the difference in water clarity, and the distinct look of silver and gold hues created by the sun reflecting off of the mussel shells polished by current over time, and the tannic water.  Interestingly, there is a very nice gradient on the run near Orange Mound where the current picks up relative to the water downstream. Just upstream of the mound, there is convergence of channels that creates a series of eddies similar to the “toilet bowl” that Mark Benson shuttled us to on the trip to 7 Palms.  Both the area of convergence and the run itself had nice “crispy” bottom, and seemed to offer all of the attributes that shad prefer to spawn in, but there were no signs of activity like I saw at the first junction. I spent about an hour and a half working the area, ten steps at a time and did not catch shad there. Orange Mound is a popular landmark in the area, and at around 2:00, several airboats arrived so I decided to head back downstream.

When I arrived back at the first junction, the same activity I left continued. Still figuring it was blueback herring, I continued to work deeper in the water column and did not hook up. Tiring of all the activity, and fish not taking the heavier flies, I switched back to the floating tip and Fry Fly, but could not buy a bite.

I was about to call it a day, but with the amount of continued activity on the surface, I decided to try one last change in tactics. I rigged the intermediate tip back up, tied on a long 10 foot leader with 4x tippet, and to that tied on a size 10 pink Little Richard, a small dear hair fly that floats. When used with some upstream mends, this setup allows the intermediate tip to slowly sink and drag the floating fly down well above it, imparting a slow diving motion to the fly at the beginning of the swing. As the swing completes, and the intermediate tip tightens, the floating fly accelerates through the turn and rises once again. After a few casts, I hooked up with what I thought to be another blueback, but when I got it to hand, found it was a small American Shad. Unfortunately, I did not snap a picture before its “quick release.” I continued this technique and while I did not hookup with another shad, I caught many more blueback herring, panfish, and small bass.

While I originally thought all of the activity up top was bluebacks, there were likely shad intermingled with them the entire time. In contrast to years prior, the fish just seem to be less interested in taking flies near bottom, and I continue to do better using flies and techniques that put the fly in the top third of the water column, if not just subsurface. Just when you think you have it figured out, the fish change the game. It has been such an interesting run this year.

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