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Maiden Voyage for the 2021/ 2022 Season

Puzzle Lake

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.

Sportspal S-15 canoe

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.

Map through Puzzle Lake

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.

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