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.
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.
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.
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.