The weather last Saturday was forecasted to be cold, windy and rainy, and cold, windy and rainy it was. In fact, I did not make the final call to venture out until 7:30am that morning when I pinged Ray, and told him that the forecasted rain was just going to be an off and on drizzle, but the high was in the low 50’s with a NNW wind at 10-15. With slow fishing south of SR50 and at least a minor improvement reported downstream of Lake Harney, I decided to put in at Mullet Lake Park and fish some backwater to get out of the wind (thanks T.J,) and picked up Ray at 9:30.
Those that know me know that I do not have a particular affinity for this section of river. The water is wide and deep with nowhere to get out and fish, requiring you to anchor up outside of the main channel, or drift through runs and turns, and it is not particularly friendly to small vessels. I often say, I enjoy joining others on this section of water, but I would rather launch my own boat elsewhere. I think part of the problem in this area, is the river markers are frankly confusing, particularly to those new to operating their shiny new jet skis, race boats (literally,) and giant offshore center consoles (seriously… why do you have a 40+ foot boat with THREE 400hp outboards this far upstream???)
There are different sections of river marked with faded No Wake During Flood Conditions, No Wake, and Idle Zone signs. The problem is, there are also signs that seem to be covered with other signs which contradict the sign below it, and when the wind blows just right, the top sign shows, and when the wind direction changes, it flips the top sign and the bottom sign shows. This weekend, we literally saw it flip flopping… No Wake… no wait, now it’s No Wake During Flood Conditions, and back again. My little 2.5hp doesn’t really produce an actual wake, so I am not particularly concerned with it for compliance’s sake, but I can see how it could get real confusing to people operating boats that do produce wake, and they ultimately just say “screw it,” and blaze through all of it wide open, including Idle Zones (with THREE 400hp aboard.) For the record, there are plenty of regulars out there that are courteous (particularly the bass fishermen,) but I do think this area attracts a fair amount of people that are relatively new to the water, particularly on weekends.
All of that said, with the crummy weather I figured it would be quieter than usual and as we passed Cameron Wight on our way to Mullet Lake, my assumption was confirmed by the parking lot. Likewise, the parking lot at Mullet Lake Park was empty as well, and we hit the water around 10:30.
We made the short run downstream and anchored up just west of a nice bend and began fishing with the ultralights. GASP! What do you mean ultralights??? THIS is a FLY FISHING blog/ community! You would think this was some sort of sin against GOD if you looked at the comments in the FB group for pictures and reports posted this same day by those that opted for efficiency over blind casting for hours… for absent fish… in the cold… in the rain… upwind. Wait, please remind me again how well your remote control caught shad on your couch. Now read this in a Shakespearean tone… Ohhhh sage and all-powerful and talented wizard, with your 9ft staff… casteth thy magic into thee great wind, and produceth if you will, a beautiful roe shad from that place from which yesterday’s lunch, doth stink.
People take this stuff way too seriously. One of these armchair quarterbacks literally had the audacity to report each post to the admin (me) that had a picture of a spinning rod in it, a lure instead of a fly, or a fish that was not a shad, stating that it violated the rules of the group, citing Rule #2, Keep on Topic… and to quote, “This is a group dedicated to fishing for shad. Keep the conversation relevant to fishing, boating, fly tying, etc.” Fishing with a conventional rod is not off limits in my book, particularly when you are sharing intel on where shad were caught, and hence the rule does NOT include the phrase “fly fishing.” Posting pictures of bycatch is just fine too, it is actually a fun part of fishing for shad. I have made it no secret here, that while I certainly prefer fly fishing, I have no bones about using conventional gear, particularly early in the season, to locate fish. I am certainly not going to disparage someone else based on their decision in tackle, especially when they are CATCHING FISH. Neither will you, not in my group. If that in some way offends you… pound sand (like Mr. Elitist did on his own accord!) Facebook is a plague to civility.
Where was I? Oh yes, sitting in the canoe, swinging a shad rig consisting of a shad dart trailed by a shad spoon downstream of the boat, where it was taken with a heavy hit and dragged to the depths. I played the fish, but in my excitement horsed it a bit too hard and lost it before catching a glimpse, but Ray agreed, that was a shad. We fished for a while longer without a hit and then decided to pull the anchor and drift the run, letting the wind push us from the north bank to the south (and then paddling back again,) and the current push us downstream. It’s a good technique and we covered the water thoroughly that way, finding darn good current as we drifted further from the pool, and did not hookup again.
We continued downstream a couple of turns and found a nice area where the water narrowed, about 6ft deep with firm sandy bottom, and a slough feeding into it, with hyacinth on one side of us, and high brush on the other, protecting us from the wind. We anchored up just outside of the channel and Ray made the first set of casts near the edge of the hyacinth as I cleared a rat’s nest I made of my braid. It wasn’t long before he hooked up, and this time the big girl jumped. We knew without a doubt it was a nice American shad before it was quick released at the boat. What did surprise us, was the fish grabbed the lure on the drop on an upstream cast, right against the hyacinth mat, not downstream in the channel. Interesting. While we both have caught bass and panfish while fishing hyacinth mats in the past, neither could recollect catching shad there.
I continued fishing the tandem rig without a bite. Ray hooked and quick released another, similar to the last fish, near the hyacinth. I decided to try something different than the tandem rig and tied on an all-species favorite, a 2-inch white paddle tail. On my second cast downstream near the hyacinth, it got clobbered and the fish made a run in to the drag. I saw it was a Hickory before losing it at the boat. Both Ray and I caught one more each on the ultralights, each very nice Americans, each lost at the boat. I will admit that I am not used to boating shad, as I fish from shore 99% of the time, and even with a net on hand, we did not manage to take a picture of one of the fish. Oh well. Perhaps we should try McPhee’s “matador method” next time.
We spent the next hour or so fishing with the fly rods. I felt comfortable standing and fishing the switch rod from the stern while anchored. The Sportspal is stable. Ray opted to stay seated. With the cold temps, he did not want to tempt fate. While we covered the water thoroughly, both at anchor and adrift, we did not connect. Flies were not what they wanted today, but it was still a successful day, and dare I say, I even enjoyed fishing this section of river, wind, rain, cold and all. I just need to be selective of when I go and spend time off the beaten path.
NOTE: I have revisited John McPhee’s book Founding Fish, this time on Audible on my daily walks, and this week a particular anecdote caught my ear. I have been pondering it, along with the account above all week, and I have formed somewhat of a hypothesis in my own mind. McPhee mentions that shad traveling from the Bay of Fundy back to Florida to spawn, have already burned around 80% of their stored calories before even reaching the spawning grounds in the St. Johns River, compared to maybe 50% in the Connecticut River, and those fish being significantly larger (i.e. more stored fat.)
While Floridians have long been told that our shad “do not eat,” that consensus has now changed, even amongst biologists. There are plenty of us that have watched the behavior and there is growing evidence of such. Before you provide commentary to this statement, I encourage you to fully read the #doshadeatinfreshwater tag on the FB group, as this has been beaten to death, and the photo/ video evidence is pretty hard to dispute at this point. That said, it is generally observed further upriver, and later in the season.
So why in my account above would multiple shad be caught on the hyacinth mat line, not in the depth of the channel? Maybe warmer water after the cold snap? There was not a significant change in depth from where we were fishing, perhaps less than a foot, and these fish tolerate cold way beyond the low 60’s. Why would a shad absolutely hammer two and three inch conventional lures but not touch a fly swung through the same areas they were congregating? I guess we could have caught a school moving through, but I suspect we would have caught more fish had we kept fishing conventional. Maybe the presentation was off, or we were not getting down deep enough, but I don’t think so, we were in six feet of water.
Here is what I think:
- The shad started their run upriver late due to warm water temperatures
- They have burned through their reserves and are feeding earlier
- They were congregating near the hyacinth as there is food there (shrimp, copepods, minnows, etc)
- A larger source of protein is more enticing because the return on energy expenditure is better
- As they continue upstream, food will become scarcer as the squeegee is already complete, and what bait is left, is under significant pressure
My hypothesis is, unlike last season where the bait was so abundant that fish were keyed into the smallest (latest hatched) gambusia in the water, and you could not buy a bite while shad gorged themselves all around you, even throwing tiny flies that “matched the hatch,” this year (and maybe similar subsequent years) I suspect larger flies (#2-4, 2-3 inch long) are going to catch more fish. I have tied some larger clousers to put it to the test and investigate.
Great Intel. I have to agree that i don’t like Cameron Wright as I got buzzed multiple times at high speed by boats which if I did not turn into the wave would of capsized my yak. The planes taking off every 30 minutes is also a buzz kill for enjoying nature. Interesting thought on the feeding, I’ll have to work the hyicynths when I get out.
Oh and my Spidey rod that caught some bass in Lk Eola a few weeks ago, goes in the back pack with a small white jerkbait as a underwater reconnaissance device.
There is no real respite from the noise on the St. Johns River, be it airplanes or airboats. 🙂
The shad leave the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy waters in the fall as the water cools and winter off the Carolinas. That is where the ocean intercept (commercial) fishery did so much damage to shad stocks several years ago. They do not have a Maine to Florida trip to make just before spawning time. It is done over a few months time. They feed all winter while traveling as well.
During the past 15 years I have fished the Lemon Bluff to Cameron Wight stretch of the river quite a bit and have done reasonably well catching shad both trolling (from boat and kayak) and casting. However, I fish conventional with darts, spoons, small paddle tails, etc. I have not fished that stretch in Jan this year but did a couple of times late Dec and caught a few hickory shad, one about 15″. My catches were on the 2″ white paddletail (the one shown in your tackle box). The hits were all after the lure floated downstream towards the shore.
I have caught many shad on minnows so I know first hand they are hungry for food.
Love your article and that stretch of the river. Hope to return one day!