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Puzzle Lake is well… Puzzling

Canoe on Puzzle Lake

With reports getting better of shad being caught in the middle basin, and a hike to 7 Palms already scheduled for the following weekend, I decided to brave the masses last Saturday and fish the St. Johns River out of C.S. Lee. I picked Ray up at 8:00am and we started swinging flies near the mouth of the Econlockhatchee River around 9:00am. While the parking lot was full, I think a good number of them were fishing downstream, as we were one of the first to arrive. There was just one boat anchored up when we got there, and he quickly lifted his anchor and drifted the run downstream as we were getting started. Another gentleman, I think it may have been Trolling4Reds from the old OKFC forum (his face was covered so I cannot confirm,) was trolling with multiple rods in a solo canoe. The boat traffic would change exponentially as the day continued.

I yielded the downstream position to Ray, and we both got to work with the switch rods. My rig for the day consisted of a Skagit head, a 10ft T-3 tip, a 4 ft level leader to which I tied a size 4, 2″ white Kip Tailed Clouser minnow, and about 15″ behind that, a size 8 unweighted Gambusia Hair Wing streamer. I began working the east bank, 5 steps upstream at a time for about an hour before catching my first shad, which was thin and had a pretty good sore on its back. It had taken the larger Clouser minnow up front. I kept it in the water, snapped a pic, and released it quickly.

Shad caught on white clouser minnow fly

As the boat traffic increased, both passing through to Puzzle Lake or up the Econ, or anchoring up to fish, I continued fishing the area for another 30 minutes or so, only moving maybe 15 feet upstream from where I caught the first fish. I managed to catch another two shad, both nicer, thicker fish, and missed two more. I caught one of these fish on the Clouser, and the second on the Gambusia Hair Wing, but I actually think I missed the second fish’s first take, as I thought I was stuck on the bottom, before feeling a second strike followed by a run. At any rate, a tandem rig indeed doubles your chances, even if you are slow on the take.

I saw a couple other folks catch a few fish while anchored up in the channel near the east bank, as well as upstream of the mouth of the Econ near the west bank. As the weather warmed up, I realized I had left my water in the car, so I left Ray to fish the east bank and ran back to the parking lot. When I returned, Ray reported that he had not found any more shad, but did catch some panfish. We continued fishing until about noon, watching the parade of skiffs, gheenoes, jon boats, bass boats, airboats, and jet skis come and go. Those of you that decided not to paddle this day, probably made the right decision.

After eating lunch and drinking a beer, we decided to run up in to Puzzle Lake to see what we could find. When we arrived around the Two Cuts section, there were two boats fishing the west channel inside of the high brush. We circled around to the east channel and gave it a shot, and while there was some surface activity, we found very little current, and no shad.

Flock of white pelicans sitting on shore of St. Johns River
Flock of White Pelicans

We continued crossing the open water before making it to the general area near White Sticks and ended up outside the main channel in a slough where we found a flock of hundreds of white pelicans sitting on shore. Neither our presence nor an airboat that had stopped to observe, drove them to flight. They were quite content sitting on that shore. We took this as a good sign. What did they know that we did not?

After finding a narrow cut out of the slough, we entered the east channel at the next junction point where I kept bumping bottom. On my first trip in to Puzzle Lake with Todd earlier in the season, the water was higher, and we had chosen the west channel to make our way upstream towards the Indian Mounds, so I did not recognize any particular landmarks. While I have the channels marked on my map, what I have now figured out is, I need to zoom in pretty tight and stay near the line. While it looks like you are close to the line when zoomed out, you can actually be 20-30 feet off when zoomed in, and that makes a pretty big difference in the more “puzzling” parts of Puzzle Lake.

As it was getting later in the afternoon and we wanted to return to the mouth of the Econ for the evening bite anyway, I decided not to push it and continue upstream, and instead just went back to the hard bend near White Sticks to poke around. We fished this bend for a better part of an hour, covering the upstream and downstream sections thoroughly. There is very good current here coming in and out of the pool just upstream, as well as the entire straight run just downstream of the bend. As we fished with a giant flock of white pelicans as an audience, Ray and I both commented that shad had everything they could possibly need right here, and we suspected the whole run might come to a boil, followed by a pelican feeding frenzy shortly after sunset. If it was not this exact place we were fishing, it had to be somewhere close. The pelicans likely already knew exactly where to be. Unfortunately, we were not to be witnesses.

Panorama of Sunset on St. Johns while Drinking a Beer
Sunset on the St. John River

We did return to the east bank at the Econ for the golden hour but did not find an evening bite. While several more panfish were caught, we did not find shad. We did take in a great sunset, a cold beer, and a cigar while watching the parade head back to the launch. The “kook of the day award” went to a boat full of what looked to be college aged kids running wide open, with a guy hanging his legs off the bow of the boat. Real smart! I am not sure what is more puzzling… navigating Puzzle Lake, or how some of these geniuses actually survive doing so?


  1. Philippe Richen

    Great pictures and report. Made me consider finally getting a boat to extend my range..maybe.

    Some nice shad, glad you found them. Surprise you left Ray as gator bait but then again he would just shoot ’em.

    See you Sat.

    • chelenthal

      I am selling my 14′ Indian River Eagle square stern canoe for what I paid for it (cheap.) It is a good boat, runs pretty quick with a 2.5hp (not selling my motor yet,) particularly if you are running solo with some ballast in the bow, or with 2 people less than 500lbs between you (max capacity is 600lbs.) The only reason I replaced it is because I found a used Sportspal S-15, which is the boat I originally wanted, and that boat is a foot longer, a few inches wider, and has a 725lb capacity.

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