Last Sunday I took my eight-year-old daughter Evelyn on her first shad fishing trip. We have been preparing and talking about this trip since October, after the whole family had taken a canoe trip down the Wekiva Springs run, then up the Rock Springs River a bit, where we were able to get out, wade, and do some fishing. Evelyn really enjoyed fishing with her Barbie rod, and with a little help from Dad, caught and landed some bream. After that trip, Evelyn asked if she could join me this shad run, and I said I thought she was ready.
I quickly ordered her first “real” spincast combo, a 4-foot purple and pink Zebco, an upgrade from the Barbie rod that has some actual backbone needed to fight a shad if she hooked one. Throughout the coming months, we worked together to improve her casting skills, both on the water and off, and she quickly became quite proficient and able to make a 20-30ft cast with a light 2″ paddle tail attached.
Next came the waders, in a fashionable teal color, a new Buff in pink of course, a fisherman’s cable merino wool turtleneck sweater in coral (which would not be needed this day,) and of course some sunglasses. I opted to wet wade knowing the highs were going to be in the mid 80’s, and recommended Evelyn do the same, but nope, she had every intention on wearing those waders. I am pretty sure she was more excited about the fashion statement she would be making on the water, than fishing with Dad. 🙂
With reports of fish being caught near C.S. Lee (the only place I felt comfortable bringing her since the alligator population increases exponentially upstream,) we set sail from there on a warm, windy, and busy Sunday morning. Our first stop was the creek mouths, the very place I caught my first shad years ago. This is normally a great spot as there is a shallow sandbar there, as well as the ability to walk the whole west bank when the water is below 2.8ft on the gage. I say normally, but this day as we started the exercise of 3 casts, then 5 steps downstream, I spotted a good-sized snake catching some rays in the brush. I casually said “be careful where you step, because there is a snake over here” with every intention of working around him, but she was having NO PART OF THAT, so off we went to the east bank at the mouth of the Econ.
When we arrived, there were a couple of boats anchored up in the channel, and we parked the canoe in the shallow cut just downstream of them (something I generally try not to do out of courtesy, but there are only so many options with kiddos.) There is plenty of firm bottom there, and that gave Evelyn the chance to really give the waders a spin. I was in the middle of giving her instructions on how to properly cast, let the paddletail sink, count, and then begin the retrieve somewhere downstream of the cast, when on queue she felt a tug and set the hook like a pro. She hooped and hollered and was so excited to land her first “real” fish, a nice slab of a sunfish, without assistance from Dad (I just got the net.) She did it all on her own, from cast to catch… a real proud-Dad moment! The release on the other hand, well… one step at a time! 🙂
Applause erupted from the boat just upstream of us, to Evelyn’s delight! I later found out that was Sherry Parker and her husband (thank you both.) I am glad they got to see her catch that fish, but also hope they did NOT see me pull off a Fred Flintstone, “twinkle-tow-on-ice,” slip and fall… right on to my back, and I mean FULL fall where your soul gets knocked out of your body, in the slick mud on shore shortly after. New wet-wading shoes were ordered that evening.
While shad were indeed being caught near the mouth of the Econ, eight-year-old little girls only have so much patience, and lunchtime was approaching. I gave her the option to keep fishing and get that first shad, or a nice boat ride through a river with twists and turns to a pretty picnic spot up the Econ. Which one do you think she chose?
Before making the ride up the Econ, I reminded Evelyn that if a boat passed us, I may slow down, it might get a little bumpy in the canoe as we ride over their waves, and that she could hold onto the gunwales if she got nervous. Multiple boats passed us on the way upstream, and she laughed while bouncing over their wake, hands up as if she was on a roller coaster ride.
It was a short trip to Culpepper Bend, and along the way I pointed out a couple of Indian mounds, some herons, white pelicans, a king fisher, and several other bird species. When we arrived, we found the shelter was no longer there (I hope a new one gets built,) but a picnic table remained on a smooth white sandy beach, a perfect place for a picnic, sans shade.
Evelyn shed the waders as the temps warmed and we enjoyed a lunch of sandwiches and potato salad, re-applied sunscreen, and then I fished the bend five steps at a time while Evelyn opted to explore and play in the sand. I fished the bend thoroughly and did not find shad.
We decided to move one bend upstream where there was more shade, and “coincidently” it was a place I have caught shad in the past. Evelyn continued playing on shore as I picked apart the pool for 30 minutes before deciding to call it quits and motor back to the launch before it got too late. I did not find shad.
In all, I think Ev fished maybe 45 minutes total throughout the day, and that was quite okay by me. She caught her fish and was quite content with that, no reason to overindulge. I was happy to keep motoring, exploring… sharing places I have come to love, and I really enjoyed seeing it again… fresh, new, and through HER eyes. The shad were just a reason to make some time together, just the two of us. That time, was my catch of the day… maybe the catch of the season.
As we motored downstream Evelyn continued to delight in the experience. I found myself thinking about how big this place must have seemed to her through her eyes. It blew me away as an adult the first time I experienced it! It took years of exploring it by kayak before it became “comfortable.” It reminded me of my time back near Lemon Bluff as a child, at Father-Son Camp with my Dad and Grandpa. Those experiences deeply shaped me, and truth be told, they are probably why I feel such a deep connection to the St. Johns River today. It was pretty neat to start that journey with my own daughter this day. Now when do I introduce a fly rod… hmmm???