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I Love It when a Plan comes Together

East Channel at Second Junction near Hatbill Park on the St. Johns River

Last Saturday Ray and I launched out of Hatbill, a late decision that paid off. We figured with the increased reports of double-digit days near the mouth of the Econ and in to Puzzle Lake, C.S. Lee would likely be crazy. Add to that the thought that those fish caught earlier in the week had likely moved upriver and it seemed like a decent plan, and a change of scenery.

I picked up Ray at 7:00am and we were on the water around 8:00. The plan was to motor straight through to Second Junction, then pick that water apart for an hour or so. If we did not find fish, we would then push forward to some of the turns in the Indian Mounds section of the river that take some effort to get to from either launch, but slightly closer to Hatbill.

Prior to even making it to First Junction, we found a run with good surface activity and stopped to have a look. After a few casts, I caught a nice sized crappie with the spinning rod, followed by another on the switch. Ray caught a nice bluegill. While there was good current on this run, we decided all the activity was likely just panfish, so we left fish to find fish. We likely could have limited out on crappie, but shad were what we were after.

I used the west channel to reach Second Junction. With the SR50 gage at 2.85ft, the west channel was shallow, and I bumped bottom plenty, even in the canoe. Two turns up from Second Junction I actually had to kill the motor, lift it and paddle. Another foot and we would have to hop out and walk it in several spots. I imagine the east channel would have been the same, as there are sections of that I have had to get out of the kayak and walk in years prior. Of note, the west channel has ALOT of alligators in it, but interestingly, most of them were on the smaller size (4-6ft.)

Ray holding a bass he caught with the Euro Tackle

We arrived at Second Junction and got to work on the east run. This run is narrow, and really accelerates the current. With clean firm bottom, it is a perfect spot for shad, and I have caught plenty on this stretch over the years. It is accessible by foot, but I have yet to make the hike. Again, with the water being low, it might be advantageous to do so rather than even messing with the boat.

I walked upstream on the east bank and began working the run three casts (short, medium, long) then five steps at a time, and caught several bluegill, redbreast, and crappie but no shad. Curiously, I noticed Ray had never left the spot downstream of where we parked the boat. When I asked what was up, he said there were fish everywhere, and that he had hooked and lost something on the shallow flat that put a serious bend in the rod. I noticed large needlefish slashing bait upstream and figured that was likely what broke him off. After playing with a couple of presentations, Ray ended up catching two very nice largemouth bass, a mess of panfish and a shad that were working the bait. I wished I had brought the one hander to pick apart the flat!

While there were fish around, and we figured if we just stayed in one spot we would likely run in to more shad, there were a couple of turns further downstream that I really wanted to check out. Along the way we saw activity up top on the turn I fished with Todd the year prior, but there were a couple large gators hanging on the inside turn, and high brush on the outside (where the fish were.) With temps in the mid 80’s we figured a snake encounter would be more likely on the outside bend, so we kept motoring.

Before we could reach the bend I had targeted, we found a run with a ton of surface activity. We landed on the east bank with the wind at our backs and began to fish the run with the spinning rods. We caught multiple crappie. The wind was picking up steadily and during a gust, I was able to launch a cast almost clear to the other bank, where a shad took the paddletail the moment it hit the water, made a run, and a nice jump before I lost it.

fishing for shad with a switch rod

I told Ray we should switch banks (even though the wind would be in our faces,) as that fish was right up against the bank, and just out of reach of the switch rod. We hopped in the boat and paddled across the run, while probing the bottom for depth with the paddles, along the way. It was more than a paddle deep near the cutbank, and obviously had really good current, the perfect place for shad to congregate, and congregate they did. A near 200-yard-long run, the slough behind it, and the turn below it boiled with fish. We were able to catch fish on both sides of the exposed bank we were standing on, a very cool experience.

We caught fish on the bottom, in the middle, and up top of the water column but by far the most productive, was up top when the wind died down ever so slightly, and the chop calmed. I caught a nice fish on the 2″ white Kip Tailed Clouser, but the Fry Fly was by far the winner of the day. At first, you could high stick it with just the leader and fly in the water, and the fish would come up and take it. Eventually making short (maybe 20-30 ft) casts and then quickly throwing a hard “J” in the line with a couple of upstream mends is what really got them going. Doing this causes the fly to really accelerate and rise to the top of the water column as the fly reaches the end of its downstream swing. I caught three fish in three casts this way, and likely could have kept going, but no need to beat them up. I enjoyed a cigar and we both enjoyed a beer instead.

Ray Releasing a Shad in the Water

In all, it was a great day and both Ray and I got double digits. If we counted all the other species we caught, we were well beyond that. On the way back to the launch, Ray got to experience just how sketchy this section of river can be. First, when I had forgotten to open the air valve on the motor’s tank, which caused a vapor lock and a subsequent stall out miles from anywhere. As I worked to figure out what was going on while still adrift, a large alligator surfaced literally right next to the boat to check us out.

Second, being that this was Ray’s first journey down the river from Hatbill, he had never experienced the claustrophobia caused by motoring through the high banked turns surrounded by even higher brush. Even with the sun still relatively high, we both got to experience this first-hand on the way back, as multiple airboats ran up and downstream, running through sloughs and popping out through cuts in the brush just in front of us, as well as behind… the cacophony was disorienting, but nothing another cold beer could not cure once our feet were on firm ground. Ahhhh… Hatbill. 🙂

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