Man, I am behind in updating the BLOG! It has been a busy couple of weeks of fishing, meetups, and work. A stomach bug also didn’t help. I am glad I jot down notes after my trips to draw on in times like these.
Two Fridays ago (01/20) I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Sherer (long-time Central Florida Fly Fisherman) in-person for lunch at the Jolly Gator to get to know each other and talk about all things fly fishing. Joe was kind enough to invite me on a fishing trip to Middle River (report coming) to do some shad fishing by boat with a group of locals as well as a few folks from Jacksonville/ St. Augustine. This is a section of river that I had not explored as it requires crossing Lake Poinsett, something that is not realistic in my small boat, and I was definitely excited to see it with my own eyes. We discussed the logistics of the trip as we enjoyed some delicious fried food in basket form.
As Joe and I parted ways, I kicked myself for not coming properly prepared, particularly as I noticed a near empty parking lot at the C.S. Lee Ramp (which is adjacent to the Jolly Gator for those not in the know.) I figured there would be more people out on the water since there had been multiple reports of 10-20 fish days that very week. This time of year, my boat basically lives on top of the Jeep, however in my haste to be on time to lunch, it never really occurred to me to load up the outboard and all of the fishing gear as well. I had just planned on returning home and finishing my work.
Eh, plans change, and on the way home I pinged Todd to see if he had the afternoon off as I knew Ray was working. He was unable to join me, but I did get a call back from Ray as he was leaving work. We figured I would be able to load the gear, pick him up, return to the river and still get three good hours of fishing in before the sun set.
We arrived back at C.S. Lee in the late afternoon, dropped the boat in the water and made our way to the east bank across from the Econ. With the water levels still around 3.5ft on the Lake Harney gage, and the weeds still overgrown from the high-water year, once again wading was precarious. However, with afternoon temperatures up into the low 80’s, I was not as worried about taking a dip if I fell off the cut bank while stomping on high grass or walking the tight rope between it and the drop-off.
Ray and I fished the switch rods and ultralights for the better part of 2 hours and did not find shad. There was good surface activity, but it looked to be a mixture of gar and either bass or hybrids working the bait up top. Whatever they were, they were not eating what we were throwing. Instead, we drank a couple of beers, I enjoyed a cigar, watched an impressive sunset on the St. Johns River, maybe pushed the envelope a bit on how much light was left at dusk, and then motored back to the launch with a host of sparrows as thick as smoke buzzing our heads like bats the whole way in. Today was a good day on the St. Johns.
On Saturday (01/21) I decided to sleep in a bit and picked up Ray at 8:00am and we made our way to Tosohatchee. With Power Line Road still closed, we made the extra half hour trek to the river, where we found one other vehicle that had already launched a small boat. It happens, but not often. We loaded up the boat with gear and made our way upstream to the first junction where we saw two younger guys in a trolling-motor-powered jonboat land and begin fishing with spinning rods.
Now this is whereby my dilemma began. On top of said early-birds that clearly beat us to the worm, we also saw a lot of surface activity, and knew from recent fishing Todd and Ray had just done, plus past experience, that this was definitely shad. Now I have to admit something to you… something that I am not very proud of and may make you question my otherwise good-natured character. The lack of catching shad for the last MONTH of fishing, knowing full well they were around, and then having to sit down and write again and again and again about it… including at the beginning of this very post, clouded my otherwise prudent judgement. With an ENTIRE river to otherwise explore and fish, I landed downstream of them on the opposite bank of this very turn, otherwise crowding their party, and after maybe 10 minutes, they motored off to the north channel.
Now I immediately felt guilty, but with a get together at Orlando Outfitters just days away, I had put in my mind that if I did not boat a single shad before that, I may not be able to bear the weight of sitting on an otherwise skilled and experienced panel and talk to other people about how to target and catch shad. And I mean, this was not some secret spot or something… it’s, it’s, it’s, a very well-known spot… heck, you can even walk right to it from the parking area! And, and, and… the fish were VERY finicky this morning anyway and required the right combination of flies and presentation, so they weren’t missing anything. Oh, oh, oh… and we did see them catching fish on the north channel… well, at least for a while until the airboat-driven cattle roundup drove them from that spot too.
Excuses, excuses, excuses… shame, shame, shame! To the two young gentlemen that we ran up on, if you are reading this, please accept my formal apology. I had a lapse in judgment and gentlemanly river etiquette and owe you both a beer. I am not without my faults, but I am trying daily to become a better man.
So… did we catch fish on said bend? Damned straight we did! Ray and I both caught a fish a piece and decided not to work it over. FWIW, while there was good surface activity, the fish were indeed finicky (EXCUSES) so we moved on. Oh, and that cattle drive was pretty noisy for this early in the morning too.
We ran downstream, passing the two fine gentlemen again, this time near Catfish Hotel, which was also absolutely boiling with surface activity. Now, this is whereby my next…. nah, I am just messing around, we did not stop. LOL! Instead, we continued motoring downstream looking for surface activity. We ran to a spot we frequent with good current and a nice eddy, where surprisingly we did not find surface activity. It generally holds fish, so we worked it and the run below it with the switch rods, 5 steps at a time for about 30 minutes and did not find fish.
After enjoying lunch and a cold beer, we decided to run back upstream towards 7 Palms where we did find some good surface activity again. Ray and I got to work with the switch rods and single handers and began catching fish. Later that afternoon, the activity really picked up into what could only be described as magical. With a front looming in the distance, a slight breeze picked up that pushed bait out of a slough and everything in the river began feeding, including the shad.
Now it seems like every time I make this statement, there is someone in the comments or FB Group, generally from up north somewhere, that wants to argue with me and say, “the shad aren’t feeding” or they are “striking out of anger or aggression.” Please don’t. We have demonstrated this time and time again to people, through pictures, now videos, and there are dozens of fishermen in Florida that can provide personal testimony to this fact. With decades of combined fishing accounts to draw on, hands on experiences of catching shad and them regurgitating partially digested gambusia and grass shrimp, cutting open their stomachs, etc. this topic is generally not even up for debate any longer amongst local fishermen. If you have not fished for shad in Florida south of Puzzle Lake, your knowledge of our fishery is incomplete.
Sorry, just wanted to nip that in the bud. Where was I? Oh, while I caught a few shad with the switch rod using a small Gambusia Hairwing fly, it quickly became evident that they wanted something else. Since the shad were in close proximity, the switch rod’s thin Amnesia running line attached to a 22ft skagit head, 10ft floating tip, and 6ft level leader was really not the right tool. It is better suited for long casts and swings, where you can retrieve the running line and then re-cast. When the fish are between 6ft and maybe 30ft from you, you are a bit over gunned with the switch.
I was glad to have packed my 5-weight single hander to which I had tied a size 4, tan and gold Crazie Charlie which had a long wing, maybe 2 inches. Ray had mentioned that the fish seemed to want a more active strip the last time he was out, so I put that to work and quickly started hooking fish after fish. At least on this day, by active, I mean cast that puppy across current, let it hit the water, and if your fly was not pushing water up top, it was not moving fast enough. These shad were so aggressive I watched multiple fish leap out of the water on the take like a bass sometimes does with a popper. There were shad literally porpoising themselves on the partially submerged grassy spit at my feet chasing clouds of tiny, jumping bait. It was incredible.
Ray took a similar approach but with a different fly, an EP Minnow, and got similar results. We caught fish until we were giddy, laughing, and occasionally whooping and hollering like little kids. At one point I asked Ray to take a picture of a nice fish I had caught and then leaned over for a bit to revive it. I took my time, actually as much time as the fish needed, not really my time, and when I looked up, there were three skiffs anchored up around us. Penance for my earlier indiscretion. 🙂
I kid, this is all part of the community that is shad fishing. While I would like to think that maybe if we weren’t acting like giddy children, maybe these gentlemen would never have known we were in to fish, but the reality was, it was the fish that gave themselves away. Also, let’s face it… this was not some secret spot we were at or something… it’s a very well-known spot… heck, you can even walk right to it. Oh the irony!
One of those skiffs actually ended up being Mark Remias, a longtime FB Group member that I have talked to online but never met in person. It was good to meet you, Mark!
The activity kept up for about two hours, everyone had fun catching fish, and then it turned off right as the front was on top of us and the rain started. We packed it up and made our way back to the launch. Today was an AMAZING day on the St. Johns River.