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A Little Cast and Blast Session

TJ and Todd fishing from the Boat

I am still playing catch-up, but two Thursdays ago (01/26,) I had the privilege of joining TJ Bettis (Orlando Outfitters owner) on his boat along with Todd Labellman to do some shad fishing and snipe hunting. We met at CS Lee at 8:30 and quickly made the run to the east bank near the Econ where we fished for a bit but did not find shad or any surface activity. We opted not to spend a whole lot of time there, as this area is regularly fished by others, and we could always hit it on the way back to the ramp.

For those that attended the event at Orlando Outfitters the night before, you may remember TJ talking about how he approaches shad fishing. He mentioned that he mainly searches for surface activity and does not spend a lot of time blind casting in search of fish, with exceptions made only for spots that he regularly finds fish. I would characterize it as a “run and gun” approach, which is efficient yet methodical.

We crossed the main body of Puzzle Lake into the area I often refer to as “no man’s land.” It’s a solid distance from CS Lee and a serious run from Hatbill and because of that, you tend not to see many other boats, particularly on a weekday. It is a neat area of the river that is made of up a maze of twisted, braided channels, which truth be told, are still actually part of Puzzle Lake itself. On high water years, all but the very tops of the banks of this section of river can be submerged making what looks to be one large lake “tricky” to navigate. Even with the water in its banks, the lake gets its namesake for a reason.

Nice Crappie

At each stop, the three of us would work the area from shore for maybe 15 minutes, working in different directions and depths, and if we did not hook up, we would move on. We did this multiple times, continuing upstream into the Indian Mounds section of river before spotting birds diving for bait (always worth a look,) and eventually finding surface activity. TJ used the GPS feature of his trolling motor to “anchor” us in position within casting distance, and we all proceeded to catch fish, primarily nice sized crappie, bluegill, blueback herring, and perhaps a shad or two mixed in. While there was at least one strike that felt like a shad, it did not come to hand. We did proceed to fill up a cooler with crappie though.

We continued working upstream to an area of river I have run before, but never bothered to stop and fish. Todd and TJ fished a slough with surface activity from the boat, and I worked on one particular bend from shore. I had a vivid memory of this spot from a previous season, not because I caught shad there, but because I had managed to vapor lock my outboard and while I was leaning over backwards in the boat to troubleshoot what was going on, Ray yelled “don’t fall out now, an alligator as big as the boat just surfaced right next to us!”

On this day the alligator was absent, but I did manage to catch a shad here. I often say I would rather catch one fish in a new place or in a new way than ten fish at the same old spot. Needless to say, I was excited about this fish, and I will certainly check there again in future years, as it has ample current, an eddy in the center, and a slough dumping bait into it.

We continued upstream all the way to Second Junction, a place I frequent from Hatbill. With the SR50 gage at 4.6ft, most of this area was still underwater, so not conducive to wading. However, there was ample surface activity, not in the main channel but up in a slough, and you could clearly see shad rolling. Again TJ “anchored” the boat within casting distance, and several more crappie made it into the cooler before TJ netted a nice shad.

TJ Releasing a Shad

As daylight was waning, TJ and Todd decided to shift gears and focus on hunting snipe. We made our way back in to Puzzle and they got out to scout a few areas while I fished. I do not currently own a 20-gauge shotgun, and while I have fond memories of being dumped in the woods during Father-Son Camp to go “snipe hunting” with a group of other young kids, pillowcases and flashlights in hands, I honestly think I was like 30 years old before I found out a snipe was a real bird.

Both TJ and Todd had never snipe hunted before this day either, but they knew that grassy, muddy areas were preferred forage areas, and proceeded to pattern the flood plain together trying to drive out birds. Snipe evidently have a mystique that proceeds them as being hard to shoot, as they fly low to the ground and dart and dive in erratic flight patterns. Either this mystique is inflated to turn off the layman from giving it a try, or they were blessed with beginners’ luck, as after about 30 minutes they found what they were looking for and bagged ten birds between the two of them. I caught a very nice bass, some red breasts, and added a giant bluegill to the cooler.

I think I am going to pick up a new shotgun as it did look fun! I think I would enjoy it, particularly in the early part of the shad run, when the fishing is slow. Doing some waterfowl hunting would just expand the fun that can be had on the St. Johns River for me, while putting some meat on the table, and potentially providing some tying materials. In fact, Todd has a pair of snipe wings curing in Borax for me for future soft hackle use.

As the sun was setting, we anchored up near the mouth of the Econ and the whole area boiled with activity. We fished until well after dark but did not boat another shad. We did however enjoy a cold beer and some good conversation though! Special thanks again to TJ Bettis for inviting me to fish with him and Todd. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to doing it again sometime. Maybe I will even bag a bird of my own! 🙂

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