Last Saturday Ray and I hit C.S. Lee with hopes of finding shad falling back from receding waters upstream. With the Lake Harney gage at 1.25ft, I wouldn’t say we were much better off on this section of river. We set off from the launch and immediately saw activity downstream of the bridge. We motored down to check it out and did fish the area for a bit but did not catch anything. It could have been hoplo catfish or small gar, but we did not crack the code.
Next, we attempted to take a look at the east channel upstream of the bridge under suspicion that, this being the actual main channel, maybe there was some hidden depth there that could be sheltering fish. What we found was shallow water and a mess of cast netters working the area over, so we diverted to the west channel before doing any real digging. This diversion required pulling the motor and “polling” the boat over the sandbar that connects the two islands there in a couple inches of water. I should have taken it as an omen, as this would not be the last time I would be standing in the Sportspal searching for water.
As we passed the creek mouths, yet another group of cast netters was working the area over, so we made our way down to the mouth of the Econ and up a bit. While there was decent current, with weekday temperatures in the high 80’s and low 90’s during the week warming water temps, we did not find the surface activity we have seen in weeks prior, or that we saw downstream. Bummer, because I had rigged my fly rod with a sweet new gambusia imitation I came up with one evening that perfectly mimicked the tiny gambusia the shad have been keyed in on lately. Instead, blind casting the ultralights was the order of the day. We fished the spot thoroughly for more than an hour and Ray landed a couple of shad that were still surprisingly fresh looking, even with the warming temps. For what it’s worth, the Econ’s water temperature was still relatively cool compared to the St Johns, and I would say neither was above the low 70’s all day.
Next, we checked out some activity near the east bank at the mouth of the Econ and upon arrival saw fresh alligator tracks in a recent slide, and a lot of high grass. Being that Ray (that had long pants and boots on) is not a big fan of snakes, he opted to let me (the one wearing shorts and water shoes) lead the way through the potentially snake infested remains of the flooded marsh. I nimbly bounced from one stand of pushed over grass to another while Ray played a game of “find the alligator” behind me. We both could clearly hear something moving in the brush behind us but could not see it. At about the time I said, hey Ray, if it’s the gator you can always jump into the river, something came dashing out of the underbrush, right under his feet! In an instant of a fight or flight response, I saw him weigh his options… river or “alligator” wresting, and then proceeded to watch him execute a near perfect hurdle over a fleeing coot. Impressive, I had no idea he had that kind of vertical leap. Ray, you should have gone to the NBA.
We fished the area for a while and found no takers, then moved to the opposite bank to chase the activity we saw up top. Here, once again, I had the opportunity to watch Ray’s impressive athleticism, this time when he kicked a piece of wood on the bank to reveal a small snake under it. In an instant, he combined vertical and horizontal movements in one fluid juke that left the snake and me wondering where he went. Who knew this guy had those kind of moves?!? Again, we did not find shad.
The next plan was to run up the Econ to check out a few deeper spots. Our first stop was cut short, as a group of cast netters arrived right after us and proceeded to fish directly across from where we were fishing. These guys have no manners. We continued upstream towards Culpepper Bend, but found a group was shooting skeet over the river (SMH,) and the run downstream so shallow we would have had to walk the boat. Instead, we grabbed a beer and had our lunch.
Later in the afternoon we decided to make the run across Puzzle Lake. While I have run Puzzle a few times now, I still find its constantly changing landscape challenging to navigate, even with the channels marked on my map. There is still a tendency to “deviate from the line” which in low water means you end up too shallow, have to pull the motor, do some polling (and cursing,) and course correct. Of course, you can always purposely choose to deviate and find yourself having to walk the boat to get back to the channel, which is exactly what we did this day. Birds diving out in the distance, well outside of the main current of the river caught our attention, and while we knew full well it likely wasn’t shad, we had to check it out.
As we proceeded to drift across a 300-400 yard flat, maybe 1-2ft deep, we saw fish EVERYWHERE. After several casts with the ultralight, Ray hooked up with a fish that made a run on him, then put a serious bend in the rod. Was it a big largemouth? A hybrid maybe? After a couple minute fight, he landed a very nice tilapia, on a rattletrap!
We continued to try to push our way through Puzzle… literally, but in a stream of expletives that made Ray blush, I gave up just upstream of the Two Cuts area. There just was not enough water, it was late in the day, and I did not want to be feeling my way out of Puzzle Lake in the dark. In fact, I don’t think there is any point in doing it ever again with the gage under 2ft, unless we wanted to bring cast nets and clean up on spawning tilapia.
We returned to the mouth of the Econ where the bite really turned on as the sun set. Ray caught a couple more shad and I hooked and lost one on a little firetiger crankbait. The bass bite was on fire and we both caught several in addition to panfish, and I even managed to hook and jump a very nice gar. As we returned to the launch near dark, the entire run between the mouth of the Econ and the creek mouths boiled with bass gorging themselves and tons of shad spawning. While the shad bite was slow this day, they were there somewhere, waiting for the sun to set so they could do their thing.
Ray kept and cleaned the tilapia and a nice crappie, and I have to say, it was super delicious! I do not like farm raised tilapia, they always taste like mud to me, but these river tilapias are something altogether different. The cast netters may be on to something! If you can’t beat them, maybe we should join ’em.