I finally kicked off my 2024 season on Monday. With water levels higher than average due to an El Nino winter, conditions have been challenging for those of us with canoes and kayaks, and those that like to hike in. With the gage above Lake Harney still at 5.5ft, there is still a lot of water in the river, and while doable from the smaller vessels, you are going to spend the day in the boat, as there is nowhere dry to get out and fish. For those that want to hike it, forget about it, it will be another two to three weeks before conditions are optimal for hiking (IF we don’t get any more significant rain.)
Thankfully, Ray has a 22ft Wellcraft and invited Todd and I out to do some shad fishing on the Martin Luther King Day holiday. While the Wellcraft is not optimal for three to fly fish from, it is high and dry, roomy, and is quite the upgrade from what we are used to. Truth be told, this was actually my second time out for the season. Todd and I did some snipe hunting on New Year’s Eve morning, and then joined Ray on the water in the afternoon out of Cameron Wight. With the water levels where they were, I didn’t even bring a fly rod. We did not catch shad that day.
On Monday, we set off upriver from C.S. Lee at close to 9:00am and while there were trailers in the parking lot, we pretty much had the river to ourselves. We anchored up near the mouth of the Econlockhatchee and got to work with a combination of switch rods, single handers, and spinning tackle. I have said it before, but I will reiterate, while I prefer a fly rod, particularly a two hander, I have absolutely no problem fishing with conventional gear, especially in the early part of the season, and often when there is no surface activity to give the fish away. The fact is you can cover a lot more water and better control your depth with spinning gear. Even with a heavy T11 tip and 5/32 hourglass weighted fly, you just can’t match the action of tight line jigging/ finessing a small lure on the bottom with an ultralight rod. This proved very effective this day.
Ray was the first to hook up with a nice fish on the ultralight. No surprise there. Ray has been out doing the work for a month, and already had multiple fish on the board before the new year. I followed up with a small hickory on the switch rod, my first of the season. Todd followed suit and picked up a nice shad on his switch rod.
With all of us on the board, Ray switched over to his fly rod and I moved over to my 7ft ultralight. I proceeded to make casts towards the bank and dropped a 2″ white baby shad on a #6 tungsten jig head right into a cutout. The jig had no sooner hit the water and started to swing out towards the channel when a fish hit it like a tank and then made a run like a missile straight upstream. Now I have caught plenty of shad over the years, and even a few big ones, but this fish was something different. Even though it was running upstream, it peeled line off the drag at blistering speed and bent my ultralight quite literally in half. At one point the fish made a run under the boat and I had to lean over the gunwale and put half the rod in the water to control it. After a couple of minutes of sheer mayhem, Ray and I got a look at her on the surface. It was a football of a fish, completely full of eggs. In the end, a floating matt of hyacinth and a run in with the skeg on the outboard did me in, and I did not get that fish to hand, but WOW, what a shad!
While far from red hot, several more fish were caught throughout the day, making it a successful start to the 2024 season. However, I am looking forward to the river receding within its banks, fish congregating in all of our normal haunts, and doing some bank fishing and wading. Until then, I will enjoy fishing from Ray’s “big boat” though. 😉