Trout Tactics for Shad

Gorgeous panorama of clear water and sandy bottom on the Econlockhatchee River near Snowhill Road

I have been wanting to fish the Econ upstream of Snowhill Road for several weeks, but with so-so action and the very shallow water we found lower down the river hiking from the Brumley trailhead, I questioned whether the shad had made it that far upstream in good numbers. I had missed a couple of planned trips with Todd and others due to prior commitments, and I have to admit, I was just about to hang it up for this season when I got a call on Friday night. Todd had made it out to Snowhill and reported seeing good numbers of fish. On top of that, he told me that this section of river was so shallow and clear, you could essentially sight fish for shad. The fish were spooky, and he managed to land a few, but thought that if he could have cracked the code, he could have caught quite a few more.

clear water on the Econ River

As we discussed potential tactics, I decided I had to get out there to experience the unique set of conditions that this year’s run had presented us. While it is not necessarily unusual for shad to make it this far up the Econlockhatchee River, it does generally require the flow on the St. Johns river to be low, and the flow on the Econ to be high relative to the St. Johns, and that does not happen every year. While I did see a shad take my fly a couple of weeks ago while fishing the section of river accessed from the Brumley trailhead, I cannot say that I was sight fishing for them. This I had to experience!

I grabbed my gear and made it to the Snowhill Road canoe/ kayak launch at about 9:30am on Saturday. This can be a busy area, especially on the weekends, as people enjoy the waterway by boat, and enjoy the wilderness while hiking or biking the Cross Florida Trail through the Little Big Econ State Forest. There were a couple of cars when I arrived, but not a lot of activity this early in the day. As I walked down to the river under the bridge, I immediately saw a pod of shad in the shadows, another downstream, and another upstream. The water was clear and shallow and without a doubt, this was looking to be sight fishing at its best.

I quickly rigged up the five weight with a Kip Tailed Clouser and swung the fly in front of the pod of fish. After a few decent presentations, I clearly saw a fish on the outside of the group break off and follow the fly as I figure-of-eight retrieved. Right when I thought the fish was going to take the fly, with a discerning eye it turned its cheek and returned to the group, spooking the rest of the fish, almost as if it had told them exactly what was going on. The experience was vaguely reminiscent of fishing pods of small bonefish in Belize.

I made several more casts and the process continued. Every few swings I would make a good presentation, a fish would break out of the pack and follow the fly, then turn away before taking it. I changed flies several times as I made my way downstream. Shad Dart, nope. Crazy Charlie, nope. Tandem, nope. Different colors of all three flies, nope!

Soft Hackle Shad Fly with Bead Chain Eyes
Shad fishing on the Econ River near Snowhill

While fishing out west for spooky trout and even on days here when nothing seems to be working, I have learned by trial and error that less is often more. I decided to apply some trout tactics to my shad fishing. When facing fish that seem unwilling to take, tying on a smaller fly is generally a good idea and shad are no different. While we generally consider bright, flashy flies best for shad, when fishing in clear, shallow water, natural colors often perform better. While we generally fish for shad using a short level-leader, only 5-8 feet in length, spooky fish may require something longer, and to my 8 feet of level 2x leader, I added 2 feet of 5x tippet.

While trout enthusiasts will tell you that the fly pattern is less important than the presentation, I have learned that one style of fly seems to work very well when you have thrown everything in your box at them, Soft Hackles. The fly I chose was a size 10 Soft Hackle with a peacock body and mallard flank wing. I have had good success with it on trout out west, and I have adapted it to fish for panfish on the Wekiva River here in Florida by adding some bead chain to it and tying it upside down. The bead chain helps the fly ride hook tip up and avoid the grass and other snags we find in most of our water without effecting its “buggyness.”

I made a short cast and let the fly swing in front of the fish, and almost on queue I saw three shad break free of the pod, follow the fly, and clearly saw one take the fly, shake its head and make a short run before coming to hand. I caught two more just downstream of the bridge before I decided to make my way upstream.

The hiking on the Cross Florida Trail is very easy near Snowhill Road and the trails are very clearly defined due to the volume of mountain bike riders. There is a trail that basically hugs the river and I saw shad on nearly every stretch of river that had current and enough depth for fish to rest. Add to that, I even saw shad in very shallow areas of the river, but they were cruising either up or downstream and were much more difficult to target. They were quite content swimming within arm’s reach of you. Here is a video of them swimming right under me:

Each of the turns and their pools also had groups of fish congregating in them but, beware, there was an alligator (or two) on each of the turns with dark water. I was actually surprised I saw as many gators as I did on such a small, narrow, shallow section of the river that is very busy. While they are not nearly as big as the ones downstream, my guess was still an average of 8 feet.

I hiked about 1.5-2 miles upstream and caught another three shad and missed one more before I lost the last of the sized 10 soft hackle flies that I had. The river is full of snags and the 5x tippet was just no match. I tried other flies and for the most part found no takers. There was a nice pool where a large group of shad had congregated where I hooked two of them on a Shad Comet with a white hackle, but lost them before they came to hand. While the small soft hackle flies and trout tactics work, you will burn through flies so bring twice as many as you think you need, and then double that again. 🙂

This section of the river is beautiful and the sight fishing is superb. I am not sure if I will be able to make it back out before the fish are gone this season, but I cannot wait to try it again when the conditions are right in the future.

collage of pictures Fly Fishing for Shad on the Econ River near Snowhill Road

Fly Pattern:
Thread: Olive 8/0
Hook: Size 10 Streamer Hook
Body: Peacock Ice Dub (or natural Peacock Hurl) tied 3/4 length
Hackle: Natural Hen or Hungarian Partridge
Wing: Mallard Flank
Eyes: Beadchain

A Paddle in to the St. Johns Wilderness

collage of pictures fly fishing for shad on the Econ River

I met up with Philippe and Bill today for a paddle in to the St. Johns wilderness. I arrived a bit early and fished from the sandbar near the SR46 bridge and did not find shad. Bill and Philippe arrived and we made our way down to the mouth of the Econ where we worked both the east and west banks for some time. The weather was pushing in to the mid 80’s so I decided to wet wade the east bank. I have fished the east bank quite a bit this year and felt very comfortable working my way downstream five steps at a time, making single hand Spey casts to prevent snagging the high grass with a backcast. I found a nice hole and pulled up several panfish while wading about thigh deep, when for whatever reason, I looked back towards my banked kayak, maybe 20 yards behind me, and saw a head, a BIG head… like bigger than I am used to seeing, particularly in this area of the well traveled river. Bill was working the west bank across from me so I yelled over to him to confirm that it was an alligator and that I was not just letting my imagination get the best of me.

About that time, the gator submerged, right as Bill yelled back to confirm. Needless to say, I got my butt out of the water, got back in my yak, and never returned to the water further than knee deep the rest of the day. The potential for inserting yourself in to the food chain is a sobering reality that it fairly unique to shad fishing in Florida. I am sure there is potential for the same in shad runs all the way up to North Carolina, but I am not sure that alligator encounters are near as common as they are here in the Sunshine State. Beware of the big lizards, the weather is just getting too warm too quick.

We made our way up the Econ a few turns and Bill hooked a shad while trolling, but lost it before coming to hand. I moved upstream a bit and managed to land one. While each of us caught fish today, it was slow and it got hot quick. We called it quits early and stopped by the Jolly Gator for lunch. This will be the last trip out of CS Lee for me until next shad run.

Saturday Fishing Report with Mr Murphy- Hatbill Park

panorama of channel split at first junction downstream of Hatbill Road on the St. Johns River

I had been wanting to do some shad fishing in the Hatbill Park area for several weeks. With the rain this week, I saw an uptick in current and depth on the SR 50 gauge and decided that today was the day. My plan was to head to the first junction and fish that thoroughly, then maybe make my way to the turn just downstream, and if neither held shad, to head up to Orange Mound to fish that pool for shad and tilapia. However, it seemed that Mr. Murphy, you know… of Murphy’s Law fame was riding tandem with me today.

Broken Trolling Motor in canoe

A turn or two downstream of the launch, right where the river narrows and there are high reeds that might block an airboat from seeing a lowly canoe, I ran aground and cracked my hand-me-down trolling motor’s case. Luckily there were no airboats coming or going and the circus that ensued by me trying to turn said broken trolling motor off, failing at that, getting out of the canoe to reach the battery in the bow to disconnect everything while trying not to lose the canoe, while cursing (but also laughing at myself,) went completely unnoticed by anyone other than a few white pelicans that must have thought I was nuts! Or at least a total NOOB. By the way, I was not too broken hearted at the damage to the trolling motor, as this had obviously happened before, as the copious amounts of epoxy filling the cracked case would testify.

Luckily I had not forgotten my paddle, as I did on a trip with Todd this year, and I made my way the short 3/4 mile trip to the first junction quickly. Of course when I did arrive, I realized I left my cooler in the car, water and all. SMH. Anyway, I found great current at the first junction and just upstream of it. There was also decent depth in the main channel, maybe waist high. Since I was now motor-less, I decided I would fish the crap out of this junction, and skip the rest of the scheduled trip. I hooked up with two nice bass at the head of the first junction on an orange over white size #4 Kip Tail Clouser Minnow, and got a couple of pics (see below.) I worked the first junction, 5 steps at a time, from had to tail, and picked up two more dinky bass.

At about noon the wind kicked up to 15-20mph, and everything seemed to turn off. I worked the first junction thoroughly for about 3.5 hours and decided I had enough of the wind. I made my way back to the ramp slowly and I fished each interesting turn with current or depth, and did not find shad. I did see one spent shad in it’s dying throws drifting in the current. Some days are better than others, and I am just thankful for the two respectable bass on the five weight today, in lieu of Mr. Murphy!

a nice bass caught with a fly rod
Bass on the fly on the St Johns River


Impromptu Trip to the Econlockhatchee River

Alligator on a bank of the Econlockhatchee River

I took Tuesday off to extend my long President’s Day weekend and planned on joining the group that Philippe was hosting on a hike/ paddle to do some shad fishing. Unfortunately that trip was postponed due to the high winds in the forecast. As I could not reschedule my day off to join the group on the new date due to other obligations, I decided to venture back out to the Econ River, fish the pool we had success on the day before, and then make my way further upstream to see if I could find other congregations of fish. The Econ is a good place to fish in high winds, as there is generally good shelter provided from the wind, particularly on low water years where you will be fishing well below the high bank line.

I arrived at the river at the white/ yellow trail split and decided to hug the river on the high bank to watch for current and see if I could spot fish from the high vantage point. I was quiet as I moved and found a lot of alligators that we did not see the day before. On each turn I found at least one alligator, and by end of day, I had seen twelve, including a dragon that was confident enough not to slide in to the water the moment it sensed me. In fact, it was not until I made it nearly directly across the water from it before it slid in, and even then, it left its tail on shore and did not submerge. I decided not to fish that turn!

collage of shad caught on the Econ River

I reached the pool from the day before, and the gator that was there slid in quietly, surfacing every 10-15 minutes, keeping a keen eye on where I was. I gave him plenty of room and wet waded no deeper than knee high. I fished the head of the pool again and did not find fish in the best of the current. Instead, the fish seemed to be hanging in the depth of the relatively still water in the pool just downstream of the current. This meant that I was swinging flies in to the gator zone. I hooked up with two shad, lost one and got one to hand. The alligator made no attempt to come after a hooked fish.

I worked my way downstream through the pool, fishing five steps at a time until I got to its tail where the current picked up. At the tail I caught another shad, and lost two more. I was surprised by the amount of Orinoco sail fin catfish in this stretch of river and just how close they would let you get to them before swimming off. I made several nice presentations to multiple cats, but had no takers. I bet they would be fun on a fly rod though!

I moved up to the next turn and fished the tail of the pool. I caught two more shad and lost another two as I worked back downstream to the head of the first pool. By noon, the front had started to move through and the fish turned off, so I decided to hug the river on the high banks and do some spotting until I reached the Yarborough shelter. There are a few areas of possible interest on the way, including some turns with decent depth and current at their heads and tails. However, the stretch of river approaching the Yarborough shelter is very shallow this year. While this stretch can be good in normal water years, this year I would not waste the time hiking up again. I did not spot any fish, or really see any activity of any sort. I did find that dragon on the one turn of interest that I did want to try, but I played it safe and yielded.

All in all it was a good day, and I was happy just to actually catch fish again. There are fish in the Econ, albeit not very thick. If you are going to venture out, focus on the areas of current, however minimal it seems, accelerating in to, or out of the pools on the turns. Hopefully the rain this week will kick up the discharge of not just the Econ, but the St. Johns River and get some fish moving upstream. I have heard of shad runs in Florida heating up in March. Hopefully this is one of those years.

President’s Day on the Econ River

Fly Fishing for Shad on the Econ River in the Wives' Pool

I decided to take Monday off for President’s Day to hike in to the Little Big Econ State forest. Todd and I planned a day to bring our wives along to experience the peace and tranquility of the stretch of the river that we have come to enjoy over the last couple of years. We decided to make the hike from the Brumley Road trailhead again and make our way up river some on the white trail to a turn we knew had a good grassy area that would be comfortable for a picnic with the ladies. Todd, always the optimist, thought we might get lucky and run in to shad, as he had seen fish moving up the Econ River a week or two prior. A little bit of rain had pushed the discharge up ever so slightly, so I thought anything was possible but, I tend to be a bit more of a pessimist and fully expected to switch over to tossing poppers for pan fish pretty quickly.

We got to the river close to 11am and setup a spot for a picnic. Todd and I quickly setup the 5 weights and started working an area where he had caught shad on his last trip out. Within a couple of casts I had a fish on, but was not initially sure what I had hooked up with. As I got the fish about 15 feet away from me I did indeed identify it in the clear shallow water as either a small male American, or small Hickory shad. However, I lost the fish before it came to hand. I was just happy to finally hook one this season, and even better, now we knew that they were indeed there.

Todd was gracious enough to yield the head of the first pool to me and continued upstream to the next bend. There was decent current there as well as several deep holes, at least one of which was 8 feet deep. There was a ton of activity at the tail of that pool, and both of us at one point clearly saw a shad leap from the water not once, but twice. However, no fish were caught there.

I continued working the head of the pool I was on and hooked a better fish than the first. This fish made two decent runs as well as a couple of small jumps before a quick release. A quick release in my book is when I have touched the leader, but lost the fish before coming to hand. I count that as a catch even though I can’t provide photo evidence. 🙂 That shad was my first catch of 2017.

I continued working downstream through the head of the pool and hooked up with my next fish. The water I was fishing was maybe knee deep and I clearly saw the shad take the fly, then make a run to a jump. This is the first time I have actually seen a shad take my fly! However, I lost this fish as well. Fighting shad in such shallow water is a unique experience. The fish seem to shake their heads more than I have felt in open water, and I think that gives them a slight advantage as they are more easily able to throw the pinched barb flies that I typically fish with. That is my theory at least. 🙂

After a quick break for lunch and a couple of beers, I continued fishing downstream through the slack water of the pool and hooked up with a nice hen there. I got this one to hand and managed a quick picture.

Shad on the Fly- Econ River 2017

Todd made his way to the head of the pool that he yielded to me earlier and I continued down to the tail of the pool where I hooked up with two more fish but lost them as well. Todd faired a lot better. He managed to land five fish, lost four more, and was even good enough to let the ladies fight a couple.

collage of pictures taken fly Fishing on the Econ River

The fishing is still tough this year and while we thought it might be possible to find shad, we were pleasantly surprised to have made it to the right place on the right day. I never did tie on that popper by the way. It seems our wives were our lucky charms and brought the shad right to us, further solidifying one of my favorite sayings…

If a man is truly blessed, he returns home from fishing to be greeted by the best catch of his life.”