Skunked at Hatbill

Panorama of the First Channel Junction on the St. Johns River Downstream of Hatbill Road

I probably should have heeded the old saying, when the wind blows from the north, don’t venture forth, as I got skunked at Hatbill yesterday. However, the high pressure made far too pretty of a day for me to stop myself, and I was on the water by about 9:30. I made my way up to the second junction, by way through Baxter Point this time.

large alligator with buzzards on its back
Big gator, thankfully not the one I hit

This decision put me in a very narrow and shallow (maybe 15 feet wide and 6 inches deep) side channel as I weaved my way downstream. The side channel was so narrow, I would soon come to regret my choice of paths when I hugged the inside of a turn, only to find an alligator sunning itself in the shallows of the south bank as I came around a bend. With a 20-25mph North/ Northwest wind, and no brakes on the Hobie, before I could even start to back paddle, I HIT said alligator with the bow of my kayak! Thankfully I scared it more than it scared me, and it quite literally ran on water (just 6 inches deep) until it reached deeper water and slipped under. Ummmmm… yea, clean undies anyone!?

I arrived at the convergence of the East (or is it North?) and West (or is it South?) channels only to find the current completely backed up on the west channel. There was a fair amount of surface activity just upstream on the west channel, but I could not determine if it was just bass or panfish. With the north wind pushing the current upstream swinging flies was a futile effort, but I stripped kip tailed clousers and fry flies through the activity and found no takers.

I moved over to the north bank on the east channel and with the wind at my back was able to make cannon like casts with the switch rod. The narrow east channel is much faster anyway, and even with the stiff wind, there was plenty of current to swing flies. I worked the area very thoroughly, 10-15 steps at a time, making a short, medium, and long distance cast each time before moving, making one full pass with a bead chain fly and then decided to head back upstream to do it again with a 5/32 hourglass fly to make sure I thoroughly covered the water column.

cattle on the St. Johns River
The bull is in there somewhere

As I got back upstream to start the next pass, a head of cattle started running my way. Noticing I was basically standing on a cattle trail, I started yelling mooooo! and waiving my hands like an idiot to persuade them to find another path. As they approached, the cows stopped, but one of the bulls in the group did not! Now he was not in a full heads down charge like you see at a bullfight or anything, but he had that confident swagger that said to me I am a handsome boy, these are my girls, and YOU had better get out of my way! With seconds to make a decision, a narrow stream behind me, and a river (I had already had an alligator incident in) in front of me, I actually drew my gun! Thankfully as I disengaged the safety and brought the pistol up to get a sight picture, the bull stopped in its tracks, I kid you not… right about where you see the point near where I am standing on said cattle path in the picture. I’ll take a second order of clean undies for the day, and the check please!

The bull turned around and joined the group, and there they sat and stared at me as I worked my way downstream, fishing the heavier fly. When I reached my kayak, I saddled up and made my way upstream, finally yielding the spot back to the cattle. I fished the area just upstream where there is good current and depth and did not get a bite.

At around 2:00, I decided I had enough and started to make my way upstream. I opted NOT to take the same path back, and instead head towards the first junction. I fished it for maybe thirty minutes, before I had enough of the wind and the lockjaw. As I paddled back to the launch, and made my way through what I will forever call the gators-in-the-mist pool, I counted eight heads, still hanging there even in the afternoon.

I have to say, it has been an adventurous year out of Hatbill Park, and I think I am done with it… for this year! 🙂

Trip back to 7 Palms

panorama near 7 Palms

I finally got a few minutes, so time to sit down and write a quick blog entry about my trip on Monday. The original plan was to meet up with Philippe and the gang, and then head to Paw Paw Mound, but with temps in the high 80’s making the big lizards active, and the amount of wading required to fish at Paw Paw, we decided to play it safe and head back to 7 Palms where there is easier access to good current from dry land.

We set out a bit after 10:00am, and made the 2.5 mile walk down to the river. The trip was much easier than it was the month prior, with the access road basically bone dry except for one spot closer to the river. We arrived to find the river in great shape, the water levels had dropped, there was plenty of high and dry land to fish from, and plenty more water easily fishable by wading in less than knee deep. While several guys eventually waded in maybe waist deep, I never bothered to put on my waders. The alligators were definitely more active, so I opted to keep the water knee high or below.

Anthony caught two fish an American Shad and Blueback Herring
Anthony with a double!

Before we made the hike, Philippe collected 10 dollars from each of us that wanted in on a friendly competition, first shad caught won the pot. I am pretty sure it was Keith that hooked up shortly after we arrived, caught the first shad and won the pot. Soon after, Anthony caught two fish on a tandem rig at once, a nice shad and a blueback herring! I fished the same pool with Anthony for a while but had no takers.

beg alligator on shore
Big Gator

Philippe and I spotted a lot of surface activity at the junction upstream of the shelter and made our way up to fish it. I hooked up with what felt like a nice shad, but lost it before getting it to hand. Shortly after I caught a blueback.

After a quick lunch in the shelter, Ray and I went back up to the junction and stumbled across a large alligator that had slid up on the north bank while we were eating. It took off quickly, well before we got too close, but it did not yield the spot. As Ray and I fished just upstream of it, we noticed the gator stuck just twenty or so feet off shore, popping up occasionally for some air. Eric, not realizing the alligator had staked his claim to the spot, waded in

Ray holding an American Shad
Ray with a nice shad

just 30 feet or so downstream from where we saw the gator come up for air. I walked over and invited him to come upstream and fish with us. Alligators are very stealthy in the water, and he had not even realized the gator had surfaced so close. That’s a good reminder to us all to keep your head on a swivel, and fish with a buddy when it is hot and they are active.

Ray landed a nice shad late in the day, but it was a slow day of fishing for me, even with all of the surface activity. I caught just one more panfish the entire day. That said several others caught shad, bluebacks, bass, and panfish so they are indeed there, it just was not my day. In all, it was a great trip and a great group of guys. Thanks again to Philippe for organizing!

Bycatch at Hatbill

Misty Panorama of the St. Johns River near Hatbill Road

On Saturday I returned to Hatbill Park to complete the trip I had originally planned the week prior. The plan was to launch early at the boat ramp, head to the first junction, then make my way upstream to Orange Mound and back again. I awoke at 6:45am only to find a dense fog advisory on my phone. Hatbill is not an area of the river you want to paddle on with low visibility, as there can be a fair amount of airboat traffic. I spent some extra time with my girls, drank an extra cup of coffee, and then made my way to the launch.

When I arrived around 9:00, I was happy to find a travel trailer doing some boondocking. With the added activity, I figured there was less chance of running across nefarious characters upon my return. I also found an absolutely still morning, where the thick fog produced a grey, mirror-like image on the water, and limited visibility to maybe a couple of hundred feet. I took my time setting up, and did a little fishing from shore for about a half hour before my patience got the better of me, and I set out in to the grey void. As I made my way down to the first junction, close to the third turn, I clearly saw more than a dozen alligator heads in the pool I would shortly be crossing.

alligator in the water with fog
Gator in the mist

The still, foggy air, mixed with the fact that I was sitting just inches off the water in the kayak made the experience extra creepy, but I kicked up the pedaling to aerobic levels, making extra effort to make sure the Hobie’s pedals slapped the hull each stroke, all the while whistling nervously, and crossed the pool without issue.

The river remained quiet as I arrived at the first junction, and I fished from the west bank for a while without a bite. Around 10:30, the slightest of breezes picked up, the fog began to retreat, and I began to see activity near the east bank. I moved positions and as I swung an intermediate tip and weighted fly through the area for nearly thirty minutes, the top water activity picked up to a feverish pace of tiny flicks and splashes, but nothing was taking the fly. Figuring the activity was likely small bass or panfish, I switched to a floating tip and tied on a Fry Fly to see if I could hook up. After several missed takes, I found my initial assumption to be incorrect, and I landed a blueback herring. I continued to fish the size 10 fly through the concentrated activity and landed several more. After landing 10, I decided I had enough and needed to shift my focus back to catching shad.

Generally if there are bluebacks around, there is a good chance there are American or Hickory shad there too. The bluebacks seem to give their position away more often than the shad and seem to spend more time up top, but if you find them, you know you found an area suitable for any of them to spawn. In an effort to target shad and minimize the bycatch, I switched back to the intermediate tip and tried several different weighted flies, working the area ten steps at a time. While there was nonstop activity up top, assumingly from the bluebacks alone, I did not hook up with a shad by working the mid to lower water column with the heavier setup.

beautiful panorama of Orange Mound
Orange Mound

At noon I decided if I was going to catch shad I needed to move, so I made the paddle upstream to Orange Mound. The paddle is straight forward from the first junction and I made the trip in about 20 minutes. I arrived to find a beautiful panorama of blue sky over wetland, and just the slightest increase in elevation where the midden mound protrudes from the river. I was taken back by the difference in water clarity, and the distinct look of silver and gold hues created by the sun reflecting off of the mussel shells polished by current over time, and the tannic water.  Interestingly, there is a very nice gradient on the run near Orange Mound where the current picks up relative to the water downstream. Just upstream of the mound, there is convergence of channels that creates a series of eddies similar to the “toilet bowl” that Mark Benson shuttled us to on the trip to 7 Palms.  Both the area of convergence and the run itself had nice “crispy” bottom, and seemed to offer all of the attributes that shad prefer to spawn in, but there were no signs of activity like I saw at the first junction. I spent about an hour and a half working the area, ten steps at a time and did not catch shad there. Orange Mound is a popular landmark in the area, and at around 2:00, several airboats arrived so I decided to head back downstream.

When I arrived back at the first junction, the same activity I left continued. Still figuring it was blueback herring, I continued to work deeper in the water column and did not hook up. Tiring of all the activity, and fish not taking the heavier flies, I switched back to the floating tip and Fry Fly, but could not buy a bite.

I was about to call it a day, but with the amount of continued activity on the surface, I decided to try one last change in tactics. I rigged the intermediate tip back up, tied on a long 10 foot leader with 4x tippet, and to that tied on a size 10 pink Little Richard, a small dear hair fly that floats. When used with some upstream mends, this setup allows the intermediate tip to slowly sink and drag the floating fly down well above it, imparting a slow diving motion to the fly at the beginning of the swing. As the swing completes, and the intermediate tip tightens, the floating fly accelerates through the turn and rises once again. After a few casts, I hooked up with what I thought to be another blueback, but when I got it to hand, found it was a small American Shad. Unfortunately, I did not snap a picture before its “quick release.” I continued this technique and while I did not hookup with another shad, I caught many more blueback herring, panfish, and small bass.

While I originally thought all of the activity up top was bluebacks, there were likely shad intermingled with them the entire time. In contrast to years prior, the fish just seem to be less interested in taking flies near bottom, and I continue to do better using flies and techniques that put the fly in the top third of the water column, if not just subsurface. Just when you think you have it figured out, the fish change the game. It has been such an interesting run this year.

Double Digits at Hatbill

Hobie Kayak on sandy beach in St. Johns River

Yesterday I decided to launch the kayak from Hatbill Park and do some scouting, as no one has reported catching shad there this year. I was a bit apprehensive when I left the house, as Hatbill tends to be a fickle area of the river in years of late, and the water is still a tad on the high side at about 4.5 feet on the SR50 gauge. However, being that it was a Saturday, I knew CS Lee would be packed and usually by February I am ready to get off the beaten path, do some exploring, and catch fish in new places. My original plan was to try fishing the Econ, hiking in from Brumley, but a broken toe and a report from Todd confirming there were not fish there set the new plan in motion. I was pretty confident I could find fish, knowing there were already good numbers well upstream.

I arrived at Hatbill around 9:00am with the intention of heading to the first junction, and then making my way to Orange Mound if the action was slow there. I arrived at the first junction in near record time thanks to some great current and a 15-20mph southeast wind pushing on my back like a sail. There was a lot of surface activity, but it seemed to be bass and small panfish. I fished the switch rod rigged with an intermediate tip, and tried several different flies with no success. After about 30 minutes of fishing I decided to make the trip a run and gun scouting session and scrap the run to Orange Mound.

I decided to use the south wind to my advantage and make my way down the west channel, hitting any place of convergence or spot with good current along the way. If I did not catch fish in 20-30 minutes, or see clear signs of shad washing, I would move on to the next spot, with the plan of reaching the second junction and then looping back and hitting any of the spots with good current on the east channel on the way back to the launch. My hope was that the wind would die down later in the day before making the paddle back upstream (yea right!)

alligator in water while fishing
My audience

The west channel had great current, but it was shallow, maybe half a paddle’s length anywhere I checked. There were also a lot of alligators. I fished but did not hookup, and did not see any real surface activity so I stuck to my plan and moved quickly, spending no more than 20 minutes or so anywhere I stopped. When I arrived at the second junction I was greeted by two very large gators that were not terribly interested in yielding the area, and a slew of seagulls feeding on the surface. Alligators or not, I was definitely fishing this spot.

shad caught using a fly rod

There was an exposed point on the east bank overlooking the orange navigation marker that offered enough dry land to make me comfortable, so I hopped out and got to work. It was not long before I hooked up and landed a very nice shad, only to turn around and notice there was a gator in the water to my left, and a bigger one to my right, no more than about twenty feet away from me. It seemed I had an audience that was quite interested in what I was doing, likely looking for a handout, so I was quick to land and return the fish to the water. This continued for about half a dozen more fish until I decided I would yield the spot and move to the next location I saw birds feeding.

I continued fishing the east channel on my way back to the launch and found that there were fish in every area of convergence or accelerating current. The fish were definitely keyed in on mosquitofish just barely wider than your knuckle, and they were feeding just subsurface as they were blown off the pasture. I figured out that lengthening my level leader of 10lb mono with a two to three foot section of 6lb mono, and then pairing that with a size 10 Fry Fly, did a good enough job of matching the hatch. In fact, the Fry Fly was the fly of the day, and I went through every last one of them in my box. Interestingly, once I had used them up and then had to tie on a similarly sized Kip Tailed Clouser, I never got another bite. I am not sure if the jigging action of the beadchain turned them off, or the wobbly darting action of the keel-like tear drop head of the Fry Fly turned them on. I may never know, but I will be tying more of them!

Gambusia or Mosquito Fish
Mosquito Fish

In all, I paddled around five miles, caught a dozen shad, and lost about another six. I made the paddle back upstream (and upwind) and landed at dusk to find I was the last off the water. As I packed up my gear, I noticed a car that seemed precariously close to the river. I looped the Jeep over to have a look, and saw that the driver’s door and trunk were open, and that the rear window was smashed out. I was going to mind my own business and just leave, but then had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to check to make sure there was not a dead body inside. Thankfully there was not! It just looked like someone had stripped all of the electronics out of it and then tried to dump it in the river. When that didn’t work, they tried to set it ablaze. I reported what I had seen to the Brevard County sheriffs and went on my way.

There are definitely fish in this section of river, but be aware that Hatbill Park is at the end of a five mile long dirt road in the middle of nowhere, so don’t leave anything valuable in the car. At least the dirtbags did not steal my Jeep while I was out fishing. Perhaps that is a bonus of driving a 2006 Commander that rarely gets washed. 🙂

A Shad Fly Fishing walk in the St. John Wilderness- 7 Palms

Beautiful panorama of the Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area near 7 Palms

It has taken me a couple days to sit down and write a BLOG entry, so a lot of this has already been recounted on the Shad on the Fly Facebook Group, but I have to log it for the books! Unfortunately my phone mysteriously reset itself in the middle of the trip, and once again when I got home, so I lost a lot of the pictures I took on the hike. I will do my best to paint a nice picture with words below. 🙂

On Monday I joined a group to make a hike that Philippe Richen was kind enough to organize, to the 7 Palms shelter in the Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area, a 12,644 acre area, that is essentially a large floodplain, and a well known hunting ground for shad. This is an area that I had not visited, so I was very much looking forward to fishing there. The group met around 9:00 and determined the high water from this year was still very much evident, as should be expected of any floodplain I suppose, and most of us decided to make the hike out in our waders. The day was warm and humid, and I would generally hike out and then put on my waders, but I was glad I opted to wear them, as there were several areas we crossed that were knee high.

The hike was relatively straight forward, consisting of about 2.5 miles of service road out towards the river, and then a section of marsh to work through to get to the 7 Palms shelter, nothing too uncomfortable, just some mud above the ankle or low shin in certain areas, and enough of a workout to get sweaty in the waders. I would say if the gauge height at SR50 was much above five feet, I would likely try something down river instead. In our case though, the heavy rain the night before is what got things on the mucky side.

The walk out took a leisurely hour or so, where we traded stories and caught up on happenings over the prior year. It’s funny and I am sure there are many others that can relate, some of us may not connect much after the shad run is over, but as soon as November/ December arrives, everyone begins scheming and plotting, and when we finally get together, we pick up right where we left off. Our love of stalking this fish brings us all together, and I hope it continues to do so for years to come.

When we arrived at the 7 Palms shelter, we were met by Mark Benson (shad fanatic and fishing guide,) and T.J. Bettis (shad fanatic and owner of Orlando Outfitters) who both had come by boat, and had coordinated with Phil to bring the supplies he provided to cook a hot lunch for us later that afternoon. Mark fishes the area often and pointed out areas where fish have been congregating and provided us some tips. The group quickly rigged up the rods, spread out and began working the area of river that surrounds 7 Palms.

Of immediate note as I approached the water, were the amount of alligators in the area. Fishing, and particularly wading here is not for the faint of heart. Now I am used to seeing alligators mind you, but this is not like hey… there’s a gator way down there, cool!  This is, whoa… that is a big freaking gator that just slid in right across the bank from me, I think I am going to take a step (or 10) back until I see that knobby nose pop back up for air.

Gator near 7 Palms
Gator near 7 Palms

All kidding aside, this is one of the biggest concentrations of large alligators ON EARTH, so if you choose to wade, mind your bits and pieces, go with a friend (or 10,) watch all around you, consider carefully as to whether you really want to be more than knee deep, and I would recommend avoiding wading all together on a warm day. On cool days though, the gators tend to stay up on shore where the sun is warm, and if they do slide in, they pop up in a few minutes near where they submerged, and keep just as keen of an eye on you, as you do on them. While the day was on the warmer side, it is still winter here and the river temperature is still cool so the alligators were fairly sedated.

For this trip I decided to bring my single hand rod, and after starting to fish, I quickly wished I had brought the switch rod with me instead. The river here is sweet two-hander water as it is, but add to that a 10-15mph headwind and the other wildlife, and the extra reach would have been nice. However, I made do with backcasting to deal with the wind, and after braving up enough to wade in waist deep, I landed one shad and lost one more before lunch time. The guys downstream caught a few as well.

For lunch Philippe was kind enough to grill up some sausages and sides for everyone and we enjoyed a sit, some conversation, and a warm meal. That sure beat my typical lunch of jerky, cheese, and maybe a handful of nuts. Thanks Phil!

After lunch, Mark was kind enough to shuttle Keith Browning and I to a turn where there were shad washing all around, as well as panfish popping surface and blueback herring schooling around the inside of the pool. I worked the head of the pool diligently but could not crack the code.  After trying nearly everything in my box… bright flies, dark flies, longer leader, sink tip, no tip, fast retrieve, slow retrieve, no retrieve, I finally hooked up with what felt like a nice fat American Shad, but lost it before coming to hand. Meanwhile Keith proceeded to clean my clock, catching several large shad as well as panfish, I kid you not like ten to fifteen steps away from me. Way to go Keith, I don’t know what you were doing different, but they liked it!

A short time later, Mark brought T.J, Reid, Philippe and John up to the turn and we proceeded to work our way up and down stream of the honey hole. Philippe caught, after looking at the pictures, one of the largest fish of the day, if not one of the largest I have seen of the season. We continued fishing until the sun started to get low in the sky and I did not manage another hookup. Mark shuttled us back to the rest of the group, where we found that most of the group had caught fish. There was also some talk about a close encounter with an alligator that had submerged and then re-emerged behind where they were wading… yikes! We decide to play it safe and hike out before dusk. 🙂

This was a great hike with a good group, and there are certainly a lot of fish in this section of river. We just happened to visit after a pretty significant storm system moved through, and I think that slowed down the bite some. Many thanks to Philippe for organizing the walk-in, and for cooking lunch! Thanks to Mark for the shuttles and the knowledge. Reid, John, T.J. and Anthony, it was great fishing with you again. Keith, Ray, Charlee, and Lars, it was great to meet you and I look forward to fishing with you again soon. I am looking forward to our next hike!

Here are some pictures contributed by the folks that hiked since most of mine were lost due to phone problems. Note to self, don’t depend on Google Maps to get you home, take a trail map as your phone may crap out on you! 😉

Fly fishing for Shad at 7 Palms