December Shad Fishing Report

Panorama of high water on the St. Jons River near the mouth of the Econ River

I have said it before, and I will say it again… December shad fishing, is generally a crap shoot and this year is no different. Todd and I decided to meet up at C.S. Lee around 9:30, but with both of us running late, did not hit the water until after 10:00. Being late actually worked out okay because it allowed the dense fog to melt off, but by the time we were ready, the temperature was already in the mid 70’s. With water temperature around 65 degrees, we both decided we would wet wade, as the expected high was in the low to mid 80’s for the day.

We made our way to the creek mouths just upstream of the SR 46 bridge. With the gauge height around the 5.4 feet mark, we found the wading here to be in the knee to thigh high area. The pasture is still basically under water which we expected would likely mean the bass and panfish would be spread out, and not there for the taking in the river. We spent an hour or so casting the switch rods, swinging flies with the hopes of finding shad. With the high water and decent current, I found the 10 foot T3 Tip matched with a 5/32 hourglass weighted fly was not bumping bottom. I switched tips to a T8 and found I had a nice bouncey presentation. Unfortunately there were no takers so we decided to head on up towards the Econ.

In years prior to my utter and total consumption with fly fishing for shad with a switch rod, I often carried an ultralight spinning outfit with me, mainly to use when the wind picked up to levels that made single hand casting uncomfortable. With a switch rod rigged with a Skagit head, I found myself less put off by wind, so I would generally never pick up the ultralight and it just lived in the hold of my kayak, eventually being demoted to a dusty corner in my garage. Remembering that it once served me well, I decided to include it again, at least in the early part of this season. While I of course much prefer fishing for, and catching shad on the fly, in high water years, a spinning rod adds the option of trolling for fish as you make way from one spot to another. If you find shad while trolling, there are likely more to be caught, so you can find an area to wade near where you hooked up, and hop out and start swinging flies.

I rigged up the ultralight with a tandem rig, a pink and white Roadrunner with silver spoon as the lead lure, and a red and white shad dart trailing behind, and set out on a slow troll with the Hobie on the way up to the Econ. I took my time and zig-zagged up river, covering as much water as I could until I reached the mouth of the Econ. No takers! Not a shad, not a striper/ hybrid, not a bass, not even a humble panfish. Not a good sign!

Todd and I found good current and swung flies near the mouth of the Econ for another hour and a half, thoroughly working the area at different depths using different tips, weights of flies and retrieval methods, and again found no takers. I received a call from Philippe and found that he and John had similar luck launching from Cameron Wight, and working the area near Lake Jessup, with hopes of finding shad hanging where the South wind pushed nutrient rich water from the lake in to the river. Phil had picked up a crappie, but reported slow fishing beyond that.

Hickory shad caught in a kayak

After a quick sandwich and a frosty beverage, I decided to take the kayak and anchor up in the channel near the east bank. While I much prefer to wade and move around versus fishing from the kayak, when the water is high, an anchor trolly and anchor can be advantageous. I started casting the ultralight and working the area. Around 2:00, a slight south/southwest breeze picked up, creating a subtle ripple on the water, which had been glassy all day. There were large gar rolling all around me, and desperate to get the skunk off me, I made a cast near a swirl a gar had made and began retrieving the tandem rig, with a quick, jerky retrieve and hooked up with a fish. I thought maybe I caught a hybrid bass as it jumped once or twice, but when I got it to the kayak, I found a tiny shad in miniature, a hickory no more than maybe 12 inches. Unfortunately I lost the fish before snapping a picture. I caught the fish in the upper water column, as opposed to the bottom third I had been fishing prior to making the cast to the gar.

I continued fishing the upper water column and quickly caught another fish (pictured here.) Both fish took the lead jig, the pink and white roadrunner. After getting a picture and returning the fish to the water, I moved to the switch rod, switched tips to an intermediate sink, and tied on a beadchain weighted white shad dart. I had not rigged my single hand rod today, expecting to focus on two hand casting, so I began working the area with the fly, making snap- T casts with the two handed rod while seated in the kayak, not ideal, but possible. I tried to emulate the retrieve I was using on the ultralight, with the fly, but did not crack the code. I likely could have caught several more fish using the ultralight, but the allure of catching one on the fly outweighed my desire to catch another on the spinning outfit. The breeze died down, the river became like glass, and everything shut down once again. Eventually I did switch back to the spinning rod and never hooked up with another fish. The breeze seemed to be what turned the fish on.

December shad fishing is difficult, but you can catch them. For me, it required dusting off an old standby, and making some compromise. While I wanted to swing flies, a Roadrunner, worked through the upper part of the water column, while anchored up in the channel is what was required. At the end of the day, a December Shad is a December Shad, and I will take it!

New Years Eve Shad Fishing

Creek mouth near the SR46 bridge on the St. Johns River

My buddy Todd and I made one final attempt to land a December shad in 2016 and did some New Year’s Eve shad fishing. We launched from C.S. Lee and fished each of the creeks on the way to the mouth of the Econ River. The water is low and the wading is fantastic. That said, beware of deep holes where water converges. I found myself chest high on one occasion when I slipped on the slick mud underwater in to an unseen hole and filled the boots on my chest waders.

The water discharge was minimal in the morning and we found it difficult to even swing a fly with T3 tips on the switch rods. I switched to an intermediate tip and then eventually a floating tip to even get some semblance of a swing downstream. I am pretty sure it is time to put the sink tips and maybe even the hourglass eye flies away for good this run. Quartering downstream and animated retrieves will likely be the tactic for this run.

We fished the creeks for an hour or two without any luck and made our way upstream to the Econ. The wind did finally pick up from the south southwest which pushed the water downstream and we were able to swing some flies there. We fished both the east and west banks for multiple hours without a bite. Fish were breaking surface near the mouth of the Econ, but I suspect they were bass or crappie. I never saw the tell tale silver of shad washing. The fishing was painfully slow and I even tried throwing a gurgler to try and grab a bass at one point. No luck.

Cold beer kept us happy as we made our way downstream to work several areas of the river we skipped on the way up. We found good current and crackle bottom which are both ideal, but no shad. We both finally got the skunk off of us late in the day with Todd landing a nice keeper crappie and me landing a largemouth that put a serious bend in the 6 weight switch rod while it performed acrobatics.

The reports have started to trickle in of shad being caught upstream of SR 46. However, it still seems pretty sporadic and I will likely skip a week before heading out again. Happy New Year and may 2017 be filled with shad on the fly!

Something of note, in addition to the lack of current in lieu of a south wind, I noticed the river was muddier than usual, and seeing your fly even four to six inches under the water was difficult even with polarized glasses. As you can see in the picture above, the cut banks we have missed for the last couple of high water years are starting to expose themselves and as boats fly by, the mud of course travels downstream. This will likely subside some as the pasture dries out and firms up, but you may want to keep it in consideration when choosing flies in the early part of the season. While I am generally not a chartreuse guy, I do remember having success with them in low water years versus high water years. I will be tying some up, and will likely jump from a size 6 to a size 4 for the early part of the season, but at the end of the day, who knows? 🙂

First Shad of the Season – 2016

First Shad caught on a fly of the Season- 2016

Intent on getting my first shad of the season, I dropped the kayak in at CS Lee this morning… a little later than I intended. A mild ear ache/ blockage left me irrigating my ear when I should have been packing up. I put my feet in the water around 9:30am and was quickly greeted with 20mph wind… not a good sign. I decided to fish the creek mouths and make my way upstream to the Econ River to see if I could find any shad. The wind was blowing from the south, and the current on the St. Johns River picks up with a south wind, so this was going to get interesting.

I received an awesome 7ft, 5wt fiberglass fly rod as a present for Christmas this year and I was itching to fish with it. I paired the rod with a 5wt Wulff Ambush Fly Line but with the wind, this was not the optimal choice on this day. I quickly shed the 5wt single hand rod for my 6wt switch rod, which was rigged with a Skagit head, an intermediate tip and 5/32 hourglass fly. The current was too brisk at my first spot for this setup, so a switched tips to a T8. I was getting down to the bottom (odd muscle here and there) but did not hook up with a shad. I fished each of my favorite creek mouths for 30 minutes or so a piece with a heavy tip and fly, but did not hook up.

Tan and Gold Crazy Charlie Fly for Shad
Shad Fishing on the St. Johns River

I continued upstream on the St. Johns River and got a real workout as the wind blew the water downstream at an accelerated rate. I arrived at the mouth of the Econ around 11:30am and found a fellow kayaker along with a gent on a flats boat. I fished the switch and the 5wt for another hour without much luck. I noticed panfish and bass hitting bait near top water and decided to switch tactics. If shad were not there, I at least needed to get the skunk off of me. I threw a popper-dropper for a while with the 5wt and hooked up several times and noticed fish were regurgitating little silver minnows with black tails. The bait were only the size of the last knuckle on your pinky.

I moved downstream where I noticed fish breaking surface. The wind died down so I decided to attach a floating tip to the switch rod and tied on a #6 Crazy Charlie with a tan wing and gold flash, which seemed a good match in size and weight to the small bait fish I saw fish feeding on. I fished the fly just subsurface and had terrific success and nonstop action from about 2:00pm to 4:00pm. I caught bluegill, bass, redbreast, gar, crappie and finally a hickory shad, the first shad of the season. I later switched to the 5wt fiberglass rod again and hooked up with a shad only to lose it. However, I ended up landing one on the new fiberglass rod shortly after. I ended up landing 40+ fish today (albeit most of them small,) which is a real win in my book in an el Niño December.

Here is a video from later in the day…

Weather Conditions for the day can be found HERE.

Shad Fishing in Florida- December Anticipation

Shad Fishing in Florida on the St. Johns River

Shad fishing in Florida in December is a crap shoot. Depending on the year, shad can start to show up in good numbers in the upper St. Johns River around mid December. This year is not one of those years. I guess we can blame El Nino, but, I had to try… the anticipation is killing me. 🙂

I decided to fish just upstream of the 46 bridge to see if I could find any fish. I spent about an hour there swinging Hayden Shad Flies and Kip Tailed Clousers without any luck. I moved upstream to fish some creek mouths for an hour and did not hook up there either. Rather than heading up to the mouth of the Econ River, I decided to head downstream towards Lake Harney to fish the deep outside bends of the turns, figuring maybe there were shad holding in the deep, cooler water. I did that for about another 3 hours. No luck.

While the water temperature is starting to dip below 70, outside temperatures are still hovering in the low 80’s to high 70’s. I think we still have another month before the shad make it to the upper sections of the river where we like to fly fish from bank or wade in to the water and toss flashy shad fly patterns.

The water level and the discharge rate seemed like it was on the lower side of average for this time of year. Some of the turns that I like to fish early in the season on the way downstream to Lake Harney were so slow you could barely swing an intermediate sink tip and 5/32 hourglass weighted fly. It may be a year to put the sink tips away and swing bead chain versus heavy weighted flies. A lot can happen in a month when it comes to shad fishing, so time will tell. When I got home, I swapped out my 10 foot sink tip line for a floating line with a 5 foot polyleader attached. That will at least give me the option of removing the polyleader on the water if it is not needed. IF we get a bunch of rain in the next couple of weeks, I may reverse course.

I might make one more December shad fishing trip, but will most likely try further downstream near Lemon Bluff. Patience is a virtue. 🙂

If you look closely in the photo above, you can see a flock of white pelicans flying in the distance. This is a tell-tale sign for me that the shad are not far. I believe the white pelicans may have been overnighting near the upper St. Johns, but were moving downstream during the day. This is why I will most likely try fishing the Shad Alley area next shad fishing trip.