St. Patrick’s Day Shad

Sportspal on mirror glass like water

What a difference a couple of weeks can make here in Florida! We went from considering hanging it up at Hatbill because the water was so low (last post,) to a time warp back to early January water levels in a flash. With the gage height back to around 5 feet at SR 50 and water temps back down into the 60’s due to torrential rain and multiple cold fronts, I fished out of Tosohatchee last Thursday and had the whole place to myself… well, almost.

Due to Spring Break, there was an increase in large tour airboats running a regular circuit, with at least 4-6 out at any given time for most of the day, but the pattern they were running tended to stay well downstream, only venturing close as they ran across Mud Lake. Outside of that I only saw 2-3 other airboats all day, and not another soul fishing, at least with a fishing pole.

Selfie while Underway

I took my time getting to the water as it was a weekday and when I arrived at 10:30am at the river at the end of the almost 6-mile-long dirt Powerline Road, there were two cars with trailers, one parked and one pulling in, both looked to be commercial cast net fishermen. Tosohatchee does not allow trailered boats to launch here, as there is not a ramp and parking is already limited, but I proceeded to watch a gentlemen unhitch his trailer, walk it with the boat (maybe a 12-footer similar to a Carolina Skiff with a 25hp) still attached down to the water’s edge, and leverage a downed telephone pole width post to roll his boat in to the water from the steep highbank. It looked difficult enough to get in the water, I am not real sure how they planned to get it out, but I loaded up my boat and minded my own business. They went one way, and I went another.

Running solo, I quickly made my way downstream of 7 Palms to a turn I had not fished before (the turn that had the dead cow on it a year or two ago,) but that had significant surface activity. Along the way I saw dozens of large alligators on the bank, and when I arrived at this turn, found four that slipped into the water, but never yielded the spot. They stuck close, popping their heads up for a look periodically as I began to fish the pool with the ultralight. I quickly caught a shad that did not put up much of a fight but looked fresh (albeit thin) when I got it to the net. I moved to the switch rod and pulled another from the same bend that did make a run on me though.

Shad in a net

Being content with even finding fish this late, I decided to move on and see if there were fish in all of the normal suspects. There were, and I was pleased to pull a fish or two (and there were plenty more to be had) from every place I stopped before moving to the next. I wanted to continue all the way to Paw Paw Mound, but as I ventured further, the alligators grew larger, and bolder in the warm weather. As I made my way past Mud Lake towards the next big pool, I counted 17 large alligators as they slipped from the bank into the water. There were a few more that stayed parked where they were, and likely several that were skittish enough to move before I saw them. Add to that the fact that the airboats were stopping along the run upstream of Paw Paw as part of their circuit, and I decided to turn back. They were stopping there each time for a reason, and I did not want to ride the wake of these big boats in the canoe. Biomass if what the Spring Breakers came to see after all, and I did not want to end up in the water there.

As I returned upstream, I stopped at a spot I have marked as “Crazy Gator Bank,” as it often has around a dozen alligators on it. It is high and dry and has a slough that feeds into it, and regularly has surface activity. Ray and I have stopped to fish it before without luck, as the river is wider here, and the activity is just out of reach of even the switch rods while fishing from bank. Based on its namesake, wading is not really a good idea here, particularly this late in the season. Instead, I anchored up the Sportspal using the anchor trolley just upstream of the slough and proceeded to catch several small warmouth before bringing a shad to hand.

It was an impressive day of fishing for this late in the season, and I would say we likely have a few more weeks left based on the numbers of fish still in the system, more heavy rains coming, and even another cold front. I plan to keep at it a while longer.

Econlockhatchee River Hike from Brumley Road

Econlockhatchee River Fishing

Just a quick post this week as I am running short on time. While I would have liked to return to Mullet Lake last Saturday for another shot at shad downstream, the weather frankly had other plans. With highs in the low to mid 40’s, an approaching “hard freeze” that night, and wind WNW at 30mph, the only place to offer any real options was the Econlockhatchee River. The Econ offers high banks and is lined with trees which provide shelter from the wind.

Not shiner on the Fly, SHAD on the Fly
This is not the “Shad” you are looking for

Ray picked me up at 9:00am and we made the drive to the Brumley Road Trailhead of the Little Big Econ State Forest. We made an easy hike to the river, headed upstream, and were fishing about an hour after setting off. We fished the Lilly Pool for a solid hour with both the switch rods and ultralights (oh shut it, ye pounders of sand,) and while there was a decent amount of surface activity, we determined definitively that activity was not shad, but shiners. How did we do that definitely? A picture is worth a thousand words. I thought you used a cast net for shiners, and while I have no problem with spinning rods, I do have to draw a line at using cast nets! Anyway, I will say it was a new species for me.

We made our way upstream to the Wives’ Pool where we spent the rest of the day. We worked the head of the pool, depth of the pool, and tail of the pool and did not find shad.

While the fishing was slow, it was completely expected with the cold front pushing through, and at the end of the day, hitting the trail with a good buddy, beats sitting on the couch any day. Add to that, this is one of the most scenic sections of the Econ River to take in, one of my absolute favorites, and how could you complain? The hike is very nice, and whether you choose the white trail or yellow trail, you will be treated to some gorgeous scenery. You may even run in to your Pastor and his wife like we did. Just make sure you are not changing out of your waders down to your skivvies like Ray was when they stroll back to the parking lot! LOL!

BTW, props to Ray for having a hot Yeti thermos of coffee in the truck when we got off the trail! After a cold day of fishing, that was a real treat! I think you should drive more often!

SR415 to Iron Bend in search of Shad

SR415 bridge on the St. Johns River

A special thanks to Todd Labellman and his brother Alex for inviting me out for a Sunday fishing/ scouting trip. We launched from Cameron Wight and found a good amount of surface activity near the power lines as the south/ southwest wind blew nutrient rich water out of Lake Jessup into the river. Unfortunately, we could not get them to take a fly (or conventional rig,) so we made a run up to the Osteen bridge at SR415 to do some dredging before making the run upstream to the Iron Bend, then fished a couple likely spots on the way back before returning to the power lines for the evening bite. I managed a sandwich sized crappie, and Todd caught a hickory shad on a full sink line, so a slow day of fishing, but a nice day exploring and fishing with Todd and his nephew Austin.

We ran into Philippe Richen and John Hawko on the water, and they reported slow fishing as well, but Phil said he did manage to land his largest hen to date, which is promising.

It’s still thin, but they are around, and you are not going to catch them sitting on the couch, so get to it!

Snowhill

Panorama on Pedestrian Bridge over Econ River near Snowhill Road

Yes, believe it or not, there are still people fishing for shad in Florida in mid-march, and there are still shad to be had. I will admit it though, its harder to get motivated as the temperatures warm and the water levels drop. After much deliberation between whether to return to Tosohatchee by boat, or to hike upstream from Snowhill with hopes of sight fishing for shad, thinking that we likely had a similar shot at catching fish at either spot, the weather forecast (highs in the mid 80’s) helped make my decision last Saturday. Ray and I decided to give Snowhill a go.

I picked up Ray at 8am and we made the quick trip to the bridge. From there we set out upstream by foot and scouted several shallow sections of river where we had either seen or caught shad in previous years. With the the gage at close to 2.0 feet, the water level was perfect, albeit a bit stained, and while the lower section of river was full of fry, we did not see cruising shad. We did see good numbers of bass and panfish though, which was a stark improvement since Ray and Todd had run in to each other on this section of river a couple of weeks prior.

Shad caught on the Econlockhatchee River near Snowhill Road

As the foot traffic increased, we decided to book it to the Double Gator Pool, a popular picnic spot, to stake our claim. There we found one nice sized alligator, around 8 feet long parked half on the beach, with its head in the water. I mentioned to Ray that it had been a while since I had actually seen two alligators in this spot, and wondered whether the big alligator had been culled. We both quickly got to work with the ultralights, covering the water from two perspectives, and two different setups. This spot offers limited space for a backcast, and while I did have my short 6 foot fiberglass 5 weight rod with me for some single Spey action, the ultralight is more efficiently used as a fish finder. Ray quickly hooked up with a nice sized red breast. Soon after Ray landed the fish, I hooked up and said we must have found the school, right as the fish jumped. To my surprise it was a nice, fresh, fat, unblemished shad caught in the depth of the pool just outside of the current.

Ray caught a shad

Five or six casts after, Ray hooked up with and jumped a nice shad, only to lose it as he reached down to grab it. We continued covering the pool, Ray on the ultralight and me making single hand Spey casts. Ray was rewarded with another nice catch on an orange grub, the bottom lure on his tandem setup. Again, this fish was a nice fresh fish, unblemished and thick.

In years past at Snowhill in March, most of the time if we found fish, they were generally at the tail end of the spawn, even to the point of emaciation, but that did not seem to be the case this day. I suspect because the Econ was low most of the early part of the season compared to the St. Johns, we did not see an early rush of fish head up river. In mid February, we got some serious rain in central Florida, and saw a very nice bump in river level and flow. As the St. Johns leveled out, this freshet was likely a beacon to later run fish, and some of them diverted up the Econ later than usual, hence the clean breeders in the river this late. Add to that, a late cold snap, and cooler evenings even in to mid March, and you have comfortable water for shad to continue doing their thing. That said, who the heck really knows, I am just documenting, so I can later scrutinize, overanalyze, and study water levels while preparing for a future season. 🙂

Of significant note, even prior to the Econ’s water level bump, Zain Khalid (FB Group member) caught a very nice shad under the Snowhill bridge on February 13th, nearly a MONTH before I would generally bother checking this section of river. So water levels, shwater levels, there are fish moving up regardless, and not just the hickories we know come up every year, but likely Americans as well. Note to self, there is still ALOT to learn, check early and check often, its close enough to the house.

It was clear that there were fish in the Double Gator Pool, but Ray and I were both on the board, so there was no reason to beat up the pool. Now that we knew there were fresh shad still in this section of river, we figured we would find them in other spots too. Its much more interesting to catch fish in different places and in different ways, than just pounding pools. While Double Gator is always a likely suspect, sight fishing it is not.

We decided to venture upstream to the Willow Pool, but hopped down to some clear water past the tail of the pool and found a small pod of fish that I have now decided to call bouncing shad, maybe 6-12 fish. I say bouncing, because these were not cruising fish, headed up or downstream where you may get to take one or two shots (at best) and then they were gone, and not holding fish, that set up stationary somewhere in a bigger school where they are comfortable waiting to spawn and you can take multiple shots at them as long as you don’t spook the school. Rather, these fish were in super shallow, clear water, well aware of our presence, moving between one small trough in a sandbar, to the next, then down to a shallow divot, then up under a log, to the outside cut, and back again in the same general area of river just 30-50 feet long. THIS is sight fishing, and frankly, it can be every bit as challenging and frustrating as targeting small pods of bonefish on a shallow flat, just in miniature. I made about a dozen decent presentations with long leaders/ tippets and small Partridge and Peacocks and could not get them to eat. I did manage to pick up a small bass and red belly though. Of note, the head of the Willow Pool is not what it used to be. While the outside trough is still there, the current was not as swift, and the bottom was dark. Downed trees have likely changed the bottom structure and the current, clear water, and sand bottom are now at the tail of the pool.

clear water on the Econ River

We continued upstream to check out the second turn below the footbridge, and along the way I spotted two very nice sized bass holding so we jumped down to the river. Ray took some shots at the bass and about the same time, I saw another group of 15-20 shad. These fish seemed to be cruising, and while I took a few shots, I did not have any takers. As we worked upstream we found another group about the same size, and just as unwilling to eat. We did arrive at the second turn, only to find a lot of downed trees, making the bend that Luc Desjarlais considered one of the best on this section of river in his book, essentially unfishable. Similar to the Willow Pool, the tail of the pool has nice current and clear sand bottom which would normally be worth checking out, but there was a couple having a picnic on the outside bank and we decided to give them room.

We made it to the footbridge, had a quick lunch and began fishing, only to be interrupted by a group of noob paddlers that put in at 419. The racket, the complaining, the need for a break… completely miserable with being outdoors, all landed essentially at our feet, as one of the canoes tipped while trying to land on the sandy beach where we were fishing. Uuuuuhhgh, Ray and I never even looked at each other, but both in just about unison wound the reels, packed it up, gave a few words of encouragement to the paddlers and set out down steam.

two alligators on white sand beach at double gator pool

We returned to the Double Gator pool to take some final shots and this time found the big boy parked high and dry up on the beach. Ray took a high perch up on the bluff and could clearly see shad coming to the surface just outside of my swing. With both gators clearly visible and Ray spotting, I got brave and waded in to get to a small spit of submerged sand where I could take some shots in to the strike zone. I made a few good presentations before a couple of hikers arrived just down stream of us, and the gal decided to randomly cannonball in to the river for a dip… Uuuuuhhgh. This spooked the female gator directly across from me, and she slipped in to the water and quickly made a direct beeline at me. I twinkle-toed my fat butt out of the water, back on to dry land, and called it a day.

We found shad at Snowhill, and even got to take some pretty solid shots sight fishing for them. SIGHT FISHING… for shad! I mean come on, even to just have the opportunity to do that is so frickin’ cool! We both caught shad, and multiple other species, while many others hung it up weeks ago. In all, that is a pretty solid day in my book!

Hike to Paw Paw Mound

St. Johns River panorama with Paw Paw Mound in the Distance

Last weekend I ended up hiking to Paw Paw Mound with Ray. I say ended up because that was not part of the original plan. While I had originally contemplated Paw Paw, with temperatures forecasted to be in the high 80’s, I was not real thrilled about the idea of having to cross sloughs that were a bit deeper than average for this time of year. With the recent rain the gage height at SR50 bumped to 4.6 feet, and with the heat, we knew alligators would be active.

After looking at Google Earth, I co-conspired with Ray during the week to maybe do some exploring of a section of river not easily accessed from either launching at the power lines, SR50 or 520. This section of river is near 528, and while Luc Desjarlais does offer up a potential access by way of Old Road Trail in his book, the wooden foot bridge to cross the canal has washed away since its writing. Crossing the canal the wet way, did not sound appealing with potential gator activity.

Instead Ray and decided we wanted to give the Main- Back trail a shot, which looked to be around a mile hike to the river, and from there we would be high and dry, and would either see if we could find fish in the west channel, or find a shallow spot to cross and try the east section. Additionally we could walk upstream to potentially access the section of river that Old Road Trail previously provided access to.

As they say, the best laid plans of mouse and men often go awry. After picking Ray up at 7am, stopping for provisions, making the 45 minute drive to the gate, navigating around a running club that was entering the gate as well, and then driving another 20 minutes on the dirt roads within Tosohatchee, we arrived at the Main-Back trailhead only to find it completely flooded all the way to the road from the recent rains. Crap!

After contemplating an upstream hike to fish the first couple of bends from Powerline Road which both of us had already fished this year, we decided instead to drive to the Canaveral Marshes trailhead and hike to Paw Paw mound, something new for both of us.

Helicopter Pads
Helicopter pads

We decided to take the trail that heads west off of the southbound service road to make the hike. This takes you right past the helicopter training area, so if hiking during the week, you may get to see them train up close and personal. After making it to the end of the road, we found a fence, which you can unlatch and enter. You then follow the fence line until you reach the pasture and you are rewarded with gorgeous panoramic views. You can basically see all the way to 50 in one direction, and all the way to Paw Paw mound in the other direction.

While taking the trail west does add an extra half mile to get to Paw Paw compared to taking the southbound trail and then following the water line northwest, the extra distance is worth it because it is basically high and dry and an easy hike (at least when the gage is under 5 feet.) We suspect that it may be very doable above 5 feet, but accessing the water you want to fish might be difficult because the sloughs you would need to cross would be at best guess, thigh to waist deep. Doable, but only on a cold day.

When we arrived at Paw Paw mound, we were surprised to find some guys already there. Louis, Jeremy and Oakley were doing some exploring and recording videos for the 21st Century Expeditionist and Wild Florida Facebook groups. They showed us some ancient pottery shards and a couple of fossils. Very cool, and super nice guys!

Selfie in front of Paw Paw Mound
Paw Paw Mound

After studying the water around us, and a quick call to Todd for advice, Ray and I found a shallow area to cross the sloughs to gain access to the edge of the shoreline accessing the straight main channel run. This shoreline was just barely above the waterline, but the sloughs were no more than about shin to knee deep where we crossed. Here we found awesome current and some depth, along with numerous large alligators in the water. I fished the single hander (for the first real time of the season) and Ray threw the switch. I worked downstream, casting, swinging the fly, and moving 5 steps at a time, considering whether I would be willing to cross the wider area of the slough to get back to dry land. About that time I noticed two heads between me and shore, and decided not to proceed further downstream, but rather head back to where Ray was fishing. After about an hour or so of fishing, we were pretty convinced the shad were not there, likely falling back in to deeper pools as the water warmed.

The airboats had gathered at Paw Paw by the time we walked back. We decided to eat some lunch and drink a beer. We contemplated making our way down to 7 Palms, and as the airboats left in that general direction, we decided to see what the hiking conditions were like heading that way, knowing we could pick up the main trail, rather than make our way back the way we had originally come.

The hike in this direction was still fairly muddy, although not terrible. Your natural inclination was to hug the high grass, but with the streams running through it, that was just muddier and buggier. Sticking to the shoreline was actually better. As we reached the junction, and with another half mile hike ahead of us to get to the shelter, we decided we had had enough of the 88 degree heat, and didn’t want to go fish with all the airboats at 7 Palms. Instead we made the two mile hike back to the car, and enjoyed a frosty beverage.

In all, we covered around 6 miles. I am not sure I would do it again in the heat, but I will definitely do it again in the future, just a little bit earlier in the season when there should be more fish hanging around. I could see this run being every bit as good as the main run in front of 7 Palms, you just have to catch it at the right time.

map of hike to Paw Paw Mound