The airboat noise is pervasive and all-too-often, it’s inescapable. But on some days there’s just the wind, a few birds, and the stares of the steers. It’s lonely, then – more lonely than anything you can remember.
The vista isn’t what you’d call spectacular: A floodplain stretches unbroken between two distant lines of trees, and somewhere in-between there’s a river. You’re looking at pastureland that’s punctuated by a series of marshy side channels and an uncertain tributary or two, and while the ambience is one of tranquility, you sense something primal about it. Maybe it’s the dark water, or the fish that lie hidden beneath? One thing for sure: the St. Johns keeps the secrets of the sea.
The river is darkly-tannic and its speed, far from rambunctious. You’ll find exceptions wherever the current buckles against sod banks or gurgles through marshes, where it occasionally braids before re-forming into larger channels. Visitors think of the upper portion as being pastoral, and it’s true that the channel meanders through farmland along much of its course. I, too, found the setting sufficiently removed from my earlier conception of a coastal river that I had difficulty making the connection. But that’s what the St. Johns is, although it lies less than 30 miles west of the Banana and Indian River systems. Interestingly, the stream hosts not only freshwater species like bass and panfish, but an intriguing saltwater interloper known as the American shad.
Shad require current to spawn, and that’s what the St. Johns provides. The system includes several large lakes, and yes, it’s true that every so often, the current in the river reverses. It all depends on rainfall amounts in different locations, and during low-water periods, the tide. That being said, Central Florida’s gentle gradient ( approximately one inch per mile) assures anglers that the current barely issues from its origins south of Melbourne and Lake Poinsett before meandering to its junction with the Atlantic, over 300 miles downstream near Jacksonville. Fresh and saltwaters mingle in the river mouth, where anadromous white, or American shad (plus a few, smaller hickory shad) gather prior to making their upstream migrations.
Shad are members of genus Alosa, which is closely-related to Brevoortia, or the true herrings. Alosae of one variety or another inhabit waters on both sides of the North Atlantic. There’s also a shad run (a different species) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, as well as one in the eastern Pacific, which takes place in coastal rivers from southern California to the Gulf of Alaska. You can thank an auspicious stocking for the latter. Meanwhile, the St. Johns is the southernmost river that American shad ascend. Scientists have ascertained that the adult fish remain in deep offshore waters until they’re ready to spawn. They then head back to their natal streams in a migration that’s similar to salmon.
But unlike salmon, they don’t always return to the river of their birth. Despite this disparity, research suggests that fish from the St. Johns and other southern streams may come from a slightly-different genetic stock than those that enter rivers further north. If proven to be true, this could account for variations in the maximum size attained by fish here in Florida, and let’s say, those of the Connecticut River system.
Around here, a four-pounder is considered a good fish, while the Connecticut River recently produced an 11 ¼-pounder. I remember something about a whopping 13-pounder that was supposedly caught somewhere in the Northeast, but if you’re interested in wives’ tales, try swallowing the belief that American shad don’t feed after entering freshwater.
For what it’s worth, that perpetuates a misconception that can be de-bunked by any St. Johns fisherman with a few minutes to spare. Try shaking a few minnows from the maw of the next shad you catch, or if you decide to keep one for the table, examine its stomach contents. The partially-digested remains of Gambusiae and other tiny baitfish testify to a process that anglers regularly witness (either knowingly or otherwise), and tend to confuse with “washing.” When shad go on the prowl it’s not uncommon to see dozens of fish feeding on top at the same time, and in the same general area. I speak from experience.
But this behavior shouldn’t be confused with “washing,” which is a part of the spawning ritual. While scientists may dispute my findings on feeding shad, who could argue that ingesting forage of one form or another lies at the root of all fly fishing, as well as any other methods of catching these fish in freshwater? If you think about it, none of this is front-page news: On the contrary, anglers have been catching shad on flies since the early 1930’s, when pioneers like Tom Loving and Joe Brooks, both of Baltimore, cut their teeth on the shad of the Chesapeake Bay region. Meanwhile, the credit for popularizing the St. Johns fishery goes to the late Charles Waterman and to a lesser degree, to a fellow named Cather, who manufactured a small trolling spoon of the same name.
Both men were catching shad on fly tackle by the early 1960’s – Cather by trolling from Lemon Bluff to Marina Isle, and Waterman, by casting from a skiff in the same general area. That was the Golden Age of St. Johns Shad Fishing: Having attended college in Central Florida, I can vouch for the popularity of “shad.derbies,” with their thousands of dollars in merchandise and prizes that were awarded at weigh-ins that rivaled today’s bass tournaments, or NASCAR events.
No that long ago, Debie Waterman explained how she and Charley eventually worked their way upstream to Puzzle Lake, where they first fished for shad from shore. History attests to the outcome, and one sod bank in particular still bears Charley’s name. Then as now, the fly fishers’ technique of choice consisted of casting a small weighted fly cross-current and allowing it to sink before retrieving it in a series of short, syncopated strips. I might add that I’ve had the pleasure of watching Charley Waterman perform that very motion.
Scientifically-speaking, shad are “broadcast-spawners” that gather along the outside river bends, or wherever the current is sufficient to scour the bottom to a depth of five or six feet. That’s usually where you’ll see fish engaging in a series of violent surface gyrations that look a lot like feeding false albacore. We locate them this way, keeping in mind that “washing” becomes more-prevalent towards dark, as well as later in the season. Incidentally, shad eggs hatch fairly high in the water column, rather than sinking directly to the bottom.
Traditional shad fishing might be a nice way to spend an afternoon, but it’s still just a form of dredging. Perhaps that’s why potential converts are lured away by the prospect of pursuing surface-striking species like bass. But please allow me to announce, once and for all, that dredging is no longer necessary. To our everlasting delight, Titusville angler, Phil Woodham and I were able to work-out a technique by which shad can be taken on top with skating flies. We developed a favorite pattern (see sidebar), but what does it represent? Well, we think something between a crustacean and a baitfish.
You might not be aware of it, but there’s a viable shrimp fishery in the St. Johns. There are also plenty of small baitfish. Just watch the marsh terns between wind gusts, or look in the lee of an anchored boat. That’s how Woodham and I made the connection. Incidentally, I shared this information with Mr. Waterman, who seemed a bit skeptical at first. But figuring that no angler doesn’t enjoy a good fish story, he encouraged me to proceed:
Imagine a glassy run, and a floating tuft of deerhair alighting gently in the afternoon light. You watch it pause momentarily before starting its cross-stream swing. So far, the technique differs little from traditional shad fishing, only this time you’re equipped with a floating line instead of a full-sink or sink-tip, and you’re using a longer leader. The fly, which you dressed with floatant, is scribbling a tiny wake in the surface film when a boil erupts, and then another, and suddenly, a three-pound “roe” shad somersaults with your fly in her mouth.
The fly line snaps tight and the fish makes a run upstream. This time there’s no hesitation. Unlike shad hooked on sub-aqueous patterns, ones that hit on top tend to stay there. What follows is give and take, and the increased chance of a break-off, but you eventually slide your quarry onto a sloping beach and admire the fruits of your labor.
By this time, Waterman was all ears.
We both understood that fishing styles were based on priorities, and although there’s some overlap, fly fishermen can generally be classified into one of two categories: The first is interested in catching a few “good” fish under demanding conditions, while the second is happy to pursue any species that’s either easy to catch, or readily-available. Tailing bonefish, or tarpon schools moving along the “outside” are examples of the first group, while bluefish, typically, are not. For reasons that will become apparent, shad may have been unjustly relegated to the province of jig merchants and egg-seekers.
It’s actually all very simple: First of all, American shad are a schooling species that become seasonally abundant during well-defined “runs.” Here in the St. Johns, that season can start as early as Christmas and extend into May (or occasionally even June). I’ve read that shad in the Delaware River spend all summer in its upper reaches, from which they return to the sea. That translates to a lot of additional spawning potential, while the St. Johns fish supposedly spawn but once. It’s ironic, although I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for it, that I’ve yet to see a shad that’s either dead or dying (other than ones that have been injured by anglers).
Due to their culinary value, shad also attract a certain amount of commercial attention. And that’s the kiss of death for any species that’s trying to establish a proper pedigree. The netters take their share and to a lesser extent, so do the spin fishermen, but I’d guess that it’s the dams and pollution that have had the greatest impact. For whatever reason, this once-prolific resource has dwindled to the point that the State of Florida imposes a 10 shad per day per person limit. Since we’re talking about a fish which is technically a saltwater species that enters freshwater rivers to spawn, the state requires that shad fishermen posses both a fresh and saltwater license.
Speaking of resources, while some anglers consider shad roe a delicacy, others disdain any contact with these “halitosis herrings” and prefer to release them unharmed. It seems antithetical that anything as mundane as a herring could possibly possess much awareness (and might deserve a little respect), yet shad are surprisingly high-strung. Released fish frequently beach themselves, or literally jump back in the boat. If there’s a point to all this, it’s that these fish might not be the mindless rabble we always thought them to be, but like all true athletes, they simply need to be challenged, which is where the skating fly comes in.
What it comes down to is that in order to be successful, anglers must create the perfect downstream swing, which in turn, requires a good pair of eyes, plus the ability to make pin-point casts and careful mends. If done correctly, the floating presentation creates an epiphany:
Simply elevating the status quo is tantamount to ushering in a whole new fishery with its own requirements, jargon, and thrills. But consider that tradition has a way of becoming quagmired, and I’ll bet that Waterman would be the first to agree. I’m only sorry that he isn’t here today to watch a shad knock his fly into orbit.
Meanwhile, who can ignore the patent absurdity of a saltwater fish rising from the depths and swimming hundreds of miles upriver in order to spew-out the stuff of future generations alongside a Central Florida cow pasture? Or the challenge of bringing that fish to hand with a floating fly?
Like Charley Waterman used to say:
“That’s what I like about you, Steve. You’re always thinkin’.”
And my answer to that would always be: “You bet I am.”
SIDEBAR: Tackle: As part and parcel of this new catechism, I prefer using a four or five-weight rod and matching floating line. If you’re new to the sport, or the fish refuse to come up, try casting a five or six-weight rig and a matching medium-fast sinking line. A short, five to six-foot leader tapered to a six-pound test is perfect for dredging, while a nine-footer of the same test is more-appropriate for skating.
Reels needn’t be elaborate. Still, there’s a certain amount of heritage involved in fishing a river with a traditional model. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to spool it with at least 100 yards of 20-pound backing.
HOW TO GET THERE: Most shad fishermen concentrate their efforts in the area between Lemon Bluff and Puzzle Lake. You’ll find boat ramps at Mullet Lake Park and alongside Highways 46 and 50.
FLIES: The Little Richard is essentially a hot pink deerhair “cigar” that’s tied with a short, salmon-colored marabou tail on a number 12 4X long shank hook. There is no hackle or flash.
Of all the classic wet fly patterns, I prefer my own. You’ll find several different recipes listed below:
The “Standards:” Hot orange thread, tail, and hackle; gold body and flash, or
Hot orange thread, tail and hackle; pearl body and flash.
The “Kryptonite:” Chartreuse thread, tail, and hackle; gold body and flash.
The “Black Fly:” Black thread, tail, and hackle; gold body, no flash.
The “Biology Bug:” Hot pink thread, tail and hackle; silver body.
All are tied with bead-chain or dumbbell eyes on the gape side of a number-six Eagle Claw (CANT FIND THE NUMBER) or Mustad 3908C hook.