“John has a fish.” Mike Conneen was making an assertion. “I have two fish,” I corrected him. “How do you have two?” he wanted to know. “I hooked a redbelly and a big gar came up next to the boat and ate him!” On the 5-foot noodle rod, that big gar felt like Moby Dick.
If Stephen Foster had known about the Econlockhatchee, or Econ, the lyrics to his famous song may have been different.
The Econ doesn’t come up in discussions of great Florida fishing waters. Fishing the Econ is usually a lovely day on the water with a few beautiful fish thrown in. It can be better than that, but you really can’t expect it to be.
A blackwater stream, the Econ’s waters begin their journey in Lake Conlin, in the northern part of Osceola County. They then flow north for 54 miles through Orange and Seminole counties before spilling into the St. Johns River just south of SR 46 in Geneva, passing through extensive cypress wetlands, the Econlockhatchee River Swamp, along the way.
If you could get access to Lake Conlin (surrounded by private property), you might be able to descend the entire river.
It would be a feat comparable, say, to DeSoto’s exploration of Florida. This may a slight exaggeration, but I’ve never
heard of anyone doing it. The river at this point truly is a wild, if hemmed in, swamp, covered up by brush and blowdowns, almost dry at low water. The first practical place to start an Econ trip is the highway crossing at State Road (SR) 50 in Orlando. On the north side of the highway and west side of the river you’ll find Hidden River RV Park. You can launch your paddle craft here for a five dollar fee, which does not include a shuttle. For that you’re on your own.
You will still find blowdowns here, as well as numerous log jams. It’s an obstacle course for paddlers. The lower the water, the more numerous the carries. But the river is navigable by paddle craft, and holds the fish the Econ is known for- largemouth bass, redbellies (redbreast sunfish), and stumpknockers (spotted sunfish). You’ll also find bluegills, spotted gar, channel cats and bullheads, and the occasional crappie. However, these species are more common in the lower reaches of the stream.
You’ll hear jets, and cars, and chain saws, but you’ll also see hogs, and deer, and alligators. The river corridor is pressed on all sides by civilization, but it still remains remarkably wild. Moss-draped cypress trees grow around and in the river, adding a tropical mystique.
We’ve reached a point in our narrative where we need to divide the stream into sections. I am somewhat arbitrarily
dividing it into four pieces, defined by road crossings. We’ll call the first section, which is almost completely inaccessible, the swamp. In it is everything north of SR 50 in Orlando. Due to its inaccessibility we have little to say about it.
The upper Econ runs between SR 50 and SR 419 in Oviedo. This section is small and overgrown, with lots of blowdowns.
Deep holes provide hiding spots for fish, and all that lumber in the water provides lots of cover. Other than by paddle craft, the stream is almost inaccessible. It’s almost inaccessible to paddle craft when the water is low.
Expect to exert yourself if you make this 15-mile trip. Expect it to take all day. You’ll be going over, under, around, and through lots of blowdowns and log jams. You won’t see many other people.
The middle Econ runs from SR 419 to Snow Hill Road in Chuluota, passing through the Little Big Econ State Forest. This is the most popular section of the river for paddlers. The surrounding state lands are open to the public and hiking trails along the river give lots of fishing access to those without boats. This section runs for 10 miles. Kind paddlers with saws generally keep the blowdowns cleared through here.
Unless it’s been unusually dry, you should be able to float right through. Paddling without fishing this section takes four or five hours. A fishing rod will slow you down a lot, and fishing here can be good.
The lower section starts at Snow Hill Road and ends at the St. Johns River. If you’re paddling this section, expect a long, 18-mile trip. Lots of folks launch small motor craft at C.S. Lee Park at SR 46 in Geneva, and run their boats up the river here. This is the place for catfish if that’s your game. All the other fish species mentioned above will be found through here, too. You’ll see tilapia and Plecostomus. There is shoreline access (if you’re willing to hike or bike) through the Little Big Econ State Forest Wildlife Management Area.
There’s a water level gauge on the Econ at Snow Hill Road (see sidebar). This gauge is perhaps the most important tool a prospective fisherman has when it comes to predicting potential fishing success. My experience tells me if it reads over 2.0 fishing will likely be slow. We like the river running low and clear.
The waters of the Econ are dark with tannin and the bottom is mostly sand. I suspect that’s why there is so little rooted vegetation in the river. Most of the cover for fish here consists of lumber in its pre-cut form—trees and branches. You’ll find lots of downed trees and branches! This affects the baits and lures you use.
My preference is fly fishing. I tie all my sunfish flies on Aberdeen hooks. When I get hung on lumber I can usually
straighten this hook by gently and steadily pulling. When it bends enough, it pulls off the wood, instead of the leader breaking and losing the fly.
Those flies, as well as the bass flies, mostly float. Not only are the strikes more exciting, in the upper and middle stretches of the river you will get hung up a lot less by using surface lures. When the water level is right and the fish are on you’ll have some good days.
Anglers using conventional tackle will find crappie jigs, micro-swimbaits, Road-Runners, small spoons and spinnerbaits, and an assortment of soft plastic worms and lizards all work well. Again, the river lumber will rob you blind if you’re not prepared. Think weedless!
My friend Tammy Wilson runs the Econ with friends three or four times a year, sometimes on overnight trips, usually on the lower part of the river. She had this to say about fishing there: “Bring a short rod. Fish every piece of structure you come across. Never go without at least one topwater lure or fly.”
She went on to say, “Spinnerbaits are a must-have. Fished around downed trees they have produced more and larger bass than any other lure during all of our fishing trips there. Gold spoon and natural or white skirts seem to be the best, in the smallest size they make them.
And finally, “And never underestimate the power of a worm on a No. 6 hook with a little split shot about a foot up the line.”
While I’m out on the river I run into other fishermen. There are two guys who fish for catfish in the lower part of the river, using a Gheenoe. They assure me the best bait for big Econ cats is fresh chicken livers.
Other fishermen prefer freshly caught shad chunks (in season) or freshly peeled bait shrimp. Regardless of the bait, a one-half to one ounce egg sinker rig keeps it on the bottom of the hole, usually at a bend in the lower river. Speaking of shad, the confluence of the Econ with the St. Johns is a great place to fish for them. Many years they swim up the Econ, sometimes as far as the bridge at Snow Hill Road.
Striped bass, or the striper hybrids called sunshine bass, also like the lower stretch of the Econ. I catch them incidentally while fishing for shad. You can tell the difference as soon as you hook up! Anglers target them, with peeled shrimp again being a prime bait.
The Econ itself has one fishable tributary, the Little Econ. Unlike the mostly unaltered Econ proper, the Little Econ is extensively hydrologically altered, with substantial portions of the river channel canalized and interrupted by control structures. A number of canals draining various parts of the Orlando area flow into the Little Econ. So you probably won’t want to paddle here.
The pond behind the dam and the spillway below the dam at Jay Blanchard Park are popular fishing areas on the Little Econ, though. Bass, catfish, sunfish, and crappie are all caught here. If fishing is slow you can people watch, especially on weekends.
With Mike Conneen photographing the event, I hauled on that big gar as well as I could with the little crappie rod. Eventually the beast came to the surface, shook his head, and threw the now-quite-mangled sunny a long way. Big gar 1, fisherman 0.
You can find piscatorial excitement on the Econ, as well as gorgeous old-time Florida landscapes. In spite of the surrounding development the river remains as beautiful and mysterious as its tannin-stained waters. FS
Econ Water Level
As mentioned in the story, there’s a river gauge on the Econ, maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. Check water level in real time at waterdata.usgs.gov. The station ID is 02233500.
After substantial rains the Econ will rise rapidly. Drainage ditches in Wedgefield in east Orange County feed into the Econ, and lots of drainage ditches in Orlando feed the Little Econ. The river can rise 10 or 12 feet in a few days when the weather’s wet. Check the gauge before you go, or suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high water.
Launch paddle vessels at these locations:
• Hidden River RV Park, 15295 E Colonial Drive, Orlando, FL 32826 (407) 568-5346, $5 per boat, access to upper Econ;
• Little Big Econ Canoe Launch, 3801 Willingham Road, Oviedo, FL 32765, access to middle Econ;
• Little Big Econ Forest Canoe Launch, 2000 Snow Hill Road, Chuluota FL 32766, access to lower Econ.
Launch motor vessels at C.S. Lee Park, 4600 SR 46, Geneva, FL 32732, access to the lower Econ by way of the St. Johns River.
Shoreline access is available through the Little Big Econ State Forest, 1350 Snow Hill Road, Geneva, FL 32732-9054, (407) 971-3500.
If you’d like to camp along the Econ, camping permits are available through the State Forest administration. You’ll find Jay Blanchard Park on the Little Econ at 2451 N Dean Road, Orlando, FL 32817.
First published Florida Sportsman March 2016