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The Prodigals of Puzzle Lake

Light rods, sinking lines and colorful flies are the tools of the trade.

When travelers quit the interstate at Highway 46, they trade vistas of pine and scrub palmetto for a look at the open range. Pretty soon, they'll cross a plain where a river braids into a marsh, and later when they look north from the bridge, they'll see where it widens into a lake. It's all very puzzling, except to the fish.

    The St. Johns River forms a labyrinth at Puzzle Lake. Close to the road, the current flows deliberately but farther downstream, it loses itself again in blind alleys. Only one thing's certain: The tea-brown current doesn't confuse schools of returning American shad. As a result, fly fishing can be totally straightforward.

    Once you've seen other rivers, the St. Johns might look a little tame. The setting's pastoral, and while the current is discernible, in other, wider reaches it seems to practically stand still. Despite appearances, it never stops and below Puzzle Lake, it winds its way north between sod banks and moss-draped cypresses until it finds the Atlantic near Jacksonville. Anglers downriver cast to striped and sunshine bass as well as native largemouths, while those above Lake Harney fish for even-larger lunker bass and several varieties of panfish. The stretch below Puzzle Lake captures Central Florida at its best, with fishing that proceeds at a drawl's pace until fly fishers gather to intercept the ocean migrants.

    Winters heat up whenever schools of American shad enter the St. Johns from the Atlantic. This occurs any time between January first and the middle of February, whenever water temperatures reach the 60-degree mark. Reduced commercial fishing pressure downstream along with low water levels and proper water temperature can trigger banner runs. But, since dates aren't etched in stone, shad clairvoyants still mark their calendars in pencil.

    By early March, the run's in full swing. Thousands of shad swarm upstream on their way to spawning. After mid-April, the action dies. Since the shad don't survive here like they do in northern rivers, there's no holdover fishing. Everyone reluctantly reels-up to wait for next year's show.

    St. Johns shad fishing isn't new. Years ago, the locals filled their coolers by trolling the bends. Merchants sponsored shad derbies, where top catches earned lavish prizes. But over the years, enthusiasm waned and the shad fishing drifted downstream in the wake of one of Florida's greatest outdoor enigmas.

    Now, thanks to fly fishing, these silvery fish are making a comeback. Because of innovators like Charley Waterman and the late Ray Donnersberger, shadding is once again a popular pasttime. Still, shad fishing focuses on a world of improbabilities. A popular myth concerns banker's hours.

    I remember fishing early one morning when I'd been warned that shad wouldn't bite. Actually, I'd been told the story more than once and besides, it was cold and foggy. I was excited and couldn't sleep, so I decided to go. When I arrived, the river was so steamy that I couldn't wear my glasses. The fog formed a wall and I had to kneel on wet metal to follow the channel. But eventually I found the fence.

    The air was damp and deathly still and I remember slipping while struggling onto the bank. As I pulled myself up, all I could hear was the gurgle of the current. It was only eight but I was soaked with oily mud. Anyway, I was rigged so I started casting.

    I hooked a shad on my very first cast and the pace never let up. By the time the mist finally burned off, the fish had trashed so many orange-and-silver flies that I ran out. I actually had to quit. I guess if there's a moral in this, it's to fish for shad whenever you, and not the experts, feel like doing it.

    The St. Johns hosts the Atlantic's southernmost run of American, or white, shad. According to statistics, anglers fishing the stretch just downstream from Puzzle Lake enjoy the best of it. The small males arrive first, followed by the larger hens.

    Along with the river and its schools of feisty, 1- to 4-pound shad, the surrounding banks deserve a look.

    History abounds here. Mounds conjure visions of primitive cultures while nearby Geneva bills itself as the second oldest city in the U.S. Osceola and the Conquistadors passed through the region, and although it's only slightly removed from Indian River Lagoon and the NASA launch facility at Cape Canaveral, it still looks like dinosaur turf. Nearly everything is lush and prehistoric-looking, like a Jurassic meadow, but the black oily river mud might just as well have come from a garage.

    Fortunately, these sod banks are walkable during low water and as shad schools surge upstream, fly fishermen gather there to meet them. If it hasn't rained, the river current concentrates into narrow channels where shad and shad fishermen are practically eye-to-eye. It's ironic, but St. Johns shad make the long run to Puzzle during periods of extreme drought rather than during high water. For anglers at least, the fishing's less-puzzling when the water drops and the current is easier to see.

    When the water is high and Puzzle floods, the river fishes better downstream. Trollers head north to locations like Lemon Bluff and Mullet Lake because they realize that shad are broadcast spawners and are more interested in finding current than in returning to exact locations like salmon. Then, once anglers find the run, they look for washes.

    Washing offers a visual indication of spawning shad. Anglers may think it resembles a splashy surface strike, but spawning shad are too preoccupied to feed. While some individuals in the school may continue to strike flies, others have lost interest. An increase in the number of washes, which occurs in the afternoon, signals a halt to the fishing. Peak surface activity usually commences between four and five o' clock, when anglers have had enough. Still, the sight of washing shad teases them with possibilities for tomorrow's fishing.

    For fly fishermen, that can mean wading. The middle St. John's doesn't brawl or brake for dams, and although channels may disappear and the current may wind, the river remains predictable. Of course, fishermen should know the depth of the water where they intend to wade but except for the occasional stingray, there's no need for white knuckles. The mood is languid. Leisurely casting sets the pace for anglers who marvel at the incongruity of taking ocean migrants from a sleepy marsh filled with snipe and ibises.

    The shad themselves are anadromous and ascend rivers only to spawn and die. Despite studies, little is known of their life histories, except that some authorities believe they spend their adult lives at great depths off the continental shelf. Unlike anadromous trout and salmon, they don't respond to specific homing mechanisms, so a fish born in one river sometimes ascends another to spawn. And like salmon, migrating shad aren't supposed to strike. But fortunately for us, Florida's shad can't read.

    After entering the river, the shad disappear. They show up again in anglers' boats at Mullet Lake or Lemon Bluff, but they'll soon arrive at the Puzzle Lake stretch where anglers fish on foot. If Puzzle isn't classic fly water, it at least lets anglers probe the pools with ease. Knowing where to fish is easy, once you understand the banks.

    High, steep banks indicate channels where the current has swept the bottom. Look for them on the outside of bends. Since shad hold in these nearshore channels, bank fishermen can cast to endless processions of migrating fish. Trollers find fish too, and may have the advantage, but below Puzzle lake, the shore casters do most of the catching.

    Although they fish from shore, Puzzle Lake shadders use boats to reach the fishing. Walk-ins are impractical, due to distances and terrain, but small skiffs can easily reach the action. Then when they arrive at a likely-looking spot, anglers beach their skiffs and cast from the bank. Once on land, anglers make it a point to steer clear of grazing cattle. Passing trollers are accustomed to seeing casters and cattle sharing the sod in a state of agreeable d‚tente. Usually, relations remain peaceful since on the banks, neither is pressed for room.

    Shad schools move upstream, so angler mobility is important. A skiff with gas motor helps in finding concentrations. Boaters access the region from the public launch facility next to the Highway 46 Bridge, while landlubbers can rent skiffs at the Two Rivers Fish Camp, practically next door.

    First-timers should proceed slowly. Navigational knowledge is important, especially if you're headed toward Puzzle Lake. Unmarked channels braid hopelessly and the landscape becomes confusing. When you see the lake, you'll understand. Occasionally, someone comes down and marks the banks, but there's no schedule. It's advisable to proceed in the wakes of knowledgeable riverfolk, noting banks and sandbars for the ride home.

    Upstream from Highway 46, the ambiance downshifts from rural to remote. The farther south you go toward Puzzle, the more the surrounding wilderness closes in. As you continue, you'll see flocks of white pelicans and ibises, and bald eagles soaring overhead.

    First, you'll turn a few times and work your way through a slough, but you'll stay in the main current, and finally you'll pass the second fence. Now you're in shad country.

    Since there's more shad fishing upstream, you can continue, but don't go too far. If you do, you'll see the banks disappear into what looks more like a marsh than a river channel. You've finally reached Puzzle Lake, and you'll understand the metaphor. Incidentally, you'll know you've reached Puzzle when you don't think you're lost but nobody knows exactly where you are. There's not much shad fishing in the lake itself, but fish are caught occasionally. At this point, shad yield to the bass.

    When they say "Puzzle," most anglers refer to the water between the actual lake, if you can find it, and the big bridge back at 46. The weedy throat of the lake itself is a popular shad hotspot. The banks are lined with cattails, so fly fishers either cast from their boats or wade. There's good bass fishing too, if anybody cares. Anglers look for splashes near shore that signify bass, or washes in the heavy current that identify shad.

    Geographically, Puzzle Lake marks the southernmost outpost of reliable shadding. Presumably, shad schools continue beyond the lake on their spawning migration, but as the river twists its way southward, both current and the runs seem to dissipate. Maybe they've fanned-out and become lost in Puzzle's backwaters? Shad occasionally make it all the way to the Highway 50 bridge west of Cocoa but "occasion" doesn't justify an expedition.

    Selecting tackle for St. John's shad is easy. Generally, any rod that carries a medium-weight, medium-density sinking fly line will do. Medium-light, 9-foot rods in the 5- to 7-weight category are about right. You won't need a lot of rod for shad, but casting sinking lines in the wind can be dicey on limp gear.

A set-up needn't be fancy and choosing a rod and reel should be based on comfort rather than complexity. You'll be casting a lot and extra ounces mount up, so go light but powerful. Expensive reels aren't required; shad are much too nice to destroy tackle.

    Shad flies are small, usually tied on No. 6 or 8 hooks, and don't require additional weighting if fished on sink-tip or full-sinking lines. Most patterns are combinations of brightly colored yarns and Mylar, with a few turns of hackle--attractors that don't represent anything in particular.

    Short, 5- or 6-foot leaders tapering to 6-pound test complete the set-up. They'll also be right for the occasional oddities that grab shad flies near Puzzle Lake--such as huge longnose gars, some topping 20 pounds, as well as large channel catfish and game species like largemouth and sunshine bass, and even true stripers.

    Tom was fishing the sod banks for the first time, and as happens during introductions, he hadn't had a strike. Then I heard him yell. I saw his rod bending and by the time I reached him, realized that a good fish had run into his backing.

    "Big hen," I offered.

    "Wow," he answered.

    Five minutes later, the largest sunshine bass (striper/white bass hybrid) I'd ever seen lay gasping in the net. It was the fish of a lifetime but I'd forgotten my camera.

"These shad really fight when they get big." He was grinning from ear to ear.

    "Yeah," I mumbled weakly.

    Sometimes, anglers are startled by the truly unexpected. For example, saltwater strays like needlefish, mullet and even stingrays occasionally show up below Puzzle Lake. Needlefish grab flies, making them an occasional nuisance, but the stingray menace is far worse. Small rays are encountered often enough in the St. Johns that anglers are advised to shuffle their feet while wading.

    There's nothing fancy about fly fishing for shad. Essentially, a sunken fly is allowed to swing across the noses of deeply holding, non-feeding fish until one gets angry enough to sock it. Some anglers quarter their flies downstream and simply let them swim.

    I'm impatient, so I toss mine slightly upstream in order to gain extra sink-time, then when the fly swings, I retrieve with a series of irregularly timed 4-inch strips. I expect strikes anytime the fly is below me, including while it's waiting to be picked up. For some reason, I've never had a strike while retrieving with the current, but I figure that whenever I've cast cross-current and my fly line straightens below me, I'm fishing.

    I did this for the first time 20 years ago and a shad that didn't care a lick about technique grabbed hold. I was using an old cane rod, a limber beauty that bowed to every lunge. I knelt on the sod and reached out but it took a full five minutes to get her in my hand. Honest.

    After releasing the fish, I saw the blood dripping from my palm. I remembered the fish's sharp keel and Charley Waterman's prophetic "Steve, I think I'd rather grab a barracoooda than a shad."

    When I got home, I bought a net.

    In the past, anglers pursued St. Johns shad by trolling jigs or spoons on conventional gear. Fishing was good if uneventful, and for a while, it drew large crowds. But in time, the fever subsided. Perhaps diminishing runs, or maybe just the unambitious style of fishing turned attentions elsewhere and over the years, shad fishing's popularity waned.

    But new life has returned, thanks to fly fishermen. Modern fly clubs hold outings on the banks, the runs are back, and shadding's more fun than ever. In a way, things have changed but in deference to everyone who enjoys fishing for the American shad, this time it's even better. Unlike its enjoyable but less-rewarding antecedent, it's become a game of skill. And it's the most enjoyable stream fishing enigma in Florida.


    Think about it, the marvelous irony of a fish making its way inland for hundreds of miles after leaving the farthest ocean depths, only to be caught in a Central Florida cow pasture. And on a fly, no less.

Roe Recipe

    Shad roe's a lot like beef liver--whenever somebody says they don't like it, I tell them that's because they haven't had it my way. Anyway, Easterners consider shad roe a delicacy and have been thinking that way ever since colonial times. So if you decide to keep a large roe shad, fry up a little bit of history and enjoy.

    Start by rinsing two unbroken skeins of yellow roe, allowing them to dry on paper towels. Next, melt two sticks of butter in a sauce pan at very low heat (cardiac patients need read no further). When you bring the butter to a low boil, add the skeins. Fry a rasher of bacon and put aside to drain. Reduce heat and allow the hot grease to remain in the skillet. (Adding a new dimension to the BIG ONE). Chop an onion. After the skeins have been saut‚ed for 45 minutes, they should turn a darker color. Carefully lift them from the butter and slowly lower them into the hot bacon fat. Brown the skeins on both sides, pushing down with a spatula until a crust appears. Remove the skeins and drain on a paper towel before serving with chopped onion, parsley, and fresh lemon juice. Bon shaddy!

Piece the Puzzle Together

    To get to Puzzle Lake, take Highway 46 (Sanford/Mims exit) west from Interstate 95, and follow the signs toward Sanford. The Forty-six exit is five or six miles north of Titusville. There are plenty of boat ramps along the St. Johns, and they're usually situated near major recreational areas. I shy away from group recreation, so I prefer the no-frills public facility on the northwest corner of the Forty-six bridge. And then, there's the boat livery next door. Don't worry, you won't get lost. There's nothing else here. Buy lunch in Titusville or bring it with you.

    Any standard shad pattern works here. I like orange or chartreuse flies tied on strong unweighted 3X nickel- or gold-plated hooks. I'm not trying to complicate things. Tinfoil wrapped around a hook would probably do. Medium fast-sinking lines (3 to 4 inches per second) are best, but some prefer the old 10-foot sink-tips. Five-weight rods and 6-pound leaders do double duty for shad or bass.

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