January 01, 2002
North Florida flyfishers gear up for midwinter catch-and-release trout action.
When I saw this Panhandle river in February I couldn't believe it. In mid-January a month earlier it had been wall-to-wall fishermen. Thanks to cold weather, schools of seatrout had moved well upriver and were holding in the deep holes. The local launching ramp was clogged with boats, trailers, and anglers anxious to get into the river after fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation people didn't bother to launch a boat. They just watched the action from shore, often with binoculars. No need for a boat when almost everyone came and went through this launching ramp.
Now, on a mid-February weekday, with trout season closed for the month, there wasn't a boat or an angler to be seen anywhere on the river. Not even the Fish and Wildlife people were in evidence. Though George, the local boat-launch helper who collected his usual $3 launch fee, was there ready to do his job, he might as well have gone home because it looked like a long, cold, lonely day for him.
Other than that nothing else had changed. The river was still as clear as it was a month ago. The weather was still almost as chilly as it was in January, but maybe not quite so icy. And the seatrout were said to be somewhere in the river, though probably not hugging their warm, deep holes quite so tightly.
The best part was we were going fishing on a river we had entirely to ourselves. As I climbed aboard Capt. Randle Leger's 20-foot boat and shook hands with fellow angler Tony Cox, I commented that it felt strange being the only anglers out. Leger and Cox are both members of Tallahasee's Florida Big Bend Flyfishers Inc. Club.
"Yeah, and ain't it nice?" grinned Randle as he shoved us off from the dock and used his electric motor to ease us out into the slow flow of Panhandle Florida's Aucilla River. "I sure miss all those meat fishermen from Georgia and Alabama!"
Randle had that right. Since trout fishing was closed for the month of February most anglers probably figured what the heck, why bother when you can't even keep the trout you catch. Yet some anglers look forward to this moratorium on trout and wish it took place in December and January so that more trout would survive the winter onslaught. These anglers don't keep their catch. They fish for the fun of it, glad to be able to release fish so they can be caught and fought another day.
Most of these anglers make sure that releasing their fish is as trouble free as possible. Hook barbs are flattened to make unhooking easier. Fish are seldom touched or removed from the water. A grip on the fly with long-nosed pliers or hemostats, a flick of the wrist and it's done.
To tell the truth it never occurred to me to go trout fishing during the closed season. Somehow it seemed illegal. I thought sure as heck once I got out there some Fish and Wildlife officer would target me quickly for molesting fish that it were illegal to keep. Talk about paranoia. Forget the fact that someone might be out there that month fishing for fish other than trout!
I made some such comment a year or so earlier to Lester Walker, Jr., whose Aucilla River filling station/tackle shop is headquarters for fishermen in this area. His response was quick and direct.
"Our business sure drops off then," he said. "But it's a great time to go fly fishing for seatrout."
It was then that the logic of what he said hit me.
Of course it was! It was a perfect time to come fly fishing for trout. Why hadn't I thought of that before? Ah, that good ol' paranoia. I wondered how many other anglers stayed home thinking the same thing.
The next time I mentioned it, J.R. put me in touch with some fly flingers who were adept at doing this during February. So there we were rigged and ready for trout action without a single boat in sight. Almost scary!
"You sure those fish are still here?" I asked Randle. Not seeing anyone else on the river made me apprehensive.
"Well, the black drum have gone and most of the reds are small but the trout were here a couple days ago, more downriver than they were when it was colder."
"Sounds good to me."
Three fly fishermen trying to fish from the same boat is impractical even aboard Leger's spacious craft. But the solution was simple. Bow and stern anglers worked their fly rods while the middleman could switch with one or the other anglers when the action got going.
"You can cast around us with a lure if you want to help us find 'em," said Randle, "then we'll take turns." That was fine with me.
Normally I think about doing this kind of fishing at first light when fish seem more eager to feed. But our guide was more in tune with what the tide was doing. We met at the ramp at eight o'clock because earlier would improve nothing. The later the outgoing tide the faster it went and the better our chances of action from feeding fish.
We all had 8-weight rods. Leger and Cox were using full-sinking lines. Mine was an intermediate. The key would be to get our flies down in the water column, as the trout were most likely lying low in the deeper holes. Cox and Leger chose an unweighted glass minnow pattern that they had had luck with before. It was a pattern by Danny Riley, another member of the Tallahassee flyfishing club. Danny had made a dark, yellow-eyed glass minnow with a fine, long-trailing feather tail. Multi-colored glitter in the short, almost cylindrical epoxy body gave it good sparkle.
While the boat drifted, Randle and Cox worked off the bow and stern while I spun out a barbless 3-inch yellow jig that has a high hit rating in this river. Cox picked up a trout. Then my jig caught a couple. Randle soon got going and gradually we began picking up trout. Nothing swift about their feeding pattern. It was slow going. But there was nothing slow about their fight once they hit.
Leger eased the anchor overboard and we quietly worked the area. Behind us on shore was what locals call the anhinga tree. Opposite this tree was one of the large fishing holes along the river. This may have been why the tree was so filled with these fish-napping birds.
The trout we caught were running smaller than the 20-inchers often caught here this time of year. Moreover, various fish showed the cross-hatch markings of commercial nets. Leger felt this was due to the surreptitious night-netting that he said sometimes went on upriver near the bridge. It angered him seeing these net-marked fish. He said he had seen fungus growths on fish caused, he suspected, by anglers failing to wet their hands before touching the fish during their release. The fungus, he said, always appeared in the upper rib cage area where the thumb would usually go, and only on one side.
We ended up taking trout on both fly rod and the standard casting rod. The jig-and-grubtail combo se
emed to work best because it got down quickly to the area where the fish were feeding. As we drifted out with the tide past the mouth of the river, another hole provided similar action. The fish had not been that close to the flats earlier in the week which suggested that things were warming up. Later in the day after the tide turned, we worked the same hole but now moved too quickly through it. Leger solved that by easing over a sea anchor. Once the yellow cone of material filled, the boat slowed considerably and we could make repeated passes at a nice slow rate that enabled us to cast and strip at leisure. But even with that tidal turnaround the feeding pattern changed and we began catching them more frequently upriver near the anhinga tree. So it goes. Forget predicting where and when.
When we approached the mouth of the river, fishing picked up. I changed places with Tony and put a deepwater Clouser Minnow to work. On Leger's afterdeck with his outboard looking hungrily at the loops of intermediate line I was trying to get airborne, I strapped on a stripping basket before I got into trouble. It worked fine, keeping me from feeding the outboard with my coils. Normally I avoid baskets unless there's just too many line-snagging obstacles. This was one of those times.
After we had all caught and released a number of trout, Randle answered some of my questions on what was working best for fly rodders on this river. "The average fly fisherman who grew up tossing a bream bug to the shoreline can't manage the long cast generally necessary to catch saltwater fish," he said, "but in the river it's a different story. Short casts work fine here because the fish are grouped together and you can usually get on top of them." He went on to add that most local fly fishermen favor 8-weight rods and an 8-weight sinking line. The sinking lines let them use shorter leaders, anywhere from three to five feet. The main thing is to be able to get everything down the average 7-foot depth to the fish. Once there, Randle says it makes little difference what fly pattern you use because when the fish are feeding they'll take virtually any fly offered to them. If an angler isn't catching while others are, then either he isn't at the right depth or his retrieve is wrong, said our guide.
Another popular year-round fly pattern for this area is a Hopping John, consisting of some yellow palmered rabbit fur for hackle, lead dumbbell eyes, yellow tail and a bit of Krystal Flash on the body. Still, it was the glass minnow that did the job.
Though it seemed that as the incoming tide got bolder and fuller, and late-afternoon fishing would be outstanding, we called it quits long before then. Surprisingly, only one other angler had come out to sample the catch-and-release fishing we enjoyed. Back at the boat landing, George the ramp caretaker was no longer in sight. Except for our trucks, the parking lot was deserted. We loaded the boat and proceeded to leave the area. Just around the corner from the ramp, where the gravel road headed back to the main highway, our caravan suddenly stopped. Up ahead I saw the nose of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission vehicle backed off into the brush. Two officers being eaten alive by no-see-ums the size of fruit flies inspected our vehicles to make sure no illegal seatrout were going home with us. We gave them some much-appreciated insect repellent. I told them I appreciated their dedication. They just shook their heads and grinned ruefully. Never ever believe that your Florida fish and game protectors are asleep on the job and it's safe to take home some illegal fish...even if no one is in sight and it appears you have the whole place to yourself.
Clear and Clean Best for Trout
Up until a few years ago, most Panhandle Florida rivers in February were too muddy and filled with too much tannin-stained runoff to be attractive to trout. Then Mother Nature changed things and drought conditions became the norm for that time of year. Upcountry reservoirs shrank because northern snows were lighter and there was little runoff. Consequently, these rivers have been running as clear as spring water. The fish loved it. So did anglers. If February anglers in the eastern Panhandle can enjoy this kind of fishing, you can be sure it isn't being overlooked by those in the western Panhandle. From Pensacola, angler Jonathan Terhaar told me: "I fished during the closed season and it was some awesome catch-and-release action. We caught a ton of 4-pound fish, a few 5's and 6'ers. I caught them all in bayous and canals that look nasty and fishless. Never saw another boat fishing while I was out-too cold for most people."
How long these conditions will last is uncertain. In March 2001 the rains came and the fish left the rivers sooner than expected. Some say the weather pattern has changed and this February we will return to the high, muddy waters of the past. We'll have to wait and see. If they once again stay low and clear, consider checking out the Panhandle rivers in February. Nothing is quite so nice as to find your favorite river devoid of crowds, yet with the seatrout still there and actively feeding.