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Up a Creek With a Paddle - By Andy Stafford

 

Florida and fishing! When people think of it, they think of the Keys, the Everglades, pretty much anywhere in South Florida. But there is more, much, much more. I was lucky enough to live near Jacksonville, in Florida's North-east corner, for 4 years.


An Early Start

What does Jacksonville have to offer the angler? It must have something because it is home to the world's largest kingfish tournament and, more recently, the world's largest kayak fishing tournament. It also has something else - water, and lots of it, primarily based around the St. Johns River (Florida's longest), the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (which runs from Maine to the Keys), and the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of the Intracoastal were originally rivers, rivers have tributaries and so does the St. Johns. All this combined results in a huge expanse of fishable water. Perhaps one of the most notable and popular areas for fishing is in the Timucuan Preserve, to the north of the St. Johns between Jacksonville and the ocean. It's a veritable maze of creeks and channels, a huge marsh in which you can easily lose yourself all day and not see another person.


In the backcountry - redfish heaven!

Like a lot of Florida, this area has beautiful sandy beaches. The world-famous Daytona Beach is only about 70 miles south of Jacksonville. In the creeks and tributaries things change though, the watchword being MUD. Lots of it, sticky, smelly and very soft. The tidal range in the area is around 5 feet which doesn't sound a lot but is quite high for Florida. Added together this makes shore fishing difficult away from the beaches with a relatively small number of locations where it can be done, especially if you fly fish. Some means of getting afloat is a must and for the 1000+ members of www.jaxkayakfishing.com this means kayaks.


A kayak is the best way to get into the really shallow water

Why kayaks? They are relatively cheap, eco-friendly (no fuel), easily transportable, and can be launched almost anywhere. OK there are downsides - long range paddling is hard, they don't have a lot of room, and most, but not all, are impossible to stand in. being able to stand and fish is a pre-requisite for most sight-fishing, as practised in clear water locations like the Keys. For most of the year NE Florida's waters are fairly dirty, only clearing in the autumn (fall) and winter. Mostly sight-fishing is practised to signs of fish such as bait being attacked, fish cruising etc, so being able to stand isn't so critical. The majority of folks on JKF will tell you that the best fishing kayaks are SOTs, or sit-on-tops. These are open, mostly stable (!) platforms which give you freedom of movement and are open to the air, a good thing in Florida's sauna-like summer heat.

OK, we have water, we can get afloat, what can we catch? The bread and butter species in the area are Redfish, AKA Red Drum, Spotted Sea Trout, and Southern Flounder. These aren't namby-pamby little flounder either - the world record Southern Flounder was caught in the area and weighed over 20lbs! Other species that can be caught are Jack Crevalle, Ladyfish, Black Drum, Sheepshead, Pompano, Bluefish, Spanish Mackerel, and even the mighty Tarpon. For those in the know there are even locations in the area where Striped Bass (the famed "stripers") can be caught.


A chunky redfish


A spotted sea trout at the side of the yak


A healthy looking flounder

What about tackle? A 9 foot 8 weight outfit, with floating line, is just about ideal for the backcountry creeks. The best fishing is either side of low tide, mostly because the bait and therefore the fish you're after get more concentrated, plus the shallower water gives you more chance to see signs of them. A 10-15lb fluorocarbon leader completes the deal.


Applying the pressure as a redfish runs!


The end result

However, if you are targeting some of the toothier species, e.g. ladyfish, bluefish, spanish mackerel, a stronger tippet is a must, as is regular inspection of it after each fish! And, of course, appropriately heavier gear is necessary when fishing for tarpon. As to flies, clousers are the most popular. My personal favourite was a black clouser with red and gold flash. Other colours of flash (rootbeer is good) can be used and other clouser variations work as well. Most popular are chartreuse/white, tan/white, and olive/white. The olive/white combination is especially effective in late Spring and flounder absolutely love them. Other flies that work well are deceivers, crab imitations, and shrimp patterns. Flies tied on size 4 hooks are probably the most commonly used. Topwater flies, e.g. gurglers, can work well, especially first thing in the morning.

One feature I haven't mentioned is oysters. There are huge expanses of oyster beds spread across the mud flats of NE Florida. The shells are extremely sharp, heaven help the unwary angler who has a close encounter with them. I know, I've done it and still have the scars to prove it! But the oyster beds harbour bait and the fish know that so around the oysters is a great place to fish. As the oysters get covered by the incoming tide the fish will move over them and a topwater fly can often score well at these times.

There is one really specialised form of fly-fishing that is almost unique to NE Florida. When the high spring tides occur, say anything above 5.3 feet, the spartina grass that covers a lot of the tidal marshes gets flooded. As this is an infrequent occurrence redfish just to love to explore these new feeding grounds. The water is rarely more than 18 inches deep and offers unparalleled sight-fishing opportunities. Not only that but the flooded grass is best fished by wading. It's easy to tether your kayak to your belt and just walk along towing it while you search for fish, or you can leave it anchored, as long as you make sure you can get back to it! Fishing time is short, maybe a couple of hours at most, before the fish have to leave the grass to avoid getting stranded. Top flies for this fishing are spoon flies and crab imitations. Sheepshead can also be found in these areas.


Fishing the flooded grass

The fishery is year round, in fact I feel that some of the best fishing can be had in the autumn and winter. When the cold weather sets in the fish will school up in deeper water and some tremendous sport can be had fishing with a sinking or sinktip line.

NE Florida has a lot more to offer. I've mentioned the wonderful beaches, there are plenty of places to see wildlife, and great places to eat out. St. Augustine, America's oldest city, is just 20 miles south of Jacksonville and is also a great place to fish. Further south is Daytona, as I said, and Kennedy Space Center is just over 2 hours from Jacksonville. It's a must see! Even Orlando, Disneyland and all that are within 2-3 hours travelling. Going North you can explore the Georgia coastline - the beautiful and historical city of Savannah is only about 3 hours away.

A few useful links:

Jacksonville's Fly Shops:

Black Fly Outfitters (Capt. Vaughn Cochran) www.vaughncochranart.com
The Salty Feather (Capt. John Bottko) www.saltyfeather.com.

Fishing Guides:

Capt. Warren Hinrichs www.warrenhinrichs.com
Capt. Jim Holland www.saltrunoutfitters.org (guided kayak fishing!)

Jacksonville's Kayak Fishing Website:

www.jaxkayakfishing.com

Jacksonville & The Beaches Visitor Center:

www.jaxcvb.org


 

 


 


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