Anything Fly Fishing

“Floating” the Econ

4 Mins read

Geology blessed Florida with many great fishing opportunities. One that’s as under the radar as any you’ll find here is river fishing for bass and other freshwater species. We’re talking about 25,000 river miles in the Sunshine State, many inaccessible by any other method than floating in a canoe or kayak.

One of John’s maxims about fishing is, “The greater the expenditure of sweat equity required, the less pressured the fish.” That’s certainly true about many of Florida’s float trips. No bass boats, no meat fishermen, no educated fish- give me more!

I certainly haven’t floated anything near to 25,000 miles of Florida rivers. Why would I? I have a great one five minutes from my front door. That river is the Econlockhatchee, a tributary of the St. Johns River.

You can’t just show up there and expect great fishing. Doesn’t work that way. The US Geologic Survey has put gauges on most rivers in the United States. They didn’t miss the Econ ( I prefer the gauge to read between 1.5 and 2.5 feet. Any higher and the fish get too spread out. Any lower and the “float” has lots of places you’ll have to get out and drag the boat.

Tammy Wilson goes over a blowdown on the Econ.

Even at my preferred level, the chance of having to go over, under, or around blown-down trees is high. That preferred level generally happens during the first half or so of the year, which also corresponds to bass spawning time. When the bass finish up, the sunfish start. Fishing can be good all through the spring.

Fish you’re likely to get there include largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish (redbellies), spotted sunfish (stumpknockers), and bluegills. You might get crappie, bowfin (mudfish- I love the mudfish!), spotted gar, and very rarely, a channel catfish or chain pickerel. You’ll also see mullet, needlefish, tilapia, and Plecostamus, the armored catfish, none of which (as a rule) will bite a fly.

I generally fish for bass, using a nine-foot, four- or five-weight rod with a floating line, a 9-to-12-foot leader with a 10-or-12-pound point, and a floating fly. The fly I like the best is a gurgler. They’re easy to make, and it’s a simple process to put the very necessary weedguard on it.

The weedguard on this gurgler is a necessary part of fly design here.

This river is small, surrounded by live trees, and full of fallen ones. Those trees provide fantastic habitat for the fish, but they eat flies all the time. One of the reasons I prefer floating flies is that they don’t hang up in submerged wood as much as sinking flies do. Also, I can often gently snake them out of the surrounding willows on the inevitable bad casts. When the bite gets slow, I’ll tie on a streamer, but I know it’s likely to get lost.

For the sunnies, I just scale down everything. Smaller rod (2- or 3-weight), smaller flies. Tie the flies on Aberdeen hooks, and you can often straighten the hook enough to get free when they hang up. Then just use pliers to bend the hook back into the preferred curve! Small poppers, sponge spiders, and of course gurglers all work. Those fish tend towards aggressiveness.

A redbreasted sunfish, one of the most beautiful fish in Florida.

Speaking of aggression, you’ll also see alligators – big ones. My experience here, which is considerable, is that they won’t bother you. But if you’re phobic about carnivorous reptiles much larger than you are, you should not visit any Florida rivers! I traumatized an old friend one time when I brought him down the Econ in a canoe.

But I digress. Bass fishing- the fish could be anywhere. But they are most likely to be around large, tangled blowdowns in two or three feet of water. They are probably in deeper places, too, but are less likely to come up for your bug if they are.

I tend to fish for the bass pretty quickly. The river is moving the fly, the line, and the boat, and unless you get out and wade (which I frequently do) there’s no time to fish slow. If the fish want it, they’ll get it, believe me.

For the sunnies, slow is the way to go, however. They seem to spook off aggressive movement. You cast to the same kinds of places, but just let the fly float instead of popping it.

Recently I made a float with two friends from out west, Dean and Phil Altenhofen. They’ve known each other since childhood! We launched our boats (a canoe and a sit-on-top kayak) at County Road 419 in Oviedo, and floated to Snow Hill Road in Chuluota, a distance of 10 miles. There is no way you can fish all this stretch in a single day. You fish until an hour or two before you want to end the trip, and then put the rods away and paddle the rest of the way.

Dean had floated this stretch with me once before, but Phil had never done anything like this. He loved everything about it, and of course, Dean had come back for more. The river is beautiful, and as soon as you get away from the road noise, it’s splashing fish, bird calls and wind-in-the-trees you’ll hear.

Dean hooked up, on the Econ.

The bite was slower than I would have liked, but they both got several bass and sunfish. Phil kept wondering where the alligators were. Hey, I was, too. There were many fewer than I had been seeing. Phil finally got his wish when he spooked one off the bank that he claimed was longer than the 13-foot kayak he was in.

Another possibility for this stream is to launch at Snow Hill Road, then float and fish your way downstream. When it’s time to go, you point the boat upstream and paddle back to where you started. Yes, against the current.

An excellent resource for anyone who wants to paddle-fish any of Florida’s streams is Sandy Huff’s Paddler’s Guide to the Sunshine State (University Press of Florida, 2001, $29.95). Huff is a paddler, not a fisherman, but she gives launches and take-outs, distances, paddling times, and generally what to expect. Another is John Kumiski’s Fishing Florida by Paddle (The History Press, 2019, $21.99). Kumiski is a fisherman, but this book does not have the extensive river coverage that Huff’s book has.

A view of central Florida’s Econlockhatchee River.

There are streams like the Econ all over Florida. Explore a few, catch some fish, and see the real beauty of Florida.

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