Cracking the code
The fly rods remained stowed for the majority of our third day in Florida. We’d decided to make a run to the upper keys; intent on seeing the sites and grabbing lunch with a view. My mind remained fixated on the prior day’s failures, however, and I was determined to improve my odds when we returned to the trail for our fourth and final day.
Thinking through the prior day’s efforts, rod weight and line slap were the only justification I could find for the prior day’s string of spooked fish and refusals. I had been throwing an 8’5″ 8wt that felt like a 6wt in hand, but that line would still be hitting the water with the force of any other 8wt line. Given the shallow, clear nature of the canals I was fishing, this was all I could think of.
The only problem now were my lack of lighter options. Beyond my 8wt Blackout, the only rod stowed in my luggage was a 3wt. Not ideal for larger bass or peacocks, it was my only option, and I resolved to utilize only this rod on our final day.
Up early our final morning, we made the drive back towards the entrance to Shark Valley. I had seen Peacock Bass here, including one large individual, and felt it was as good an location as any for testing my rod weight theory.
Arriving shortly before 7, we parked legally and made the trek to our target canal. I’d have a 90 minute window to fish before we detoured into the park; allowing Maedbh the opportunity for some early morning bird photography.
Electing to start with some smaller offerings, I tied on a chartreuse Bluegill Bully and proceeded work a series of culverts that had held a mix of sunfish, Mayans and Spotted Tilapia the day prior. The results were almost immediate as a pair of Tilapia took my offering in short order before giving way to a series of Mayan Cichlid and spotted sunfish.
Time a limiting factor, I switched gears after 15 minutes or so and turned my attention towards larger prey. Tying on a white Clouser’s Minnow, I scoured a deeper stretch of canal for the large peacock bass that I had seen two days prior.
While it was no where to be seen, a large bass cruised the edge near my feet. Flipping my fly beyond the fish, I began to strip line in and was pleased when the bass turned. Before the bass had an opportunity to strike, however, a large oscar emerged from the shadows and inhaled my fly. A fourth species on the morning, I was pleased; though disappointed when I realized the large bass was gone.
A series of smaller bass and cichlids followed as I worked my way down the canal, but no Peacock were observed in the deeper waters. As I reached the end of the pool though, I began to spot glimpses of green and orange darting among the lily pads.
The water now 12-15″ deep, I swapped to a hollow-bodied Mylar Minnow and began to carefully work between the pads. And, after a dozen or so attempts, I was finally hooked up with my target species.
Not particularly large, the fish put up a surprising fight, but, after a few minutes (and some creative landing tactics to dodge the now present gator) I had my first Peacock in hand. A brightly colored female, we snapped a few photos before sending her on her way. When a similar sized male followed 15 minutes later, I was elated and more than happy to call it a morning as traffic began to build at the Shark Valley entrance.
Significantly less crowded than our prior visit, conditions in the park proved ideal for Maedbh’s photography efforts, and we spent the two hours that followed stalking herons, gallinules and other various aquatic birds along the water-lined trails.
The heat of day eventually caught up with us though, and, we decided it was time to continue our journey west in search of new waters.
The stretch between Shark Valley and Joanie’s was littered with roadside pull-offs. It was just a matter of finding one not already occupied by other anglers.
Continuing west, we bypassed a number of broader pull offs before settling on narrow stretch of shoulder adjacent to bridge straddling a small feeder canal perpendicular to the road. As likely a location as any, water paralleled the road on each side; offering an abundance of fishing opportunities.
Hopping the guard rail (the only protection from speeding traffic), I tied on an olive Carp Bitter and began working the edges and weed lines. As with almost everywhere we stopped, Oscars and Mayans were abundant. And I sorted through quite a few before a small Florida Gar snapped up my fly; providing a change of pace.
While I failed to catch any Jaguar Guapote or additional Peacocks along this stretch, the fishing was consistent enough that I regretted overlooking it during our first day on the trail.
Our time was limited though, and I eventually decided to hang up my fly rod for the trip as we made a quick stop at the Clyde Butcher Gallery before returning to Joanie’s for lunch one more time.
Fly rods packed, we finished out our trip exploring. Fakahatchee Strand to the northwest of the trail is known for its diversity of orchids and served as our final stop on the trip. And while we did see some wild vanilla along its trail, it was an encounter with a large gator that proved the highlight of the afternoon.
Unperturbed by our presence, the 8 ft alligator systematically worked his way across a shallow muddy pond; feeding on small Pike Topminnows as he went. Surrounded by Ibis, he had no interest in the larger prey and proceeded to feed this way for more than 30 minutes as we sat on a bank less than 20 ft away taking photos and video.
Quite the sight, it was a fitting end to our time in Florida.
Though, admittedly, this visit was in fact a prelude as I plan to return with Jake in three more weeks…