Fishing the Feeding Lane

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By Mark A. Benson

Swing downstream for fast action on Florida’s creeks and rivers.

Fly rodder connects with a migratory shad on the St. Johns River.

On Florida’s clear spring runs and tannin-stained rivers alike, reading the water and knowing where a feeding lane is can be the difference between a nice day casting and a great day catching.

Think of a fast stretch of fresh water as a liquid conveyor belt of protein goodies. Largemouth bass, stripers, sunshine bass and a myriad of smaller sunfish like bluegill and specks at first may appear to be in the rushing current but they’re actually slip-streaming and holding just out of the main force. By doing this, they’re conserving calories until they dart into the faster water when a morsel is spotted. Even the visiting stars of the St. Johns River, the hickory and American shad, find edges along the fastest water while waiting to perform their spawning dance.

Location, location, location isn’t just important for terrestrial real estate, it holds true for the aquatic stuff as well. I like to anchor a cast length from shore and about 10 to 15 yards downstream from a bend, where the current becomes compressed and focused along the steep, outer edged bank. Even better-if shoreline conditions allow-I prefer to beach the boat and stand right above the water I want to fish. Either way, I’ll cast across the current and a little downstream and, depending on the speed of the water flow, I may throw some slack in an S-shape to allow the fly to sink deeper before the drag of the line causes the fly to start riding-up in a strong current. I keep the tip of the fly rod on the surface of the water and pointed at the fly during the swing downstream.

Bright, bead-chain streamers can be the ticket for shad and other fish in tannin stained rivers.

I try not to strip in any line during the swing, but I pay close attention to making sure it stays tight. A strike can come at any moment but the highest percentage of them seem to come just as the line begins to straighten and when the line and the fly almost hang straight downstream. If nothing happens, I let the fly hang for half a minute and then start stripping the line back in slowly.

In lakes or ponds, the surface popper is tops, but in current, the attention a minnow imitating fly brings is off the scale. Clear water dictates a more natural look with silvers or whites. The brighter and flashier pinks, oranges, purples and greens stand out better in the tannin runoff. In both cases I like my fly to have large eyes which I believe predators key in on.

I prefer a 9-foot, 4-weight rod for my river fishing. It allows a bluegill to be a sporty proposition in the current and has enough backbone to give you a winnable battle with a small sunshine bass or big roe shad. And, if you hook a nice largemouth or a good-sized striper, win or lose, you’ll have a heroic story to tell your friends over dinner.

In strong flows or high water levels, a sink-tip line and a 6-foot leader of 8-pound test will help to take the fly down near the bottom. Savvy St. Johns River runner, Phil Woodham of Titusville, likes fishing deep enough to catch an occasional freshwater mussel.

“If you’re not seeing fish or birds working the surface, dredge the bottom,” Woodham recommends.

But if the fish are splashing on the surface or popping prey, a floating line and a 9-foot leader will get you in the zone. Just remember, the longer the fly stays in the water and in the feeding lane, the better chance it’ll be seen and eaten. You can take that to the bank. FS

First published Florida Sportsman December 2014

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