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I recently revisited that old brownline from last year to see how the fish were doing. As Spring progresses into Summer there are still a few local species I can add to my catch list for the 2022 edition of the Red Stick Fly Fishers Jambalaya Challenge, and I was hoping to do that here.

The water in the ditch was low and clear and made for some exciting and challenging sight fishing. We’ve had drastically less rainfall this year when compared with last. We had the wettest year I’ve ever seen in Baton Rouge last year, but this Spring we’ve been dealing it’s been a mild drought. A mild drought here just means more of these ditches are fishable as the water isn’t super dirty from runoff, so in terms of my local fishing a drought is not the worst thing.

When I walked up to the first “hole” I could see the male sunfish actively protecting their beds. You could see the blues, greens, reds, and orange flanks of sunfish flash through the water as they swam in circles around their nest. These fish will do this all summer as they spawn multiple times in a year. Here in south Louisiana we have a much longer spawning season than locations to the north, so you may see male fish on their bed from March through September, depending on the species of sunfish. I’ve noticed they don’t all spawn at the time. As they are doing this the bass are not far away. They patrol the periphery and show up when they see an opportunity to prey on a weakened fish. The bass have already spawned this Spring, so they’re ready to eat. I targeted the bass first, catching a few small ones, but really today was a sunfish-fest. They are so aggressive this time of year it’s hard keeping them off the hook.

Largemouth bass
Redspotted sunfish
Bluegill

When I call it a sunfish-fest, it was really the longear sunfish-fest. They were the stars of the show today and I love them for it. They are arguably the most attractive fish in any body of water at any time, but right now, in full spawning regalia, they really are putting on a show. Their variability, even within the same stretch of stream, is impressive. Some are more blue or turquoise while others have more reds and oranges. The size of their opercle is never consistent; on some fish they are quite large, and others they are not. The forehead too. They don’t have a massive cranium like a Rio Grande cichlid, but they can develop a case of fivehead and make for interesting looking fish. I sometimes catch longear, especially the larger ones, with long black tendril-like tips on their pelvic fins. There is just so much to look at on a longear and I think it’s cool how no two look the same.

I was having a great time catching longear and seeing how different they were from fish to fish, but I had yet to catch a species I had not logged this year to up my Jambalaya challenge tally. I made it to a bit bigger “hole” where I found a few spotted gar. They looked like they were busy doing the spawning thing too and really weren’t interested in flies. Soon after I found one tucked up next to the bank I was standing on and ran a blind Clouser minnow (a poorly tied Clouser that lost his lead eyes) and had a strike and a hookup. I quickly muscled him onto the bank where the fly broke off and the fish began to flop. I took a quick pic and got him back in the water. Not ideal, but like Charlie Kelly, gar are wildcards.

This was my last day to fish and I only had one fish in mind that I wanted to target while still in the Florida panhandle, the Choctaw bass. After failing to catch one on day 1 I had to go after them again. Not having confidence in catching one on the creek I camped at, and needing to drive home after I fished, I decided to start driving west on I-10 and fish for them on a different creek, somewhere closer home. One that I could wade so I didn’t have to fool with the kayak. I’ve spent plenty of time fishing from a kayak, but I’m more comfortable fly fishing from my feet. It was super chilly that morning, had to be upper 30’s, so wade fishing for bass was going to be tough. It’s always been my experience that river bass like it when the water warms up a bit and I didn’t have the luxury of waiting them out. On top of that I forgot my river shoes at home so I was wet wading in Chaco’s. For anyone that’s ever wet waded in sandals on a stream with sand and pea gravel you know that it’s miserable. I had to do it though.

I picked a creek in the Blackwater River State Forest that I remember my friend Barret talked about and found an access with a trail that ran alongside it. This was a popular recreation site and there were plenty of campers around. This was the most people I had seen the entire trip actually. There was a red clay bluff along the creek that was reminiscent of Providence Canyon in Georgia, but on a much smaller scale. I’m sure it was formed similarly, poor irrigation practices led to drastic erosion that overtime became something that was neat to look at.

The creek was beautiful, crystal clear, cold water that glowed yellow/orange in the sandy spots and transitioned to tannic and dark where there was some depth to the water. There were plenty of deep spots too. It was tricky to tell the depth in person let alone try and portray it with a cell phone camera. That never stops me from taking pics.

As was the case for most of the trip, the fishing was super slow. I was working the water too fast though. I know I was. It was cold out and I should have been methodical about working the structure, but I was worried about leaving in time so that I wouldn’t arrive home too late. I wanted to see the family that afternoon, not the next morning. It forced me to search for the most aggressive fish by covering as much water as possible. Eventually the fish cooperated and as I pulled my trusty crawfish pattern across a log I had a follow from an interested fish. The next time I pulled it by I got the bite I was looking for and brought a pretty little washed-out Choctaw bass to hand.

Goal accomplished. I fished a little bit longer, but my heart wasn’t in it, I turned around and made my way back to the truck. These fish weren’t very active anyway. I caught what I had came for and needed to drive home now.

The Florida panhandle rivers were awesome. I went over to Florida hoping to catch a bunch of different species on the fly that I had not caught yet and I was able to do that. The diversity was there, the quantity was not. With those fish I made it to 40 different species total on the year – not a bad year at all. It’s been a lot of fun taking that journey and I’ve been introduced to a lot of new friends, fish, and fisheries that I know I’ll enjoy for year’s to come. I made this trip solo, but it would have been great to enjoy it with Blake, or other fishy friends. I’ll be back. It’s not a long drive and there is so much more to explore. I’ve still yet to catch a Suwannee bass, which are found just a bit further east of the Chipola, and I need to. It’s the last American bass species out there that I haven’t targeted.

The next day I decided to drive a little further east and check out the only watershed in Florida that held shoal bass – the Chipola River. I scouted a few launch sites and debated my plan before settling on one. I was under the assumption that I had to have shoals to target shoal bass and from what I could tell at each launch site that I stopped at(and from what I saw in imagery online) that was going to be difficult. The water level must have been a tad higher than normal and there were no visible shoals at places where I thought there would be so I was flying blind on this one.

I put the boat in and started paddling up anyway. I drove all the way out here, I may as well fish. The clarity was pretty good and the weather was gorgeous – I took that as a sign that there was a good chance I’d catch something.

I paddled up until I reached a spring run tributary and was amazed at how clear the water was dumping out of this creek. I paddled/walked up the creek a little ways and spooked a ton of small fish – pickerel, bass, sunfish, shiner – there was lots of life here. There was no way for me to effectively fish the creek so I hoped back in the boat and started my downstream float and fish.

Shoal bass, like most bass, are ambush predators so my idea was to just strip streamers around any place I thought looked like a good ambush point – pretty standard bass fishing stuff, I know, it’s not rocket science though. If that area had discernible current around it I assumed that was prime territory.

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I flogged a good stretch of water, beating the banks and working areas around submerged timber, before I had a strike, which came from the timber pictured above. The eat happened on the bank side of the big limb as the current swiftly carried my boat around on the other side of the laydown. Things were precarious for a bit as I paddled myself back up to remedy the situation. At some point I figured I lost the fish when my fly line was caught on the limb, but as I worked to free the line with my hand I could see him still hooked and fighting. Luckily for me I had a solid hookset and I was able to bring the 12″ shoal bass to the boat.

I was pretty stoked for this fish! I did not have a lot of confidence in catching a shoal bass here. Like I said, not a shoal in sight, so I felt a bit out of place. It fell for a beat-up crawfish pattern that Blake had tied up a while ago. This fly has landed bass all over the place, from spotted bass in Louisiana to smallmouth in West Virginia and Arkansas to redeyes in Alabama and Georgia, and now a shoal bass in Florida. I’ll see if I can get him to do a step-by-step for it. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of those here. My favorite flies, and those that tend to be the most durable, are the flies that Blake ties. No matter the pattern, he just does a really great job.

With renewed confidence I kept on swimming that crawfish pattern around anything and everything I floated by and eventually caught the spotted sunfish above. It was a good sized stumpknocker that looked like he’d seen better days. I was happy to have caught something else because despite my confidence the fishing was terribly slow. The river was beautiful though with the cypress trees giving it a little Fall color. Part of me feeling out of place was the river was a little bigger than I like to fish. I’m a small water guy. I dig the creeks. So medium or large rivers always intimidate me.

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There were low limestone bluffs every so often that were super pitted, like the one above. Some of the most unique geologic formations I’ve seen along a river. I ended up catching my second shoal bass along one of these walls. It makes total sense too as bass love a bluff wall. They are scoured out far underneath what is visible and make excellent ambush spots. That made it two shoal bass on the day! I was pumped and paddled the rest of my way back to the launch looking to get back to the campsite before dark.

On the drive back I made the realization that I just caught two shoal bass below I-10. That seemed so crazy to me; the fish known as the “fish of the waterfall”, Micropterus cataractae, were still hanging on down here in Florida, well below the fall line.

I stopped at a local grocery and bought a steak and whatever beer they had that was local to celebrate accomplishing a goal that was probably meaningless to 99% of the general population. Combine that with a campfire and it made for a much better night than the rainy one I had the night before.