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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.

After lunch I thought it would be a good idea to head to a small creek that, according to my research, held brook trout. I wanted to catch back up to Blake on the species count so we’d only have brown and rainbow trout to target the rest of the trip if we were to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge. One thing that was very prominent when driving across Arizona was that you didn’t have to look far to find the effects of wildfire. This area was hit hard in 2011 by the Wallow fire and things have been recovering ever since. That fire was actually started by two guys who were camping so we definitely had to be on guard at night around the campfire because I’d hate to be known for something like that.

Naturally Blake caught the first fish, a brown trout. He was fishing behind me so I was doing something wrong. That fish took either a small streamer or a nymph, I don’t remember exactly, but I know it wasn’t a dry, which is what I was throwing. I switched up and soon had the pleasure of bringing a fish to hand of my own.

It was also a brown trout. I was happy to have caught something when the bites were hard to come by because at this point it was looking like catching fish of any type here was going to be tough.

We covered some good looking water, but turned up very few fish. A bit demoralized we turned back and headed to vehicle. I don’t know what was up with that creek, the water clarity wasn’t as good as it was as in the last three creeks we fished, it had a slight stain to it, but I really don’t know the area well enough to know if that was normal or not. Sometimes you just don’t catch fish, I don’t really know, I just know we struck out on brook trout there and so I’d have to figure something out over the next couple of days if I wanted to complete the challenge.

We headed back to camp and prepared for steak night, a good consolation for a tough afternoon. Mother Nature also rewarded us for our troubles on the creek because on the way back to camp we were treated with a pack of bighorn sheep on the side of the road.

I have this idea that I would like to catch a fish in all 50 states. If it’s a native fish to that state, even better, but that isn’t necessarily a requirement. I want to fish in every state. That is the impetus for a lot of the trips I plan. If it’s a new state, or a new fish species to me, I’m more likely to plan that trip ahead of going back to places I’ve been. I have a constant desire to explore the country and see new water.

I’ll admit Oklahoma wasn’t my first choice for a trip this year. It wasn’t my second either. But these are unprecedented times and you got to play the hand your dealt. A trip to Arizona in May got cancelled. Then, a trip to New Mexico around Labor Day also was cancelled. The back-up, back-up trip I considered was the Lower Mountain Fork in Oklahoma. At the time it looked like a cold front was going to sweep down and it would actually be a pretty nice weekend to camp and fish Oklahoma in early September. That cold front never materialized, just par for the course in 2020.

We packed up the truck on a Thursday night and made the 6.5 hour trek up to Hochatown from Baton Rouge on a Friday morning. First stop was the Beaver’s Bend Fly Shop in the state park to find out where we needed to fish and what worked there. We are not tailwater fishermen, but we were assured this wasn’t your normal tailwater. Coach Eddie Brister runs the shop and was a great guy to talk to. He was eager to help us and it was really one of the nicer fly shop experiences we’ve had on a trip. Armed with newfound knowledge we set out to catch some trout on the Lower Mountain Fork River.

It didn’t take Blake long to hook a couple of rainbows right below the campground. What did I catch you say?

Native fish of course. That’s how much of a native fish magnet I am. Fishing the same water and the same flies as Blake. Even when I’m making every effort to catch their coldwater, stocked cockroach-esque neighbors, I end up catching bass and chubs.

It didn’t take long to wear out the water behind the campground so we hit another spot that had better potential to hold wild trout as the river does have natural reproduction of both rainbow and brown trout, so we were told.

We got into the little wild rainbows, I think we both caught several of them, so we had proof that there were streamborn trout here. I later had a good opportunity at a really nice rainbow that I hooked and fought in some fast water. I felt like I had him beat, but netting him was proving to be an issue as there was no slow water around me. I’d get to the point of bringing him into my net, then he’d take off and head back into the current. Maybe I didn’t quite have him beat. On about the third or fourth time of doing this he was finally able to throw the hook. It was a little heartbreaking, but the trip was still young, so I wasn’t too beat up about it.

I got a little redemption in the form of a nice little brown trout that was hanging out in a riffle while I was making my way back to the car (Spoiler alert, that little brown would be the best fish I’d bring to hand all weekend). After that fish we headed back to the campground to dine on jamabalaya and white beans to finish out a successful day. I could check a new state off the list.

On Saturday morning we got back out to what they call Spillway Creek, the part of the river that holds more wild fish, and we nymphed the runs hard.

Blake caught a few rainbows, I didn’t catch squat. So we hit the road and went to a local brewpub at lunch.

Mountain Fork Brewery had decent beer, a nice variety of old world styles, but they didn’t have much to offer us hopheads. No fruited sours, no pastry stouts, one hazy IPA – I don’t know if national craft beer trends seem to have skipped Oklahoma or if this brewer just turns his nose up at us hipsters and our fads. The burgers we had were outstanding though and it was nice to talk shit to a Sooners fan at a bar while in town.

Fishing in the afternoon was pretty uneventful. It was Saturday and it was pretty hot out so Beaver’s Bend State Park was full of people. The evening hole, which we’d heard so much about was always occupied. Zone 2 was unfishable as they were constantly generating power. Flow from the generation pushes backwater up all the way up until our campground (Grapevine) so any spots I scouted on Google Earth that looked good downstream from us were covered with water. Really the only place to get away from folks was on Spillway Creek. It was our first time up there and it showed. We had so much learn in so little time. Steaks and whiskey next to the campfire made it all better though.

Sunday we ventured out again, this time we hit the river from a different parking area. It was a good call as Blake was able to stick a nice fish pretty early that came up and sipped a Chubby.

It was a really colored up old male rainbow that made the trip worth it. It’s funny how one fish can do that.

We fished on up, working the seams, Blake was having better luck than I was. I wasn’t having problems catching the chubs or the little wild rainbows, but anything bigger was eluding me.

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I got one more shot at a good fish that I hooked in a good looking run, but the fight didn’t last long and after a few headshakes it was over. Oh well, on to the next brewpub.

The beer at Beaver’s Bend Brewery was good (they had more than one IPA at least), but kind of reminded me of a lot of the beer you get from homebrew kits. The “gourmet” hot dog though was really damn good and was appreciated coming off the water.

We hit the evening hole Sunday evening and really had nothing to show for it. We got to chatting with a guy who had been euro-nymphing and caught a few fish. I was genuinely intrigued with his set up, but he ended up being pretty knowledgeable about the fishery and a good dude to talk to. As we’d come to find out we were that at quite possibly the worst time of year. It was late summer, the water was hot, the trout were deep. They were not as spread out as they are in the winter. Not only that, but the water was stained, the lake was possibly turning over, and the level was higher than it gets in the winter when they bring it down to it’s lowest point.

I don’t know if this newfound knowledge made me feel better or worse about the tough fishing we experienced. It does make me want to go back in the winter though because we really had a great time camping, the state park was very nice, and I’d much rather fish (and judge) a river at it’s peak than at it’s low point in a year. It’s going to be tough to make the trek back though because he made some really good arguments for some of spring creeks in Missouri…..