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It happens every year. When the azaleas start blooming the desire in me to fish a creek is at it’s strongest. The creeks are calling, beckoning me to wet my legs in the cool water, and tease some poppers around fallen timber in search of spotted bass and longear sunfish. This year that flame was fanned a bit more by my friend Brian, who had just recently taken a trip to Arkansas in search of smallmouth bass. His pictures were inspiring and as soon as I had a chance to hit a local creek I did.

It didn’t take long for me to catch my first spotted bass of the year, that happened right under the bridge where I accessed the creek, it fell for a little black Clouser minnow. I soon switched up to a popper-dropper so I could target the bass and the sunfish at once and eventually I coaxed a little largemouth from a lazy side channel with one of Ron Braud’s beautiful stippled poppers that I had won from last year’s Red Stick Flyfishers’s Jambalaya Challenge. That same lazy side channel then produced a couple beautiful longear.

There’s been recent research to suggest that the longear sunfish complex are comprised of more than just the two species that we currently recognize; Lepomis megalotis(longear sunfish) and Lepomis peltastes(northern sunfish). It’s been proposed that there are as many as six ancient lineages of longear sunfish (that includes northern sunfish). According to the paper, the longear we catch in the Amite River watershed, like the ones above, are suggested to be Lepomis solis.

The variability in the appearance of longear sunfish across their range has been pretty obvious to the discerning fisherman for quite some time, hell, there’s even a Facebook group dedicated to this observation: Lepomis Megalotis Morphology Project. When you see specimens from totally different watersheds side by side it’s easier to note the differences. The longears I’ve caught in Bayou Sara or Thompson Creek, which both drain into the Mississippi River, certainly look different than the ones we catch in the Amite, or any other northshore river, so this research doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Call me a splitter, but this research is very welcome, I’m definitely all for it.

I continued my way through the stream catching bluegill, shiner, more longear, and eventually another spotted bass. I swear I use to catch more spotted bass in these streams when I first started fishing them, but then again that was pretty much the only species I targeted. These days I’m trying to catch everything I see, which has me doing a lot of switching of flies from poppers to nymphs to streamers to size 26 micro-nymphs. It takes away from the time my fly is in the water, but I find it pretty rewarding to catch a wider variety of fish.

On my way back to the vehicle I found another lazy side channel that was loaded up with topminnow, some looked large enough to catch with a fly, so I re-rigged and spent some time dapping for them. It’s a little tougher to do it with a 6wt than a 1wt, but I got the job done and hooked one of the bigger ones. I made it back to the bridge and tied a popper back on to work the pools that formed behind the stacked up debris that clings to the pylons underneath seemingly every bridge around here I walk under. I don’t think there is a big budget for debris cleanup on our waterways, which is probably not the best thing for flooding, but it does increase the fish habitat within a river, so I’m not really complaining. Sure enough the best bass of the day was happy to explode on my black BoogleBug and I was as happy as a river clam when it happened.

The creek was calling and I’m glad I listened, it was a great day on the water, experiencing nature. No cool agate finds on this trip, but I was pretty happy with the diversity of fish that came to hand. I always tell myself that I shouldn’t wait so long before my next creek fishing trip, but then life always finds a way to interject. Hopefully this post will inspire someone out there, the way Brian’s pictures inspired me, to hit up a local creek and spend half a day on the water just taking it all in.

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.

I had a weekend in November set aside to fish and I wanted to continue targeting different species. It was getting increasingly difficult to target different species in the watersheds close to me(for a variety of reasons) so I was looking to venture out and do a solo overnight trip. I wasn’t interested in fishing the saltwater, even though that could have been a boon for new species, and it was getting late in the season for freshwater, so I figured a trip to some spring fed rivers in the Florida panhandle fit the bill. It had been a while since I fished over there and I really enjoyed the one river trip I made so it was time to head back.

I made the drive east on I-10 after work one night and set up camp in the dark. I woke up to an empty campground and the creek I wanted to fish within walking distance – can’t beat that!

I paddled downstream hoping to check out a large spring run, but was stopped by a giant laydown blocking passage downstream. I didn’t care to portage through the swamp around it so I headed back upstream a ways and began chucking my trusty popper/dropper rig around all the timber in the water. The dropper nymph I had on was quickly attacked by the local shiners.

This was a new species for me, a weed shiner, so I wasn’t made at him. Eventually I started catching sunfish too.

The swampy scenery found along this creek gave it a Louisiana feel, but given that the water actually had a decent flow to it, there was no mistaking I was somewhere else. In my mind this was old Florida, a place overlooked by tourists who were quick to pass it up on their drive to the beach. They’re missing out, but let’s not shout that out to the rooftops.

Next fish to the boat was a redbreast sunfish. A sunfish species I am familiar with from my time in northern Alabama, but one I had not caught in a while – add it to the list. This one was not as colored up as others I’ve come across, it may not be the right time of year for that.

After the redbreast I landed another new sunfish species for the year, the spotted sunfish. I’ve caught lots of their cousins, the redspotted sunfish, but this was the first spotted sunfish for me this year. These little stumpknockers are subtly beautiful with red tinged dorsal fins, brilliant blue halos under their eye, and a purple iridescent sheen on their flanks. It’s safe to say the old adage holds true that pictures don’t do them justice.

The sunfish bite wasn’t fast and furious, but it was frequent enough to keep me entertained. I knew Choctaw bass and chain pickerel could also be found in this creek, but they were eluding me on this morning. I picked up at lunch, fixed a bite to eat, and decided to explore a different stretch downstream.

After chatting with a nice lady who worked for the Northwest Florida Water Management District(the folks that managed some of the launches on this creek and the campground I was staying at) at the next put-in, I hit the water and again headed upstream. Being solo on a river with current, it just makes sense to paddle up and fish back down, so that was my strategy throughout my trip. Soon after starting my paddle the skies opened up and of course I had left my rain jacket back in the truck. I did my best to hide under the trees for the hard stuff, but man that rain was cold! When I made it to an area with heavy aquatic vegetation that’s where I began targeting the resident chain pickerel.

I was stripping a big articulated streamer around the big mounds of salad in the slow bends of the creek and before long I had a massive eat from what was probably the biggest chain pickerel I’ve ever seen! This thing absolutely nailed my fly – it was incredible! After a short fight, that had me trying to maintain pressure while the fish ran through the weeds, it then leapt out of the water and crashed back down. Shortly after that jump my line went limp and I realized I made a serious error in my tackle set up. I thought I didn’t need to switch to a wire leader for the little ‘ol pickerel I was targeting and that decision cost me dearly. My line had been cut and I lost one of my favorite articulated streamers that Blake had tied. It was one that has fooled several big trout at the cabin, so it was almost just as heartbreaking to lose that fly as it was to lose that fish. Oh well, lesson learned, I had to re-rig.

I pressed onto a different stand of vegetation and now, armed with a wire leader, threw a much less appealing fly into the water and began stripping it back. Luckily the pickerel didn’t mind and soon enough I was rewarded with another eat, this fish though didn’t hold a candle to the previous one. Still it was a 20″ fish and netted me another fly caught species on the year.

I tried to take a picture of the plant I was fishing around and the place where I found the pickerel, but with the rain it did not come out that great at all. I’ve got some pictures of it from my last trip out this way in 2016 that I posted a link to earlier. If anyone knows what it is please let me know. I’ve tried doing a bit of research, but I’ve yet to figure it out. Whatever it is, the pickerel love it, and so I love it.

After a bit more rain I was soaked and decided to just paddle down the creek through the fog. It was cold and beautiful. It actually felt like Fall here in north Florida with the color in the cypress trees. I didn’t come across any bass as I had in my previous trip to this creek, but I did have a pretty good day on the water, despite the rain, and accomplished my goal of landing a few more species on the fly.