Sunday, April 21, 2013

Braden River is peaceful, serene and offers fly-fishing fun

Hank Guetzlaff of Apollo Beach battles a feisty Braden River bass on fly rod.

Hank shows off a fine bass.

Hank had a hot day on the Braden River.

What does a fishing guide do on a day off?

Go fishing, of course.

For me, I like to put my kayak on the trailer and head for a local lake or river. My passion is to fly fish for bluegill. There's just nothing quite better than a hand-sized bluegill rising to take a popper or inhaling a nymph.

My favorites waters to fish locally include Lake Manatee, the Manatee River, Myakka River, Braden River and Webb Lake. They're relatively close and offer decent fly-rod action.

Hank Guetzlaff of Apollo Beach joined me recently for an outing on the Braden River. We met at 6:30 a.m. and launched out boats at Linger Lodge, 7205 85th Court East in Bradenton. Neither of us had fished that stretch of the Braden, so this was an adventure.

Didn't take long to find the fish. I caught and released a couple of bass and a few bluegill and stumpknocker while casting a chartreuse, No. 8 Boogle Bug ( Boogle Bugs are wonderful panfish and bass poppers. They're virtually indestructible and are appealing to a variety of fish.
We worked out way down the river, casting along the banks. We worked  fallen trees, lily pads and grass lines. I caught 10 bass, 10 bluegill and a bunch of stumpknocker.

A Braden River bass takes to the air.
I don't think Hank caught as many fish, but what he lacked in quantity he more than made up for in quality. He caught at least one hand-sized bluegill among his half dozen or so. And he caught a pair of really nice bass on his 5-weight fly rod. Hank was using a No. 10 BooglePopper  (electric damsel color).

"Allen Wyatt over at Andy Thornal Company ( in Winter Haven told me that color works great for bass and bluegill," Hank said. "I guess he was right."

The Braden River runs 21 miles through Manatee County, emptying into the Manatee River just east of Interstate 75. The City of Bradenton built a dam in 1936 which created Ward Lake. The dam is 6 miles upstream from where the river empties into the Manatee. Ward Lake/Evers Reservoir supplies drinking water for Bradenton and Manatee County.

It's a quaint stream with very good water quality.

When I first started fishing the river, there wasn't much development. But that's changed over the years. There are several "upscale" developments east and west of I-75. It's ruined the scenery a little bit, but not badly.

Best fishing probably takes place in the lake. That's where Andy "Doc" Lee takes magnificent catches of panfish on his "micro jigs." Lee, a state forest ranger, has been known to catch bluegill up to 12 inches and some impressive speckled perch (black crappie). Lee said the west side of the lake also yields some impressive shellcracker.

I've also hear that night fishing for bass on the lake and reservoir often results in some impressive largemouth bass.

Upriver, though, it's peaceful and serene.

We noticed several areas in which bluegill bedded during the last full moon and no doubt will do so on the next full moon (this week). So, Hank and I plan to hit the Braden River again.

This is a place my buddy, Patrick O'Connor would love.

On a side note, we visited Linger Lodge for lunch. The iced tea was excellent. Ditto for the half-pound, chargrilled burgers.

The Braden River comes highly recommended if you want to cast flies for bass and bluegill. It's beautiful, close to home and has a decent population of fish.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Exotic panfish are making a comeback in The 'Glades after the 2010 freeze

Oscar, an exotic tropical fish, are making a comeback in The Florida Everglades.

I'm not going to say things have rebounded totally in The Everglades, but the fishing isn't bad.

Mayan cichlid are exciting on fly rod.
Prior to the freeze in February 2010, exotics were plentiful in The 'Glades. A typical day would produce upwards of 200 fish per person, a majority of which would be husky oscar and feisty Mayan cichlid. The freeze, however, sent a large number of the tropical exotics to their premature deaths.

Exotics in The 'Glades have been around for years. Some reports date back to the early 1950s when a disgruntled aquarium owner dumped his or her fish population into a backyard canal or pond.

The rest is history.

The Myakka Minnow is deadly on oscar and Mayans.
Oscar and Mayan cichlids took to The 'Glades and surrounding water systems like rednecks to a Southeastern Conference football game.

State fisheries biologist aren't exactly enamored by exotics, but they're here to stay. So, why not take advantage of great sport?

Oscar are unlike any freshwater fish you might have hooked on a fly rod. They don't get very large (a 3-pounder is a big one), but what they lack in size they more than make up for in strength and determination. They're the bulldogs of fresh water. They're very strong and will convince you that you have a much larger fish on the end of your line.

Patrick O'Connor shows off his first Mayan.
While Mayans aren't as strong, they're very fast. The make short, quick runs and are a treat on light fly rods or spinning tackle.

Patrick O'Connor, a Boca Grande firefighter, joined my for an outing to The Everglades recently. We met at 4:30 a.m. and made the 2-hour drive south. We launched the kayaks at dawn and immediately began fishing -- and catching!

Both of us started the day casting popping bugs. I switched to my trusty Myakka Minnow after about 10 minutes. Didn't take long to hook a Mayan cichlid. In addition, I caught largemouth bass, bluegill, stumpknocker and shellcracker. We later added several nice speckled perch (black crappie). We estimated than we landed more than 200 fish on the day.

Patrick hooked the first oscar, a small one that weight a little less than a pound.

On the day, we caught and released 14 oscar and 15 Mayan cichlid.

Those aren't great numbers, but that's easily the best I've done since the 2010 freeze. I hadn't seen an oscar since December 2009.

I had caught a few Mayans in that span, but not in any appreciable numbers.

I'm thinking the exotic population will be back to "normal" in a year or two. Meanwhile, it will be a smorgasbord of action on freshwater species.

For this fishing, we use 4- and  5-weight fly rods, floating lines and 7 1/2- to 9-foot monofilament leaders. I'll rig one rod with a No. 8 popper, one with a black Myakka Minnow and a third with a No. 10 nymph under a strike indicator.

When the action slowed after mid-morning, we switch to nymphs and began catching quite a few fish.

Best times of year to fish The 'Glades are December through April. Once the rainy season begins in June, the water level rises and fish spread out over millions of acres. When the water down, fish are concentrated.

I have fished the area in June, but thunderstorms, high water and bugs are par for the course.

On occasion, I have caught peacock bass, but not since the freeze. The particular area I fish is little north of the peacock bass's northern Florida range.

But I'm not really after peacock bass. I'm after oscar and Mayan cichlid.

I missed them for a few years. It now appears as if they're making a comeback!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Nothing beats a cool cat crashing a panfish party

A hooked channel catfish takes to the air at Lake Manatee.

Quick, what fish species come to mind when you think of fly fishing?
Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymphs deadly on catfish.

Rainbow trout?





Myakka Minnows attract lots of catfish attention.



You wouldn't be wrong if you mentioned one of the above.

Doubt if any of you thought about channel catfish.

Patrick O'Connor shows off a river catfish.
However, I've caught quite a few channel cats on fly over the years, and they're one of my favorites. Channel cats actually just might be the best fighters of all of Florida's warm-water species. They fight hard, make determined runs  and test the skill of even the most-experienced of fly anglers.

I don't target them. In fact, I'm not really sure how I would do that? I catch them while I'm fly fishing for bluegill. They seem to be suckers for subsurface flies like my Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymph, Myakka Minnow and other sinking creations.

I catch channel cats in two bodies of water: Lake Manatee and the Manatee River. I usually hook them while casting along shoreline structure like grass and fallen trees.

I have landed channel cats from a pound to 12 pounds. I've hooked larger, but haven't been able to land them.

Large cats are capable of making long runs. They'll take fly anglers deep into the backing. How many times do you get taken into the backing by any freshwater fish in Florida? For that matter, how many times do you get taken into the backing by a snook or redfish in the salt?

My typical setup is a 1-weight TFO Finesse fly rod, full floating line, 7 1/2=foot 5X tapered leader. I fish a sinking No. 10 fly (ASH-D Nymph, Myakka Minnow). When using nymphs, I'll add a strike indicator about 2 1/2 feet above the fly.

Most fly anglers probably don't want to go a light as I do. I think a 3- or 4-weight would be perfect for this endeavor.

I'll cast the fly to the structure, let it sink and then begin a slow, erratic retrieve, all the while keeping my eyes on the strike indicator. The indicator won't always go under to signify a strike. Sometimes it will stop. At others times, it will dart to one side of the other. Or maybe it will just twitch.

The key to using a strike indicator is if you think it does something, set the hook. If there's a fish there, you'll have a bent rod. If not, no big deal. Simply pick the line up and make another cast.

One of the reasons kayaks make the best fly-fishing platforms is that they're so stealthy. You can get very close to your intended target. I'm rarely more than 25 feet away.

When fly fishing, taken out only the amount of line you intend to cast. For me, that means pulling about 18 feet of line off the reel. That combined with my leader gives me 25 feet.

I rarely make any "false casts." I simply pick the line up on a back cast put the fly where I want on the subsequent forward cast. I waste little time and my fly is constantly in the strike zone.

If you're a fly angler, a "pedal-driven" kayak might not be for you. You'll want a clean cockpit that will handle your fly line. Remember this old adage: Your fly line will catch upon anything it can.

So true.

I fish out of a Native Watercraft Ultimate 14.5. It's the perfect fly-fishing boat. It's open cockpit is great for fly fishing and fly line.

If the panfish are active, you'll get lulled into a false sense of security by the gently take of bluegill, shellcracker, speckled perch or stumpknocker. The hit of a channel cat is very similar.

But that's where the similarity ends.

Once the catfish realizes it's hooked, it will begin a bulldog-like battle. It might try to get into the structure. Or it might dig for the bottom. If that fails, it will usually take off on a long run. Sometimes a cat will make two or three runs.

You just don't strip these fish in. You have to fight them until they tire out. Even then, the battle isn't over.
It's best to land them with a net. If you don't have a net, be very careful if you're going to "hand" land them. Their dorsal and pectoral fins can deliver a nasty, painful puncture wound.

On most days, I'll hook up to a half dozen channel cats. When Patrick O'Connor of Rotonda and I fish the Manatee River a couple of weeks ago, we combined to land seven out of the 10 channel cats we hooked.

On a return trip a few days later, I enjoyed some catfish action unlike any I'd ever experienced. I caught and released 28 of the 35 channel cats I hooked. My fish ranged from a pound to slightly less than 6.

Although I release them, channel cats are great eating fish. They prefer clean water and dine mainly on minnows and bugs.

My top priority when I take to fresh water to fly fish is bluegill. I love watching a bluegill rise to a suck in a surface popper. I love how a "hand-sized" bluegill  battles with all of its might.

But I don't mind when a frisky channel cat decides to crash the party and liven things up!