Thursday, June 12, 2014

Manatee River is one of Florida's hidden gems

The picturesque Manatee River is great for kayaking and fly fishing.
Freshwater fishing is my catharsis.

It's a time when I can get away and spend some quality time fly fishing for a variety of fish.
Light fly bent by a channel cat.

Most of the time, I don't care what I catch. As long as something takes a fly and bends a rod, it's OK with me.

I do have a passion for bluegill, those tasty panfish that are in almost every body of fresh water. Few things beat a day of tossing flies for bluegill.

The Manatee River is one of my favorite spots. The picturesque streams meanders through Manatee County  and empties into Tampa Bay. I prefer to launch upriver at Ray's Canoe Hideaway (, a secluded spot that puts me within an easy paddle of some superb fishing. Ray's is open every day except Wednesday from dawn to dusk. Telephone number is 941-747-3909. The address is 1289 Hagle Park Road (off State Road 65 east of Interstate 75).

You can rent canoes and kayaks there. If you chose to use your own, the launch fee is $6. It's well worth it, knowing your vehicle will be safe while you're out of the water.

Channel catfish taken on a nymph.
I prefer to paddle upstream. I usually don't paddle any farther than the Rye Bridge. It's about five miles to the Lake Manatee Dam. That would be about a two-hour paddle for me. I'd rather spend that time fishing.

For the Manatee River, I usually use  light fly rods. My rods of choice are TFO (Finesse Series) 1, 2 and 3 weights. Occasionally, I'll beef up to a 4 weight.

While I target bluegill most often. the river does have an exceptional population of channel catfish which range from a pounds to more than 20.

Small snook apparently like nymphs, too!
And those catfish readily take flies.

I don't know what it is about the Manatee River, but I catch more channel cats on fly rod there than any other body of water. I do pretty good in Lake Manatee, too.

I catch channel cats on a couple of flies: my Myakka Minnow and my Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymph.

No matter what fly you choose, realize the cats usually bunch up around fallen trees in the deeper sections of the river (outside bends).

Channel catfish are exceptional fighters. They are quick and strong. They are one of few freshwater fish in state waters that are capable of "putting you one the reel" when you're fly fishing.

Bluegill are abundant in the Manatee River.
Don't confuse channel cats with their saltwater brethren. There's no comparison. Channel catfish are highly prized. And the fact that you can get them on fly rod makes them even more special.

The Manatee River also has a healthy population of hand-size bluegill. They seem to fight a little better than the ones you catch in lakes and ponds. Perhaps it's because they have to contend with moving water and are just a little stronger.

The Manatee River is a tidal river and you get the effects of the tide at Ray's. For me, I prefer an outgoing tide. My favorite time to fish is the final couple of hours before low tide. I've found that fishing slows noticeably toward high tide.

For bluegill, I use No. 10 popping bugs, Myakka Minnows and nymphs.

When using nymphs, I employ a strike indicator.

Occasionally, I will encounter shellcracker and speckled perch.

There are also saltwater fish in the river. From time to time, you'll encounter tarpon, snook, redfish, ladyfish and jack crevalle. If it's marine species you want, then focus your efforts downriver from Ray's.

I prefer to fish the river from October through May. I stay off the river once the rainy season begins. High water and muddy conditions don't make for good fishing.

The best thing about the river is that traffic is light during the week. Most of the time, you'll have the river to yourself.

That's tough to beat.

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