That’s what Leonardo da Vinci said. Herbert Hoover said “Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.” Whenever I hear the word “simplicity” I think of one person: Jeff Evans. I’ve known Jeff for about eight years or so. I met him through a friend, Brian Holt, who like Jeff, is a registered nurse. Jeff and Brian worked in the Williston Hospital but Jeff really wanted to fish more, so he and his wife Debbie moved to Steinhatchee. In the time I’ve known him, Jeff, always fishing with Debbie, has won twice as many local tournaments as anyone I can think of. I know of at least three times when I had the lead in a tournament when I saw Jeff’s truck pull up for the weigh-in and I knew I was about to be bounced. In the last two weeks, Jeff and Debbie won the Carabelle Redfish/Trout Shootout, including the first place overall as a team, largest redfish (7.6 lbs.), and largest trout (5.2 lbs.). Yesterday Jeff won the Steinhatchee Community Tournament with a 7.75 lb. redfish and a 6.4 lb. trout, pictured below. These two tournaments provided Jeff and Debbie over $5000 in prize money. In other words, Jeff and Debbie Evans are amazing at finding huge inshore fish.
So….how do they do it? Winning that kind of prize money, they must have high-powered equipment, great electronics and high-end tackle. Nope, not really. Jeff and Debbie fish, and always have, from a canoe. Debbie uses a Zebco reel. From my perspective, the only change I’ve seen in how they fish is that they added a little kicker to their canoe. They access the gulf from primitive ramps that no full-sized boat can use, paddle or power out to the mouth, and usually fish within an easy paddle’s distance from the creek mouth. And ordinarily they only use one kind of bait….fresh pinfish filets. They move with the tide and seem to know exactly where the big fish are and how they move. I consider this amazing. Having expensive tackle and a nice flats skiff, and fishing the same area for about ten years, I have yet to catch a trout as large as the one he caught yesterday. He catches 6 to 7 pound trout on a regular basis.
I remember about three years ago Tommy Thompson and I were fishing with Roland Martin in the Mel Tillis Tournament. I knew where Jeff was going to fish and it just so happened the tides allowed us to get there first. He would have beaten us there, launching on a small primitive ramp, but on his way to the ramp his trailer went off the road and it took him a while to get it out. As we were fishing on the spot, I saw Jeff and Debbie come out of a nearby creek and paddle out about a quarter-mile away and drop their anchor, which is an old piece of rusty metal. We fished the area for an hour or so, I caught one nice redfish, and we moved on to catch a Spanish mackeral and a trout that ended up finishing third overall. However, after we left Jeff and Debbie paddled over to our spot, waited patiently and caught the largest and second largest redfish in the tournament (winning much more money than we did) from the same spot.
There’s something wonderfully poetic about a beat-up canoe and a Zebco and a metal chunk for an anchor (which is next to Jeff’s hand in the picture below) whupping up on fancy boats with jack plates and trim tabs and $500 rods and reels. I am ALWAYS rooting for Jeff to win (except, of course, if I’m in the tournament). Jeff also happens to be very soft-spoken, modest and a super-nice guy. Debbie is the more boisterous of the two, usually laughing and the life of the party. One of the most amazing pair of fishermen I’ve ever known.
So the temperature was low, but the forecast called for sunny skies and we had a great opportunity to explore an area I have never been to….that was worth taking a day off. Tommy Thompson and I brought the kayaks back from Steinhatchee and met up with Tom Tumbleson, an experienced canoe fisherman who wanted to try kayaking, and Capt. Rod Hunt, well-known naturalist and wilderness guide (http://www.kayakcedarkey.com/wilderness.php). We met up at the Shell Mound ramp, just past the airboat ramp and small and well-maintained park northwest of Cedar Key. The water was low, but we were able to launch.
We had gotten fairly negative fishing reports, but we were less interested in catching fish than exploring a new area. The water temperature was in the mid to high ’40’s which suggested we were in for a tough morning, but the creeks were beautiful. Much of the area has a firm enough bottom for wading, including this sand bar that Tom is exploring on foot, casting to a deep hole at the end of the bar.
We worked our way slowly down the creek, finding one area requiring portage. Just before we got to the shallowest area, we came into a short stretch of wider creek that was holding a good bunch of large mullet…and a really hungry pelican. In spite of Tommy’s best efforts, his topwater plug looked enough like a mullet that the adolescent pelican was on it in a nanosecond.
Rod managed to get the bird to his kayak and a little minor surgery, with Tommy serving as scrub nurse, soon had the pelican back in fine shape.
We continued down the creek toward a large bay and in spite of considerable effort, the water temp (by now only 48 degrees) was still a bit cold for activity. I had one redfish take a soft plastic jerk bait around one of the many excellent shell bars but was unable to get him to the kayak. We had to get back to Gainesville, which was too bad, because by the time we got near the launching area, the water was higher and warmer, the mullet were much more active, and the fishing would have been much improved. In spite of the tough fishing, it was a great trip. The area is largely untouched, although Rod and Tom said that on weekends it can get crowded as more and more kayakers, canoers and airboaters are coming to enjoy the beauty of Shell Mound. If you are interested in a wonderful fishing or sightseeing trip, please contact Rod Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Kayak Ceder Keys website at http://www.kayakcedarkey.com/wilderness.php. You’ll have a great and unique adventure.
There we were, ready to get on the water and NOAA was telling us we were due for 20 knots from the east, with 3 to 5 foot seas and chop. Running anywhere in the gulf is going to be wet in a flats boat; baitfish are tough to see and so are schooling redfish. But luckily we’ve got the kayaks, and the tides seemed just about right…a late morning significant low tide with a quick rise. This works out pretty well to paddle out with the outgoing and in with the incoming. Easy, right? So we launched at our usual spot, the Pine Log Island ramp in the Jena Wildlife Management area. It was blowing, but reasonable.
We headed for the gulf. The creek system widens out near the mouth of Pine Log Creek. When the creek is very wide, the water flow can spread out and it can get shallow. In narrower creeks the water has to find a way to flow and there are usually deep cuts through the bars, or more likely, around the sides. Well, in this case, it got shallow. The 3 days of strong east winds had blown water out and we were dragging bottom in heavy weeds….and the water was still heading out rapidly. We obsessed for…oh, about 10 seconds and changed plans. So much for trying to get out into the gulf. We poled our way back to deeper water, managing to avoid having to get out and pull the boats through nice muddy bottom and grass. Adding to the problem was the fact that the wind was keeping the water out….so while the tide was supposed to be at peak low at 11, at 3 in the afternoon it was still going out. We see this. Remember that when there’s a strong wind for several days, the tide tables are nothing but an estimate. So we found a few nice sand bars with some deeper water alongside.
We were fishing topwaters and Tommy scored with a ladyfish and a keeper trout. I worked the kayak up to a creek mouth with rock grass patches and caught two keepers, also on topwaters. Tommy then switched to a DOA shrimp fished slowly along the bottom and caught a number of smaller trout. After the bite slowed we worked our way further up the creek to an area with several nice oyster bars, a shell bar near a dropoff with deeper water, and lots of small mullet. We just could not find any redfish. We fished topwaters to no avail, and suspending lures as well with no takers. The redfish were not up these creeks. We parked our kayaks and got out and walked around one of the shell bars.
Tommy flipped his DOA shrimp into a cut near the bar and immediately caught a trout. Then another. I felt obligated to wander over and try a soft jerkbait and immediately caught another. We had an observer….fella named Jason from Jacksonville who drove up near the shoreline in an ATV and watched us fish for a while. What caught his eye was that we were literally catching trout on every cast. We caught approximately 100 trout. Now the careful observer will note that there aren’t any pictures of trout….just Tommy Thompson, which is not quite as appealing. There is a reason. This motherlode of trout included specimens that ranged from 6 inches to 13 inches in length. They were in a school packed into a small cut around ten feet wide and fifty feet long. I was longing for a 5 weight fly rod. We finally got bored and tried for some larger fish, but that wasn’t working, the wind was picking up, and we were hungry from all the exertion spent catching 12 inch trout….and paddling for our lives out of shallow water. At the ramp we ran into some interesting folks who all wanted to learn about our kayaks. One of them told us that the Sink Creek ramp had recently been updated….so we developed a plan that laughed in the face of the 25 knots forecast for Sunday. We weren’t even going to use kayaks. We were going exploring and wadefishing. Didn’t really work out, but the best thing about the day was visiting the Sink Creek ramp. After a 2 mile drive through marsh and a little scrub, we came upon this scene….completely sheltered from the wind, with nobody there but us…
There were some schools of mullet moving around the points, and the area was spring fed by a large spring right next to the ramp. I pulled out my trusty 5 weight and had a school of small trout that were so small they couldn’t even take the fly, although they made a few valiant attempts. We threw some topwaters as well, but found nothing in the area.
So the take home message from this weekend with few keeper fish and lots of effort? That’s the way you learn. We both learned a lot this weekend, about what tides to start a kayak trip if you have specific locations in mind, we learned that you can have fun up a creek catching lots of smaller fish, I learned a few nice ways of keeping a kayak in place in the strong wind so you can fish forward (backing into the shoreline works well), and that cigars are hard to light in a strong wind. And possibly most importantly, we found a great place for our next kayak trip. Sink Creek is a great place to fish from the water; can’t wait to get there in a kayak. So when you can’t get out in your boat, there’s no home game worth watching, spend time looking around for alternatives. It’ll make you a better fisherman in the long run.