By CAPT. PAT DAMICO, CapMel Fly Fishing Editor
I really enjoy getting away from the crowds and exploring new territory. My fellow Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club fishing buddy Nick Angelo and I were going to meet the next day to fish a local river that empties into Tampa Bay. Nick’s phone call to finalize plans began with, “Pat, have you ever fished the Chassahowitzka?” Nick, “I can’t even pronounce it,” was my response. His enthusiastic assurance that I would like it was all I needed to say yes. We arranged to meet on the north end of Tampa where we would ride together in his vehicle towing his skinny running Hell’s Bay flats skiff. The predawn traffic thinned out as we made our way north into the country leaving suburbia in the rear view mirror.
As the sun began to rise, we arrived at the Chassahowitzka River campground boat launch, paid a fee, and slid the boat into the clearest, most pristine looking water I have seen in Florida. I felt like I was transplanted into bygone era as we idled down river toward the bay. Freshwater bass and bluegills scooted around the boat as we enjoyed the sounds of an awaking wilderness. Beautiful cypress trees, cabbage palms, saw grass, sweet gum trees and colorful red maples provided a canopy that widened as we continued our journey. A mature osprey flew ahead of the boat as a guide seeming to take us to his favorite fishing hole. Great blue herons, cormorants and anhingas loudly voiced their objections to our presence as we disturbed their awakening and stretching routine. The widening river revealed some fish camps and houses that must have been there forever. Nick grinned as he asked, “What do you think?” I was too busy digging for my camera to get some pictures of this pristine wilderness to give a very long answer other than, Beautiful!”
The tide was just beginning to slowly come in and the clear, very shallow water made me glad that we were not using my larger Maverick boat. Nick’s previous trips there were enough to keep us safe for the rest of the day. This is not a place for anything but the shallowest running watercraft. Approaching the salt, clusters of oysters, underwater obstacles, hard bottom, grass, thinly exposed flats, and patches of muddy water made navigation a nightmare. Many grass covered islands were visible as the bay unfolded before us. An overcast day with occasional short interruptions of sunshine did not improve visibility. When running the outboard, we mostly idled with the motor tilted. A bow mounted electric was also put into service several times. Poling is always the most effective means of making a stealthy shallow approach, so we took turns working some familiar areas where he had successfully fished on other trips.
We always check the weather before leaving, paying particular attention to the wind. Very little protection is afforded here, so a calm day would be ideal. I fished with a seven weight and Nick a nine weight, using weight forward floating lines and nine foot leaders with a twenty pound tippet. Our target species was redfish. On Nick’s last trip, a number of large jacks interrupted their redfish search. I kept a nine weight with a popper handy in case we had the same thing happen. We both love large jacks on the surface.
Fishing was slow until the tide began to go out at a very fast flow rate. A large school of mullet was spread over one side of a nearby island, so we headed there. I was on the pole and Nick, an excellent caster, began to ply the mullet with one of Leigh West’s green and gold clouser style patterns. A redfish was hooked on the second cast. After releasing it, a few additional casts were rewarded with another hookup. An anchor was quietly slid over the side to hold our position. Keeping a small plastic covered mushroom anchor in the boat with about ten feet of line on it to immediately deploy off the stern when school type fish are discovered is a great idea. Now I could also fish! My tippet sported a small gold and copper colored Mylar Kwan style crab pattern. Since we had located the fish, this choice proved to be a good one. A very slow retrieve on the bottom was needed for success. We worked the mullet school, occasionally lifting the anchor and poling another twenty feet or so to work a different section of water. When we left this location, we had ten reds that we released, as well as a few that managed to get off or avoid our strip sets. These fish were all very silver in color attesting to the excellent water quality. We caught several other fish later as we worked our way back toward the channel markers leading to the launch. A stop at one of the many fresh water springs had bluegills and large mouth bass chasing and hitting our smaller offerings. Where else could you combine such a variety of shallow water fishing with a breathtaking view?
We had spent almost an entire day there and had only touched a small part of what the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge has to offer. Federal, state and local agencies jointly manage over 35,000 acres which include many islands, estuaries, salt marshes, and coastal swamps. A Google search will give you a wealth of information for you to review in preparation for a very enjoyable day on the water. When the monotonous routine of urban fishing starts to gnaw at your interest level, head to the Chassahowiztka to cleanse your soul!
A certified casting instructor, Capt. Pat Damico fishes lower Tampa Bay and surrounding waters with light tackle and fly rod. His website www.captpat.com, will give you additional information.