The Mysterious Myakka
It's seven o'clock in the morning
and I am already sweating like a pig. Welcome to south Florida in
mid-July. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect fishing-wise from
the Myakka, but she had treated me well in the past. I did expect
the heat however, which dripped from my brow onto the deck of my
kayak as I paddled upstream from my launch site. The plan was to
paddle a few miles upstream and allow the lazy current to bring me
slowly back to my car as I fished my way back. This is a pretty
reliable strategy on the Myakka, especially in a kayak, as the
current never gets overly swift, even when the river is at flood
stage as it was last July on a similar trip. The bass bit pretty
well that day, but this year's drought had me wondering what lay in
store once I put down the paddle and picked up the fishing rod.
The Myakka is a really cool place to
simply paddle, and the variety of birds, reptiles, trees, and fish helped
keep my mind off the heat. A mile or so upstream, I apparently spooked a
gator sunning on the banks. I heard him, but never saw him. The gators
downstream are a little more people-shy than the ones up in Myakka River
State Park, but just as harmless. The ones in the state park will come
up and eyeball you, but I've never heard of any attacks.
The paddling was easy, as the
incoming tide from the Gulf had slowed the river's current to a mere
crawl. As I made my way upstream, my curiosity finally got the better of
me and I just had to make a few casts to see what was making all the
commotion I kept seeing on the surface. If it was bass, they certainly
weren't letting on, because I cast at every splash I heard and every
piece of cover I saw until mid-morning without so much as a strike.
Buzzbaits, topwater minnows, spinnerbaits, and plastic worms all went
unmolested except for a nip here and there by an angry panfish or the
numerous gar. As the sun kept getting higher I'll admit that my hopes
kept getting lower. Every tactic that had succeeded for me in Florida
before was failing me now, and the Myakka's dark waters were fast
becoming more and more of a mystery.
Finally, I reached a bridge and some
much-needed shade. I got out of the kayak to stretch my legs and guzzle
some water when I noticed a ruckus on the opposite bank, which was about
one long cast away. A school of big fish was absolutely hammering a
school of small fish, and I decided to stand in the shade for a bit and
attempt to ascertain
the identity of the big fish. I sent my buzzbait flying to the far bank
and it was immediately assaulted time and again without my hooking up
once. I decided to try a lure with treble hooks, a topwater chugger, to
see if I could close the deal on at least one of the mystery fish. On my
first cast with the chugger I got my answer. Though I'd love to say that
I had found a school of bass or small tarpon, the mystery fish turned
out to be gar.
The first (and smallest) of eight gar I landed on a
Most serious bass fishermen would
probably scoff at the idea of deliberately targeting a "trash fish" like
the toothy, prehistoric-looking gar. Well, I must not be a serious bass
fisherman, because I am proud to say I sat under that bridge and had an
absolute blast watching those guys attack my topwater bait for an hour.
I literally got strikes on every cast for an hour, and half the time
they'd knock my bait four feet into the air. I probably hooked
twenty-five, but only eight or so stayed hooked all the way to the bank,
where I'd gingerly unhook them and let them swim away. I probably would
have stayed there all day had I not lost both my poppers to the toothy
critters, which only averaged about two pounds, but could easily cut
my line if they caught it just right in their sharp teeth.
You can only make out about five of them, but there
were probably a hundred gar in this one spot just feasting on baitfish
Around noon, I reluctantly left the
feeding frenzy and the shade of the bridge and continued working
upstream, trying to coax a bass from the river. Nothing. Different
theories started running through my mind trying to explain the absence
of bass tugging on the end of my line. Maybe there's been a fish kill.
Maybe the water's too low. Maybe the water's too hot. After a couple
more hours, I turned around and started drifting slowly downstream,
feeling physically hot and mentally aggravated. As I neared Gar Bridge,
I noticed the sky had darkened and heard thunder. I pulled under the
bridge just as the skies opened up into a classic Florida afternoon
thunderstorm, replete with lightning and wind gusty enough to leave me
soaked even though I was standing under a bridge. Meanwhile, the gar on
the other side were still going at it.
Riding the storm out
Not wanting to lose any more plugs to
the gar, I decided that once the lightning quit and the rain slacked
off, I would continue fishing for bass and not bother with the gar any
more. After about forty-five minutes, the weather died down a tad and I
flung a white spinnerbait to the far bank, thinking that the single hook
would be too big to hook a gar and that I'd just have fun watching them
attack it anyway. The instant my spinnerbait hit the water, I knew that
whatever had grabbed it was either a really big gar or something else
entirely. When the fish jumped on the other side of the river, I still
couldn't tell what it was, but knew that this was no gar. I also saw
that the fish wasn't especially large. The next jump, a bit closer
revealed a bronze-hued fish that I figured as a long, oddly-colored and
skinny bass. As I got the fish up to the bank and saw the distinctive
lateral line, it suddenly dawned on me that I had just caught my first
snook. Though the fish probably only weighed two or so pounds, I came
away impressed with the fighting ability of these beautiful fish and
wondered why this particular one was hanging out with a bunch of gar.
My first-ever snook! Funny, I caught eleven fish
all day and ten of them came under this bridge!
It turns out that he wasn't. My next
cast with the spinnerbait produced another hit, and again I saw a
thin-bodied and dark fish rocket from the surface. "Sweet! I'm onto a
bunch of snook!" I thought, but after that first leap, this fish rolled
over and let me reel it in. I brought to hand one of the skinniest
largemouth bass I've ever seen. This fish had a three pounder's head
attached to a one pounder's body. I released Frankenbass and started
wondering in earnest how any fish in water this full of baitfish could
be so undernourished. A few more casts produced nothing more than failed
attacks by angry gar and I headed downstream in a light rain to see what
other oddities might come up from the water's surface.
My spirits were lifted significantly
by this point. It was a bit cooler and drizzly, plus I knew for sure
that there were snook and bass in the river. The poor health of the one
bass I'd caught concerned me, but I was determined to find another
specimen to compare with the skinny one. I liked my chances too, because
the river really seemed to come alive after the clouds rolled in. Mullet
were leaping all over the place and I swear I saw a couple tarpon roll,
which I thought a little strange since the tarpon (and snook and
redfish) tend to use the river more during the colder months.
After a couple more hours, my casting
arm was getting worn out when I cast to the 1,389th surface disturbance
of the day. Nothing. With nothing better to do, I lobbed another
half-hearted cast to the same little grassy point when my spinnerbait
stopped, I yanked, and a big fish yanked back. This fish started taking
line and when I saw it's head I knew I had a pretty nice bass attached
to the other end. After a great fight, I pulled a solid five to six-pounder from the
water. Though a tad on the thin side, this fish quickly dissolved any
conspiracy theories I may have been forming in my head about the sudden
disappearance of all the bass from the Myakka River. The bass are here.
I just wasn't catching them.
Funny how one big bass can turn a rough day on the
water into a great one!
I wish I could say that my pattern of
throwing spinnerbaits to grassy points paid off with a bunch of other
big bass, but that was my last strike of the afternoon. A year ago, when
the water was much higher, the Myakka seemed like a pretty easy river to
figure out, but this day proved I have a lot to learn about Florida
rivers and how to extract bass from them when they don't feel like
eating. It was a tough day, but on the paddle back in I realized that I
had experienced some pretty cool things: frenzied topwater action, my
first snook, and a lunker bass. I'll settle for that combination most
any time out.