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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 topwater bait

    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.