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Sweating and Shivering on the Wekiva

    Things started out well enough. I had just shoved off from the canoe landing on Wekiva Park Drive and despite the wind I was already sweating. When the sun poked through the clouds and the river turned to protect me from the wind, it was downright hot. Not many people in the continental US can work up a sweat during a January river trip, but this was central Florida, and the only meteorological certainty in this part of the state in January is that something is about to change.

    And the fish were biting. It seemed the bluegills and the stumpknockers were at war on virtually every cast to see which species would get to eat my small Beetlespin. While the lower Wekiva is slightly tannic-colored compared to the gin-clear spring water upstream, I could still make out the feisty panfish trying to outrun one another to grab the small lure as it wobbled over the sandy bottom. It really didn't matter where I put my lure: docks, grass, downed trees; they were everywhere and they were hungry. I even caught one from under a moored boat at the boat rental place about half a mile downstream.

Plenty of these little guys are to be had on the lower Wekiva

   Just downstream of the start of the Wekiva Preserve, a group of six wild turkeys flew across the river one by one about five seconds apart. In the preserve area, things were starting to look like the Wekiva I expected to see: wild! While I did get a slight involuntary chill when I spotted the occasional gator sunning on a bank, I began to notice that the temperature outside was getting noticeably colder. It was starting to get dark too, which is always a bad sign at 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

   I decided to try my luck bass fishing, and my third cast with a floating minnow plug yielded a small bass. "This is too darn easy", I remember thinking to myself as I slid the pretty little fish back into the water.

I told you it was little

   Two hours later I was cursing my arrogance as I had yet to get another fish into my kayak. I had my chances, though. After littering the bottom of my boat with a variety of baits the bass weren't interested in, I tied on a weighted Zoom Super Fluke. These plastic jerkbaits are meant to be jerked erratically near the surface, but I put mine on a weighted hook and twitched it slowly near the bottom. These things look absolutely deadly fluttering toward the bottom. I immediately lost about a three pound bass right at the boat and had another nice fish wrap my line around a brushpile. Feeling a bit more confident, I paddled down to the next spot with deep water and put the bait right next to a fallen tree.

   The wake the fish made right after the lure hit the water was downright scary. I set the hook and line peeled off my spinning reel. The fish took off toward midstream and I thanked her for swimming away from the bankside cover. Then it started thrashing on the surface. Experienced Florida river anglers already know how this fish tale is gonna end, but since the rest of you may not, I had hooked a bowfin. These toothy prehistoric monsters inhabit most southern rivers and I'd rather bring an alligator into the boat than a bowfin. They thrash all over the place and if their teeth don't get you, your own hooks probably will. They are a hoot to catch however, and I reached for my pliers as the large fish started getting closer to the boat.

   One small problem: the pliers were back in my truck. In an instant, I went from desperately trying to land a large fish to rooting for the fish to somehow escape. Luckily for me, the mudfish made one last surge and succeeded in snapping my line. I've never been happier to lose a fish.

   By this time, it was downright cold and starting to drizzle. The bass fishing had been tough (but sprinkled with excitement) and I was not looking forward to the two-mile paddle back upstream against the current, the wind, and the strengthening rain. As I was pondering my impending workout, I heard a sound from downstream that I had not heard all day: a motor. Two guys in a square-stern canoe with a small outboard on back came heading upstream and we had the opportunity to chat for a bit. They had been all the way down to the point where the Wekiva runs into the St. John's (about 10-12 miles). Though not fishing on this day, they reported seeing a good many alligators but no other fishermen. Noticing my empty water bottle, one of the men opened his cooler and tossed me an ice cold Milwaukee's Best. I'm generally a Budweiser man, but I have to admit that cheap beer tastes as good as any other after a long day on the river!

   The guys offered to tow me and my kayak back to the canoe launch, but the rain had stopped on about my third swallow and I decided to paddle and fish my way back. I wish I could say that the fishing improved after the beer, but I only had one strike: something big that straightened my hook after I reared back and set the hook with a little too much exuberance. I'd love to say it was a bass, but it was probably another big bowfin. That's OK, though. I know where he lives, and next time I won't forget the pliers!