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Withlacoochee: Episode II

    The wind was already whipping when I popped my head outside the popup camper for a look-see around 8 AM on the second day of our Withlacoochee trip. The trifecta of high winds, crystal clear water, and a severe cold front had made our first day an exercise in frustration. Our plan on this day was to try and find a spot upriver where the water had more color and was protected from the wind.

This picture pretty much sums up the day. Cold, windy, and catching bass out in the middle of the river. There's a bass there, Trust me.

    The weather forecast had told us that today was going to be rough, with a 20 mph wind out of the north and highs only reaching the mid-50's. Well, at least the river wouldn't be crowded today! Since the Withlacoochee flows in a northwesterly direction, we decided to fish our way upstream with the wind at our backs and then paddle back downstream to our takeout vehicle. As it turns out, we could have easily done a float trip from downstream to upstream (and avoided paddling against the wind altogether!), as the wind turned out to be far stronger than the current.

    Due to the curious events of the day before, I had to go find a mechanic to look at my truck to make sure it was in good enough shape to get me and my popup trailer safely back to Georgia. This was a tad trickier than usual considering today was a Sunday, a holiday weekend, and the day of the Daytona 500. Since we didn't know how long this would take, Will and Todd got an early start on the fishing. After I got someone to examine my car, I would catch up with them on the river. Luckily, the the suspension damage to my truck wasn't too bad (either that or the mechanic didn't want work interfering with the race!), and I was able to head to the Withlacoochee only an hour or so behind Will and Todd.

    I was cautiously optimistic when I saw the river at the launch site. It was small with lots of trees on both banks that would offer protection from the wind. Unfortunately, the river widened after the first bend heading upstream and stayed at least 100 feet wide for the next few miles upstream. There were whitecaps forming in places, and I knew the paddle back downstream would be labor-intensive and chilly. I barely had to paddle on the way upstream, as the wind provided more than enough propulsion. I was able to make a few casts along the way, and the results were not encouraging.

    I was throwing a spinnerbait to the banks, and more often than not, my lure would come back coated with river slime. To avoid the slime near the banks, I basically had to burn my spinnerbait across the surface, an effective tactic to be sure, but not during a February cold front. I decided to concentrate on paddling upstream to find Will and Todd and see if they had discovered the key to making the bass bite.

    Once I put down the fishing pole, I started noticing all the life abounding in this section of the With. The bird life is amazing. I saw owls, osprey, and a few different types of hawk along with a plethora of egrets and herons. I stopped at one point to check a little side channel that ran through a grass prairie and walked through absolute swarms of tiny minnows. I can only imagine what this place is like when the river is full and the weather is warm!

Florida State Code 100-43567 states that every article written about a river in Florida must contain a menacing alligator picture.

    I finally found Will and Todd a couple miles farther upstream. A couple miles of upstream paddling might sound like a lot, but the current on the Withlacoochee is very mild, even when the river is high. Throw in a 15 mph wind at my back, and the trip upstream was much more akin to sailing than paddling. The float downstream required some work.

    As I predicted, Will and Todd hadn't caught anything either. Around 2 PM or so, we decided to fish our way back downstream to the trucks. The With is very wide in this section, and we lined our kayaks three abreast and started paddling downstream against the wind, getting in a cast or two, and paddling a few strokes farther. Todd was in the middle of the river, and his first bass helped us figure out how to make the best of a pretty wretched day (see first picture).

    The key was fishing the deeper water towards the middle of the river, and pretty soon we were all flinging small crankbaits and spinnerbaits that dove 4-5 feet and constantly ticked the wood and weeds out in the middle of the river. We got enough strikes from small bass and jackfish to make us feel like we had accomplished something. All told, we caught ten bass and a couple jackfish by ignoring the banks and combing the riverbed thoroughly with cranks and spinnerbaits. It's pretty obvious that the cold front and low water sent the bass hiding in the deepest water available, and we were able to find a few of them.

Crankbait-caught bass from midstream. Not your typical pattern for Central Florida river bass.

    Needless to say, we didn't see anybody else fishing and only one airboat made an appearance. We did see our first couple gators of the trip along with all the other wildlife. That night while catfishing, we wondered aloud at how different that stretch of river might be with another foot or so of water. The cypress knees that were now  completely exposed would hold fish once some rain filled the river, and the shallow and weedy banks wouldn't be the banks anymore. They'd be the muck you had to drag your fish through to get them from the trees into the boat.

   It turns out that our catfishing provided the most eventful moment of the day. We kept hearing big, unidentified splashes out in the middle of the river. Todd cast a topwater bait as far as he could and started working it back to the dock. Quicker than he could react, an owl swooped down and picked the lure up off the water, hooking one of his talons in the process. This was a no-win situation for both bird and angler. Rather than risk harming the owl or ourselves any further, we decided to cut the line and hopefully the owl would be able to work the lure free. I hope it survived, but that has to be one of the craziest things I've ever witnessed while fishing. I thought owls were supposed to be wise.

Run for your lives! Between the owls and eels, catfishing is never boring is the most exciting thing ever can be pretty fun sometimes!