The more the state of Florida becomes populated, the more valuable places like this become.
At the April Heroes On The Water event my friend Tammy Wilson said we should do an Econlockhatchee (go ahead, it’s pronounced just like the spelling) paddle soon. Soon just doesn’t come quick enough sometimes so we found our first free Sunday and went for it. That ended up being a mere two weeks. I shouted out to some friends to get a group to go and one of them was Capt John Kumiski. John was busy but fortunately he lives nearby and offered to shuttle us. This is a HUGE help because this is a one way trip so you drop your gear off at Point A and drive all the cars to Point B while someone waits with the gear. From there you drive one car back with everyone in it and then when the trip is over, you end up at all the vehicles but still have to go back and get the shuttle vehicle. John made life a bit easier this day. His limo service was well appreciated.
Custom seats in John's Econ express shuttle.
The Econ is part of the St. John’s River and flows north. On this day it was very low. Low water levels can be great and they can be horrible. High waters can be great and they can…, never mind. Either way, it’s part of the adventure. Since childhood, my trip up the Econ is never complete without cold fried chicken and salt. Cold salted fried chicken is what we ate 30 years ago and it’s what I eat now to help embrace my younger years. Plus it’s awesome. Once loaded up, the seven of us slid into the fog covered water and got the trip started.
A morning launch is always the way to go with the sun peering through the trees.
Life can be fast at times and living with a disability has forced me to slow my roll, tremendously. When I put that first paddle blade in the water of the Econ, my roll slows even more. It’s almost as if time stops and all your worries vanish while you melt into what is real Florida. If Doc Brown could take you for a ride in his Delorean, I’m sure the landscape would look very similar 200 years ago. There is truly no other way to explore these waters other than by kayak or canoe. Well, there is but you only place more of a barrier between you and the elements.
Tammy was kind enough to get werms (or worms for normal people) for the entire crew. The downfall of fishing with worms is you typically have to stay still for a little bit to soak them. The flow of the Econ keeps you moving so I find it best to use artificial baits. Equipped with a small freshwater tackle box, I opted for a new spinnerbait I picked up the previous night for under $2. It was a natural color spinnerbait and that single bait would lure more than 15 fish to the kayak this day. The skunk vanished with this redbelly bream. My weapon of choice for the trip was a 6’ St. Croix with a 1000 series Shimano spooled with 6lb braid. It’s my juvi tarpon rod but these little fish will give it all they got and it tends to be a fun fight.
Redbelly bream/redbreast sunfish
As much as this trip is intended for total relaxation, it needs to be managed well in order to take it all in. Catch a few fish here, look at a few birds there, paddle under the lowest trees you can find or splash your face with the copper colored black water. If you can manage to do that, you will experience everything this tributary has to offer. One of the nice landscape features are the wild flowers that grow. If you have a keen eye, you can even find wild orchids. I was able to find a few orchids this trip but they were not as photogenic as some of the other flowers.
Coral plant and Spanish moss
One of the things that took me for surprise was the lack of alligator sightings. This time of year they are laying out on the banks soaking up the sun. The larger the group, the noisier you are thus warning all the locals to take cover. But this is Florida and at any given time, something is watching you. Upon taking a break I found some gator tracks that went into the bush but did not come out.
Small gator slide
One of few gators seen on this paddle
One of the first break spots is located next to a very nice cove. In this cove is large pine tree that use to possess an eagles nest. Last time I snuck into this cover to get some photos of the eagles but after inspecting it this time, I noticed that some herons took up residence in it. There must be some mutual understanding between these birds or the herons served an eviction notice. Whatever the case may be, I was lead to this tree and directly below it is where I found the nicest bass of the day. In all honesty, it wasn’t just the nicest bass of the day but it is the biggest I have ever caught. It was an honor and my connection with this small cove became tighter.
I have caught less than 30 bass in my lifetime.
I spend too much time in salt water
The eagles continued to elude me throughout the day. You have to be quick with the camera in order to get a nice shot and the opportunity just didn’t find its way to me. The red tail hawks on the other hand were not camera shy. One thing I’ve learned about being around birds is if you don’t look at them, they tend not to fly away as much. I have tested this many of times with pelicans and herons and it seems to work. All you need to do is figure out that exact moment to point the camera at them in order to catch them looking at you. Eye contact will make them fly away.
After the break spot, you start to see a small change in the landscape. The most obvious is the extremely large and old big cypress trees. These tree can grow incredibly tall and be encompassed by large stump foundations. As a kid, I always had my eyes peeled on these foundations because water snakes and moccasins would be curled up and tucked away inside the crevasses. Unfortunately I haven’t found a snake in these stumps since I was a boy. I’m sure they are there so I’ll just keep looking and taking cool photos of the trees until I find one.
Nobody was home
The day continued to flow like the water and I continued to catch fish on the small spinnerbait. We were all catching fish and that will put smiles on faces and make days more enjoyable. Bass and redbelly bream were the hungry fish of the day. These waters are loaded with other species and I found that out after not giving up on hit after hit that I got under a cypress tree. It took some patience but I was able to finally catch the fish that was hitting my lure time and time again. It fought harder than any of the other fish and when I got it to the boat I was happy to see it was a chain pickerel.
When you start to see the cows and horses you know you’re more than halfway. The horses can be a bit sketchy but the cows don’t mind if you’re up close. This is where the lower water levels will make your trip a bit longer. High waters will give you the ability to paddle directly across the grassy plains while lower waters prompt you to hit switchback after switchback. This is also where you will encounter boat traffic including airboats, flats boats, bass boats and an occasional jet ski.
If you have paced yourself well, the time should be right around 3pm and you have entered the St. Johns River. This is the home stretch and can be either exciting or sad. Exciting because you’re tired of paddling or sad because you don’t want it to be over. 9 times out of 10 it’s sad for me. I have never done an overnight trip on the Econ but it is on the books in the near future. For now, it was fun to make another trip up the river with the great company of Wade, Kim, Darryl, Betsie, Tammy and Lynn. The next trip can't come soon enough.
Back at the ramp