Photos and article by
Bill Byrd, Jr.
I had heard about the St. Johns River system, but I'd never experienced its wild, scenic beauty until 2001.
I was invited to take a trip to the St. Johns to fish for "copperheads", and whatever else was present. I called ahead and a guide named Jim Allen, a lifelong resident and fly fishing enthusiast was immediately recommended to me. Jim and I spoke and he convinced me that I had to be at the St. Johns for the "copperhead" action in June. We scheduled the dates and the trip was set.
Just what is a copperhead? Like bluegills that are found all over the USA, the copperhead is a member of the lopomis family, along with many of my personal favorites: redear sunfish, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, the flier, plus longear sunfish. Steve Crawford is the research biologist assigned to the Eustis, Florida hatchery and is a valuable source for Lopomis family insight. Steve furnished me with the following explanation about copperheads: "scientists currently recognize two subspecies of bluegill: the northern bluegill Lepomis macrochirus macrochirus, and the Florida bluegill or copperhead Lepomis macrochirus mystacalis. Some scientists determine a 3rd subspecies Lepomis macrochirus purpurescens that occurs along the eastern half of the southeast Atlantic coast. Some think this subspecies and the Florida bluegill are the same fish. That is still in debate. There are 2 other known subspecies that occur in very limited areas, and one called the hand painted bluegill is found in the Florida panhandle portion of the Appalachicola and Chipola Rivers. According to the taxonomic gurus, the northern bluegill occurs in the panhandle west of the Appalchicola River. Between the Appalachicola and the Suwannee River is the intergrade zone where the 2 subspecies intermingle, and Florida bluegill or copperheads occur east and below the Suwannee throughout the peninsula of Florida.
The Florida bluegill, or copperhead is supposed to have higher dorsal fin spines and is deeper bodied. The name Copperhead is the result of the coloration of mature males, which develop a deep purple color and have a copper band (LEFT) across the top of its head. Some mature females will have a faint copper band. Typically a Florida bluegill male will develop that coloration pattern when it is 4 years old or older, and it becomes more vivid during spawning between April and September.
Bluegills actually grow larger farther north, as a 4 lb 3 oz fish was caught in Kentucky. The Florida bluegill grow faster than it's northern counterpart up to 4 years, probably due to the warmer Florida climate. The northern fish appear to grow faster in the later years and live to an older age. Florida bluegill like their northern cousins will eat almost any kind of insect, aquatic and terrestrial, plus a lot of vegetation. Larger bluegills seem to prefer dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, as well as grass shrimp. Some believe that bluegill which grow to really large sizes also have a consistent diet of small fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an excellent web site that provides a good deal of information. Anglers can find the Top 15 recommended panfish lakes for the state and quarterly fishing recommendations that include locations and tackle to use. Thanks to Steve Crawford for the insight.
I arrived in Jacksonville, checked into my motel, and readied for our first day's fishing. Like me, Jim Allen loves to exercise a light fly rod. Jim prefers "to catch them on 2- to 4-weight rod with 6 pound tippet."
Jim met me at the Hardees in Middleburg, we loaded my gear, grabbed a sausage and biscuit, and were off to launch at the public ramp just across from Pacetti's fish camp on Trout Creek. We launched the boat and fished along Trout Creek for a few minutes.
Moments after we launched, Jim caught this fat "copperhead" (below left) which was hiding in lilly pads on one of his favorite home tied chartreuse and yellow cork poppers. The bream was very strong on his light fly tackle. We caught a few bream in the area, but it was time to explore more water.
Next we ran north to explore some of Jim's favorite water. We hit shallow areas usually in creek mouths that had been holding fat copperheads in this second month of the spawn. Peak spawning activity occurs on the new and full moons in May, June, and July, and these shallow spawning areas are home to multiple species many times. You will find copperheads, regular looking non-banded bluegills, and redear sunfish in the same areas. Even in days not exactly on moon cycles, you may find congregations of rowdy fish in bedding areas. If not, try adjacent woody cover and docks. After the peak season ends, Jim suggests "fish under docks in less than 5 feet of water, in shaded areas with wood or overhanging trees and bushes along creeks, and in eel grass."
On this trip we fished 2-, 3-, or 4-weight rods, seven to nine foot leaders, and and 4- or 6-pound tippet. Probably Jim's favorite fly is his home made poppers, but we tied on a streamer pattern and tested it.
The fish approved the pattern by aggressively gobbling up the streamer and Jim was impressed. He started fishing the streamer pattern successfully. The redear sunfish (right) proves it.
We also had the pleasure of test fishing two new Hexagraph fly rods on this trip. One, of the pair of rods which I now own is a Hexagraph 8 foot two piece 3 weight medium action rod (left). This unique rod is fashioned with bamboo tapers, but is made of flat graphite layers glued on a solid core. It has a smoooth feel, with plenty of backbone. Its light brown color and details makes it unique and beautiful. It will cast a 2- or 3-weight line very smoothly. Jim tried MANY times to develop a scheme to keep that 3- or 4-weight rod.
Stealth is an important issue here. When we approached a bedding area, Jim cut the big Ranger's outboard well away from the area we were to fish. Then we glided quietly to within casting range on the trolling motor on low speed. Once well within range, he QUIETLY lowered an anchor, and we methodically probed water from the outer edges of the area to the inner water to keep from spooking fish. Once we hooked a fish, we tried to keep the commotion to a minimum to further keep from spooking the fish.
Most of the time the copperheads would just "suck" the fly in, others would try to rip the rod from our hands. Either way quickly raising the rod was all that was necessary to set the small, light wire size-14 and -12 hook. Then the rod arced like a divining rod, pointing straight to the water (RIGHT). After a serious struggle, the one to one-and-a-quarter pound copperhead would pop to the surface. Since he was too big to grab, I simply held my hand down flat and slid him up my outstretched palm. Once out of the water, my hemostats removed my fly, and I quietly slipped the fish back to his home water. Some of the copperheads had their photos shot before release.
Early in the day we probed shaded overhanging bushes and wood along creek banks with size-8 chartreuse, or chartreuse and yellow poppers. The big 'gills would strike strongly with that unique "SMAACK!" as they sucked in our poppers, and on hookset, would explode on the surface kicking water into the air before diving to try to leave the fly in familiar nearby wood.
That was it! For two and a half days, we probed some of the most gorgeous water I have seen, searching for some of the strongest 'gills I've ever enjoyed catching and releasing. Jim and I caught and released between 150 and 200 copperheads, and redear sunfish over the period. It was a thrill!
If you haven't had the PLEASURE of meeting these copper headed treasures in the St. Johns River, it would be a memorable trip. However, I'm sad to say that I have called and found that Jim Allen who guided me on this trip is no longer guiding on the St. Johns, and he knows of nobody else who is guiding there at this time.
Now this sad update: Jim Allen passed away on March 22nd, 2009, at the age of 71. His love for the St. Johns fishery and guiding or fishing the St. Johns is very well known. I'm glad I had the pleasure of meeting Jim and fishing with him to write this article. I was calling to see about fishing with him Spring of 2010 when I discovered his death.
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