Monday, January 7, 2019

Florida: Jungle Small Stream Fishing

On our second full day of fishing in Florida, after a slow morning trying to find snook and snapper in a mangrove lined river, Noah and I somehow managed to take a wrong turn somewhere and we found ourselves on a different planet. 

Imagine, if you will, a meandering clear water stream, slightly tannin stained, flowing over a white sand and clamshell bottom. Along the banks  grow cypress trees, huge deep green ferns, sabal palms, lush low growth  carpet, and palmettos. In places, hulking dinosaurs sun themselves up on the banks, and in the water swim all manner of turtles, some bulky and slow, some look like fast moving aquatic pancakes with limbs and a head. Also swimming in the water are fish. A stunning variety of fish. Giant green largemouth bass. Huge schools of striped mojarra. Stunningly colorful cichlids and tilapia. Not one snook species, but four! Gar, sleeper, armored catfish, sunfish, sheepshead, snapper, oscar... the amount and diversity of fish swimming below was stunning, though not completely natural. 

I had never fished a place like this before. And catching strange new species out of it was not just expected but a near guarantee. Noah and I paddled through deep holes, portaged over log jams, and waded through shallow runs, trying to see and catch as many new species as we possibly could in this bizarre prehistoric looking realm. 

Spotted sunfish (Lepomis punctatus) of the massive variety.

Mayan cichlid (Cichlasoma urophthalmus) that robbed me of a shot at a pair of bigmouth sleeper basking on adjacent submerged branches.
As we worked downstream we kept seeing these striped cichlids that looked really odd. Our thought was that they were convict cichlids or zebra tilapia. But, later in the day, I caught one, and between the time it ate my fly and a brought it to hand it went from very clearly striped to just a dull dark coloration. Once out of the water it changed color even more. By the time I released the fish it was abundantly clear that this was just a spotted tilapia and that the species was more adept at coloration change than either of us realized. Noah and I both caught our lifer spotted tilapia in this jungle creek.

Spotted tilapia (Pelmatolapia mariae) 
Something I was seeing a very large number of that neither of us expected to were bigmouth sleeper. A native FL species, bigmouth sleep are a very large member of the family Eleotridae. Most members of the family have a juvenile planktonic stage followed by an adulthood of living in freshwater or brackish streams or other estuarine habitat. Bigmouth sleeper can get quite large, they are in fact the largest member of the family Eleotridae, but the fish I was seeing were smaller ones no bigger than 10 inches. Most weren't over 6 inches. After casting at a large number of these fish and getting snubbed, I had something long, slim, and darter like jump on my fly while I was paying more attention to a small snapper. I got the fish to hand and gasped.  Noah asked what it was, to which I simply quickly opened my hand to reveal a beautiful little bigmouth sleeper without saying a word before running to get my camera. I had already caught a few new species on this trip, but this was my first of the day and one I really did not expect to get any time soon. Gobiomorus dormitor, the bigmouth sleeper goby, is without a doubt one of the coolest species on my life list.

Gobiomorus dormitor

The very next cast I caught another new species, a little mangrove snapper. Though widely though of as a saltwater fish, many snapper species are tolerant of water with a very low salinity, and indeed this mangrove snapper and his buddies were perfectly happy in this freshwater jungle river, swimming right alongside bass and sunfish. Though there were a lot of them around they were actually quite difficult to dupe with an artificial fly. Most just stared it down and never took. I got two takes in all. 

Mangrove snapper or grey snapper (Lutjanus griseus)

There were gar around. No matter whether they are a new species or one I have already caught, if I see gar, I am going to cast at them... I just love gar. I put a lot of casts in front of gar in the jungle creek and some actually ate. Of the ones that ate I hooked and landed two. These are Florida gar, very often mis-identified as spotted gar. Though there is no visual way to tell the difference, the range of spotted gar in FL is very small and the range of Florida gar is not. Outside of the Florida Panhandle,  The Suwanee drainage, Crystal River, and an area from about Fort Meyers to just south of Everglades City, if you catch a gar it is a Florida gar. Other than that the only distinguishing characteristic is a set of bony plates under the start of the jaw of spotted gar (please do correct me if I'm wrong, accurate information on distinguishing the two species is hard to come by).  Notice how similar the hooking location is on these two gar is. These fish often hit with a quick turn to the side that puts the fly near the start of the mouth, and if the line has sunk bellow the fish's jaws the hookset will bring the fly into the slightly fleshy area on the underside of the fish's lower jaw. Though this just outside the mouth hookup might be considered fowl play by some, I actually prefer it over burying a sizable hook in the hardest part of the fish's mouth, possibly breaking teeth and making it tougher to remove the hook. 

Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus)

We were seeing a fair amount of snook and mojarra as we paddled, but not catching any. I did get one hookup with a striped mojarra and regretfully broke it off. But as we went downstream we found more gators, more difficult passage, and still no snook that wanted to come out and slam a fly or lure. Going back upstream we hit spots we had seen fish in on the way down. Some produced, some didn't but we got nothing new until we got nearly all the way back to the start. In one fairly small stretch Noah got his lifer Mayan cichlid. Then I got a huge bluegill. Then a nice Mayan.

Lepomis macrochirus 

Then I caught something really special. One of the big reasons we had chosen to fish this particular stream is that my good friend Alec told me we would have a fair chance of running into more than one species of snook. Some don't realize that snook doesn't refer to one species, but the genus Centropomus which includes at least a dozen different species. In this strange jungle small stream, I caught a swordspine snook with a Sexy Walt's Worm nymph. The smallest of the snooks, a swordspine's may only grow to 16 inches long. An elongated anal fin spine that extends just a hair beyond the start of their tail fin differentiates them from other small snooks. My 4th new species of the day was almost as cool as the bigmouth sleeper. 

The line formed by the right side of my pinky marks the start of the caudal fin.  

Swordspine snook (Centropomus ensiferus)

A short time later a strange looking dark creature hammered my fly. It was an oscar! We had not seen any at all and it was a real surprise to catch one right at the end. 

Tiger oscar (Astronotus ocellatus)
With that, and a small evening thunderstorm hot on our heals, we got ourselves out of the jungle and headed back to base camp. On the way, we found something really really special. But for that, dear reader, you will have to wait for the next post. 

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Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines.


  1. This is a fantastic fishing adventure trip!

    1. This was a pretty remarkable place for sure.

  2. Starting reading your blog today ~ I like it ~ You are very knowledgeable

  3. Great post of the many species caught. Loved the looks of that meandering small stream.

    1. Thank you. The surroundings are what made that outing memorable.

  4. That was Jurassic for sure. So many beautiful species in a small creek. I love the Gar. Thanks for the adventure.
    Tie, fish, write, conserve and photo on...

    1. We must not forget, of course, that many of these species (gar not included) do not belong there. It sure does improve the illusion of being on another world though.

  5. Great photos and post buddy! I am heading to FL in April. I look forward to it every year. My mom is going fishing with me too so it will be extra special.

    1. Enjoy it. I hope yo will be someplace that wasn't completely ruined by red tide.