A Paradise Hidden In
Florida's Little Big
by Joseph D. Cornwall
There is a Florida very few have ever visited.
Itís a Florida thatís hidden behind the signs that point the way to golf
courses and outlet malls. Itís a Florida that existed before condominiums.
Itís the Florida from a time before timeshare. Itís the Florida one might
have found before the ďMouseĒ arrived. It is a Florida that is pristinely
breathtaking, frighteningly wild and joyously beautiful. Itís a Florida that
scares some tourists, and intrigues others. Best of all, itís a Florida that
still exists - if you are willing to work a bit to see it.
During the first week of June I was fortunate to explore and fish Floridaís
Little Big Econ. Designated as an Outstanding Florida Water (OFW) and
singled out for preservation, the Econlockhatchee system is the second
largest tributary to the St. Johns River. The Econlockhatchee River Canoe
Trail is officially designated as part of Floridaís Statewide System of
Greenways and Trails. I can say from personal experience that protecting
this bit of paradise was, and is, a brilliant idea!
Jerry Goldsmith was my guide into the Econ. We saddled up for the adventure
on a hot and humid afternoon with air temperatures in the mid 90ís. Iíll
admit that I was more than a bit apprehensive about wading in a Florida
creek at the dripping edge of summer. What about alligators? What about
water moccasins? What about the thousand other painful, angry or unhealthy
things I could run into? And isnít the bottom a thick, gooey black mud; the
kind of mud where people disappear only to resurface centuries later as
fossils? All this and more was going through my mind as Jerry teased me with
tales of the leaping tarpon and angry jacks we might have caught if only Iíd
brought my eight weight. But sweet water is what Iíd asked for, and sweet
water is what Iíd get.
We pulled into a well marked parking lot at 4PM. The Econ is a civilized
river for all its wildness and natural beauty. There are canoe liveries and
guide services that work the lower stretches all the way to the St. Johnís
River. We would be fishing above this easily accessible water, though. Our
destination was a short wade just upstream of SR 419. As I strung up my 7.5
foot 4wt. rod and attached a leader tapered to 6lb test, I was still unsure
of what I might find when we finally reached the water.
The Little Big Econ of June is a small flow. At points the stream was barely
fifteen feet across. On average, the river muscled up to an intimate 30 feet
or so. At no point did I encounter water so wide that a simple roll cast
would fail to hit the far bank. My very first impression was one of delight;
this looked exactly like the little brook trout streams Iíd fished in the
Bridgewater Triangle of Massachusettsí Hockomock Swamp during my misspent
youth! Reddish colored tannin-stained water flowed transparently over an
impossibly clean sand bottom. Thick underbrush and a dense canopy shaded and
cradled the flow, erasing my steps as soon as I moved. Fifty yards from the
bridge I felt like Ponce De Leon searching for the fountain of youth in a
virgin forest; the first to survey such wonderful scenery.
It wasnít more than fifty yards from the bridge when Jerry let out a low
whistle. ďLook at that bass!Ē he exclaimed. A bright fish of three pounds
lay pouting in a three-foot deep hole. Our flies didnít tempt the fish,
which just swam away with what I can only categorize as a look of disgust on
its scaled face. This was going to be tough!
Jerry began by fishing a top-water bug. I selected a cream wooly bugger in
size 8 with a chartreuse tail and very little flash. It was a good imitation
of a generic baitfish that looked tempting in the clear water. I hoped it
would look good to the fish, too. It wasnít long before I found out. First
blood came from a fine spotted sunfish of about five inches, which darted
out from a dark, wooded pocket and hit my fly all in the same motion.
Without much room to move, the battle was all about a quick jab and sudden
change of direction. The four-weight prevailed and the fish was easily
brought to hand.
An amazing trait of the Little Big Econ was promptly demonstrated. The
water, with its surprising clarity, gave little indication of how deep a
section really was. One moment youíd be standing ankle deep, one step later
and youíre up to your thighs. Underwater hills and dales of sand made the
footing easy when it was packed, but loose sand sometimes invited a slide
right into the very spot we were trying to fish. No doubt about it, this
creek was demanding our best wading and stalking abilities.
Unlike the creeks of Ohio and the Midwest, this Florida spring creek offered
a truly different set of challenges. In some spots towering cypress trees
grew up from the very center of the flow, providing a deep scour right at
the base. Dead timber provided cover at every bend. Many of the banks were
either undercut or nearly vertical in contour. There was certainly no lack
of fishy cover on this little gem!
Half a mile from our put-in point we came to a tight ogee that undercut
first one way, then the other. The water at the back of the downed tree the
anchored the first bend of the ďSĒ was black with depth. There was little
doubt in our minds that a hawg lived there. Jerry fired one cast after
another, but these fish werenít looking up. My turnÖ
I dropped the wooly worm at the tail-out of the pool and was quickly
rewarded with another spotted sunfish, this one about six-inches long.
Pretty and entertaining, but not what I was looking for. A more daring cast
put my fly into the thick of the timber. A quick bulge and my rod bent into
a semi-circle. The bass powered under a log as I back-peddled my way
downstream to less obstructed water. Under the log, the bass locked down
tight. I put all the strain I thought the little Cabelaís Stow-Away could
handle into the fight, and the fish stubbornly followed the tight line into
the clear water below the hole.
I swear that fish fought like a solid two-pound toad. In my hands I doubt it
stretched twelve inches, though. It was a healthy beautiful bass, almost
silver in the transparent water and with a prominent lateral line that would
make a snook proud. An hour into the fishing and Iíd already adopted this
creek as a new favorite!
Jerry quickly opted for a sinking fly. Tying on a size 12 Gill-getter in red
and black, Jerry unrolled a pretty loop as his three-weight fired the
diminutive fly into the dark water at the head of the pool. A couple casts
later and his rod bent to the cork as a much better fish decided the little
bug was too appetizing to let it go by. It wasnít to be a long-lived battle,
though. The bass turned and powered into the wood. The fight was lost almost
as quickly as it started. We both laughed out loud.
There were more than a few spots on the Little Big Econ that threw
challenges at us. Some spots featured fearsome saw palmetto and thick
tangles of foliage on the banks, making a dry run far too difficult. The
alternative was some extreme wading. At one such spot Jerry decided to cross
from river right to river left at what appeared to be a waist-deep run. Two
steps later and all I saw was a hat and rod tip. Popping to the surface,
Jerry looked at me with a true shine of surprise in his eyes and said ďI
canít believe this is over my head!Ē
As the sun set on a humid Florida day, we worked our way out of the jungle
and back to a world complete with cell phones and some fine Indian food
(thanks J. Ė it was great!). Itís almost hard to believe that such a wild
spot still exists in a state so overburdened with development, tourists and
gaudy, planted tropical landscapes. That this fine piece of water is just a
short drive from Disney was simply icing on the cake. Iím hooked, deeply.
Next time I head south Iím bringing an eight-weight for the salt and Iím
also bringing a 6-foot 5-weight just for the Econ!