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A Colorful Cast: Fly fishers greet some of the many, finny players on Florida's magnificent Yellow River.

When fishing, we generally have one of two goals in mind for our expeditions: 1) Catch lots of fish; 2) Catch the biggest fish possible. Yet, as my friend Matt Wegener, my husband Brian Whalen, and I pulled out of a boat ramp on Northwest Florida's Yellow River, we had a unique mission: catch as many species as possible.

The Yellow River is an ideal location to go after fish biodiversity on a fly rod. Ninety two miles long, the Yellow River begins in Alabama before flowing through Florida and into Blackwater Bay. Wegener, a fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, explained that when sea levels rose before the previous ice age, fish species in the Florida Panhandle rivers escaped north. When waters receded, the fish species returned, along with the new varieties that had adapt ed to post-Ice Age conditions.

To me, what stands out about the Yellow River is actually what it doesn't have: human development along the shoreline. With a few exceptions, both sides of the river are protected by the Yellow River Water Management District and Eglin Air Force Base. As we motored upstream, we passed cypress trees glowing bright green as their knees grew above the water line. Maple and titi trees had fully leafed out, while pockets without current created ideal conditions for marsh grasses and pickerel weeds. Bright yellow prothonotary warblers and other songbirds sang their hearts out, the avian music echoing across the river as long-nosed and alligator gar slurped air from the surface before diving into the depths once more.

However, the same conditions that make the Yellow River beautiful make fly-fishing tough. Tree branches overhanging the banks just beg for snags and tangles; underwater logs and submerged roots offer endless opportunities for caught flies and lines, and at first I could do little but ensnare myself with every cast.

We fished using 5-weight fly-rods with floating line; two-on, one resting or steering the boat as the others cast. Leaning out as far as we could without falling, we aimed to lay the line in the two or three feet above the surface but below the lowest branches, sometimes banking off the cypress trunks to perfectly drop the fly into the shaded water.

At first, it was all I could do to slowly hone my technique. Moving upstream with the trolling motor, I cast and cast and cast and cast, all to no avail. Fly-fishing on the Yellow is technical, and while there are a wide variety of fish species, there are low numbers of fish.

Finally, my husband broke the monotony of cast, reel, cast, reel, repeat, hooking up with a spotted sunfish, all of three inches. He was a beautiful little guy, red-tinged fins meeting with an olive-green body. Conveniently, when fishing for species numbers size truly doesn't matter, and we were pumped to get our first slime on the boat.

After the first, the fish came more quickly. In a calm crescent of open water on the edge of the river, we spotted a large bowfin mere inches beneath the surface. Wegener quickly strode to the top of his boat, running a chartreuse dragon right in front of the bowfin's nose. The first pass did nothing, failing to turn this ancient fish variety. Casting again, he slowed the speed of his retrieve just slightly. Tension heightened by the visibility offish versus fly, we collectively shouted in triumph as the bowfin finally hit, leaping into the air and back again with a giant splash.

Bluegill came next, caught working the shoreline. Three species down, and we were coming into our groove. The chartreuse dragon fly pattern proved so popular we had to physically put it back together about halfway through the expedition, though we had additional luck with a tan crab pattern as a well as a black woolly bugger

Moving farther upriver, we paused beneath the Route 87 bridge, alive with construction noise throughout the week and into our Saturday fishing. Arms of the river stretched out from the main channel, ending in floodplain forest or connecting back to the Yellow in graceful arcs. Though logs risked tangles, they had also created our bread and butter fishing pockets, and we made a bee-line for a large group of trunks and branches criss-crossed just above the flowing current. As we readied the rods, an American alligator slipped into the river, looking frighteningly similar to the floating debris we had tied up to.

I made an absolutely gorgeous cast, the chartreuse fly arching behind me before laying gracefully on the rippling surface of the river, two inches from a root jutting above the water. I had to catch a fish with a cast like that, right?

Pausing, I let the fly sink for a moment before beginning my retrieve. In an instant, the line tightened, so consistently unmoving that I assumed I had caught the bottom for the millionth time. Ugh.

Just as I was about to reel up in an attempt to dislodge my fly, the line zagged sharply to the right, impossible movement for a mere snag on a rock or trunk. I had a live fish after all!

After a minute of fighting, I pulled up a new species for me: the warmouth perch. A unique-looking creature, it has inspired a host of other common names, including red-eyed bream, goggle-eye, and strawberry perch. Dark coloring matched the tea-colored hues of the Yellow River, with the mottled brown and green of its body meeting reddish streaks stretching from across the eyes. To me it appeared as if the warmouth had merged with the muddy bottom of the river itself.

Our final stop, Boiling Creek, appeared quite different from the portions of the Yellow River and the tributaries we had explored thus far. Boiling Creek forms as a seepage stream, rainwater filtering through the sandhill slopes of this region before flowing into the river cool and absolutely clear.

We had caught four species, but wanted more, and had both largemouth bass and pickerel in our sights. Literally.

The Yellow River is well-known for its largemouth bass populations, usually fished using conventional tackle. In fact, throughout the entire trip we had seen no one but ourselves with fly rods, perhaps--we mused--indicating the difficulty of catching the bass and other species in general within this unique waterway.

The stream showed us the bass we sought as if through a mirror, tantalizingly close and yet unreachable. We switched flies and line like maniacs, dangling the streamers right in front of them while cursing their general disinterest. Given the deep brown tannins in most of the river, this spot was one of the few where anglers could actually spot the bass, and in all likelihood these individuals had been fished over so many times it would take miracle to fool one of them. Fish: 1, Humans: 0.

At the edge of Boiling Creek, the pickerel weed flowed into the current of the Yellow River. The water deepens, and as we made our way out of the stream we spotted a large pickerel fish hiding amidst the aquatic vegetation. Tying on the trusty dragon a final time, Wegener cast, once, twice, three times, and there! The pickerel slammed the fly and with a few strong pulls we had our fifth species of the day.

It's true, we struck out on the largemouth bass. But why catch all the target fish in one go, leaving none to look forward to on future trips? A few fish we caught were a good size--most weren't--but we oohed and aahed over the species we had never pulled in before, new "life fish" to add to our growing tallies. Rivers in Northwest Florida are some of the most diverse in the country, so there's no better place to rack up our totals!

A Year on the Yellow

Water temperature is probably the single most important factor when it comes to locating sport fish in northwest Florida rivers. Water temperature changes the abundance and location of forage, influences the amount of oxygen in the water, and even how much food a fish needs to consume because of temperature's effect on a fish's metabolism. Understanding how changing water temperature affects fish movement can make it easier to know where to find fish when the temperature goes up or down.

In mid-to-late fall, largemouth bass and bluegill start to migrate towards off-channel habitats, such as sloughs and oxbows. They do this because these areas are deep and protected from the river current. Still waters are always warmer than moving water (except from a warm-water outflow from a power plant) and warmer conditions are what cold-blooded animals like fish are looking for when it gets cold. They spend the winter in this habitat and may even spawn there during the early spring.

Once temperatures start to rise in late spring and early summer, bass and bluegill will begin to seek out habitat in the main river because the current creates higher oxygen levels and cooler water temperatures that these fish prefer during the warmer parts of the year. In middle to late summer, expect to find bass and bluegill using some of the deepest outside bends and runs in the river, especially if there is plenty of overhanging tree limbs. The deep water and shade from the overhanging trees helps to further cool the water, making it an ideal spot for a big fish to spend the dog days of summer. As the water temperatures begin to decrease in early fall, expect to find fish still in main channel habitat, but slowly moving closer to the mouths of off-channel habitats as this annual migration continues in response to changing water temperatures.

--Matt Wegener

Travel Pointers

LODGING: Brown's Fish Camp at the boat launch on the Yellow River [Number 1, on FWC map above] has a small campground, including RV pickup (though with no restrooms or showers). A KOA campground is just 10-15 minutes away, and includes cabins, RV/camping opportunities, and a host of amenities. For those who prefer hotels, the Best Western Milton Inn is nearby. And for those who want a truly unique experience, check out "glamping" at Coldwater Gardens (coldwatergardens.com/glamping-tents/).

RESTAURANTS: The town of Milton is your best bet for quality meals. The Blackwater Bistro is good, as is Grover T's BBQ.

OTHER RIVERS: The Escambia, Blackwater and Choctawhatchee rivers are similar in appearance to the Yellow River, and offer comparable species diversity. All are tannin-stained, brown-hued rivers, fairly undeveloped, and flow from southern Alabama through Panhandle Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Caption: Get into a bunch of bluegill and plan a fish fry. Or, catch one here and there and simply enjoy the day.

Caption: Lower Yellow River near Milton, Florida. The Yellow is a true wilderness river, from its headwaters 40 miles north of the Florida-Alabama state line, to the slow, scenic bends along Eglin Air Force Base.

Caption: Yellow River Also lurking beneath these placid waters: 40-pound flathead catfish and some 38,000 striped bass (see stocking report in last month's issue).

Caption: Warmouth, top, and chain pickerel, above, are documented for the day on the Yellow River.
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Author:Zambello, Erika
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Dec 1, 2017
Words:1869
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