North Florida's Bassin'

As the largemouth action heats up in the northern portion of the Sunshine State, these three lakes are places you need to fish. The bass are active and hungry on these waters!

Guide Jimmy Keith caught this largemouth on Lake Rousseau, near Dunnellon.
Photo by Bud Reiter.

It will go down in history as the "Year of the Hurricanes." The constant pounding Florida took during the late summer of last year ranks as one of the largest natural disasters to ever hit the Sunshine State. It was a royal mess at the time. But six months later, there are some positive things happening.


Although the massive influx of rainwater adversely impacted both freshwater and saltwater fishing for several months, it did some good things for our inland lakes. Many were at low levels, and the additional fresh water was appreciated. In some respects, the hurricanes are a key part of a natural drawdown-refill cycle that will pay dividends for bass fishermen in future years.

While it's nice to contemplate a rosy future, there are also some fine things happening in the present. Here are three North Florida lakes where those things should be happening this spring.


LAKE GEORGE

The 44,000 acres of Lake George are located where the southern end of Putnam County joins Lake, Marion and Volusia counties. The lake has consistently ranked as one of the most productive bass waters in the Sunshine State. However, the term "lake" is a misnomer. In reality it is a wide spot in the St. Johns River that is subject to tidal influence in the mid and northern portions, while experiencing a steady current flow on its southern end.


That current flow increased significantly after five hurricanes dropped major amounts of rainfall in the central portion of Florida. All that water had to go somewhere, and a lot of it entered the St. Johns River and ran north.

As this is being written, the St. Johns River is running bank-to-bank full, and with water levels as high as they have been in many years. Having spent almost 14 years as a bass guide in that area, I can say with certainty that high water on the St. Johns River, especially if it is the tannic run-off water that we had in the aftermath of the numerous hurricanes, will thin out the eelgrass, which tends to die off under high and dirty water. Since eelgrass is a key bass habitat on this "lake," that would seem to be bad news on the surface.

But it's not -- at least for those anglers doing their fishing this March and April.

Bass on Lake George can begin spawning as early as December in a warm winter. Some spawning activity is invariably occurring during January at the mouths of the three west coast feeder springs. February can see a strong spawn, but the peak of the spawn on the main lake is normally late February through March.

Prime spawning cover on the main lake centers around the inside edge of eelgrass beds where the grass meets dollar bonnets over a hard sand bottom, and there are many areas of the lake where this occurs. But with eelgrass likely to be diminished this spring, finding key spawning sites may actually be easier!

Find the best eelgrass, and you'll likely find the best spawning sites, and some of the largest concentrations of bass in the area.

The key early spawn areas on Lake George center around the mouths of the three west coast spring runs feeding the lake. The mouths of Silver Glenn, Salt Run and Juniper Run are traditionally productive and are likely to be among the best bets this year, since the clearer waters they pump into the lake are kinder to eelgrass than more tannic waters. During recent years, the flats north and south of the mouth of Salt Run have been too shallow for significant spawning. With higher water levels expected this spring, however, it could be a goldmine. Bass have used it extensively during high-water periods in the past.

On the southern end of the lake, the east side of the jetties will probably be the best spawning cover in that area. Anglers working the eastern side of the main lake will want to look from Pine Island to Barr's Landing. On the north end, the eastern side of Hogg Island should be the top spot, but savvy anglers will also want to check the south side of Drayton Island. This is normally a pretty shallow area, but spawning bass will flock to it if we maintain high water levels.

While many anglers concentrate on finding easily spotted beds, that is not the only indication that spawning fish are in the area. Freshly chopped eelgrass matted on the surface is a major sign that bass are in a pre-spawn mode in that spot. Local experts watch for this while working the outer edge of the grass during the morning hours with 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits or soft-plastic jerkbaits. Once the sun climbs into the sky and bass begin to move to the beds on the inside edges of the grass, shifting to Texas-rigged plastic worms in June bug or a black-and-blue color combination or weedless tube jigs is effective. Savvy anglers also keep a rod rigged with one of the new high-floating Strike King 3X soft-plastic lizards -- these can be deadly when crawled across any surface-matted cover in the area. Beneath the mats is often where the big spawning females retreat if boat traffic interferes with their spawning.

Lake George is renowned for its shallow-water spring action, and if you keep these spots in mind you can find plenty of it this year.

LAKE ROUSSEAU

Although it does not get the publicity of Florida's other manmade reservoirs, Lake Rousseau has always enjoyed an excellent reputation as a producer of quality bass. During the last few years, major hydrilla control efforts have also made it a lot easier to get to those fish. The only real drawback has been that the prolonged drought has resulted in extremely clear water that makes bassin' a tough proposition.

Thanks to the hurricanes, that drought is over and the gin-clear water is gone. That makes this lake a top choice this spring, as well as a very user-friendly one.

"This is not a difficult lake to fish," said veteran guide Jimmy Keith. "With the heavy hydrilla gone, the fish really don't have a lot of options as to where they hold. The bass basically spend their inactive periods in the deeper channels, or along whatever submerged grass that lies along the channel drop. When they get ready to feed, they move up onto the flats that border that channel. Most of these flats are 4 to 7 feet deep, and the fish pick ambush points around any small grass patches or fallen timber they can find -- and there is a lot of that cover on these flats. When they're done feeding, they drop back to the deeper channels and edges."

With hydrilla virtually remo

ved, everything starts and ends with those channel drops, and Keith's approach is simple. He moves along channel edges and drifts up onto those flats that border them.

His top "searching" lures are 1- ounce gold floating Rat-L-Traps, which only run about two feet deep on the retrieve, or shallow-running jerkbaits. In dim light, topwater plugs can be deadly as well.

Once a few fish are contacted, he may shift to Texas-rigged plastic worms in June bug, red shad or a combination of black-and-blue to work the area more thoroughly. His experience has been that once you find a few fish on a feeding flat, there are more there. When the flats action slows, dropping back to the nearest channel edge often prolongs the bite.

The channel-to-flat pattern is carved in stone for most of the year. But when bass begin spawning in mid-March and on into May, the fish tend to spend a lot more time on those flats.

"The fish can get to just about any section of shoreline on the lake now," Keith noted, "and you get some good shoreline spawning activity along the west shoreline north of the Kitty Lane boat ramp and in the manmade canals in Dunnellon. But the best spawning activity I have found is right up on the same flats they use to feed during the rest of the year.

"Those fish," he continues, "fan beds next to, or even on top of, any fallen wood or standing stumps they can find. They get serious about spawning on wood here, and I've seen them do some of the darnedest things. I remember this one bass that made a bed on top of a hollowed-out stump that rose up to within a couple of feet of the surface. Getting a worm into that little hole was like trying to pitch into a teacup."

Fortunately, most of Rousseau's bass are not quite that creative. Fanning next to a fallen log is standard, and anglers easing plastic worms or tube lures through any concentration of lay-down logs on the flats run into some.

To contact Jimmy Keith for information on a day of guided bass fishing on Lake Rousseau, call (352) 472-7296.

LAKE TALQUIN

Located just west of Tallahassee and a few minutes south of Quincy, 8,500-acre Lake Talquin is one of the few significant manmade reservoirs in Florida. In terms of layout, it is long, deep and relatively narrow. The dark waters of the Ochlockonee River are the primary water source, although numerous smaller creeks feed it. This creates a maze of submerged creek channels, creek arms and smaller coves that extend from the headwaters to the main pool.

Like just about every other lake in Florida, Talquin received a big dose of water from the hurricanes. Unlike most others, however, negative effects were minimal, since the water could be released through the spillway at the dam. That's good news, because it meant all that extra water had no adverse effect on what ranks as one of Florida's top bass fisheries.

"Talquin has been a very hot lake for the last couple of years," offered Mike Mercuri, who may be the most knowledgeable guide on the lake. "The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has undertaken a major habitat and stocking program here, and it is paying off big time. I would rate this as the best bass fishery in North Florida, and one of the best in the state."

Strong words, but Mercuri can back them up with facts. Fishing artificial lures only, he took a dozen bass between 9 pounds and 11.6 pounds in just the first nine months of 2004! Scoring that well on Talquin, however, requires a slight shift in the tactics that are effective on Florida's natural lakes.

"With exception of the spawning season," Mercuri said, "bass on Talquin are not shoreline- or shallow-water-oriented. They are offshore fish that relate to channels, drops and humps. That's their home, and the structures coming off of them are where they go to feed. For virtually all of the year, you catch more bass on this lake at depths greater than 8 to 9 feet than you will shallower."

That makes this lake a challenge for much of the year. But things get easier in the spring. Once waters begin to warm in late February, bass ease out of their deep-water haunts and begin moving to the myriad small coves on creek arms that form the only suitable spawning cover on the lake. When they do, they take predictable travel routes.

"I start looking for pre-spawn fish during the first significant period of warm weather in late February," Mercuri explained, "and I start looking for them on the main-lake points just outside the creek arms. This is the first area pre-spawn fish will stage on before they move into the creek arms."

His basic procedure is to pull up onto the top of the point, anchor the boat, and start fan-casting towards deeper water. He wants the bait coming up the drop instead of working down it, since this provides better bait control and maintains contact with the structure. Plastic worms, either Texas- or Carolina-rigged, are his first choice, and darker colors like black-and-blue and June bug get the nod during dimmer light, while watermelon or blue is the choice during the midday hours. A key consideration is the depth he wants to drag that worm through.

"The warmer the weather, the shallower I fish," he said, "and a dropoff on a point that goes from 4 or 5 feet to 8 or 9 feet might be the best bet. If the water hasn't warmed, I'd be anchoring in 8 or 9 feet and fishing the 13- to 16-foot drops."

In addition to main-lake creek arm points, Mercuri does not ignore the riprap at the dam during pre-spawn. That rock holds a lot of heat on a sunny day, and fish move up onto it during the midday hours. Chrome and shad-finished crankbaits -- either lipless or medium divers -- are the tools of choice here, and it does not take long to cover the rock. But if Mercuri picks up a fish or two, he is likely to stay there and fish the area more slowly with plastic worms.

"They aren't on the riprap every day," he noted. "But when fish start to move up, they do it in schools, and some of those are big pre-spawn females. I've taken a number of 9-pound-plus bass off those rocks on a sunny afternoon in March."

The pre-spawn period normally runs from mid-February to late March. Some bass may begin spawning towards the end of March, but in most years the vast majority of the spawning activity takes place in April. By then, the fish are in the creek cove arms. But do not expect to find the same type of spawning cover there that you would on other lakes.

"If you can find areas of mixed lily pads and coontail, you have found prime spawning cover in those creek coves," Mercuri stated. "But there isn't a lot of it, and many fish spawn on downed timber along the banks, or around docks and bulkheads in those coves that have them. Regardless of where they are spawning, though, they seldom get very far from the creek channel, so those areas where the channel swings in close to some kind of spawning cover are often the best spots in the cove."

This is one of the few times of the year that Mercuri prefers a spinnerbait, and in this darker water he wants gaudy skirts in orange and chartreuse combined with big willowleaf or Colorado blades in gold.

"It's a great lure to slow-roll through shoreline wood," Mercuri noted, "but it's also a great way to fish windy docks, bulkheads and any vegetation you can find."

To book a day of guided bass fishing on Lake Talquin, call Mike Mercuri of Quincy at (850) 875-2206).

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