The Resurrection Of Orange Lake

This central Florida lake fell on some hard times, but its bass fishing has now made a strong comeback. Here's how the bassin' stacks up today. (March 2007)

Gainesville bass pro Ron Klys displays the kind of largemouths that Orange Lake is now giving up.
Photo by Jeff Christopher

It has neither the size nor reputation of Florida's most famous lakes like Okeechobee, Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee or George. But it may produce as many 10-pound bass per acre as any lake in the Sunshine State.

Orange Lake is a 12,700-acre natural body of water in north-central Florida, located about 15 miles southeast of the city of Gainesville. What many people probably don't know is that Orange harbors one of the state's best trophy fisheries. It has produced at least one 17-pound bass in the past, as well as the 15-pound, 15-ounce largemouth caught last year.

The above was an accurate description of Orange Lake as reported in BASS Times magazine in 1992. Then the bottom fell out -- literally. The lake went virtually dry!

In 2002, Orange Lake's condition had deteriorated to the point that state fishery officials were wondering if the lake's once-renowned bass fishery could ever be revived, once normal water levels returned.

"I'm not so sure that I have the resources to be able to manage it," Ed Moyer, head of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fisheries Division, said at the time. "The way things currently sit -- unless we can develop some new technologies -- I'm not so sure that I have the ability to come in and push that thing back 15 or 20 years.

"It's so low now, and there's such a build-up of organics all across the lake bottom. And it hasn't gone completely dry; (it has) a foot of water (on it). It's held moisture all out across that basin, and there's a lot of vegetation coming in and consolidating semi-aquatic terrestrially. And when water comes back strong, an awful lot of that (vegetation) is going to be up and moving. There's going to be a lot of tussock formation, and we're going to have to see where our productive areas are. We've done some small habitat enhancement along the edge, but we need water.

"The fishery there is probably less than depleted. I'm sure there are some bass out there, but you could count them all. And when you have a lake that stays down for so long with a foot of water, you're put almost in a start-over position."

Thank goodness, this veteran biologist's doomsday prediction hasn't proven true!

In fact, the grand old lake that straddles the Alachua-Marion county line and was once one of the best 10 big-bass lakes in America has rebounded with a depth and speed that is nothing short of amazing.

In Orange and Lochloosa, its 5,700-acre neighbor to the north, the speckled perch fishing has been all the rage in recent years. But the bass population scattered throughout Orange Lake has been quietly, steadily improving to the point where limit catches no longer get much attention.

"The bass fishing has been overshadowed," agreed Gene Posey, who opened A Family Tradition fish camp on Cross Creek in May of 2005. "I'm surprised how quickly the fishing has come back in Orange."

"It's been pretty good," added Mike Stewart, a Gainesville angler who fishes Orange three times a week. "I've been out there and limited out in less than 30 minutes several times."

Examples of Orange Lake's rebirth include a 12-pound largemouth caught on a wild shiner and weighed by Posey; and a November Bass Champions Senior Tour event, won by Keith Chapman and Don House from Gainesville with their five-bass limit that weighed in at an impressive 26.5 pounds. Included was a 10.4-pound trophy.

Last summer, the 30th annual Gator Open tournament provided further proof of the lake's resurgence. The top seven finishers among the 30 boats each brought in 18-pound-plus catches. The winners, Gary Bradford and Robbie Denton of Ocala, caught five bass totaling a whopping 26.45 pounds. Another Ocala team, Billy Bowen and Glenn Browne of FLW Tour fame, finished second, with six bass weighing 23.4 pounds. Richard Yarbrough and Charlie Flowers posted a 3rd-place weight of 21.37 pounds.

Orange Lake surrendered an impressive four bass that each topped the 8-pound mark, including Bradford's 10.72-pound beauty. The average weight of the 93 bass caught during the one-day tournament was 3.25 pounds -- considerably better than the statewide average.

As if that wasn't enough, last March Jim Keith and Bob Heron teamed up in a local tournament on the lake to catch a jaw-dropping five-bass limit that weighed just over 35 pounds. That limit -- a big-league catch on any bass water -- was anchored by an 11.61-pound lunker. Fishing shallow grass with plastic worms, the pair was culling 4-pounders!

That kind of fishing has well-known touring pro Preston Clark of Palatka predicting that "Orange will be one of the three best bass lakes in the country within the next three years."

Both Mother Nature and the FWCC share the credit for the lake's quick recovery from a record drought -- coupled with a network of sinkholes in the south end that drained it down to just a few hundred acres. Personnel from the FWCC did yeoman's work, scrapping much of the lake's muck bottom and removing mud tussocks. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne then replenished ground water and refilled the lake in 2004.

"Everything's really getting better in Orange," agreed Eric Nagid, FWCC biologist in charge of the lake. "To be honest, it couldn't get much worse. We had a big fish kill during the droughts that really knocked back the population of all species. When the water started to come back up, we did some routine investigations -- we really couldn't do any sampling when the water was low -- because we really had no idea what was out there.

"We thought we were going to have to stock the lake, but realized there were enough brood fish. They've been putting off good spawns. There's a lot of space, so these fish are not limited by space. So the next couple of years, they're really going to take off."

The forage has responded as well.

"There is plenty for the bass to eat out there," Nagid explained. "There's a lot in terms of small forage, small shiners, chub suckers. When we do our electro-sampling and put the pedal down, the water just erupts. And all these fish are real healthy. The small fish all the way up to age 4, their stomachs are chock-full."

In re

cent months, flipping soft-plastic craws and creature baits has been the most consistent pattern, along with casting watermelon-red Zoom Trick Worms. Shallow frog fishing with Horny Toads has also been a reliable way to get strikes.

Mike Stewart has been targeting coontail moss and hydrilla growing around stick-ups in 4 to 7 feet of water throughout the year. Stewart has scores regularly throughout the day with topwaters such as the Zara Spook and Puppy, as well as white Strike King spinnerbaits. Hot spots often include the perimeter of the spoil islands south of the Marjorie Rawlings State Park boat ramp and the islands east of Sportsman's Cove.

"I'm pleased, but I'm not so surprised," Nagid noted. "It's not uncommon because what happens is when you have a lake that hasn't had much fluctuation or fish kills, usually the population is stable.

"When you have a lake that has undergone a fish kill, you have a lot more space and resources available to the surviving fish. So they're able to take up all those nutrients and forage and really put on some growth very quickly. So it's not that surprising, but it definitely is pleasing."

Last fall, north-central Florida again suffered from a less-than-normal rainy season that had the lake gradually getting lower and lower. But it was nothing like the record drought at the turn of the decade and isn't expected to adversely impact the winter/early spring fishing.

The months of March and April usually provide a prime time on Orange Lake. Some bass are still on the beds where they can be targeted and worked over with a variety of soft-plastics. With the typical off-colored water clarity and shallow vegetation, this is a time when flipping and pitching become the strongest tactics.

Flipping guru Charlie Flowers of Ocala, who has taught many of the Sunshine State's top anglers the close-quarters technique over the years, especially enjoys fishing Orange Lake this time of year.

"I look for two types of vegetation," he said. "I look for a mat with maybe three pads coming up. I'll flip each one of those roots on each side. I don't try to get in a hurry.

"If you go 20 feet, you're pitching. If I'm flipping,

I'm going straight down almost all the time. I'll go out 4 or 5 feet, but when you're flipping, almost always your bottom is the same depth. So you don't have to pull line out and take line in. That's what I try to find."

Flowers' lure is always a 3-inch Allen Lures' Fireclawmade in Palatka) fished on a 7 1/2-foot All Star flipping rod and impaled on a 5/0 Gamakatsu wide-gap hook with a big, 1-ounce weight. He became a convert to 60-pound-test Power Pro braid a few years ago after catching a 13-pound, 1-ounce bass on it. The braided line provides increased sensitivity to the point that he can detect whether the bottom is hard or muddy.

On bright days, Flowers prefers blue with gold metal-flake; on overcast days, he avoids any sparkle in the lure. He also dyes his own soft-plastics and often adds garlic salt. Additionally, he modifies the Fireclaw by removing the two back legs and inserting small worm rattles into its body.

Interestingly, Flowers does not peg his bullet weight into place. He believes pegging the sinker has caused him to lose fish in the past and prefers that the weight glide down the line and out of the way.

Accomplished tournament pro Billy Bowen takes a similar approach this time of year.

"Flipping is still the way to go on Orange Lake most of the time," he explained. "The main thing now is that we cover a lot more ground than we used to because so much of the vegetation has been sprayed. We cover a lot of water and catch a fish here and one there. Orange is a good flipping lake, but you have to cover a lot of ground."

These days, Bowen attributes most of his success to a single soft-plastic bait: a silver-and-blue Gambler B.B. Cricket. It's a 3-inch crawfish imitation that he teams with a big 1- or 1 1/2-ounce bullet weight, pegging the weight only when the density of the cover demands it. He impales the lure on a 6/0 Gamakatsu Superline hook and ties it to either 25-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament or 65-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth braided line. His rod and reel choices are a 7 1/2-foot Kistler flipping stick and Shimano Curado reel.

"The main thing is that when you flip it in there, you don't pitch it in with a tight line," Bowen noted. "I like to get mine going down with slack line. I love slack line. I watch my line a lot -- that's the main thing. You get so many bites doing that. It's just like having a cork down there. It's the next best thing. I just pop it.

"A lot of people like to feed in the line in heavy cover," the angler continued. "I don't. When they do, that's when the fish hits it. You're not going to feel him, and that's the end of it.

"I also like to have my bait enter the water as quiet as I can get it. I try not to make a splash, even though as much as I've done it, I still splash sometimes. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of time to get good at dropping it quietly into the water."

Two other productive tactics for March and April revolve around the abundant vegetation: swimming frogs and targeting mud tussocks.

Gainesville pro Ron Klys, who sometimes guides on Orange Lake, catches a bunch of bass throwing a Berkley Bat Wing Frog, similar to Zoom's Horny Toad that launched a swimming frog craze a couple of years ago.

Klys rigs the Bat Wing with a 4/0 or 5/0 round, wide-gap hook -- the point sits flush against the back of the frog, making it weedless. He fishes the bait on a 7-foot medium-heavy Fenwick Techna AV rod and FireLine braided line or 20-pound-test Trilene monofilament for long-range hooksets. He fishes the Bat Wing over vegetation as if it were a buzzbait or Johnson Spoon -- keeping the rod tip high and reeling it slowly across the grass.

Once a bass explodes on it, he lowers his rod tip, takes the slack out of his line and then sets the hook.

This time of year, the surface commotion attracts both bedding bass and those that are post-spawn.

Mud tussocks are the scourge of biologists, waterfront homeowners and water-skiers alike. But for Florida bass anglers, they can be the key to big bass. Those fishermen know all about this excellent fish-attracting type of habitat, a phenomenon that is indigenous to Florida and may just be the most unusual bass cover of all.

Tussocks are floating islands that are born when lily pads and other vegetative roots decay and become buoyant, rising from the bottom and taking a thick layer of topsoil with them. Boat wakes often help loosen the plants' roots from the bottom and give rise to what will eventually become floating islands that travel around a lake with the wind and current.

These plants' root systems generally hold a 6- to 12-inch lay

er of mud bottom together so well that some tussocks last for years -- and brush and even trees can grow on these islands! Tussocks are an excellent habitat for bass because they provide a thick horizontal cover above a cavern of open water.

During the lengthy drought, state fisheries personnel spent considerable time and money to remove tussocks. But they are still available at times.

"Mud tussocks provide excellent cover for bass -- supplying them with shelter from overhead protection from predators like herons," said veteran Gainesville pro Shaw Grigsby. "And an open-water canopy with plenty of room to maneuver underneath.

"These real thick floating islands really get me excited. I know this is where big bass live. But these floating mats can be tough to fish, tough to break through, so you really have to gear up for it."

Though you can catch fish by working the edges of these floating islands, knowledgeable local anglers like Grigsby prefer to penetrate the surface of the tussocks and fish through the heart of its interior. Once a lure breaks through the surface soil, any nearby bass usually assaults it as it descends through the open water.

Grigsby uses a stout Quantum Tour Edition flipping stick, along with a heavy 1- or 1 1/2-ounce Penetrator tungsten weight to break the surface cover and reach the open-water cavern that exists below. The big sinker serves as a wedge to drive a small 3- or 4-inch soft-plastic bait through the mat. That bait is usually a Strike King Wild Thang, craw or lizard.

During this time of year, Grigsby usually fishes tussocks with water as shallow as 4 feet beneath them.

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