Largemouth Madness In May

If you have a case of spring bass fever, these lakes just might be your salvation from the disease. Listen as the local experts explain the cure

Gary Simpson is hoisting the kind of largemouths that lakes Orange and Lochloosa are yielding these days. Photo by Bud Reiter.

March is the reward that Florida anglers receive for all those winter days when a snowsuit was a necessity, not just a novelty. The Arctic Express can still pay us a visit, but there's a lot more warm air than cold, and the bass respond accordingly.

From the Georgia border down to the Everglades, you'll see some degree of spawning on any lake this month. In the extreme south, the spawn may be winding down, while in the northern areas, it's just starting.

Regardless of the exact stage of the spawning cycle the bass are in, it means that lots of them are in the shallows on any water. That makes the fish accessible for anglers, and makes March one of the year's best months to pursue largemouths.

Here are three lakes that offer top angling this month.

LAKE KISSIMMEE
Currently, Kissimmee is in outstanding shape. During the winter months, water levels were normal to slightly high, and in some areas hydrilla was growing nicely out to the eight-foot depths.

Emergent Kissimmee grass is doing well, forming an outer grassline to the six-foot depth. Inside of that, lily pads and arrowhead flourish.

That diverse mix of vegetation is a plus for anglers because bass are using a lot of it this month.

On Kissimmee, March is normally the end of the spawning cycle. Some bass are still on the beds, certainly. But as on most lakes, the larger fish spawn first, and the smaller ones spawn last.

Anglers who enjoy sight-fishing for bass on their beds will be looking at a lot more 2- to 5-pound fish this month, as opposed to the 5-pounds-and-up fish they saw in January and February. That may sound discouraging, but the silver lining is that all those larger fish that spawned earlier are now finished and ready to feed.

And they're doing it in easily definable depth and cover.

"Kissimmee has a distinctive pad line all the way around it in shallow water," says Reno Alley, a veteran guide. "The outer edge of that pad line is in about three feet of water. The next major vegetation line is the Kissimmee grass, which ends at about six feet on the outside edge. The area between the outside edge of the pads and the inside edge of the Kissimmee grass is where I will find most of my bass on March."

That average depth between the outside of the pads and the inside of the Kissimmee grass generally ranges from three to five feet and contains a mixture of cover.

When it comes to just what type of cover to fish, Alley knows what to look for. "For me," he said, "the key is those areas where the lily pads come out to mix with the inside edge of the Kissimmee grass. Places where the two plants intermingle will form a multiple-cover situation that often holds the best fish."

In the general area of mixed cover, if you find any recent signs of bedding activity -- which could be older beds, or balls of fry in the water -- then you've found a specific spot likely to hold quality post-spawn bass that are ready to feed.

Alley knows what to feed them.

"Early on a calm morning, you can have a good topwater bite," he noted. "But these fish tend to respond best to quieter surface baits, like a Bang-O-Lure, Rapala or a chugger worked slowly. Gold with a black back or a shad finish are good colors. But you want to work these baits slowly."

As dawn surrenders way to mid-morning, Alley works a bit deeper with jerkbaits, like the Bomber Long A, or where the cover is a bit too thick for treble-hooked lures, soft-plastic subsurface baits like flukes.

During the midday and afternoon, he slows down even further, opting for a 7 1/2-inch Culprit worm in June-bug or red-shad colors.

He rigs the worm Texas-style on a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce sinker. He fishes it very slowly in the same mixed-cover areas where he found bass earlier, and he stays very alert for light bites.

Another option is flipping.

"If I've got fish located in a specific area," the guide explained. "I look for spots where surface-floating vegetation has drifted in to form any kind of mat of cover among mixed grass and pads. A 4-inch Culprit Water Beetle or a Gambler Craw is a real good choice.

"But if I'm not getting hits on that, I'll flip the 7 1/2-inch worm. Sometimes bass on this lake hit the flipped worm more than the craw, and it pays to experiment."

Where to experiment? For midday flipping, Alley rates the south side of Brahma Island, the west side of Bird Island, and Lemon Point as key areas for the right mix of grass, pads and post-spawn bass.

However, if those areas don't pay off, he makes a major cover shift and heads to North Cove.

"North Cove is loaded with hydrilla," he said, "and it's growing out to five and six feet. It's a different situation than other areas. But if I run out of fish in shallower cover, I move here at midday and flip any crowned-out hydrilla I can find in four to six feet of water. Some days, that will produce your biggest fish."

LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA
Just to the north is Lake Toho, and it's also in excellent condition. Water levels were kept up during last fall, and hydrilla has been coming back strong in open-water areas, while native vegetation such as Kissimmee grass, pads and arrowhead are doing very well, too.

This month, however, there is a difference.

"March is normally the peak of the spawn on Toho," said longtime guide Rick Gibbs. "In 2008, some fish did start to bed in January, around Southport in the southwest corner of the lake. But you couldn't always count on that. Normally, some fish start in February, while most of the fish bed in March."

That means that this month, anglers on Toho will find a few fish coming off the beds, and early in the month, a lot of them staging up to spawn.

It provides a number of options.

The outer edge of the Kissimmee grassline

ranges from four to seven feet deep. Inside of that, the large open pools lined with lily pads are key spawning sites. Arrowhead grows in the two- to three-foot depth range in many areas, and Toho bass love to bed right up next to a clump.

But early in the month, Gibbs isn't too interested in bedding fish. He knows that more fish will be staging than bedding, and he knows where to look for them.

"Over the last couple of years," he explained, "the area to find both pre-spawn and post-spawn bass has been on the outside edge of the Kissimmee grass where hydrilla has grown up next to it and created a multiple-cover situation. Given the hydrilla growth we had in 2008, that's not likely to change this year."

The hydrilla meets Kissimmee grass in many places, so Gibbs narrows his search by finding those multiple-cover situations adjacent to clean cuts through the Kissimmee grass that leading to the spawning sites inside.

By "clean," Gibbs means that those cuts that have not been overgrown with hydrilla. They form a clearwater migration route to the spawning areas inside the grassline.

"These are the pathways that most of the bass use to get from the main lake waters to the spawning sites," he said. "If you can find a clean cut through the grass, and you have mixed hydrilla and Kissimmee grass near the mouth of the cut, you've got a real good chance of finding a concentration of bass.

"If I'm looking for staging fish, I'll concentrate on the mixed cover outside of the mouth," the guide went on. "If that doesn't produce action, I start working my way into the cut towards the spawning areas.

"The bass are going to be either by the mouth, in the cut or in the connected spawning sites."

During the morning hours, Gibbs favors surface baits. Just which he opts for depends on the cover he's fishing and the degree of wind.

When working cover edges or clean cuts under calm conditions, he often throws a Bomber Crazy Shad. This is a twin-propeller bait that's best described as a short Devil's Horse. He likes a chrome with a black back color scheme.

If he's working cover too thick for treble-hooked baits, he ties on a Horny Toad or a Gambler 4-inch frog. Both are rigged weedless with a 6/0 hook and no additional weight.

They're heavy enough to cast comfortably on 20-pound casting gear. A brown with white belly model is his first choice, and it can be swum smoothly along the surface in even the thickest cover.

If the wind is up and ruffling the surface of the cuts, a countdown crankbait like the Rat-L-Trap can be deadly when you retrieve it quickly through the open cuts. In heavy wind, a 3/8-ounce spinnerbait is sometimes a better bet.

As the month progresses, Gibbs moves further toward the inside and favors a Zoom Super Fluke for working the open pools. Any bass spotted on a bed can be sight-fished with soft-plastics. That simple pattern works well until Mother Nature tosses in a cold front.

"We can get a severe cold front in March," Gibbs noted, "and normally it happens when the fish are well into the actual spawn. They'll be in the shallows, and a front will shut them down pretty good. But it won't move them from the shallows immediately. They just bury down into the thickest cover they can find in the area. This is when a flipping rod is worth its weight in gold."

In the immediate aftermath of a front, the top spots to flip are any areas of reeds or cattails within the bedding area where surface vegetation has drifted in around them to form a solid surface mat or "roof."

There may only be two to three feet of water, but if there's a roof overhead, the bass bury beneath it. The fish may be reluctant to bite, but a 3- or 4-inch craw dropped in front of their noses often draws a response.

When it comes to where to find bass on Toho in March, Gibbs noted that the entire north shore is traditionally productive, as is North Steer Beach and Gobblits Cove. Locate the right cover, fish the right lures and these areas can yield trophy bass.

ORANGE & LOCHLOOSA LAKES
Over the years, few lakes in Florida have had as many ups and downs as have the twin lakes of Orange and Lochloosa. At the moment, they're up, and offering some of the best bass fishing in their area.

"Tropical Storm Faye brought our water levels up to almost normal," said angler Gary Simpson who, as manager of the Tackle Box in Gainesville, keeps up with local fishing conditions. "Cross Creek was up enough to get to either lake, but the mouth of the creek at Orange Lake is a bit shallow and may not be passable if water levels drop too much."

Cross Creek is the waterway that connects the two lakes.

As far as vegetation goes, the lakes are very healthy. In 2008, not much work was done on controlling hydrilla in Lochloosa, and the weed is growing well at the three- to five-foot level near shore.

On Orange Lake, the hydrilla is more widespread, growing out to mid-lake depths. In addition, Orange had a major lily pad bloom in 2008, and pads are growing to the four- to six-foot depths in some areas.

That's good news for anglers, because March is a peak spawning month here, and pad roots are the key spawning cover on this lake.

"During the spawning cycle," said Simpson, "Orange Lake is a bit different than a lot of others in Florida because you're not going to find many bass on the shoreline. The open pad fields are the key areas, and there are a lot of them. Find the pad areas in two to four feet that have the clearest water. Those will draw the bass.

"If you see any bright spots at the base of the pads, that means the bass have been fanning the roots, and you've found a spawning area," continued the angler, whose best Orange Lake bass in 2008 weighed more than 11 pounds. "After that, it's a matter of working outward to find their staging areas just off the spawning sites."

Simpson normally finds those staging areas adjacent to the spawning areas, in hydrilla beds in five to six feet of water. Also in that depth range, experts don't overlook any area where pads and hydrilla mingle to form multiple cover.

Finding those staging concentrations requires anglers to stay on the move. Simpson favors a 3/8-ounce tandem spinnerbait in white with a chartreuse skirt, gold willow leaf and nickel Colorado blades for thicker hydrilla areas.

But don't overlook shorter bottom hydrilla. Mature female bass in both Orange and Lochloosa traditionally seek out these open-water submerged hydrilla beds. Many a spring tournament has been won by running a fast-moving Rat-L-Trap or Sugar Shad lipless crankbait over the top of them.

Angl

ers working spawning bass on Orange Lake are likely to find them well off the shoreline. That can also happen in some areas of Lochloosa. But in other areas, the fish will get much closer to the hill.

"The main pre-spawn staging areas on Lochloosa," Simpson noted, "will be areas where hydrilla mixes with maidencane in four to six feet of water. From there, the fish move shallower. They may spawn right up near the bank, if there is any emergent vegetation available. If not, they often bed around the base of cypress trees. In some areas, they also bed on the inside edge of maidencane in two to four feet of water.

"Those fish can be tough to see on the beds, because of water clarity, and anglers just have to take their time with weedless soft-plastics."

Simpson noted that in Orange Lake, the best areas spots to try have been McIntosh Bay and the south end of the lake near PG Run.

In Lochloosa, he heads to the south shoreline and the area around Burnt Island.

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