Bassin' The Stickmarsh And Farm 13

The agricultural reclamation projects have produced some fantastic bass fishing at this site in recent years. Let's see just how good this fishery is now.

It's hard to envision just how good the Stickmarsh and Farm 13 really are for bass fishing. If you're a serious bass angler, you really owe it to yourself to fish this awesome bass factory at least once. It just may be the best bass fishing destination in the Sunshine State or even the entire country If nothing else, horsing giant bass out of thick vegetation and from around stands of submerged timber will test your angling skills.

The big draw of the area is giant bass. It has all the ingredients that a big bass lake should -- a long growing season, lots of healthy largemouths, plenty of forage and tons of excellent habitat.

Days of catching and releasing 100 bass are not unheard of on this fishery. But more often, anglers come to this lake looking for double-digit weight fish! It's been said more than once that per acre of water, the Stickmarsh and Farm 13 yield more bass exceeding 10 pounds than any other Florida waters open to the general public.

But a lot of Florida lakes have big bass. What's so special about the Stickmarsh and Farm 13?

BACKGROUND

At 6,500 acres, the Stickmarsh/Farm 13 complex doesn't feel as intimidating as fishing some of Florida's larger lakes. Most anglers quickly feel right at home on these dynamic bass waters. Such "hominess" is important to anglers who like to relate to structure and shoreline landmarks for navigation and just to get their bearings.

But catching fish is what drives most anglers, and this central Florida lake holds a ton of bass. Stickmarsh features 800 pounds of fish biomass per acre, of which 35 percent is composed of largemouth bass. This staggering figure is maintained by a very productive environment. Fed by fertile agricultural runoff, Stickmarsh/Farm 13 produces swift growth rates in the fish. Bass can grow up to 2 1/2 pounds in one year!

According to Bob Eisenhauer, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Stickmarsh and Farm 13 are very nutrient rich. The nutrition provides plenty of food to support threadfin and gizzard shad, small bream, killifish, and shiners, which are all present in good numbers. Those, in turn, feed the bass.

A catch-and-release regulation for bass has been in place on this complex since 1990 to make sure the trophy potential remains in its present condition. With such fertile inflow, good habitat and tons of bass, trophy bass fishing in this lake should be awesome for years to come.

But the Stickmarsh hasn't always been such a good place to fish. Like so many rags-to-riches stories, it all started way back. In the early 20th century, numerous irrigation ditches were built in the St. John's River system to provide water for agriculture. Massive acreages of marshes and swamps were drained to expose enriched soils for crops, fruit trees and livestock.

Eventually, however, it became evident that eliminating fragile wetlands was disturbing many different types of wildlife habitat and making the area susceptible to devastating flooding. Frequent hurricanes passing through Florida made this a situation decision-makers couldn't ignore.

In the late 1980s, the St. John's River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers initiated a project to restore the drained marshland and to construct reservoirs, canals and levees that would offer a new level of flood protection.

The bass fishery at the Stickmarsh and Farm 13 was a result of the project.

THE LAKE

Stickmarsh and Farm 13 were once two separate lakes divided by a narrow levee. But according to Eisenhauer, a navigational cut was made along the east side of the levee in 1992. In the late 1990s, the navigational canal was plugged and a large section of the western end was breached to meet water management district objectives. The breach officially made Stickmarsh and Farm 13 the same lake.

The Stickmarsh side of the lake is filled with submerged timber. In fact, so much wood lies just beneath the water that you have to use caution while navigating this snag-filled side. But bass love submerged timber, and there are some real giants lurking among the wood.

The other half of the lake, referred to as Farm 13, is filled with hydrilla and coontail. As in most Florida lakes, vegetation was abundant on both the Stickmarsh and Farm 13, although Eisenhauer reports that much of the lake's hydrilla was taken out by hurricanes in 2004. Such a rapid change in habitat represents a danger to the lake's bass population. But given hydrilla's persistent nature, it shouldn't take long for the plant to get re-established.

THE FISHERY

Ten-pounders can be caught during any month of the year on Stickmarsh. But George Welcome, of Imagination Bassin' Guide Service, has some opinions regarding the best time of year to catch a giant bass on this central Florida lake. George and his son, Scott, each spend over 300 days a year either guiding or fishing on the Stickmarsh, so they ought to know.

"Periods in and around the spawn are the best times to catch a lunker, although we catch 10-pounders all through the summer," Welcome noted. "It's awfully exciting to see a 10-pound bass explode on a topwater bait."

The spawn on the Stickmarsh ordinarily runs from November through April. The greatest spawning activity can be expected during the months of March and April, with the optimum water temperatures for taking a giant bass occurring in mid-March through May. Sight-fishing for big females on the Stickmarsh is pretty tough, due to dense aquatic vegetation and dark water coloration.

Sometimes when anglers target trophy bass, they give up the opportunity to catch quantities of fish. Not so on the Stickmarsh. According to Welcome, during an average day on the Stickmarsh with a guide, anglers can expect to catch 50 bass or more, with an outstanding chance to catch at least one big fish.

Biologist Eisenhauer agreed with the assessment.

"Creel surveys have shown lots of fishing effort and high catch rates for largemouth bass anglers fishing on Stickmarsh," he offered.

BEST PLACES TO FISH

Bass can be found throughout the Stickmarsh, but certain areas within the lake provide better action than others.

Regardless of where you fish on the Stickmarsh, moving water affects fish behavior. One of the most predictable times to catch bass here is when water is actively being

pumped into the lake. If you're fishing when this occurs, get to the inflow area quickly because the bass bite is probably already happening there.

The problem with the inflow bite is that there's no announcement that the pumps are going to be running. Thus, anglers never know when these inflows will occur. You should be aware, however, that the pumps are often turned on during periods of heavy rain.

It won't take you long to find the first Stickmarsh hotspot. As you put in at the lake's only ramp, check to see if water is being pumped through the inflow pipes next to the ramp. If so, don't leave without spending some time casting around the moving water created by the inflow. Bass tend to gravitate toward current, and are usually in a feeding mode at those times.

Other productive areas on the Stickmarsh can be found on the southwestern corner, which is noted for vast expanses of spawning areas that the big females seem to prefer. The northwestern corner is also a very prolific location for big bass, and a favorite among regular Stickmarsh anglers.

Perhaps no area is more famous on this side of the lake than the Twin Palms area, which rates as one of the most consistent places on the lake to catch quantities of bass.

The spillway on the southeastern side of the lake's Farm 13 portion may be the most productive point to fish on the entire complex, particularly when there is water running in. According to guide George Welcome, there have been trips when, under ideal conditions, a single boat has hooked over 300 bass in a single day.

"The average bass runs between 2 and 4 pounds with some stretching into the 7- to 10-pound range," he added.

Another area to monitor for inflowing water is at the pump on the east levee. When the water starts flowing in, bass really stack up at this spot. Again, current is the key.

Before the area was impounded, the present-day lake bottom was actively farmed. The Stickmarsh originated as a citrus grove and Farm 13 started as a thriving radish farm. The important part of this history lesson comes in the form of irrigation ditches, which were once vital to agriculture and now important to anglers.

This maze of ditches embedded in the lake bottom acts just like creek channels in large reservoirs. Bass lurk along the hydrilla-lined edges of these ditches and use them as travel corridors to move throughout the lake. The ditches are some of the most predictable locations to encounter big Stickmarsh bass under a variety of conditions.

The fact that these trenches are lined with forage-packed vegetation serves as another plus. It's not uncommon to witness the water erupt as waiting bass ambush prey that gets flushed from ditch-line vegetation. Once bass start busting on flushed bait, they are extremely susceptible to lures.

Welcome said that these ditches are good places to find schooling bass.

"When you locate these schools along the ditches, anchor up and cast repeatedly to them. There's no telling how many bass you might catch from a single location," he suggested.

This is a situation where he had produced some of those 100-plus-fish days.

The only place better to find bass than an irrigation ditch is at the intersection of two such depressions. By observing the patterns of the vegetation along the ditches, you can easily locate the junctions. These sites are especially good when current is moving through the lake.

The bottom line is, the deeper water in the ditches makes them great places to encounter bass just about anytime of the year!

LURE SELECTION

Regardless of the location, one pressing question for anglers is always, "What bait should I use?" Live shiners are always the best option on he Stickmarsh. They can be fished from an anchored boat or trolled on balloon rigs to cover move water.

But these days, many anglers find more pleasure in using artificial baits. Here is look at the ones George Welcome recommends.

Nothing is more exciting than catching bass on the surface. Even the missed strikes get one's heart beating faster. Chugger-style baits from Storm Lures are the guide's premiere choice for topwater action.

"Some days the bass want them fast, and other days it's more of a chug- chug-and-pause retrieve that triggers the hit," George Welcome pointed out.

After a little "field-testing," the bass generally let you know which way they want it.

Lots of colors seem to work, but one that emerges as a favorite is a blue and silver chrome pattern.

Topwater lures can be worked over the top of vegetation with great effectiveness. And you better have your pacemaker checked before fishing the Stickmarsh, because some of these topwater strikes are explosive!

On days when bass seem to be missing your topwater offerings, try downsizing the lures. Sometimes this results in a higher hookup percentage.

Senkos are mainstay lures on the Stickmarsh and have accounted for more big bass than any other artificial bait used by Welcome or his clients. The guide prefers 5-inch versions in dark colors, such as watermelon, June bug and brown.

As for crankbaits, nothing beats a Rat-L-Trap on the Stickmarsh. These lipless, medium-running crankbaits can be fished at a variety of depths, depending on retrieval speed. This can be critical when encountering varied depths of vegetation and timber on the Stickmarsh.

Adding soft-plastic jerkbaits such as Zoom's Super Fluke to your offerings nearly completes the ideal Stickmarsh tackle box. These versatile lures can be rigged weedless -- a huge advantage when fishing many portions of the Stickmarsh. Favorite colors are watermelon, salt-and-pepper, or pearl.

No box is complete without a spinnerbait, however. Welcome's favorite is a 1/2-ounce Terminator with Colorado blades. Colors choices are white or firetiger.

When heading to the Stickmarsh, rig your rods with at least 17-pound-test line. Even little bass will try to bury you in vegetation or wrap your line around stumps if you don't wrestle them to the surface immediately.

Medium to medium-heavy rods are recommended for handling hefty line and to muscle bass out of thick vegetation and wood.

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