South Florida Summer Bassin'™

Here's what to expect this month on bass waters to the south of Orlando. The key to this summer's action will definitely be water levels! (July 2007)

Reno Alley will be catching largemouths like this one from South Florida lakes in July.
Photo by Bud Reiter.

When it comes to water levels, South Florida bassers have been on a roller-coaster ride for the last decade: high today, low tomorrow, and somewhere in between in the meanwhile. It's made patterning bass more than difficult. But this year, anglers should see a bit more stability, although it may be an inconvenient situation for some.

The spring of 2007 saw many South Florida waters down to levels reached only under severe drought conditions. Most of the lake systems were down anywhere from 3 to 6 feet.

Given the high-water conditions that plagued the area following recent hurricanes, that's quite a change.

And the reasons for the situation are almost comical.

The "Global Warming" crowd had a field day after the recent hurricanes dumped huge amounts of water on the Sunshine State. The "experts" assured us more and more of the same was in store and predicted that 2006 would be one of the most severe hurricane years to date.

Water managers, acting on those predictions lowered lake levels throughout South Florida to prepare for this forecast deluge.

But Mother Nature didn't get the memo. The 2006 hurricane season wasn't. In terms of rainfall, we got zip, zero, nada. In fact, South Florida received about half its normal annual rainfall.

As of the spring of 2007, all the major lake systems on the south end of the peninsula were at extreme low water levels. Even the St. Johns River that rises there was extremely low.

That may change as the summer rainy season kicks in. Or, depending upon rainfall levels, it may not. Even significant rainfall may not be anywhere near enough to bring the lakes back to normal levels.

That's not such a bad thing for fishermen, however. In fact, in both the short term and the long term, it could spell good news for anglers this month. Here's why.

LAKE OKEECHOBEE

High water has plagued the Big O for the last couple of years, and the results weren't pretty. With lake levels over 17 feet, even modest winds built up waves that rolled right over the buffer vegetation protecting the key littoral zones. The end result was extremely turbid water that decimated critical vegetation.

Without vegetation, bass lacked sheltered spawning sites, and any fry that did manage to hatch lacked the protection needed to reach a survivable size. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists monitoring the lake feel that at least one year-class of bass was lost, although the existing population of adult bass is still very good.

High water was the culprit, and low water was desperately needed. That arrived in 2006. Last spring, the water level fell to 11.7 feet -- which qualifies as extreme low water on Okeechobee. That was welcomed by many fishermen.

"The current low-water situation is going to be a very positive thing for Lake Okeechobee," said Jim Wells, of Roland Martin's Marine Center. "It is precisely what we have needed for the last couple of years and it will really rejuvenate this lake."

Any lake in Florida benefits from periodic low-water levels that dry out the shallow littoral zones and increase the growth of native plants.

Man-made drawdowns have become a fact of life on lakes where water levels can be manipulated. These have acted to maintain the high-quality fisheries we find on the Kissimmee Chain, Rodman Reservoir, Lake Talquin, and others.

On those lakes that are not as easy to manipulate, low water and drought conditions accomplish the same thing. That's precisely what the Big O and other south Florida waters are experiencing right now.

Water clarity has already improved significantly on the Big O, and vegetation is growing back in places where it hasn't been seen in almost five years. Anglers report seeing increasing areas of peppergrass, needle grass, and joint grass in the shallows.

In more open waters, shrimp grass is making a remarkable comeback as well. The latter is important.

"Shrimp grass is a key open-water plant," Wells noted. "It provides all the ingredients needed for an open-water food chain and it's one of the things that makes the Big O such a productive lake. The low water is allowing the shrimp grass to come back so strongly that in some of the clearer areas, it looks like there's a green lawn on the bottom."

Low water, low wave action, and the re-growth of vegetation are good news for Okeechobee. The bad news is that extreme low-water levels make navigating the lake an endeavor best exercised by the prudent.

"We tell them not to churn and burn like they always did," Wells said. "But some folks can't resist cranking up that throttle. It's been a good year for outboard motor repairmen around here."

For those who tread lightly and don't contact hard bottom in an aggressive manner, the fishing has been exceptional. Bass have weighed in the 11-pound range, which is an unusually high weight for a Big O fish. There have also been a gratifying number of 8- to 9-pound bass reported. Those in the 4- to 6-pound range -- for which the Big O is famous -- have been plentiful.

The bassin' situation doesn't look to change too much this month.

"We anticipate an excellent summer," Wells offered. "But we can't predict the water levels. The (Army) Corps (of Engineers) is trying to hold as much water in as they can, but usage requirements have to let some out. If our rainy season kicks in during June, like normal, we should see levels come up a bit by July. That will let anglers run well to the better fishing areas. And with the grass coming up, there should be plenty of good fish holding cover for them to target."

If water levels increase a foot or so, anglers will be able to quickly get into such productive areas as the Monkey Box, Moonshine Bay, Pelican Bay and Bay Bottom. Once they're there, finding bass should not be a problem.

"Look for new grass in 4 to 5 feet of water that will hold mi

dsummer bass," Wells advises. "During the morning and evening hours, topwater baits -- whether hard plugs or soft-plastics -- are traditionally effective. If the peppergrass keeps increasing like it is, we'll also see weedless spoons and spinnerbaits becoming really effective once again."

As the sun climbs, Big O anglers are able to revert to another pattern that has been traditionally effective.

"Look for the 'heads'," Wells advised. "These are heavy vegetation patches in the same depth range. Bass burrow under them in the middle of the day, and flipping or pitching weedless soft-plastics into them has been one of the best ways to take big bass this time of year."

While the water level may be down on the Big O, the prognosis is up. And the same can be said for other nearby waters.

Low water is always good in the long term. And in the short term, it confines the existing bass population in a small area, where they are more easily found. That's as true on the massive Big O as it is on smaller lakes.

LAKE ISTOKPOGA

Like the Big O, Istokpoga is undergoing low water. The spring of 2007 saw maximum lake depths of little more than 7 feet. Still, that's not a concern for summer anglers, despite few fish spending the hotter months in this lake's shallows.

Istokpoga bass are notorious for spending their summers in the offshore hydrilla beds. This year, however, there may be less hydrilla for them to hide in.

"We lost a lot of hydrilla during the hurricane years," explained veteran guide Reno Alley. "The north end of the lake took the biggest hit, while the south end came through pretty well. That hydrilla is coming back, and with the low water, we will see a lot of good fish concentrated around what they can find."

Alley advised anglers to start looking for hydrilla in the deepest mid-lake waters they can find, which points to the southern area. While any hydrilla is good, Alley finds some layouts to be much better than others.

"I want to find hydrilla in the 6- to 7-foot range, which is about as deep as this lake was in the spring," he said. "But even if we get some rainfall in the early summer that brings the water up, I'd stay in that depth range.

"The best situation to find," the guide continued, "is large patches that are broken up into checkerboard sections, with some topped-out green, healthy hydrilla forming a surface mat and other areas still a couple of feet below the surface.

"This is a perfect habitat for summer bass on this lake because it gives them a roof effect they can slide under during midday, adjacent to more open areas where they can corral shad and other baitfish. If you find a patch that also forms points, pockets and cuts, you will find bass.

"I would spend as much time as it takes to find this type of cover, " he concluded, "before I started fishing. And I'd remember every such area I found. If you find bass there one day, the chances are almost 100 percent you'll find them there your next trip."

Once you find the proper cover areas, the catching isn't overly complex. Like many guides, Alley favors frisky shiners in the 6- to 7-inch range, fished under a float. This is a key tactic for trophy fish. Float those on the windy side of a hydrilla point early and late in the day, and in cuts and pockets at midday, and rods normally stay bent.

If lures are the tactic du jour, a big selection isn't required. Bass move to the open edges of hydrilla early and late to feed on shad. Rat-L-Trap lures from Bill Lewis can be deadly, if the hydrilla allows their use. Minnow-type jerkbaits are another effective option and can be twitched on the surface, jerked down below, or just pulled along with a steady, shallow retrieve.

In areas where hydrilla has come within a few inches of the surface, Reno Alley finds the Culprit Pro Frog one of the most effective baits available. Swim it slowly and steadily across the surface. Willow-leaf spinnerbaits with No. 5 or No. 6 blades are also a top bet in this situation.

When the sun climbs, savvy anglers don't leave fish they've found.

"Those bass are just going to drop back to thicker hydrilla in the same area they just fed in," Alley noted. "A 7- or 10-inch Culprit worm is a good bet to cast into pockets and cuts. A very effective tactic is to flip these baits into the crowned-out hydrilla patches. Once the hydrilla crowns out, it opens caverns underneath, and they hold a lot of midday bass."

Even with low water and some loss of hydrilla, Istokpoga remains a top fishery in this area. A special slot limit requires that all bass between 15 and 24 inches be immediately released, which keeps a lot of good bass in the lake.

REDDY LAKE

At 3,483 acres, Reedy Lake near Frostproof may lack the publicity given to better-known waters, but it doesn't lack the bass. In fact, one FWC biologist conducting sampling on the lake noted that they seldom find as many 8-pound-plus bass as they do here.

That quality fishery is routinely confirmed during local tournaments. In one Jan 2007 event, it took more than 18 pounds to win -- and that was with only a three-fish limit!

That alone ought to get anglers interested. But there's another factor to consider: This is one of very few lakes in the area that sees bass habits virtually unaffected by low water.

"Reedy is kind of like a shallow lake where someone took a big ice cream scoop and made a big hole in the middle," said Reno Alley, who lives on the lake's shores. "But they didn't get it shaped quite the way they may have wanted it.

"There are sharp drops and ledges in the 10- to 16-foot range that hold bass through most of the year. There are also peppergrass beds growing as deep as 15 feet, and a lot of brushpiles that have been planted over the years. The lake is shallow around the banks, but after you get 50 to 100 yards off them, it drops off pretty quickly."

Spring of 2007 saw the lake down 3 feet, but that is meaningless here.

"Once you get done with the spawn," Alley explained, "you can pretty much forget any shallow-water bass activity. The bass are only there in the spring. The rest of the year, they stay deep. The only thing the low water means now is that there is less deep water for them to hide in. That's a plus for anglers. But for the bass, it's business as usual on Reedy."

For Alley, "business as usual" means getting off the banks and probing deeper water.

"The most consistent depth to find bass seems to be around the 12-foot range," he mused. "There are a number of ledges, drops, and submerged points at that general depth. And that's also where a

lot of private brushpiles have been planted."

Another key deepwater cover, maybe one of the best, are peppergrass beds.

"Peppergrass will normally top out in the 7- to 8-foot range," Alley continued. "But there is a lot of submerged peppergrass in 7 to 12 feet of water. You need to find these with a depthfinder, but it's worth the time it takes. They are magnets for offshore bass in the summer because they produce oxygen and hold a lot of forage."

A depthfinder is critical on this lake, and so are lures that can get deep. On ledges and drops, deep-diving crankbaits in chrome, Firetiger or crawfish patterns excel. In fact, Alley's best bass from Reedy went more than 14 pounds and ate a chrome diver on a 16-foot ledge one July morning.

Over peppergrass, suspending jerkbaits catch theirshare. So, too, do large-bladed spinnerbaits slow-rolled to just tick the tops of the grass. Alley noted that spinnerbaits are very effective deepwater lures here because the water is slightly stained. Casting Carolina rigs is a bread-and-butter technique for local experts, and Ally has found the new Culprit Water Beetle to be highly effective when rigged that way and swum slowly over just about any deep structure.

Some may view low water as a negative, but anglers who key on these lakes find it can do good things for their catch.

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