Sunshine State Winter Bassin' Variety

From one end of Florida to the other, December largemouth action can be outstanding. Especially if you try these lakes and tactics! (December 2006)

It may be one of the best-kept angling secrets in Florida, but some of the finest bassin' action of the year occurs between mid-November and New Years Day.

And it's not hard to figure out why.

Once summer's searing heat fades for the year, bass get a little more serious about feeding. That's especially true since many of those fish will begin their annual spawn in weeks or, at the outside, a couple of months. They require a fat reserve to see them through the process. Mother Nature also provides for that situation via abundant forage in the form of young-of-the-year baitfish that are now reaching more than "snack" size.

Cooling fall waters, abundant forage, and the upcoming spawning season mean actively feeding bass. That's good news for bass anglers.

Even better is the fact that bass stage for the pre-spawn in easily definable areas of any lake. While they may have been scattered during the heat of the summer, now they tend to concentrate on specific types of structure that any angler can find.

It's a recipe for some fast fall action, and about the only thing that can throw a temporary wrench into the gears is an early-winter cold front. Sunshine State anglers can expect one or two of those between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But unlike the "killer" cold fronts that plague us after January, these are normally short-lived in their effects. A short pre-Christmas freeze may put the bass off their feed for a day or so, but they quickly bounce back.

That is the norm for fall bassin' in Florida. But this year, anglers also have to deal with water levels that may not be what is expected.

The hurricanes of 2003 and 2004 altered the landscape of a number of Florida lakes. They also altered the philosophy of the water managers.

Many lakes in Florida were drawn down to their winter pool levels in May! That, according to the water managers, was to allow for the precipitation expected during a busy 2006 hurricane season.

In some cases, that benefited anglers, while in other cases, it temporarily inconvenienced them this past summer. Just how that affects the fall angling picture is playing out right now, based on what rainfall hurricanes actually delivered.

LAKE OKEECHOBEE

The press has not treated the Big O kindly by during the last two years, and deservedly so. A combination of two severe hurricane years that raised the lake's level to unprecedented heights, combined with what some term serious mismanagement, came very close to killing America's second-largest lake.

Excessively high water levels -- which some blame on the influence of Everglades area sugar farmers who wanted to assure certain water levels for their crops -- allowed wind and waves to rip out virtually all the vegetation in the lake.

Regardless of the cause, once the natural filtering and buffering affect of the native vegetation was gone, the lake turned into the kind of pea soup mess that brought on images of Lake Apopka -- a Central Florida body of water reportedly killed by questionable handling of agricultural run-off and water-level fluctuations.

But once the local press highlighted the plight of the 780-square-mile lake, things changed.

"Our lake level was at 17.5 feet during the worst of the high-water levels," said Don Gusfler, who manages Scott Martin's Anglers Marina in Clewiston. "And that was a mass of mud. That water level had been dropped to 12 feet as of July, and the water managers have done their best to hold it there."

Those lower water levels created problems for anglers getting around the lake this summer. But they were needed to restore the Big O to its former bassin' glory.

"Getting that high water out, and allowing the bottom muck to dry out, has worked wonders," Gusfler noted. "We are getting reports of clear water in areas where the water has been muddy for the last two years. Peppergrass is coming back in many areas. There are still good amounts of hydrilla, and the lake is really starting to look good. Just about everybody around here is in an upbeat mood because we are finally going in the right direction on this lake."

The future health of the lake is one thing; the present health of the bass fishery is another. And the latter is looking even better!

An 11.9-pound largemouth was brought in to Scott Martin's in June. That's a huge fish for the Big O during the summer months! Another guide party in early July had 30 fish, of which three weighed over 7 pounds. Other guides reported excellent catches as well.

The lake may have suffered a major, but temporary, ecological hit, but bass are hardy fish. There are plenty of them left in the lake to restock the recovering waters.

"Our bass will begin to spawn in November," Gusfler explained. "And many will be staged on the outside edges of vegetation bordering the spawning flats. Just how much water we have this fall, after the hurricane season, will determine where those areas are."

At the 12-foot level, popular spawning areas like Moonshine Bay and the Monkey Box are inaccessible. Anglers need about 13 1/2 feet to reach them. The water-management plan calls for allowing the lake to approach 15 feet only if necessary, and then moving it back towards the 12- to 13-foot levels to allow a thorough drying of bottom muck.

If Mother Nature sticks with that plan, the Big O will be back in business this fall and winter. The current low water levels are, in effect, a drawdown. And as other Florida lakes have shown, such events create a real boom in bass!

For current water and fishing conditions on Lake Okeechobee, call Don Gusfler at Anglers Marina in Clewiston at (863) 983-2128.

KISSIMMEE CHAIN

Moving a bit to the north, water levels once again play a role this fall, but not to the same extent as on the Big O.

"The Kissimmee Chain took a beating from the hurricanes, and a lot of the vegetation was uprooted," said veteran guide Reno Alley. "But it's coming back real well. Hatchineha and the North Cove in Kissimmee are full of hydrilla, and peppergrass is on the rebound. The fishery is in great shape, and it is taking 30-pound stringers to win some local six-fish tournaments."

Just how anglers can t

ap into that action this fall depends -- again --upon water levels.

"They drew the lake down almost to winter-pool levels this past summer in anticipation of hurricane season," Ally noted.

If rainfall has been significant enough for water managers to need to pump water out through the fall to bring the Chain to winter-pool levels, the situation will be good. That normally means a lot of moving water, and bass will be feeding in it.

"If the water is moving," Alley said, "the bass will be chasing shad schools anywhere you have a funnel effect. That includes the inflow and outflow areas between the lakes in the chain, and around offshore islands and hydrilla humps. When they are following the shad, lures like the Zara Spook, Pop-R, Rat-L-Trap and other shad-imitating baits are top choices.

"When they are not actively feeding," the guide continued, "they will be holding on the edge of heavy cover in those areas. And my first choice here is a 7-inch Culprit worm in June-bug or red shad. That is one of the most consistently effective lures anywhere on this chain."

While "moving-water fish" is a main key during high water conditions, not all the bass are roaming open areas. Those anglers who enjoy probing weedy shallows should be able to find plenty of action too.

"You'll have a certain percentage of bass that are just about ready to spawn," Alley offered, "and you can find them right back on the shoreline -- as tight to the 'hill' as you can get, and sometimes in just a foot of water. They'll be roaming around there early and late in the day. And when the sun gets up, they just slip into or under any heavy cover in the area."

Worms, spinnerbaits, soft-plastic jerkbaits, and flipping tactics are effective here.

Of course, this all depends upon anticipated high-water levels. If the rains have not materialized, a different set of tactics will be in order.

"They had the lake down to what appeared to be 4 feet low this July," Alley pointed out.

If the water levels stay that low, there will be no moving water this month. Then you have to look for the fish to drop back to boat trails, or the outside edges of whatever heavy cover is available in 4 to 6 feet of water.

"Another key area, if the water stays low, is around the offshore hydrilla humps in 7 or 8 feet of water. These don't have to be much bigger than a couple of living rooms to hold a bunch of big bass under low water conditions," Alley added.

For more details on current conditions and fishing in the Kissimmee Chain or to book a day of guided bass angling, call Reno Alley at Memory Makin' Guide Service. The number is (863) 635-6499.

RODMAN RESERVOIR

A number of lakes in south and central Florida took a hit from the hurricanes of the last few years, but Rodman Reservoir experienced only minimal impact. As one of the most productive lakes in Florida, it has also offered quite stable fishing conditions. That stability extends to fall patterns, and they really haven't changed much over the years.

"Whether we have a mild fall or a cold one, Rodman fish don't change much," agreed Middleburg guide Jim Romeka. "They're going to be staged up on a heavy-cover edge on a deepwater drop. They'll roam the whole area during the spring and summer, but this time of year they concentrate on sharp drops with cover -- either hydrilla or floating vegetation."

Among those areas where anglers traditionally find fish are the Barge Canal, the old river channel through the trees, and the upper river areas near the springs that feed the lake. The main pool and the Deep Creek area can also hold some fish, since they too have sharp drops with cover. But they don't always hold as many as the other areas this time of year.

There's a reason for that.

"If we have a mild fall, you see some bass start to spawn in mid-January," Romeka explained. "And when they stage, they don't want to be very far from the flats (where) they'll be spawning in a month or so.

"When I'm looking for fall bass," he continued, "I look for those drops that are within a couple hundred yards of where those fish do their early spawning."

Live shiners take the biggest fish this time of year, but artificial lures can also produce. Savvy anglers definitely keep a flipping rod on hand, and probe areas of surface matted cover on a drop. If the hydrilla is a bit more scattered, don't overlook spinnerbaits or plastic jerkbaits.

For more information or to book a guided trip on Rodman, give Jim Romeka a call at (904) 291-8052.

LAKE SEMINOLE

Old Sem has been on a roll of late, and this fall promises to be no different!

"The lake is in real good shape right now," said Jack Wingate, who likely has more years on Seminole than anyone. "There's a lot of hydrilla, but not enough to keep anglers from getting around. That's been real good for the bass."

Good enough, in fact, that Seminole is currently producing some truly outsized bass for a lake so far north. Three fish over 10 pounds were weighed in at Wingate's Lunker Lodge late in the summer. And in one weekend tournament in July, three bass over 8 pounds were brought to the scales!

"We haven't had a tournament with a five-fish limit that was won with less than 20 pounds in quite awhile," Wingate noted. "And one tournament during the spawning season took a five-fish limit of 34 pounds to win. We're seeing a lot of 5- to 6-pound fish on a regular basis. The lake has a huge shad population, so there's lots of forage."

Those shad play a key role for fall anglers on this lake. So too, does hydrilla.

"Those bass are going to be offshore chasing shad," Wingate emphasized. "But they are going to be holding on hydrilla edges that border on a deeper dropoff while they do it. The easiest way to find fish on this lake during November and December is to find a deepwater hydrilla edge on a creek channel and follow that until you find bass. Works every time."

Though any deep hydrilla edge can hold fish, savvy anglers often find them faster by concentrating on irregularities along the edge. Bends in a creek channel, points where one channel intersects with another, or the sharp end of a drop from a shoreline flat can all pay off.

Wingate also noted that anglers shouldn't overlook offshore bars and humps that have heavy hydrilla.

He went on to suggest that anglers start their search in the Butlers Mill Creek and Faceville Landing area. There is some excellent deepwater hydrilla between the two creeks. Also high on his list is the Ten Mile Still Landing area, the Flint River arm of the impoundment and Spring Creek.

Bass actively feed on shad, but may not be chasing them in open water. Often, the largemouths are ambushing from the edge of the hydrilla. Frogs or white Trick Worms have proven deadly when twitched over those edges. Topwater plugs like the venerable Zara Spook or virtually any of the "chugger" baits like the Rebel Pop-R or Storm Chug Bug can be effective.

Wingate favors surface baits, but doesn't want to be without a soft-plastic lure rigged and close at hand.

"If you're running any kind of lure over the top of hydrilla," he explained, "and a bass blows up and misses it, drop that rod immediately and throw a plastic worm or soft-plastic jerkbait right into the boil. Most of the time, you catch that fish on the plastic lure."

For information on fishing conditions, accommodations or booking a guide on Lake Seminole, contacted Wingate's Lunker Lodge at (229) 246-0658.

Find more about Florida fishing and hunting at: FloridaGameandFish.com

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