Top Bass Fisheries near Columbia City, Indiana

A recent study of six Columbia City-area lakes revealed just what good bass fisheries they are.

A good day of bass fishing means different things to different people. For some, it may mean lots of action and boating lots of fish. For others, it may mean getting fewer strikes, but catching larger fish. Some people are content to chunk lures all day without a single hit, just seeking out that one big bite. For anglers who fall somewhere in the category of those who like a lot of action and maybe a decent kicker fish from time to time, there is a group of natural lakes up in northeastern Indiana that need to get put on the to-do list.

There's lots of great places to fish scattered all over the state. They range from small farm ponds up to huge reservoirs and rivers. Obviously, the largest and most prominent waters garner the most attention and get the most acclaim. However, some of the overlooked or less talked about waters offer some tremendous opportunities.

Tippecanoe and largemouth, too

Near Columbia City, there is a group of natural lakes within the Tippecanoe River watershed that bass anglers might find very inviting. Although some are too small to be of interest, others are much larger and have good populations of largemouths. A recent study by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sheds much light on these fisheries.

The Upper Tippecanoe River Lake Association (UTRLA), along with the DNR, implemented the study for the purpose of improving water quality, but also to determine the status of the fisheries present and to develop management strategies to help the fisheries meet a specific set of management objectives for not only bass, but other fish species as well. The study report, prepared by DNR Biologist Jed Pearson and his assistants, stated, "Although current habitat conditions vary among the lakes, expectations were that each lake, if properly managed, should contain suitable habitat that is capable of sustaining a typical fish community with a typical level of fishing."

Some of the objectives for largemouth bass include: Provide a relative species composition of largemouth bass at 10 to 25 percent. Provide a relative size distribution of 14-inch and larger bass of at least 25 percent. Provide a relative size distribution of 18-inch and larger bass of at least eight percent. Provide a catch rate of bass of at least one per hour of targeted bass fishing. Provide a catch size distribution of 10 percent or more for bass 18 inches or larger. Obviously, all this is biologist lingo, but for us anglers it means they are looking to improve the quality of the fisheries and the fishing.

THE SIX-PACK

There are a total of 12 named lakes within the watershed area. Ultimately, only seven were included in the study. New Lake does not have a public access site, so it was not included in the study. Dollar, Green, Haroff and Winters lakes were not included because of their small size and limited access. Therefore, the focus of the study was on Big, Crane, Crooked, Goose, Loon, and Old lakes. Little Crooked Lake, which is connected to the east end of Crooked Lake, was included with Crooked Lake in the study. A closer look at these six lakes and their fisheries reveals what they hold for bass anglers.

THE LAKES

Big Lake is the largest of the six at 228 acres. Not far behind is Loon Lake at 222 acres and Crooked Lake at 206 acres. Goose Lake totals 84 acres while Old Lake and Crane Lake total 32 acres and 28 acres respectively. As mentioned, all six of these lakes have concrete boat ramps and parking areas. Bank fishing is available at the access sites, but shoreline development and private property diminishes bank fishing opportunities elsewhere.

Big and Loon lakes have the most shoreline development of the six. Shoreline development is less prevalent, but still present, at Crooked, Goose and Old lakes. Biologist Stu Shipman of the DNR said the least developed is Crane Lake. He said, "Crane is less developed than the others. It has trees surrounding it and gives anglers more of a feel of fishing on a more secluded lake."

Aquatic vegetation is present at all six lakes and heavy in some areas. Coontail is the most dominant and the only native plant found in all six lakes. Floating-leaf emergent plant beds, such as water lily and spatterdock, were also found and covered a lot of the shoreline, providing edge habitat for fish. The emergent beds were found along as much as 81 percent of the shoreline at Crooked and Goose, 75 percent at Crane, 69 percent at Old, 49 percent at Big and 32 percent at Loon.

Eurasian water milfoil and curly-leaf pondweed, which are non-native invasive species, were also found at some of the lakes. The former was found in all lakes, with the exception of Big Lake. The pondweed was found in Crane, Crooked, Goose and Old lakes in varying amounts.

THE FISHERIES

The DNR study reveals a lot of critical information about the largemouth fisheries present in these lakes. Biologists used a variety of sampling methods to collect data about the fish populations. Electrofishing, trap nets, gill nets and angler creel surveys were utilized to determine numbers and size structure of fish present, fish community proportions and angler catch rates. Both bank and boat anglers were surveyed.

The results indicated lots of bass present, especially those that were below the 14-inch legal limit. Larger fish numbers declined and legal-sized bass and those greater than 18 inches did not meet management goals. This results in plenty of fish, plenty of fishing action, and plenty of fun, just not a lot of wall hangers for anglers to go home and brag about. As a result, the DNR is recommending regulation changes and management strategies to remove some of the sub-legal bass and increase the percentage of larger fish.

The angler creel survey, taken from mid-May until August, indicated anglers fished a combined total of 36,055 hours at the six lakes, of which 89 percent was by boat anglers and 11 percent by bank fishing. Some 32 percent of anglers fished exclusively for bass. Anglers caught a total of 16,015 bass with a catch rate 1.2 fish per hour, which is above the objective of 1.0 per hour. Some 338 bass were harvested with the remaining 15,677 bass released. An estimated 89 percent of those released were below the 14-inch legal harvest size. Looking at the detailed data from the study also gives a better perspective of the individual lakes.

Electrofishing resulted in a total catch of 314 bass (over age one) per hour at Big Lake during the June survey period. That was the highest catch rate of any of the six lakes. In the spring surveys, 98 percent of the bass captured at Big were below 14 inches. The creel survey indicated anglers caught a total of 5,394 bass and harvested 43 of them.

Goose Lake had the second-highest catc

h rate during electrofishing, with 203 fish per hour that were above age one. The lake also had the highest angler bass harvest at 116 fish. Of those harvested, 78 were greater than 15.5 inches with nearly 40 more 17.5 inches or greater. Shocking samples also showed the second-highest number of bass above the legal limit at 18 percent of the total catch. Four percent were above 18 inches, which was the highest percentage of the lakes for that size grouping.

The highest percentage of bass above the 14-inch legal limit was at Crooked Lake, with an impressive 25 percent. Two percent were above 18 inches. The catch rate was much lower, though, at 79 fish per hour of electrofishing. Anglers caught a total of 2,425 bass and harvested 75 fish.

Loon Lake yielded the most fish to anglers with a total catch of 5,409 bass. Of those, 94 fish were taken home. Loon had a catch rate just above Crooked at 86 fish per hour of shocking. Approximately 9 percent of the fish shocked were above legal size.

The data for Crane were somewhat contradictory. The lake had the lowest number of bass caught by anglers at only 291 fish and the lowest catch rate at 0.7 fish caught per hour of fishing. Yet, electrofishing yielded the second-highest number of fish caught at 294 during the spring surveys and the third-highest number of age one or older bass per hour at 168. Obviously, all catch rates can vary according to the timing of the surveys and the level of expertise of the anglers on the lake, so the electrofishing numbers are probably more indicative of the fishery than is angler success.

Old Lake had the second-lowest number of bass caught by anglers at 669 fish, but ranked in the top four for angler success per hour. This is partly due to fishing pressure for bass being the second-lowest in the survey. Anglers did not harvest a single bass from Old Lake during the survey period. Biologists had the third-highest electrofishing catch rate of the six lakes while on Old Lake. The ranking for the number of fish over age one came in at number four though.

GETTTING BIT

Catching fish at these lakes is not a problem. The short version, according to Shipman, is to go to either Big or Crane if you want to catch a lot of bass. Go to Loon if you don't mind catching fewer bass, but generally bigger in size.

These lakes have large populations of bass, so getting bit can be fairly easy at times. Nonetheless, it's still bass fishing, so the fish are not going to cooperate all the time. Other times, anglers can go out there and throw virtually anything and get their lines stretched.

One method that is productive is to work the ample amount of aquatic vegetation. The bass will use this vegetation for cover, both for seclusion and as a facilitator to ambush food sources. They will ambush an angler's lure just as well if it's presented properly.

Top-water baits can be dynamite at times, especially in early mornings and then again just before dark. Work frogs or other weedless surface lures right across the top of the vegetation with an erratic stop and go retrieve. Pause these lures as they come across openings in the vegetative mats.

These openings in the plants can also be good spots to pitch jig-and-pig combinations, or plastic baits, either Texas-rigged or wacky-style. Worms, lizards and creature baits can all be effective at times.

Some anglers prefer to work the edges of the vegetation instead of right in it. Cast crankbaits, jerkbaits, or even spinnerbaits along the edge and retrieve them parallel to the weed edge. Hiding bass will often dart out of the cover and absolutely hammer these baits.

Vegetation isn't the only game in town, though. Look for largemouths to be relating to any other structure in the lakes, including rocks, humps, downed trees and more. By this time of year, some bass will have moved out a little deeper, so structure away from the shoreline can be good.

A thermocline sets up in all of these lakes by early summer and anglers must keep it in mind to find success. Generally, it will establish somewhere between 6 and 16 feet and be between eight to 10 feet in thickness.

BEFORE YOU GO

Anglers traveling to the area will find the lakes located about midway between Fort Wayne and South Bend. They are distributed in parts of Noble and Whitley counties. Access can be found from State Road 109.

Food and lodging may be found in the two bigger cities mentioned or closer to the lakes in nearby Columbia City. For more information, call (260) 248-5100 or visit www.columbiacity.net. Camping and rental cabins are available at the Chain O' Lakes State Park. Call (847) 587-5512 or go to http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r2/chaino.htm for more information.

The DNR has made recommendations to change the regulations on some of these lakes from statewide size and creel limits to new limits that will help improve the bass fisheries in the UTRLA region. The main objective is to adjust regulations so anglers can harvest some of the smaller bass and reduce the overall fish numbers, thereby allowing the rest of the fishery to grow. This will help reduce the overabundance of sub-legal fish and give anglers greater opportunities at better fish. Anglers should check to see if these new regulations have been approved prior to fishing.

Although boat ramps are available at the lakes, there are no marinas present, so no boat rental or docking is available. These ramps will accommodate most bass fishing boats, but anglers should note that there is a 10 mph speed limit in place for all of these lakes with one notable exception. Big and Loon lakes do allow higher boat speeds during a six-hour period from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The 10 mph limit is in effect the remainder of the day.

For bait and tackle needs, anglers may want to contact Mike's Sport Shop at (260) 248-8798. Additional fishing information on these lakes may be obtained by contacting the DNR District 3 fisheries office in Columbia City at (260) 244-6805.

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