North Florida Catfish Honeyholes

From Pensacola across to Gainesville, the Sunshine State has some quite good waters for targeting channel catfish. Here's a closer look at some of these.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Carolee Boyles

Mention the word "catfish" around North Florida anglers in the know, and some names of big waters for big fish come up - names such as Lake Talquin for channel cats and the Apalachicola River for big flatheads. But this portion of the Sunshine State also boasts many lesser-known public catfish destinations. These fisheries may be as small as 65-acre Karick Lake, in Okaloosa County, or as large as Newnans Lake, outside Gainesville. All these fisheries have one thing in common, though: They're all great places to go for catfish during the summer.

In the far western Florida Panhandle, Karick Lake, Bear Lake, Lake Stone, Hurricane Lake, Lake Victor, and Juniper Lake all offer easy access for anglers with or without a boats. On all these small lakes, the secret to their good catfishing is the management provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC).

One management practice biologists conduct is a fertilization and liming program to enhance the natural fisheries' productivity. The overall goal of the FWCC is to increase the productivity of the lakes and increase the number of desirable-sized sport fish for anglers.

Biologists use liquid ammonium polyphosphate fertilizer formulated for fishponds and dolomite agricultural lime, which are broadcast over the surface of the water. The lime increases the ability of the plants to utilize the minerals in the fertilizer, particularly calcium carbonate and magnesium. Biologists must calculate application rates very carefully to avoid adding lime or fertilizer too fast and upsetting the entire system.

The result of this fertilization is an algal bloom - a rapid increase in the microscopic plants suspended in the water. These plants are the base of the food chain, thus fertilization increases the amount of plant material available for baitfish to eat.

The lakes also undergo periodic drawdowns to expose and dry out the lake bottoms. This causes the organic muck deposits on the bottom to consolidate, which helps improve habitat and increase the natural production of organisms that fish feed on. During drawdowns, biologists sometimes seed the exposed bottom with ryegrass for the same reason.

All six of these lakes are impoundments that were created by the FWCC back in the 1950s and 1960s to improve fishing opportunities in the Panhandle. As a result, they have several things in common. First, they're all small and full of standing timber and stumps left over from the forests that were present before the lakes were created. This woody debris has led to special regulations banning the use of gasoline motors on the ponds.

Second, all of these lakes have fish attractors. Biologists place brushpiles in the lakes to help concentrate fish and make it easier for you to take home a full stringer for your dinner table.

Lake Victor is located in northern Holmes County, just south of State Route (S.R.) 2 and about a mile west of New Hope. Its 130 acres are close to Chipley, Bonifay and DeFuniak Springs. Lake Victor was impounded in 1966 and opened for fishing in 1968. The lake averages 8 feet in depth, with some spots along the old streambed and near the dam reaching 23 feet in depth.

A public concrete boat ramp is available for anglers, as is a handicapped-accessible pier. On the southeast shore of the lake, a privately owned campground offers a place to stay overnight. The campground also has an unpaved boat ramp. On the northeast side of the lake, you find a privately owned bait and tackle shop.

Channel catfish are stocked in Lake Victor periodically.

In Walton County, 665-acre Juniper Lake is the largest of the six Panhandle lakes. It is located about three miles north of DeFuniak Springs, east of U.S. Highway 331 and west of S.R. 83.

There are two concrete boat ramps on Juniper Lake, one near the dam on the east side and the other on Catt Island in the northeastern part of the lake. Walton County provides restrooms and a picnic area, and one fish camp on the lake has bait and tackle for sale.

Lake Stone, located in Escambia County, is in many ways very similar to Lake Victor. It also covers about 130 acres and has as similar depth, averaging 6 feet deep overall, with a maximum depth of 22 feet along the old streambed and at the dam.

Lake Stone is located in northern Escambia County, close to Pensacola and Milton. The entrance to the area is on S.R. 4, 1 1/2 miles west of U.S. 29 and the town of Century. There's one concrete boat ramp on Lake Stone, as well as a crushed-rock boat launch area. The Lake Stone Recreation Area, located on the northwest end of the impoundment, provides fee campsites with or without hookups, and a playground, picnic area and bathing facilities. Although there aren't any fish camps on the lake, there is a fishing pier associated with the campground, and you can get bait and ice there. There also are "fishing fingers" jutting out into the water near the dam for anglers who want to fish from the bank.

Bear Lake, 107 acres in size, is located inside the Blackwater River State Forest in northeast Santa Rosa County. It's about two miles east of Munson and a little north of S.R. 4. This impoundment is within easy reach of anglers in Pensacola, Milton and Crestview.

Bear Lake was created in 1959 when a dam was built on Bear Creek. The lake was opened to fishing in 1961. The pond was closed for a time for renovation and re-opened in 1972. It now has an average depth of 8 feet and a maximum depth of 23 feet near the dam.

The Division of Forestry maintains a dual-lane concrete boat ramp on the lake, as well as a fishing pier with handicapped access. There also are two primitive boat landings along the cutoff road between S.R. 4 and Beaver Creek Road.

Camping is allowed in the main recreation area, and bathing and restroom facilities are on site, as is a picnic area. You can rent canoes from the Division of Forestry, but you need to get bait and other supplies from stores in Munson or Baker.

Located in Okaloosa County, Hurricane Lake covers 318 acres. It was built in 1971 and opened in 1973. It has an average depth of 7 feet and a maximum depth of 25 feet. Biologists have cut most of the standing timber at three to seven feet below the normal lake surface to improve access for boats.

Hurricane Lake is also located inside the Blackwater River State Forest. It is north of S.R. 4 and about 12 m

iles northwest of Baker, and it is easily accessible to anglers in Pensacola, Milton and Crestview.

The Division of Forestry maintains concrete boat ramps at two campgrounds, located on the north and south sides of the lake. There's also a fishing pier near the north boat ramp. No boat rentals are available here, and you have to get bait from one of the tackle shops in Baker, Blackman or Munson.

At 65 acres, Karick Lake is located in the Blackwater River State Forest and is the smallest of the Panhandle's public catfish lakes. It averages 7 feet deep, with several holes 18 feet deep. There's a lot of flooded timber in this lake, which creates good fish habitat.

Karick Lake is in Okaloosa County about eight miles north of Baker, two miles south of Blackman, and east of County Road (C.R.) 189. The Division of Forestry allows camping on the area, which offers a bathhouse and picnic area. Although there are two concrete boat ramps and a fishing pier, don't look for boat rentals here. And bring your bait with you, since there's nowhere to buy supplies at the lake.

The best baits for catfish on any of these Panhandle lakes are chicken livers or red wigglers. The daily creel limit is six channel cats per angler.

NEWNANS LAKE
Just east of Gainesville, Newnans Lake offers anglers an entirely different sort of catfish opportunity. For many years, Newnans Lake was billed as one of the state's top waters for bass, both largemouth and sunshine, as well as for cats. But with the prolonged drought, conditions in the lake have changed, making it less of a bass lake and even more of a catfish fishery.

Eric Nagid is a fisheries biologist with the FWCC whose responsibilities include Newnans Lake.

"Normally, Newnans Lake is about 6,700 acres," he says. "But we've been in a drought now for an extended period of time. Pretty much since 1998 the water has been steadily declining. So right now the lake is reduced to about 3,000 acres. It's about half its normal size."

Unlike the little manmade lakes in the Panhandle, Newnans is a natural lake and is actually a big cypress dome. In many ways, it's unique in the area. For a variety of reasons, it's maintained a great deal of its integrity as a natural resource.

"There's not a lot of development on the lake itself," Nagid says. "There's a road along the west shore of the lake, but none of the houses along the road are right on the lake. They're on the other side of the road. So there are some docks that people have placed in the lake, but the original cypress that borders the lake is still there."

Much of the land north of Newnans Lake is swamp, and the St. Johns Water Management District has purchased a lot of that property. As a result, Hatchet Creek and Little Hatchet Creek, which feed the lake, have been protected from pollution and nutrient loading that would degrade the lake.

Behind the cypress stands in the lake itself are many pine stands, mostly owned by timber companies. This, too, has protected the watershed.

Like other cypress lakes, Newnans Lake is quite shallow.

"At normal pool, Newnans has a mean depth of about 4 feet," Nagid says. "There are a couple of holes, one off Palm Point and one in kind of the north-central part of the lake, that at normal water level are about 10 feet deep."

According to Nagid, studies that take bottom samples and date them have shown that Newnans Lake is somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. Throughout that time, the lake has had a lot of nutrients in both the water and the bottom sediments. This is reflected in the state of the bottom, which is soft and mucky for a depth of several feet.

"The bottom is horrible," Nagid says bluntly. "Because it's such a nutrient-rich lake, it's very, very mucky. There's an 8-foot average depth of muck, and as much as 16 feet in some places. That represents years and years of sediment accumulation, most of it associated with algal and plant remains. Back in the 1950s, Newnans Lake was plagued with a lot of water hyacinths, and they did massive sprayings of the lake."

Both the dead hyacinths and the naturally occurring algae have contributed to the muck layer, Nagid says.

Because of the low water, the two regular boat ramps are pretty much inaccessible at this time. However, many anglers who want to fish on the lake are putting in at Palm Point, a small point of land on the southeast side of the lake on C.R. 329B between S.R. 20 and S.R. 26.

"Palm Point is a natural point that extends out into the lake a little bit," Nagid explains. "There's a dirt area that has kind of been cleared out and there's a little bit of limerock there where people have been putting in, even though it's not a developed ramp."

Palm Point also is a natural place for bank anglers to fish.

"You can cast out to the Palm Point hole, one of the 10-foot holes I mentioned," he adds. "So it's always been a highly used area."

Because of the overall conditions of the lake, catfish dominate the fishery now. If you're fishing for catfish on Newnans Lake, expect to catch white catfish, brown bullheads and yellow bullheads. Most of them will be in the 6-inch to 12-inch range - perfect for eating.

"It's always been a really good lake for catfish," he says.

If you're fishing on Newnans Lake for catfish, all the traditional catfish baits should work well for you.

"Anglers use mud minnows, grass shrimp, earthworms, chicken livers. Any kind of bait like that works well," Nagid says.

Whether you're bank fishing or fishing from a canoe or johnboat, Nagid offers a warning about Newnans Lake. Don't wade or swim in the lake. Part of the reason is the soft bottom.

"When you step into that stuff, you can literally sink," he explains. "It's not a lake you want to be out swimming in."

Beyond the state of the bottom, however, also watch out for the alligators.

"Newnans Lake has always had a pretty good alligator population," Nagid concludes. "It's always been a good place for big and plentiful gators."



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