October 10, 2022
Bienville Plantation is now Bienville Outdoors, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the changes at this north Florida lunker bass destination. After decades in the spotlight as America's premier private trophy factory, it now seems that Bienville’s future is even brighter than its glorious past.
The 11,000-acre property is under new ownership that clearly has its sights set on regaining some of the luster lost in recent years when previous ownership put a spotlight on things other than fishing. New owners Adam Baker and Chris King are focused on the fishing, and priority number-one is making the 18 lakes on the property as productive as they can be. To that end, they’re making all the right moves.
The two are working with fisheries biologists to make sure the lakes are healthy, that the bass are plentiful and that the forage is balanced and prolific. There’s no doubt Bienville's bass have the right genetics to grow large, and managing the fisheries and fishing pressure is the key to getting them there.
Site manager Tim Rode has overseen the resort for more than 20 years, so he's seen some ups and downs, and he’s never been more optimistic about the direction Bienville is going.
"It's great to see the owners investing in the property and showing such a long-term commitment," Rode says. "Adam and Chris are here almost all the time and are doing the things that make a big difference. Everything from building new structures that house equipment to doing controlled burns to improving the roads and boat ramps—these things go a long way to improving our facilities, our fishing and our hospitality."
With 18 lakes (and more coming soon) totaling thousands of acres, Bienville has lots of fishing opportunities. The lakes vary in almost every way imaginable, but all are phosphate pits—the remnants of phosphate mining of decades ago that continues today. Some of the "pits" are just a few acres; others are well over 1,000.
Some have clear water, some are dark and tannin-stained, some are dingy. Many of the lakes have prolific aquatic vegetation while others have little or none. All have plenty of shallow water, but many drop to 20, 30 or even 40 feet deep, which is extremely unusual in Florida.
Some lakes are new and have huge populations of fish up to 4 or 5 pounds; others are well established and regularly produce double-digit largemouths. All have their quirks, their best-producing colors and their advocates. If you ask five Bienville guides to choose their favorite lake, you’ll almost certainly get five different answers.
It's that unexpected diversity that keeps Bienville interesting and enormously productive. If you didn't catch them on one lake in the morning, you can bet that someone slayed them on another lake nearby. And with the lakes just minutes apart, it's easy to switch from one to another in search of the best bite.
BY THE SEASON
Late winter and early spring are great times to visit Florida and target the bass of a lifetime—especially if it means you'll be escaping winter's grip in the North—but that's also when Bienville draws its biggest crowds, and guest space fills up. The weather can be spotty, and Florida bass (Micropterus salmoides floridanus) are notorious for shutting down after cold fronts, which roll through almost weekly at this time.
Nevertheless, if you catch it right, Bienville can be at its best from December through February. That’s Dean Jackson's favorite time to target a trophy. Jackson has been guiding at Bienville for almost a decade. He’s also a scuba diver and has seen many of the lakes from a perspective few ever get.
"December through February is my pick for catching the bass of a lifetime," Jackson says. "Cold fronts can affect the fishing, but the females are full of eggs and feeding heavily."
The news only gets better. Because it's Florida and usually warm, Jackson catches a lot of big bass at this time on topwater baits like the Smithwick Devil's Horse and Rapala X-Rap Prop. If they won't eat on the surface, he opts for a weightless Yamamoto Senko, Zoom Super Fluke or Z-Man ChatterBait.
And again, since it's Florida, winter and early spring don't last very long. Summer comes early, but that’s not bad. In fact, it's the most stable and consistent time of the year if you're focused on fishing. It’s also Ron Ryals' favorite time to chase lunkers. Ryals has been guiding on Bienville for more than a decade, and has a one-two, shallow water-deep water approach for hot-weather bass.
"In the mornings and evenings, I like to throw big topwaters and look for a big bite," Ryals says. "My favorites are a buzzbait, the Rapala X-Rap Prop and—if I'm fishing around a lot of vegetation—a hollow-bodied frog. If the fish are active, I should see some bites quickly. If they're not, I'll change locations or even lakes in search of more active fish."
Once the sun gets up on the water, Ryals changes gears. That's when he picks up his punching outfit—a St. Croix rod and a casting reel spooled with 65-pound braided line. His go-to punch bait is a Missile Baits D Bomb behind a tungsten sinker weighing an ounce or more. He'll pitch the bait into hydrilla or hyacinths or around whatever heavy cover he can find. It's a great way to put the odds in your favor when targeting a Florida giant.
But punching is an acquired taste, and not every client is comfortable with such brute tactics. That’s when Ryals opts for a traditional Texas- or Carolina-rigged worm measuring 6 to 10 inches, dragging the baits around points and drops into deep water. He says any color is fine, as long as it’s black or junebug. Ryals' best advice applies to all Florida bass fishing.
"Slow down," he says. "Florida bass are lazy. They have plenty to eat and are generally not interested in chasing something. My clients are usually amazed at how slowly we need to move our baits to get bites, especially in the heat of summer."
That summer lethargy may be the reason Chris Heron's favorite season is early fall, after the first couple of cool fronts have dropped nighttime air temperatures below 60 degrees for the first time in months.
"That's when the bass start to group up and feed really heavily," he says. "I look for them on long points, around rock piles and drops. Sometimes they're suspended above grass or deep structure. It can be important to know your electronics and to look for those schools or pods of shad or other baitfish."
Heron has been guiding on Bienville since 2006 and has a reputation for finding big bass. In the fall, he’ll try to draw fish to the top using a plopper-type bait or walking bait like the classic Heddon Zara Spook. If they won't feed on top, he goes to a soft-plastic jerkbait, working it weightless just below the surface. Big hollow-body swimbaits and the Z-Man ChatterBait also come through grass well and catch lots of big bass.
Fall in Florida comes late most years, and it comes quickly. Heron advises any angler in the Sunshine State to get on the fall bite early—before others realize it’s happening. "By the time you hear about it," he says, "it could be too late!"
HIT THE PITS
Bienville's lakes are former phosphate mining pits that have been converted to prime bass waters.
When the first European explorers reached Florida in the 16th century, they came looking for gold, silver, even the Fountain of Youth. What they found was alligators, snakes and humidity—no precious metals or mystical waters. After a few hundred years, Florida was basically written off by treasure seekers.
Then, in the early 1800s, the British realized that phosphorous promotes growth in both plants and animals. They used bones (which contain phosphorous) as an agricultural fertilizer.
Later, scientists discovered that phosphate rock is a more abundant source of phosphate. But where to find it? It turns out that Florida is rich in phosphate, and the state now supplies about 80 percent of the nation’s phosphate needs and about 25 percent of the world’s phosphate demands.
The mining process for phosphate requires a lot of digging and refining. Sometimes the holes reach 50 or more feet below the surface. If not filled in with soil, they will eventually fill with water—and bass that grow very large.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Bienville offers a plethora of pursuits beyond catching big bass.
So, not everyone in your family is interested in catching giant bass? You say that piscatorial pursuits are not their personal priority, but they still want to be entertained? Bienville Outdoors has the answers for almost any visitor.
"In addition to the chance to see a lot of Florida's natural beauty," says site manager Tim Rode, "we have plenty of other outdoor activities that have recently been added to our mix."
These include volleyball, tetherball, pickleball, kickball, 16-inch softball (no gloves required), cornhole, horseshoes and a beautiful fire pit. Plus, it won’t be long before Bienville adds camping, trail riding and even a small golf area.
However, visitors don't have to be outdoorsy to enjoy time at Bienville. The cabins are comfortable, with Wi-Fi and satellite TV, and the food at the lodge is fantastic.