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Salad Bar Bass: Go to the Mats at Florida's Rodman Reservoir

The thick vegetation that covers the north-central Florida reservoir provides abundant habitat for double-digit largemouths.

Salad Bar Bass: Go to the Mats at Florida's Rodman Reservoir

Jigs that imitate crayfish produce well on Rodman, particularly in late spring as shallow flats start to become covered in new vegetation growth. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Most anglers are familiar with manmade lakes chock-full of trophy bass and aquatic vegetation, but how about one where the dense weed canopy protecting the giant bass moves 10 or 20 yards from hour to hour and even a mile in a day? That’s the situation at Rodman Reservoir, or Lake Ocklawaha, where concentrations of big bass frequently reposition themselves under the moving clogs of plants.

Fishing Rodman is a unique experience.

The scenic impoundment (sometimes spelled Lake Oklawaha) located in Florida’s Putnam and Marion counties has been perhaps the country’s most productive and intriguing trophy-bass factory almost from its inception. While it has gone through a few tough times, such as major hydrilla invasions that curtailed anglers’ success in the 1970s and periodically in later years, Rodman has remained a top bass lake. In fact, it normally produces more giant largemouths from 8 to 15 pounds every year than any other lake in the state, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWCC) TrophyCatch program statistics.

angler with two fish
Veteran guide Fred Chivington looks for subtle changes in the bottom topography to locate hot spots among Rodman’s stumps and weeds. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

The citizen-science program, established in 2012, rewards anglers for catching and releasing trophy-size largemouths and for collecting information to enhance research, aid conservation and promote bass fishing. There are three categories: the Lunker Club (bass weighing 8 to 9.99 pounds), Trophy Club (10 to 12.99 pounds) and Hall of Fame (13-plus pounds). There have been 14,600 approved catches in the three categories to date, and Rodman Reservoir has the most in the program, according to Summer Lindelien, FWCC fishery biologist.

“It is the top trophy lake in Florida,” she says. “About 8 percent of the total or 1,176 [entries] were caught in Rodman alone. Rodman leads all Florida waterbodies in the first two categories and is second in the Hall of Fame category with five giant bass over 13 pounds.

“The heaviest approved catch in the reservoir was by a Georgia angler, and it weighed 14 pounds, 1 ounce,” Lindelien adds. “Since the program’s inception, over 500 anglers from more than 30 states have caught, documented and released TrophyCatch bass on Rodman Reservoir.”

egret at water's edge
Egrets and other water birds signify that forage is nearby. Bass will be in the area looking for a meal, too. (Photo by Larry Larsen)


Emergent vegetation, submergent vegetation, floating vegetation … Rodman has the most variety of vegetation throughout its water column of any bass lake I’ve seen. Its variety of structure and depth is also unparalleled in Florida and most other states.

Rodman has substantial submergent plant growth with a strong foothold in the bottom soil, such as coontail, eelgrass, Illinois pondweed and even hydrilla. Also stretching skyward from shallower depths are “gator” grasses, lily pads, bulrushes and cattails. The massive flats have abundant hardwood tree stumps just under the water’s surface that don’t yield to lower units. Additionally, there are acres and acres of water cabbage, lettuce, water hyacinth, spatterdock, water pennywort and other floating vegetation in the reservoir.

The “floaters” often separate or break apart with the directional push of currents from river and creek inflows or gusty winds. Acres of surface plants are often blown to one side of the impoundment and then back to the other the following day. Yes, the predominate habitat in this fishery is usually in flux.

The floating cover, with its roots dangling a foot or so below the water’s surface, roves the lake until it snuggles up to emergent cover, creating huge beds or even fields of various plant life. Small forage fish and tiny crustaceans inhabit the hanging roots, and they attract larger predators. On top of the cover are insects, reptiles and other critters. Bass move under the masses of vegetation seeking the forage hiding among it.

Wind or current soon forces some of the floaters away from their temporary home of stumps or other emergent cover. Bugs and other forage may then fall into the water or be inclined to follow the protective habitat. Rodman’s bass often move deeper under the cover’s edge or on to another clog of weeds as they search for prey.

Why is this big bass fishery so sustainable? Rodman is primarily surrounded by wetlands with vast areas of uninhabited forest. The impoundment is isolated from large population centers, situated on the northern and western boundaries of the 400,000-acre Ocala National Forest. The reservoir lies between the renowned waters of Lake George and the St. Johns River to the east, and lakes Orange and Lochloosa to the west. These four bodies of water are more accessible to the few mid-size communities in the region.


Most of the roads in Marion and Putnam counties around the reservoir are county roads with limited infrastructure. Overall, Rodman has approximately 90 miles of shoreline with very little development on it or on the river above the lake. The fertile waters there are seldom impacted by pollution or extreme boating and fishing pressure. Those factors, the reservoir’s abundant habitat and central Florida’s spring influences along the Ocklawaha watershed make for a healthy largemouth bass fishery.

Rodman Reservoir was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968 as part of the now-defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal project (a planned 107-mile navigation shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean). The Ocklawaha River was dammed, creating the 16-mile-long reservoir. Flooding of the hardwood forest gave avid bass anglers a new and unique opportunity—a 13,000-acre artificial impoundment in Florida with tremendous habitat for giant largemouths and their forage.

A straight, 150-foot-wide canal was dredged from the St. Johns River north of Welaka to and through much of the impoundment, creating a channel of sorts.

Boaters can access Rodman from the St. Johns by passing through the nearby Buckman Locks on the Barge Canal. There are also several boat ramps on the reservoir and above it on Ocklawaha River. Continuation of the project beyond Rodman was halted in 1971 primarily due to environmental concerns relative to the Florida aquifer.

fisherman catches a fish
Miles of weed edges and acres of floating vegetation give anglers countless spots to target Rodman’s roaming bass. (Photo by Larry Larsen)


The impoundment’s watershed primarily consists of the 50-mile-long Ocklawaha River system, which is the largest tributary of the St. Johns River. The Ocklawaha flows north out of Lake Griffin, the northern-most lake in the Harris Chain of Lakes. The river, dotted with palms and cypress trees, continues flowing north through the Moss Bluff Loch and Dam and along the Ocala National Forest’s western boundary. This area has minimal angling pressure.

The 6-mile-long Silver River with its clear, 72-degree spring water joins the Ocklawaha River near Highway 40. About 15 miles north, above the town of Eureka, the Ocklawaha flows into the impoundment, which stretches north for several miles and then east. Orange Creek, which drains the Orange Lake-Lake Lochloosa watershed, has minimal contribution to Rodman near Orange Springs. The Deep Creek-Sweetwater Creek inflow on the north side of the lake and numerous underwater springs in the reservoir contribute slightly to the water volume.

The impoundment is about 18 miles in length and has a maximum width of almost 3 miles in a couple of areas. Rodman is typically divided into three sections, roughly equal in length, which have distinct ecosystems.

The reservoir section from Rodman’s headwaters at Eureka Dam north to Paynes Landing (Cypress Bayou) is called the Riverine Zone. It consists of a winding river through flooded woodlands and meadows, resembling the pre-impoundment Ocklawaha River.

The middle section, called the Transition Zone, extends from Paynes Landing north to Orange Springs. This shallow lake area consists of dead standing (and floating) timber flats with lily pads, eelgrass and large areas of floating vegetation.

The bass-laden Pool Zone, or main lake section, extends eastward from Orange Springs to the Kirkpatrick Dam. It includes the submerged river channel, the straight Cross Florida Barge Canal channel and its submerged dredged spoil berm, and the famous stump flats. The impoundment’s flats generally have an average depth of 8 to 12 feet, but the maximum depth can be about twice as deep. The old Ocklawaha River channel near the dam has water depths up to 20 feet.

The western third of the Pool Zone from Orange Springs to Kenwood Landing has most of the islands and tiny, submerged creek channels in the lake. Diverse cover, including the densely packed mats, keeps the forage handy to the abundant bass. The eastern two-thirds of the main lake pool has the expansive stump flats. Water is generally shallower on the Deep Creek flats (the north side of the barge canal cut) and about 4 feet deeper on the south side. This section consists of areas of some floating and submerged vegetation, a few sunken logs and a bunch of tree stumps.

Fishing a live, wild shiner near the edge of vegetation is a popular technique on Rodman. The shiner will often swim under the mat where big bass lurk. (Photo by Larry Larsen)


I have enjoyed the great fishing on Rodman since the early ’70s and have caught several bass from the forage-rich fishery between 5 and 10 pounds. In fact, the most powerful bass I ever had on slammed a large crankbait and took off like it was hooked to a dragster going the opposite direction. The powerful monster burned drag—and my poor thumb—until the 25-pound-test line broke. I never saw that fish.

In the ’80s and ’90s, a friend of mine who guides on Rodman had several clients catch bass that weighed from 12 to a little more than 15 pounds. These giants were caught from the timber, submergent hydrilla and floating plants. Despite most of the hydrilla being gone, occasionally fish that size are still caught.

Rodman’s prevalent forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad, crappies, bluegills, shiners and lake chubsuckers keeps the trophy bass production humming. A recently caught largemouth weighed in at 17.2 pounds, just coming short of the reputed lake record that weighed 17.27 pounds. Not all Rodman monsters are recorded and bragged about, though.

I recently spent a day with top guide Fred Chivington in the western portion of the Pool Zone. Fred has fished Rodman for more than 40 years and employs GPS with other electronics to enhance his vast on-the-water experience. The tools help him more easily locate strategic creek channel bends and submerged ditches that attract bass near the surface structure in the shallow flats.

Fishing the weed clogs during this trip to Rodman was challenging. We fished points of vegetation masses and free-standing mats of floaters. We also focused on the edges of channels and small topographical drops as well as humps in the stump fields. The prime spots were sometimes clear of floating mats one minute and socked in just 10 minutes later.

Catching multiple bass from a productive slot in the floating cabbage and hyacinth depended on how the currents and wind combined to push or pull the weed mats. Fred likes to fish around what he calls “isolated chunks,” which are floaters that have drifted into a small willow tree cluster or other submergent brush strong enough to retain a miniature floating island for a few days. He also focuses on herons, egrets and other birds easing along the edge of the floating mats while searching for forage.

Although I caught a dozen strong and healthy bass, none were the double-digit fish we were seeking. In one of Fred’s honey holes, we found a 15-foot-long by 7-foot-wide pocket in a huge weed clog with a few 4- to 6-pound bass. Within 10 minutes, though, the floating water cabbage interspersed with spatterdock quickly filled in the open space in the undulating weed mass. While frustrating, it emphasized the importance of having local knowledge of Rodman’s currents, channels and depths throughout the different sections.


The fishing in Rodman has varied from good to great over the years, thanks in part to management and drawdowns. Early on, the reservoir was super-productive with hydrilla growing rampant in the fertile new waters. After five years of tremendous growth, hydrilla had taken over much of the lake, choking off huge areas, and fishing productivity dropped.

Rodman’s initial drawdown to combat the plant-related problems occurred in 1975. Drawdowns of 5 or 6 feet every three or four years continued through the 2000s. Today, Chivington reports that Rodman’s level is dropped two or three times a year on an inconsistent basis, which has had mixed results on the fishery. When a drawdown occurs, a lower water level in January and February usually provides better angler access to fat pre-spawn bass.

angles holding large bass
Rodman’s abundant trophy-sized bass and its unique habitat have kept the author coming back to the reservoir since the 1970s. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Naturally, optimal times to catch giant bass in Rodman are the spring months when some of the abundant weed beds have been reduced in size due to the colder weather. Spawning in the reservoir, however, may occur a little later than it does in Florida’s shallower natural lakes. From mid-February through April, heavyweight bass head for their beds. The reservoir has numerous natural springs that flow into it, which makes for a more consistent and moderate water temperature, even in the coldest winter. Water temperatures during the spawn are usually in the 60s and moving toward the 70s, and weed growth has yet to peak.

One successful tactic to catch the impoundment’s giant bass is to either free-line big wild shiners or employ the baits about 3 feet below a bobber. On Rodman, they are often the most effective bait to use, especially during the spawn. A healthy shiner will often go out near the edges of cover and find the trophy bass for you. Once hooked up, you may have to pull a big bass out of a clump of aquatic vegetation.

In April and May, anglers tossing swimbaits and topwater plugs on the edges of the weed beds, clumps and clogs can find good action from post-spawn feeders. Shortly thereafter, as the new growth of aquatic vegetation attempts to take over some of the shallower lake flats, flipping crayfish-resembling jigs along the emergent weed edges can be productive.

Fishing is often excellent again from mid-August through December when submerged vegetation has matted up on the surface in some deeper waters. This is another time that shiners can be the ticket to trophy bass. Coontail and other vegetation often assists anglers by defining deeper holes and creek channel edges where big bass may hang out. Tossing single-hook swimbaits along the canopy edges of the river and creek channels can be very productive. Use one that closely replicates baitfish like Lunkerhunt’s 4 1/2-inch Gambit. Expect hang-ups with any artificial in the scattered and isolated vegetation. Pack your patience if tossing lures in the late summer and early fall months. After all, vegetation is as much a part of the Rodman experience as big bass.

boats at dock
Several ramps provide access to Rodman’s superb bass habitat, but navigating the vegetation and submerged stumps can be tricky. (Photo by Larry Larsen)
Off the Water
  • Families will find numerous natural attractions in north-central Florida.

There are plenty of things to do when not wetting a line in Rodman Reservoir or one of the other great bass fishing waters near the impoundment. Marion County, which stretches from the lake’s Orange Springs area southward, encompasses most of the Ocala National Forest and the Ocklawaha River. Canoers, kayakers, tubers, boaters and scuba divers love the area and its nine major natural springs.

Hikers can enjoy the St. Johns Loop Trail and Cross Florida National Scenic Trail in the Rodman area. The forest also offers numerous other hiking trails, small lakes and ponds to explore. There are several equestrian trails that begin at the Ocklawaha River’s Buckman Lock. Eagles, ospreys, herons, limpkins, egrets and ducks are abundant in this beautiful area of the state.

Many visitors to Florida and most residents have heard of the 5,000-acre Silver Springs State Park with its glass-bottom boat tours for marine life viewing and of the wild monkeys living along Silver River. The long-time natural attraction on the east side of Ocala is one of the world’s largest and most famous artesian springs. Other nearby recreation areas include Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Juniper Springs.

Just west of Highway I-75 is Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon and the lesser-known but fabulous Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens west of Williston. Other great areas for the family to discover are: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy, Sweetwater Wetlands Park and Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville. The new World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Ocala is the world’s largest. A result of the city being named the official “Horse Capital of the World” in 2007, the WEC will impress anyone. Contact, and for more information.

Rodman Trip Planner
  • Ramps are plentiful, but lodging ... not so much.

Like most waters that are difficult to navigate and fish, on Rodman Reservoir a local guide is usually worthwhile. Fred Chivington (386-329-3159) has been taking customers to Rodman, the St. Johns River and other nearby waters for more than 55 years. The 70-year-old guide has led clients fishing shiners and artificial baits to big bass up to 12 pounds in the impoundment.

Lodging in the immediate area is scarce, and you may have to drive 45 minutes to find accommodations. Close to the lake and ramps, Orange Springs has a handful of vacation rentals. Northeast of Rodman are some hotels and motels in the river town of Palatka. A little farther away, Gainesville and Ocala have dozens of comfortable accommodations. There are a couple of campgrounds with RV hookups in the recreation areas on the lake.

Anglers will find four boat ramps on the impoundment. On the east side of the lake is the Rodman Recreation Area. On the north side, west of the Deep Creek flats and off Highway 315 is the popular Kenwood Recreational Area. Both have paved double ramps, large parking areas, restrooms, fishing docks or catwalks, grills and picnic areas. Two smaller, single ramps are at the Orange Springs Recreation Area, which lies on the west side of the lake off Highway 315, and Paynes Landing (Cypress Bayou) on the southwest side of the lake in the headwaters area.

There are also a couple of small ramps just off Highway 316, east of Eureka at the Ocklawaha River headwaters bridge near the upper end of Rodman. On the impoundment’s south side, across from the Orange Springs Recreation Area and just north of Hog Valley, is an unimproved ramp with limited parking. Below the Rodman Reservoir Dam on the Ocklawaha River spillway is a double concrete ramp.

Anglers visiting Rodman must be aware of navigation hazards. Most of the reservoir’s trees are now stumps just under the water’s surface; few are emergent. There are also floating logs beneath the surface that are sometimes partially hidden in the floating vegetation mats. Take great care when boating out of the marked Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Ocklawaha River channel.

Use extreme caution when moving across the scenic flats, and follow the Army Corps of Engineers aids to navigation when possible. If you fish away from the 14-foot-deep barge canal, its accompanying dredged spoil berms or the old Ocklawaha River channel, a detailed map will be very helpful.

  • This article was published in the March 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. How to subscribe.

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