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Stick Marsh Bassin'

Stick Marsh Bassin'

In recent years, this project near the Brevard and Indian River County border has been a hotspot for lunker bass. So how's the fishing now? Let's have a look. (March 2008).

Photo by William J. Bohica.

During the last few years, Mother Nature has not been kind to bass anglers in Central and South Florida. Beginning in 2004, big hurricanes uprooted and destroyed massive amounts of beneficial aquatic vegetation on many lakes, from Kissimmee to the Okeechobee.

That was followed by a serious drought that sent water levels plummeting to record low levels.

Those rapid changes in what had been an outstanding environment for bass didn't help the fisheries a lot. But many lakes are beginning to show strong signs of recovery.

However, the Stick Marsh/Farm 13 complex has lagged a bit behind in that respect.

Unlike many other waters in the area, the Stick Marsh has little in the way of a shallow littoral zone. In this reclamation project, when the water level falls, it doesn't result in the kind of natural drawdown that exposes the bottom and promotes the growth of new plant life. When water levels rise, they don't flood such rejuvenated zones and provide a new habitat for bass. Given that dikes contain this impoundment, it's basically a goldfish bowl.

Bob Eisenhauer, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, monitors the complex. "When a lake is fluctuating within contained, manmade boundaries like the Stick Marsh, submerged vegetation like hydrilla can be very beneficial," he explained.

"Pre-2004," he continued, "we had a nice combination of hydrilla that fluctuated from the center of the water bodies to a fringe along the edges, and grew well on submerged structures like the edges of drainage ditches. Some of the most beneficial hydrilla we had was on the southern end of Farm 13.

x"It formed a good mass just off the shoreline, which provided a great buffer area inside it during the hard

north winds we often get during the spawning season. It was a very stable environment with clean water for spawning and protected the hatched fry. In other areas, we had plenty of open water -- and plenty of hydrilla in deeper water.

"It was an excellent habitat, and the fishing was phenomenal."

The 2004 hurricanes changed those conditions drastically. In fact, they decimated the hydrilla on both the Stick Marsh and Farm 13.

"Submerged vegetation is virtually non-existent on these two impoundments right now," Eisenhauer noted.

"The southern end of Farm 13 has some degree of elevation to it, which gives it a certain amount of shallow littoral zone. We're starting to see some cattails growing in those shallows. But there isn't much else."

In a manmade system contained by dikes, submerged vegetation is extremely important for the continued production of bass and forage fish. Removing the weeds can have negative effects, although they don't immediately materialize.

"Pre-2004," Eisenhauer resumed, "we had a lot of hydrilla and a lot of bass. When the hydrilla was ripped out, the catch rates were very good because it was easy for anglers to get to the bass. But within three years after the event, and with no recovery of the hydrilla, our creel sampling indicates that angler effort and angler catch rates are down from our historic highs of the 1990s."

He also notes that FWCC electro-sampling has indicated a decline in the overall bass population.

"We are seeing all year-classes represented," he went on. "But we're also seeing some weaker year-classes after 2004 than we had in samplings prior to that year."

Considering that for the last few years Florida has experienced mild winters and very good spawning conditions -- with excellent year-classes being hatched on other lakes -- it's possible that the Stick Marsh is experiencing a decline in bass population simply due to its lack of submerged vegetation. The sanctuary areas for the fry and young-of-the-year bass are skimpy at best.

A mature bass population can adapt to an open-water environment as long as food for them remains. But without submerged vegetation as a sanctuary to the newly hatched fry, a decline in the overall population is possible.

But not inevitable!

"Our sampling shows a decline in the bass population," Eisenhauer confirmed. "But it could also be that the mature bass have shifted to a deeper open-water habitat that our sampling gear cannot reach.

"Has the density of bass in the system declined by the figure our sampling shows? Or have the fish just moved to where we can't sample them? You could debate that point. But I tend to feel that there has been a decline in the overall population and feel it's directly related to the lack of submerged vegetation."

On the surface, that might sound like depressing news. But two factors keep the Stick Marsh among your top choices to catch a 10-pound bass. The first is that there have been no significant fish kills reported and that despite the lack of submerged vegetation, water quality remains good.

That leads directly to the second factor.

"This is a catch-and-release lake," said Capt. Al Bermitz, a veteran guide. "You can't keep any fish. So other than a fish kill -- which hasn't happened -- or just plain dying of old age, there's no place for the bass to go. There are still a lot of big fish in this lake.

"In 2007," he went on, "I heard reports of bass in the 14- to 15-pound range. But the biggest I've been able to witness personally are in the 12- to 13-pound range. Still, there's a good population of 9- to 12-pound bass in these lakes. I think the reason some anglers aren't connecting with them is that they haven't shifted their tactics from the days when we had a lot of hydrilla. Lack of hydrilla has definitely changed the places that are the most productive and the way we have to fish this lake."

One factor that definitely affects angling productivity is the wind. And that becomes key during the period from February through March when the majority of the spawning takes place on this lake. This time of year, much of Florida receives brisk spring breezes that can be annoying. But given present circumstances on these lakes, the wind

does far more than cause discomfort for anglers.

"Without the vegetation," Bermitz noted, "there's nothing to buffer the effects of the wind. You could have clear water on the south end on Thursday, have a front move in that night and blow hard north, and have muddy water on the south end on Saturday. If we have a severe front that starts with a south wind and blows hard for several days while swinging completely around to the northeast, the entire lake may get muddy and not be worth fishing for a couple of days. You've really got to watch the wind this year."

Although the breezes can shift water clarity on a daily basis, there are a couple of areas that Bermitz relies on during even poor conditions.

The first is the water flowing into the system. The Stick Marsh impoundment was originally built to cleanse nutrient-laden water from surrounding farmlands before it was sent back into the St. Johns River system. It's actually part of a larger water-control network.

On the immediate upstream side is Garcia, and its water enters the Stick Marsh via a spillway located at the southeast corner of Farm 13. From there, the water flow moves through the system and exits into the C-54 Canal from the Stick Marsh at a point near the boat ramp.

Water managers determine the amount of water to be held in the system. Although they certainly know how much water they'll be pumping in and out -- and when -- that information doesn't seem to be available to the general public.

But Bermitz would dearly love to know because it can set up a pattern virtually guaranteed to bring success.

"The spillway at the southeast corner of Farm 13 can be a real hotspot any time they're pumping water in from Garcia," he offered. "You've got a lot of baitfish coming over the spillway, and the bass can really stack up there.

"They don't tell you when they are going to pump," the guide confirmed. "But if the area gets a couple of days of rain, you can usually expect some incoming water. Regardless, it's the first place I check on this water system because if the water is moving, the bass will be there any day of the year."

Drifting live shiners, either under a cork or the increasingly popular balloon rigs, is a deadly tactic. Bermitz often favors smaller shiners in the 4- to 5-inch range since they more closely "match the hatch" for the size of the shad flowing in.

Artificial lures also work well.

"Crankbaits are great lures for the spillway," Bermitz said. "The last couple of years, a real hot one has been the Rapala DT-6 in a crawfish color. Toss this right into the current at the base of the spillway and retrieve it with the current.

"If there's any visible surface schooling activity, it's hard to beat a chrome- or shad-finished countdown crankbait like the Rat-L-Trap."

Some anglers have found that hard-plastic jerkbaits in either floating or suspending versions can also be quite effective when tossed to the spillway and jerked back erratically with the current. In chrome or shad patterns, they're dead ringers for the crippled shad the bass are feeding on.

Savvy anglers also keep a topwater plug handy. Bermitz favors the Johnny Rattler or the Storm Chug Bug with the crystal flash tail hook and in shad patterns. Like many anglers, he's found that surface baits can often produce bigger bass.

However, soft-plastic baits also have their place," Bermitz explained.

"If the bass don't respond to the more aggressive hard baits, a Senko can be very productive. June-bug has been a real good color, and we rig it in the normal weedless manner and fish it as a fall bait. Most of your hits come on the fall.

"Another very good bet is a Carolina-rigged worm with a 7 1/2-inch Bass Assassin curlytail worm in June bug, black-and-blue, or red shad.

"I like to fish this with a lighter-than-normal weight-- just enough to get the rig down to the bottom in the current."

Moving water makes the inflow a hotspot. But surprisingly, the outflow in the Stick Marsh is not nearly as productive. If the water isn't moving, Bermitz doesn't waste much time at either end. He heads for Plan B.

"In the southwest corner of Farm 13, there is a big maze of wood that we call Pinball Alley," he said.

"It's mostly short submerged stumps with some laydown logs. The depth along the outer edge is in the five-foot range, and the wood runs back into very shallow water. This is one of the few places on this system where there's a true shallow zone.

"It's one of the best covers left for bass. They live around it for much of the year, stage to spawn on the outer edges and go inside to spawn."

"It can be a difficult area to get back into," he continued, "because the stumps are pretty tight. You have to work your way slowly in and out on the trolling motor, and sometimes even lift both motors to just drift over the higher cut-off stumps.

"You kind of bang from stump to stump, and that's why we call it Pinball Alley. But it holds a lot of fish."

Unless Bermitz knows the bass are tucked up in the shallower sections of the wood, he normally starts along the outer edge in deeper water. Slow-trolling shiners is one of his preferred techniques to locate which sections of the wood are holding fish. Once he finds a concentration, the shiners can be cork-fished in cuts, pockets and on wood points.

For those who favor lures, shallow-running, square-billed crankbaits can cover a lot of the outer edge quickly, as long as the water is relatively clear.

Topwater plugs are also a good choice early and late in the day under conditions of relatively clear water.

Should wind muddy things up a bit, shifting to a safety-pin-style spinnerbait and slow-rolling it through the wood can be deadly. Gold blades in the No. 4 or 5 range, combined with skirts in white-and-chartreuse, are often the most productive.

If that doesn't produce, Bermitz is ready to move into the wood -- especially if spawning activity is going on. In this situation, Florida anglers seldom employ one of his favorite lures.

"Senkos and Texas-rigged plastic worms are good bets for the inside," the guide claimed. "But I've found that a jig-and-pig is very often the best bet. I like a 3/8-ounce jig in a black-and-blue combination and then add a pork or plastic frog trailer to it. I just pitch it out in front of me and bang it slowly through the wood.

"It's probably the best

lure for this spot when the weather is on the cool side during the pre-spawn or early spawn cycles."

Though Bermitz relies heavily on these two areas, anglers may want to consider some additional patterns at this time of year.

One is fishing the edges of ditches in Farm 13. During the summer of 2007, hydrilla was reported to be growing on some of them in the five- to seven-foot depth range.

Pre-spawn schools of female bass love to gather over submerged hydrilla before moving into the shallows to spawn -- and again when coming off the beds during the post spawn

Anglers who can find any of these submerged hydrilla clumps may have their own little gold mine. An excellent way to trigger a reaction strike is to run a large 3/4- to 1-ounce Rat-L-Trap over them at high speed.

If spawning activity is occurring, savvy anglers also check out the protected inside edges of whatever cattails they can find growing on the south end of Farm 13.

Anglers who find a couple of feet of water along the inside edge may have found the most protected spawning water on the lakes, and the females should be there.

Finally, don't overlook any substantial fallen trees along the banks. With vegetation largely gone, the shallow ends of these trees become the best available spawning sites.

This year, bassin' on Stick Marsh won't be like it was prior to 2004. Until hydrilla returns, anglers will have to shift their tactics. But the rewards can certainly be worth it.

"There's still plenty of big bass out there," Bermitz concluded. "They haven't left, and anglers can't take them out. This is still one of the best bets in the area to catch a trophy bass over 10 pounds. You just have to fish a bit differently for them."

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