The string of lakes along the Kissimmee River is the backbone of bass fishing in south-central Florida. Here's how to fish these waters in the springtime! (April 2010)
The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes helped propel professional anglers into the record books a few years ago, but suffered a recent downturn. However, the sprawling expanse of wetlands covering more than 100,000 acres between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee can still produce incredible catches.
Flipping the Kissimmee grass along the shorelines of Lake Tohopekaliga is a good spring tactic on the northern end of the chain of lakes. –ª Photo by John Felsher.
"The Kissimmee chain has been one of the crown jewels of Florida bass fishing for a number of years," said Rob DeVries, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist for the system. "Dean Rojas set the tournament fishing record on the chain in 2001. Even now, we hear about people landing 10- to 14-pound bass each year. In spring bass tournaments, large numbers of 8- to 10-pound fish are caught fairly routinely. I know of at least one person who landed a 16-pounder from Toho. On another lake, I personally saw a bass that approached that size, but we couldn't get it into the boat."
On Jan. 17, 2001, Rojas, a professional angler from Grand Saline, Texas pulled up near the mouth of Shingle Creek, which feeds into Lake Tohopekaliga from the west. While flipping grass beds with soft plastics, Rojas landed a 10-pound, 13-ounce fish on his fourth cast. He finished that first day of the tournament by setting a one-day record with five bass weighing 45 pounds, 2 ounces -- an astonishing 9.02-pound average! Rojas won the tournament by also setting a four-day record with 20 bass weighing 108 pounds, 12 ounces.
Lake Tohopekaliga, affectionately known as Lake Toho or West Toho, anchors the northern section of the Kissimmee Chain. On the outskirts of Orlando in Osceola County, Lake Toho covers 22,700 acres and stretches for 13 miles with a maximum width of 4 miles. Boat ramps in the town of Kissimmee provide easy access.
"The system used to be a lot better before 2004, but it's still a good system," said Steve Niemoeller of Capt. Steve's Central Florida Guide Service. "It still has big fish, but it's become more of a numbers system in the past two or three years. A few years ago, it was nothing to catch a five-fish stringer weighing 25 pounds. My personal biggest fish here weighed more than 9 pounds, but that was in 2003. I've caught some 7s and 8s in the past couple years. I guided a couple people who caught some 8 1/2s."
In 2004, a state project to control weeds and remove muck from the bottom dropped the lake level by nearly half. The project turned the trophy system into a numbers lake with abundant 12- to 14-inch fish and many in the 1 1/2- to 2-pound range, but it still holds double-digit bass.
"In 2004, we did the largest drawdown ever attempted in Florida on West Toho to improve bass habitat," DeVries said. "We tried to make some traditional spawning grounds that had been covered up in muck and plant detritus more accessible. We try to stay on top of habitat management, but we're not only managing for fish. We also manage for other wildlife. (
"Hydrilla in West Toho is particularly difficult to manage because it grows so fast. Nearly the northern third of Toho is covered with hydrilla. It can close off large sections of the lake when the water drops."
Since Toho offers such easy access, it also receives the most pressure. Many tournaments launch at Lakeshore Drive in the town of Kissimmee and release their fish near the landing. With vegetation so dominant, anglers fish near grassy humps and islands, but they can also find other lunker cover.
"Lake Toho has every kind of cover imaginable," said Tim Fey with Florida Bass Fishing Guide Service. "It has hydrilla, lily pads, Kissimmee grass, reeds, some areas with trees and a few fish attractors.
"My personal biggest from Toho weighed more than 10 pounds, but the lake produced some 14- to 16-pound bass," he continued. "Toho constantly has flow from the East Lake Canal or Shingle Creek. When water flows out from either of those mouths, bass usually school in the area."
Thick vegetation mats choke off many parts of Toho and other areas in the Kissimmee Chain. For fishing such thick weeds, few lures work better than a soft-plastic creature rigged Texas-style and dragged across the top. Frogs, salamanders, slugs, flukes, jerkshads and similar soft creations mimic natural forage. With no weight to snag weed stems and with the hook points inserted into the plastic, these lures can go virtually anywhere.
Anglers may use floating creatures almost like topwater baits skittered across grass tops. With kicking legs, a frog almost works like a buzzbait. Anglers can hop them from grass clump to grass clump, pausing a few moments at each. Sometimes, lunkers explode through vegetation, often spraying water everywhere and engulfing a mouthful of salad to go with dinner.
For more slender creations, such as jerkshads or soft-plastic jerkbaits, slither them across mats in short bursts. In broken grassy patches with intermittent open water or pads, pause at pockets to let baits sink a foot or two before pulling them out. Bass often slurp the morsel as it sinks. You might only feel a slight tug or some pressure. When in doubt, set the hook.
"I like to throw plastic frogs or topwater plugs early in the morning," Fey said. "In matted grass, I also work a 10-inch worm across the top. Spinnerbaits and blade baits are another good spring option. I also like to throw wacky worms around grassy edges."
Like Rojas, many anglers still fish grass humps near the mouth of Shingle Creek or bang spinnerbaits near cypress trees lining the creek. Anglers also fish islands on the north end of Toho and many coves around the lake. Most of the lake runs about 12 feet deep at most, but a couple holes off Brown's Point drop to about 25 feet deep. A dredge hole near Lakeshore Drive offers some deeper water.
"One of my favorite areas for spring fishing is at the north end of West Toho," said Terry Segraves, a professional bass angler from Kissimmee. "In April, everything depends upon the weather. At that time, the system still has a lot of actively spawning fish and some that already finished spawning are starting to move into deeper water. I like to flip the grass with plastics."
For flipping mats, anglers need something to penetrate thick grass. Many fishermen use heavy jigs to punch through the surface canopy. What might look like an imposing raft on the surface may open up beneath the canopy. Anglers may use anything up to a 2-ounce jig with a craw-worm or other creature
on it. A tube mated to a tungsten weight makes another good choice for flipping.
"If grass mats up on the surface, that's a good time to flip soft plastics," Segraves explained. "Where grass grows just below the surface is a good place to throw spinnerbaits just over the tops. Bass will be around that grass."
For flipping, use a long, heavy rod almost like a cane pole. With one hand, grab and release line while swinging the lure toward a target at close range. A skilled flipper can accurately drop a bait next to a specific grass blade or slip it into a minuscule pocket between matted vegetation.
Hunkered down in their grassy lairs, big bass may not like to move far or often. At times, you almost need to knock them on the head to make them bite. A heavy jig crashing through the roof just might provide enough impetus to provoke an angry reaction strike even for fish not actively feeding. Bass usually hit a jig as it falls. If not, bounce the bait off the bottom a couple times before hitting the next likely target.
Nearby East Lake Tohopekaliga, also called East Lake, covers about 13,550 acres. Hydrilla mats in the water, while Kissimmee grass -- also called maidencane -- and bulrushes grow along the shorelines. With excellent habitat, East Lake can provide outstanding fishing, but boaters must launch directly into it from St. Cloud. Anglers can also go into Fells Cove. Although technically part of the Kissimmee Chain, a water-control structure blocks boat access from East Toho to West Toho.
West Toho connects to Cypress Lake through a lock on a canal. The Toho water level stays about three feet higher than in the canal. Lined with rocks and offering deeper water relatively clear of entangling grass, the Toho-Cypress canal also holds big bass. In the canal, many anglers toss crankbaits, blade baits or Texas-rigged worms along the shorelines or over the drops.
"In the spring, I like to throw a lipless crankbait because that's a good way to find fish in open water," Segraves said. "On a sunny day, I throw chrome and blue. On cloudy days, I'll throw bleeding shad. Firetiger is another good color."
Cypress Lake covers 5,500 acres and connects to the 14,500-acre Lake Hatchineha through the Kissimmee River. The river then flows southward into 44,000-acre Lake Kissimmee. West of Lake Kissimmee, anglers can also fish Tiger Lake or Lake Rosalie. To the east, you might try Lake Jackson or Lake Marian.
"Lakes Kissimmee and Toho are very similar with lots of hydrilla, Kissimmee grass and bulrush," biologist DeVries said. "People don't fish Hatchineha or Cypress as much. Large hydrilla fields close areas of Cypress. Hatchineha has some areas with poor bass habitat. However, in the spring of 2009, we shocked the biggest fish all season in Cypress. It weighed just under 14 pounds.
"Lake Marian has a narrow littoral zone, so fish stack up," he added. "Also in the spring of 2009, we shocked for about 75 minutes at Lake Marian and came up with more than 200 bass averaging about 2 pounds each."
Many people believe the Kissimmee River actually begins where it exits Lake Hatchineha on its way to Lake Kissimmee. Others say the river begins at the State Route 60 lock on the southern end of Lake Kissimmee. Historically, the river flowed 134 miles from East Lake to Lake Okeechobee, with a watershed covering more than 3,000 square miles. In fact, the word Kissimmee comes from the Calusa Indian word for "long water." Now largely channelized into a canal system, the river still flows into Lake Okeechobee, but covers just 56 free flowing miles.
"Kissimmee is a good lake because the river flows through it," Tim Fey said. "The islands scattered around that lake hold some good fish. Lake Rosalie is a hidden secret. Not many people fish it because it's such a long run from Toho through two canals. The canal is not wide or deep, so if the water is down, a big boat won't get into it. Cypress Lake is another good lake that's done well for me."
Boaters won't see much civilization between Toho and Lake Kissimmee State Park on the northwest shoreline of Lake Kissimmee. Much of the area remains a marshy wilderness, but you can launch at Camp Mack near the park. For much of 2010, though, you need to plan trips to minimize "lake hopping."
"From Apr. 1, 2010, until Oct. 31, 2010, the locks at Toho and Kissimmee will close for repairs," DeVries warned. "The Army Corps of Engineers will also be dredging the canal between Hatchineha and Kissimmee."
Even with restrictions imposed by lock maintenance, anglers won't lack for places to fish. You could run this system every day for years and still not fish the same place twice. Any cast could result in the fish of a lifetime.