Alachua Bassin'

Alachua Bassin'
This north Florida county has a number of options for bass fishing this month. But there are a few that stand out from the crowd! (May 2010)

During the last decade, water levels throughout the state have gone up and down like a yo-yo. In some cases, that produced an immediate negative effect on bass fishing. In most of those cases, however, there were also long-term benefits. Low water levels generally do good things for the habitat by allowing the shallow littoral zones to dry out and rejuvenate. When the water does come back up, the fishing can be fantastic.

That's exactly what's happening right now on two of the state's most fabled bass waters -- Orange and Lochloosa lakes.

Often called the Twin Likes because of their connection via historic Cross Creek, these waters are the largest lakes in northeast Florida and comprise over 18,000 acres. At least, that's their water volume at normal levels. Over the years, normal levels have been occasional things. Low water levels throughout the region have prompted a significant sinkhole in Orange Lake to open periodically and drastically reduce the size of that lake.

During those periods of normal, or near normal, water, the Twin Lakes have ranked among the best bassin' waters in the state. In fact, the first bass this writer caught in Florida weighing over 8 pounds ate a spinnerbait in Lochloosa Lake in 1974. As long as water levels remained up and relatively stable, a steady parade of big fish followed.

That changed for the worse in the late 1980s and '90s, as water levels dropped dramatically. It was a major down period for local anglers. But, as always, the water came back and so did the bass.

"Right now Orange and Lochloosa are two of the best bass lakes in the state," Gary Simpson said. "The water levels are just a bit low, but it's easy to get around, and the bass population is tremendous. In fact, when it comes to catching bass over 8 pounds, I would rank Lochloosa among the top lakes in Florida. And, when it comes to the opportunity to catch one over 12 pounds, I think Orange Lake right now may be the best bet in the state."

Those are bold statements, but Simpson is qualified to make them. While this writer has extensive experience on both lakes, it pales in comparison to his.

Born and raised in the Gainesville area, he has fished the lakes his entire life, and used that knowledge to successfully compete in bass tournaments at the national level. As the long-time manager of Gainesville's premier tackle emporium -- The Tackle Box -- he's in contact with the area's top anglers on a daily basis, and for the last 15 years he has shared that information as the outdoor columnist for the Gainesville Sun newspaper. It's safe to say that Simpson lives and breathes Gainesville area bassin'. And his breath comes a little quicker this month.

"The peak of the spawn in both Orange and Lochloosa is in March, with some fish spawning up through the end of April," he noted. "When May rolls around, the bass are done spawning and ready to feed heavily. It's one of the most exciting months to fish these lakes. A lot of techniques work well, but it's also a great topwater bite. In fact, in 2009 we had a 14.11-pound bass caught in Orange Lake on a surface bait!"

A bass like that can make the year for even the most jaded angler, and is a fish of a lifetime for most fishermen. There's more bass like that one finning around the Twin Lakes, but the top patterns for catching one varies slightly between the two lakes. Here's how Gary Simpson maximizes his chance at a trophy this month.

Lochloosa bass have a wider range of spawning areas than their counterparts in Orange. There are a number of areas where they can snuggle right up to the shoreline or in shallow cypress trees. In other sections of the lake, the prime spawning areas are in lily pad beds located well away from the shoreline in 2 to 4 feet of water. Here, the bass simply fan a clean spot on a pad root cluster for their bed. Once the bass spawn is over, not all of the fish are ready to leave. Bream move in to spawn in many of the same areas used by the bass and that presents an easy feeding opportunity.

Anglers can experience some solid angling this month by concentrating on the locales where the bass just spawned.

Simpson, however, has a different approach.

"It's been my experience that the larger bass don't spend a lot of time in the spawning areas once they are done," he explained. "They start moving to deeper water and there are two key covers I want to check -- the outer maidencane line, especially extending points, and any open-water hydrilla beds located within a few hundred yards of the deepest maidencane. When I can find that situation, I'm pretty certain I'll find good bass."

At current water levels, the outer maidencane edge on Lochloosa is in 4 to 5 feet of water. Shallow-water vegetation lies inside it, with the maidencane forming the distinct break between the shallow spawning areas and mid-lake waters.

Hydrilla grows offshore of that and beds of the weed in 6 to 7 feet of water are common. Anglers who find an outer maidencane line with nearby hydrilla have found a potential hotspot. Just how good it will be depends upon how that nearby hydrilla has grown.

"A lot depends upon how that hydrilla close to the maidencane has formed," Simpson noted. "If you have a situation where you have a clean bottom between the hydrilla and the maidencane, that's great. The bass are going to be on one or the other. If you have a situation where you have bottom-growing hydrilla forming a carpet that connects the maidencane with the offshore hydrilla that's not so good. The bass can hold anywhere from the maidencane to the hydrilla, along that bottom carpet. It can take a long time to find those bass, so I prefer to find the clean bottom areas."

If a "carpet" situation exists, the top pattern is to speed crank a count-down-style bait over the submerged hydrilla. This covers water quickly and can trigger strikes. Once a few bass are found, slowing down with a lightly weighted Texas-rigged worm in June bug, black-and-blue, or red shad is effective.

If you find a situation where offshore hydrilla forms a distinct structure to the maidencane without connecting bottom growth, things get simpler.

"I'm going to get out at dawn and just look," says Simpson. "If you just watch those hydrilla beds, you'll see bass feeding or busting the surface at dawn, if any are using that spot. If you see one or two, you can bet there are plenty more down there. I'll concentrate on those spots right away."

This is actually

an "old" pattern from Lochloosa's heydays, and it can set an angler up for the rest of the day.

"Topwater is my first choice early this time of year if I see activity on the hydrilla," Simpson stated. "Just which type will be best depends largely on the fish. I'll start with an aggressive plug, like a Spook-type bait, and if the fish just boil at it, I'll start dropping down to quieter plugs and work them a bit slower."

A simple progression is to start with a Spook-type walking bait in chrome finish and see how the fish respond. If they spurn that, shifting to a slower, twin-propeller bait like a Boy Howdy or Devil's Horse can often work. If not, savvy anglers get even subtler with minnow lures like the Rapala. The next step is to drop below the surface with hard-plastic jerkbaits or weedless plastic flukes.

As the sun climbs and the topwater bite slows, working the edges of the hydrilla with a Texas-rigged worm takes more bass. At midday, savvy anglers shift to flipping gear and flip any surface-matted hydrilla within the bed. Once a hydrilla bed holding bass is found, the fish will be there all day.

If the right combination of maidencane and hydrilla is found, but no bass show in the hydrilla, Simpson shifts his attention to the nearby maidencane. He tosses worms, flips craws or casts spinnerbaits in sparser sections.

The natural migration route is from the maidencane to the hydrilla and the bass can be somewhere along that route. At least, that's true in Lochloosa. The situation changes slightly on Orange.

Bass in Orange Lake do not have the same spawning opportunities as those on Lochloosa. There are some areas where they can move shallow and actually fan a visible bed. But those areas are few. Many of the bass -- maybe most of them -- spawn in isolated pad beds in 2 to 4 feet of water and well away from shorelines. Unlike Lochloosa, there is no natural migration route from the spawning shallows to deeper water. Nor, in most areas of the lake, are the bass in any hurry to leave those pad beds.

"My key pattern in Orange is to hit the isolated pad beds in 3 to 5 feet of water," Simpson emphasized. "And it doesn't take a big pad bed to hold bass. Thirty or 40 pads in one clump is enough."

Simpson's favorite area for this is McIntosh Bay, and he knows what he'll be tossing at first light.

"There is a great topwater bite in Orange Lake in May," he confirmed, "and that's my first choice. I would use the same selection of lures I would in Lochloosa, and work them around the edges of any pad clumps I find.

"One addition I would make is a soft-plastic surface bait, like a Horny Toad," Simpson added. "These are great for working right through the middle of the thickest pad beds you find. Another real good choice is a spinnerbait with twin nickel blades and one of the new transparent skirts that have some flake in them. The surface baits are best on calm days, but if you get a wind that raises a chop, I'll shift to the spinnerbait. Both of these lure types produce big bass."

Once the sun comes up and the morning bite ends, Simpson breaks out a flipping rod with a compact craw and works every pad bed that has any floating vegetation drifted into it to form overhead cover. This basic pattern can hold an angler throughout the day, but there is another worth working.

"Offshore hydrilla also exists in Orange," Simpson pointed out. "It doesn't have to be close to shoreline cover to hold bass. Any bed you find in open water is worth working, and there are a lot of these in the north end of the lake. I treat them the same way I would on Lochloosa -- get out early, watch for fish activity, and then zero in with topwaters, worms, and flip the crowns at midday."

The patterns are simple, and considering that 14.11-pound monster caught last year, along with a 13.8-pound bass and a number of fish in the 11-pound range, simple works for this Alachua bassin'.

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