Fishing should be good this December on the southern end of this chain of lakes. But how you fool the fish will depend on what Mother Nature delivers in the way of rainfall. (December 2007)
Finding the vegetation is a key for Reno Alley on these lakes this year, particularly where there's moving current.
Photo by Bud Reiter.
Under normal conditions, life for South Florida bassers can be an up-and-down affair. Lately, at least as far as water levels go, it's been quite a bit down -- and it didn't take long to get there.
Just a couple of years ago, Lake Okeechobee was at almost record high levels, and water managers were desperately trying to drop those levels in anticipation of what was forecast to be an exceptionally active hurricane season. The Kissimmee Chain -- which in the interconnected world of South Florida waterways feeds the Big O -- wasn't overly high. But that was also drawn down to relieve pressure on Okeechobee.
They did get the water levels down, but then the hurricanes didn't show up. In fact, even normal rainfall took a leave of absence.
The end result was that in less time than it took to analyze the situation, water levels on many of the lakes downstream of Orlando went from the penthouse to the basement -- literally! Water levels not only became low, but this past summer, they hit record lows as a drought gripped the southern half of the Sunshine State.
That didn't bother the bass too much. Actually, it spells great news for future years, since the extremely low water provided a natural drawdown that would have been extremely difficult to duplicate artificially.
High water kills native aquatic vegetation, something that was causing major problems on the Big O.
But low water lets it return more lushly than ever.
As has been proven during man-made drawdowns, rising waters give the bass access to a greatly rejuvenated environment. They respond with increased spawns and tremendous year-classes.
That can provide world-class fishing for years to come -- and that's what anglers in this region can look forward to when water returns.
Unfortunately, in the here and now, low water is a royal pain in the posterior, as any angler in the region knows. For a full-sized bass boat, ramps are often difficult or impossible to use. For those lucky enough to be able to launch, low waters often restrict access to prime areas.
This situation affects a number of area lakes. But the lower end of the Kissimmee Chain on lakes Kissimmee, Hatchineha and Cypress are not among them.
In fact, despite record low-water levels, these three lakes are producing quality angling -- and are top bets this month!
"The lake levels were actually about a foot lower this summer than they were last year," said veteran guide Reno Alley, who fishes the lake regularly.
"It's about rock bottom. But that hasn't had a really negative effect."
Some ramps have suffered. The one existing ramp on Lake Hatchineha has been shut down and isn't likely to re-open. The Overstreet Ramp on Lake Kissimmee is useable for small boats, but marginal for a full-sized bass boat. But that still leaves enough other functioning ramps to get you onto the water.
"The Route 60 ramp on the south end of Kissimmee is fine, on even these low levels," Alley noted.
"So, too, is the ramp at Camp Mack, on the canal between Kissimmee and Hatchineha, as well as the fish-camp ramp on the east side of Cypress, just off County Road 532. You can get the boat in and out without a problem, but when you exit the ramp canal to the lake, I'd advise going out on the trolling motor instead of trimming the big engine up and idling out.
"There's a lot of silt on the bottom that the big motor can stir up and clog your water intake. You're better off to use the trolling motor to go out to the lake until we get some water back. Once you hit the main lake, there's plenty of water to run."
That's not much different than last year. But once anglers get onto the lakes, they do see some changes.
"During the big hurricane years of 2003-04," Alley explained, "this area took some major hits. Three of the four big hurricanes had eye walls coming right over Kissimmee, and you got 120-mile-per-hour winds that just whipped the water to a frenzy.
"That destroyed a lot of the vegetation, both shoreline and offshore hydrilla. In 2005 and '06, we started to get a lot of that back, and the lake was really looking up. Hatchineha was full of hydrilla, and so was the North Cove in Kissimmee. There was also a lot of hydrilla poking up on offshore bars and humps in Kissimmee, along with shallow water peppergrass.
"A lot of that is now gone. The state did some serious spraying, and the vegetation has changed considerably from last year."
As far as hydrilla goes in Kissimmee, Alley has not found any in the deeper open waters. It's gone! What hydrilla was present in the summer of 2007 was in shallow water. Anglers could find it on the southern end of the lake near the dam and in the creek channel near markers 5 and 6. There is also some very shallow hydrilla in the 27 Palms area, but that's about it.
Along the shoreline, however, there are still large stands of lily pads that are locally called "lotus pads," newly emerging areas of peppergrass, and extensive stands of maidencane in four to five feet of water.
The situation is different in Hatchineha and Cypress.
"In these two lakes," said Alley, "the only real cover is pencil reeds along the shoreline in about two feet of water, and offshore hydrilla. Most everything else has been killed off by spraying. But there is a lot of hydrilla in the open mid-lake waters in each lake. In both lakes, you find the hydrilla in four to six feet of water. It wasn't topped out this summer, but it's growing in scattered patches and coming up to within a couple of feet of the surface. The larger patches, coming up higher off the bottom, are excellent fish-holding areas."
The lack of diverse vegetation may disappoint some, but the bass don't seem to mind. In fact, these lakes have been some of the hottest in the region for the last two years.
More than a few local tournaments have re
quired a six-fish limit in the 30-pound range to win! That's not likely to change this month. But the tactics needed to score might. It all depends upon how much water we get this hurricane season.
"Water is the key," Alley stated. "And the patterns and areas that will be the best bets this month depend upon how much we got this summer. You could wind up with two completely different scenarios, and two different effective patterns."
Under normal Chain conditions, the November-to-December period sees plenty of bass gravitating to open areas of moving water to feed on shad.
Water would normally move because we are at the tail end of the rainy season, and the Chain is being drawn down to its winter-pool level. This creates a feeding bonanza for bass.
If the area received even normal late-summer rainfall, there will be moving water this month. If this year's hurricane season sees a couple of storms crossing the southern part of the state, that water movement will be pronounced. Regardless of how much rain we get, if water is moving through the Chain, the bass respond.
For Alley, that means that specific areas or cover conditions can become quick limit-producing hotspots!
"Cypress is the first lake downstream of the Southport Canal coming from Lake Tohopekaliga," he said, "and there are three key areas that invariably produce well on moving water. One is the northern end of the lake where the canal comes in. We call it 'the Goal Posts.' There is hydrilla in that area, and the bass hold on that when they are not out actively chasing shad.
"The same situation also exists at the Goal Posts on the southern end, where the water moves into the Hatchineha Canal," the guide continued. "The third key spot is Canoe Creek, just south of the fish-camp boat ramp on the east shore.
"This is not really a creek. It's more like a small river, and water will flow there also. A lot of anglers overlook it, but it can be one of the best spots on the lake when the water is moving in the fall. There's plenty of hydrilla around its mouth that will hold fish."
The same applies in Lake Hatchineha at the northern canal entrance and the southern water exit.
And there is also an overlooked flow from Catfish Creek on the southwest shoreline.
In each of these areas, savvy anglers find any offshore cover -- normally hydrilla -- located in the vicinity of the flowing water. If that's in short supply, check the shallower pencil reeds. The moving water and baitfish attract bass, and when not actively feeding, they hold on whatever cover is available. Turning that into a daylong pattern is fairly simple.
"You normally get some surface schooling activity first thing in the morning," Alley noted. "But these schoolers aren't like those on a lot of other lakes. They don't hold on one spot and come up on any passing school of shad. They are runners and chase the shad down.
"That basically means that fishing a spot where the fish came up a few minutes ago is usually a waste of time because they have moved on."
Anglers chasing schooling fish need to stay on the move and be able to really reach out. Experienced anglers often take a tip from their saltwater counterparts and tote a seven-foot open-face spinning rig, spooled with one of the thin-diameter braided lines. Most 14-pound-test braids have the same diameter as 4- to 6-pound monofilament and will throw a mile.
Add a long distance shad-imitating lure like a Little George, a 1/2-ounce chrome spoon, or a Culprit Goby, and you have an upper hand on reaching distant schoolers.
Some fish may continue to school throughout the day, especially if it is overcast. But once the sun gets high, most of them settle down and move to cover.
"The brighter it is, the thicker the cover you want to fish," Alley suggested. "Flipping any topped out hydrilla in that area can produce bigger fish. They like to snuggle up under an overhead roof when they can."
That may take a full 1-ounce sinker to punch through the surface mat, and the compact tungsten weights are favored. Compact baits like the Culprit Water Beetle aid in penetrating the cover, yet still provide a mouthful for the bass. On all three lakes, June-bug, red shad, or a black-and-blue combination are normally the most productive soft-plastic colors.
If there is little topped-out hydrilla, Alley recommended finding the larger patches and working them with Texas-rigged plastic worms or soft-plastic jerkbaits.
Staying on the cover areas near flowing water funnels is a top tactic on Cypress and Hatchineha under moving water conditions. Kissimmee, however, is a bit different.
The north end of Kissimmee, where the Kissimmee River enters from Hatchineha, offers a situation similar to the other two lakes. In the northeast corner, there are also two very small creeks, although they seldom put out much water.
The Jackson Canal, on the east side opposite Brahma Island, can be a hotspot with moving water, as can Tiger Creek, just south of Lake Kissimmee State Park on the west shore.
But that leaves a lot of open water lacking cover. Alley has two tactics for dealing with that.
"There's very little offshore hydrilla in Kissimmee right now," he pointed out. "So the best cover for open-water fish under moving water conditions is the outside edge of the maidencane line in four to five feet of water, or the maidencane line around any offshore island.
"This stuff runs for miles and can all look the same, but the areas I want to concentrate on are wherever the maiden cane forms an extending point towards deeper water. Those that have wind blowing onto them are usually the best bets."
Bass school off these points early and late in the day, but aren't always as visible as in the other two lakes. An excellent technique is to put your boat fairly close to the grass line and cast parallel to it with a Pop-R, Rat-L-Trap, or Spook-type lure. These cover water quickly to help find fish fast. Once you locate a bass-holding area, you can slow down to work it more thoroughly with plastic worms.
As the sun gets up, and the bass cease schooling and move to cover, there's no need to leave the area.
"When you find schooling fish on the maidencane in the morning," Alley offered, "you can spend the rest of the day flipping the outer maidencane edge in that area.
"The bass aren't going to move far, they just duck into cover."
If that pattern fails to produce, Alley has a backup -- one that works whether the water is up and moving, or in its currently low state.
"The big lily pads along the shoreline have been holding fish for the last couple of years," he said. "Under our low-water conditions, it's good cover. If the water comes up, some fish will still be there because they are getting ready to spawn. Flipping those pads has been a top technique for quality fish, and it's won some tournaments."
The "big lily pads" that Alley's speaking of are the large lotus pads. There are plenty left in Kissimmee, although very few in the other two lakes. Alley looks for the largest "clump" he can find in two to three feet of water. The ideal clump has three or four stalks with a big pad head on each, forming almost a single surface. He favors a Culprit Woolly Bugger or Water beetle, on 20-pound line with a 1/2-ounce sinker.
Should the water remain low, this is Alley's first choice.
In Hatchineha and Cypress, the pads are gone. Here, Alley looks for pencil reeds in two to three feet of water. Thinner patches can be covered quickly with spinnerbaits to locate fish, while thicker patches are best handled by pitching weedless soft-plastic baits.
Should a sharp cold snap intrude, savvy anglers look for the larger offshore hydrilla patches in five to eight feet of water.
That's not an extensive list of effective techniques, but they'll be the most productive this month, whether or not Mother Nature blesses us with water.
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