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Capital City Bass

Capital City Bass
Lakes Jackson and Talquin are both at Tallahassee's back door. They have also both experienced low water recently, but for different reasons. Let's see how this situation has affected their bass fisheries.

by Carolee Boyles

Tallahassee anglers have been spoiled. With two great bassin' lakes in their backyards, they have been able to leave work at 5 p.m. and get in an hour or so of fishing before a late supper on any day of the week. Unfortunately, both Lake Talquin and Lake Jackson have been through some major changes recently. For that reason it is time to update area anglers on what is going on at their two favorite fishing holes.

Lake Talquin, located just west of Tallahassee, is an 8,800-acre reservoir of the Ochlockonee River. The impoundment was created in 1928 when the city of Tallahassee built a dam to generate hydroelectric power for the region. The lake is deep by Florida standards, with an average depth of 15 feet and a maximum depth of 40 feet.

Lake Talquin also has lots of hidden dangers, especially during periods of low water. The lake is rife with stumps, some of which are big enough to capsize your boat or knock your motor off its mounts during a collision.

According to local anglers, it does not matter how many years you have fished the lake or how well you know it; you still hit a stump occasionally. If you do not know the lake, you should be afraid of it!

Since manmade lakes such as Talquin are held at fixed water levels for extended periods of time, they don't go through the natural droughtflood cycles that natural lakes do. But by imitating this natural cycle, biologists can enhance a manmade lake's fisheries.

Right now, Lake Talquin is in the middle of a drawdown cycle, according to Dan Dobbins, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). The last such event took place when the lake was drawn down 10 feet starting on Dec. 1, 1997, and stayed down until late May 1998. During that period, FWCC biologists seeded 1,000 acres of the exposed bottom with rye grass. Then when the lake was refilled, the decaying rye grass provided a wonderful growth environment for young fish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Lake Talquin has limited habitat for largemouth bass," says Charlie Mesing, an FWCC fisheries biologist. "After a drawdown, there's lots of cover and lots of food, and typically a lot of the young bass that are produced that year survive. But in reservoir situations, because water levels are stable, you don't grow a lot of vegetation, which is important for largemouth bass. So the following year, there's no place to raise little largemouth bass, and the ones that are produced get eaten and very few survive."

The resulting equation has been one good year of largemouth bass reproduction for each drawdown on Lake Talquin. That one age-class would have to carry anglers until the next drawdown.

"People weren't happy with the last drawdown," Mesing explains. "So we've been thinking about what we can do during the low years of bass production between drawdowns."

The FWCC decided to bypass the early years of bass production and stock largemouth fingerlings at a size that could utilize the most abundant food in the lake, which is threadfin shad. So during 2000, the FWCC placed 100,000 fingerling bass in the lake to see how they would do. They were released in May, when threadfin shad spawn and are most abundant as forage. In order to track the fish, biologists inserted small wire tags into their cheeks so they can catch a fish and scan it with a metal detector to see if it's a released fish or a wild one.

"We found out that the released fish survived pretty well," Mesing says. "They grew to about 11 1/2 inches after one year, while the naturally occurring fish grew about 6 inches. The problem was that 100,000 fish didn't seem to be enough to change the numbers anything like what we had when we did the drawdown."


So in May 2001, the FWCC stocked another 150,000 fish into Lake Talquin.

"At this point, we have good news and bad news," Mesing states. "The good news is that the fish we put in the lake in 2000 grew well. Our estimates are that they made up about 40 percent of the fish in that year-class of bass. But we also learned that the numbers we catch in our samples didn't improve nearly as much as we had hoped. This indicates that we probably need to put more of them in, which taxes our fish hatchery."

By this spring, biologists have good data from two years of stocking, and based on that information they can make a decision about whether or not to continue stocking Lake Talquin.

"In March and April, we'll be taking a look at the fish that were stocked in May 2001, as they become a year old," Mesing notes. "I personally hope that we consider a routine stocking program on Lake Talquin, in the hope that we continue to increase the numbers of bass between drawdowns, and maybe increase the number of years between drawdowns. I don't want to minimize the benefits we get from the drawdowns, but they're an inconvenience to a lot of people."

Mesing emphasizes that the stocking program on Lake Talquin is still an experimental program.

"I'm asking for a third year, to give us three years to evaluate," he says. "That will tell us if it makes sense to do this in other lakes in Florida."

At this point, the habitat on Lake Talquin has reverted to its normal state between periods of low water. Even with recent drought years, the lake's water level is pretty much normal.

"The lake level doesn't fluctuate that much because the lake is fed by several rivers," Dobbins points out. "The lake is pretty much open water, with very little aquatic vegetation."

In March, bass should have started moving into the shallows in tributary creeks or coves. "They'll be in 6 feet or less of water," Dobbins notes.

Another good place to look for fish is on ledges, which in Lake Talquin produce fish all year.

If any one lure is omnipresent in the tackle boxes of local anglers on Lake Talquin, it's the plastic worm. Anglers use worms of all colors all year, in all situations imaginable. They rig Texas-style with large weights and drop them on deep ledges. They switch to medium-sized weights for shallow ledges. Or they tie on small weights and cast into lily pads. "The worm is always a favorite," Dobbins concludes.

Many anglers who have a lot of experience with Lake Talquin say s

pinnerbaits aren't particularly effective. Dobbins, however, disagrees. "Spinnerbaits can be very effective in the spring back in the coves," he argues.

The FWCC has recently put an 18-inch minimum limit on bass on this reservoir. "Talquin has always been able to grow bass fast," Dobbins says. "But the recruitment - the survival of the young of the year - is very low. So in a situation like that, an 18-inch minimum should work out very well. From a fisheries standpoint, it should be great for the largemouths."

Having the 18-inch rule on the lake won't have any effect on spawning, but will improve the number of larger fish. Although naturally spawned bass will reach this size in three to four years, the stocked fish won't take quite as long to get that big.

Lake Jackson is Tallahassee's other backyard bassin' destination. Located north and west of the city, this 4,000-acre lake has a national reputation as a good bass fishery.

Jackson has a great diversity of aquatic vegetation, but hydrilla, eelgrass and maiden cane are the best habitats in which to fish for bass in this lake. The lake is shallow, with an average depth of about 7 feet and a maximum depth of 30 feet, and has no flooded channels because it is a natural lake.

Lake Jackson is perched atop two sinkholes, Porter Sink and Lime Sink. The lake has no major tributaries, so when the groundwater level drops - as it has over the past several years - it leaves a void between the bottom of Lake Jackson and the rest of the groundwater. Over short periods of time this usually isn't a problem. But during prolonged dry periods, the water sometimes empties out of the lake basin like water emptying from a bathtub after the plug has been pulled.

"There are so many soft areas in the limerock that when the groundwater level drops so far, Lake Jackson is actually sitting above the groundwater," Dobbins explains. "When you get a weak spot in one of the sinks - it may have been plugged with mud while the lake was up - it will give way and just drain the lake."

The good news is that when that happens, the water eventually drains into the Floridian Aquifer, an area that needs a lot of replenishment just now. But this doesn't mean that Lake Jackson's water will be flowing out of Tallahassee's taps anytime soon.

"They estimate that it will be 50 years before the water that went into the sinkhole makes it back to the surface somewhere," Dobbins says.

Eventually, as the drought eases, the groundwater will rise again, usually in association with heavy rainfall in the Capital City area. When that happens, Lake Jackson fills back up right along with the groundwater coming up. "Eventually the sinks plug back up again," Dobbins says.

When the water is at its normal level, a shallow, narrow passage connects the main part of Jackson to a smaller, secondary basin called the North End. On the south side of the lake, U.S. Highway 27 also bridges a constricted arm of water, creating a small pond inaccessible at most times by all but the smallest boats.

Because of an almost total lack of structure in Lake Jackson, it's a fairly safe lake for even a visitor to run a boat across. However, use caution if you plan to enter the North End. The canal is very tight, and when the water's low you don't want to run through it.

In the fall of 1999, after almost two years of drought, one of the sinkholes opened and reduced Lake Jackson's size considerably. "Then the second sinkhole took another big chunk of the lake in the summer of 2000," Dobbins says. "We might have had a couple hundred acres left out there. That's all there was - six or seven pools of water - giant mud holes."

When sinkholes drain the lake, most of the fish go with the water and vanish. "They don't come out anywhere," Dobbins muses.

When that kind of situation occurs, biologists often recommend allowing anglers to harvest fish at will, because most of them are going to die anyway.

"For a while we took all the bag limits and size limits off Lake Jackson," Dobbins explains. "It was so people could get the fish before they went down the sink hole."

However, the FWCC doesn't let "open season" go so long that no fish at all are left. Their goal was to leave enough fish in the remaining pools to repopulate the lake when it refills.

"We believe there are enough fish in the lake for it to restock itself," Dobbins says. "We had a pretty good spawn in 2001."

Through the summer and fall of last year, Lake Jackson began the process of refilling.

"We got fortunate in June and July," Dobbins says. "We had two tropical storms, one of which dropped about 10 inches on Leon County. Lake Jackson came way up from what it was. In September, you could actually get from one end of the lake to the other in an airboat. At that point you couldn't quite do it in an outboard, though."

By March, Dobbins still does not expect the fishing to be great on Lake Jackson, regardless of how high the water is. "The number of adult fish is going to be low," he says. "The lake will have lots of young fish coming on, but they won't be harvestable size yet. The faster-growing largemouths will probably be in the 8- to 9-inch range by then. That's phenomenal for young-of-the-year fish."

The idea of putting young bass into Lake Jackson hasn't been ruled out. "We may do some stocking in the spring of 2002, and put some largemouth fingerlings out there," Dobbins notes.

If you are able to get onto Lake Jackson this spring, the fishing likely won't be as good as it will be in another year. Nonetheless, you may be able to pick up a few bass with some tried and true techniques.

Lake Jackson has long been known for its springtime shiner fishing.

"People rig shiners different ways," says Sarah Johnson, a longtime Lake Jackson angler. "Some people put the hook straight through the back. Others put it through the lips. I think the most common way is through the back so the fish can nose itself up under the floating grass."

Most anglers use a Texas-rigged worm for getting down into the grass. Sometimes, Johnson said, she uses a paddle-tailed worm and pulls it rapidly over the top of the grass.

"The tail flutters back and forth and makes a vibration that the fish notice," she notes.

In the spring and early summer, smaller fish form schools all over the lake. Small rattling crankbaits or topwater lures can provide continuous action. Johnson sometimes rigs a 4-inch "do-nothing" worm without a weight and throws it into schooling fish.

"Bring it back to the boat with a popping motion," she says. "You'll catch a lot of fish. Most of them won't be keepe

rs, but if action's what you want, you'll get it!"

In part because of its open water, Lake Jackson has earned a reputation as a good area for night-fishing.

Be aware that Lake Jackson has some special regulations to protect the growing bass. "We've gone to an 18-inch minimum, just like on Lake Talquin," Dobbins states. "That took effect July 1, 2001. It's specifically designed to stay in place at least three or four years, just to protect the young-of-the-year for 2001."

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