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Northeast Florida April Bassin'

Northeast Florida April Bassin'

Area anglers are probably familiar with lakes George and Rodman as big-bass destinations, but they may not know about Rowell and Sampson. All four hold lunker largemouths, though.

By Rod Hunter

If you are waiting for the best month for tangling with northeast Florida largemouths, wait no longer. It doesn't get any better than April.

Savvy anglers consider April to be their reward for suffering through the often-tempestuous months of December through March. With the major killer cold fronts past, waters warming, the weather stabilizing and the majority of the bass in and around shallow cover, this is as close to bassin' nirvana as you get!

This month sees the spawn winding down, as some fish finish up while others are already done. For those who enjoy sight-fishing for bedding bass, there are some fish available. If you would rather have some fast-paced blade-bait action in shallow vegetation, that's on tap also. Keep your topwater lures handy, and don't forget the flipping rods, because there are times and places where they also are the best choice.

Here are three top spots in northeast Florida to get in on that shallow-water action this month.

At 44,000 acres, Lake George is ranked as Florida's second-largest lake, but in reality it is nothing more than a wide spot in the St. Johns River. A 13-foot dredged channel bisects the lake from north to south, and other than that the maximum mid-lake depths are in the 9- to 10-foot range. The St. Johns River feeds into the southern end of the lake, and three spring-fed tributaries - Juniper, Silver Glenn and Salt Run springs - add their water from the west. Hogg and Drayton islands lie on the northern end, and shoreline development is remarkably limited to just a few scattered collections of docks that dot the lake.

Offshore structure is very limited, but in April anglers don't need it. This month, you need to think shallow.


Ron Parker looks for the big bass in shallow cover on Lake George at this time of year. Photo by Rod Hunter

"There is a sandbar that rings most of the lake and sits off the actual shoreline," says veteran angler Ron Parker, who spent many years guiding on the lake. "That is where most of the eelgrass is, and that's where anglers want to concentrate on this month. Eelgrass is the key to bass in April on this lake."

The outer edge of the grass is the deepest water associated with the vegetation. The grass ends where the main lake begins. Moving up onto the bar brings you to shallower and thicker grass. Heading farther shoreward, anglers find the backside of the bar where the water deepens slightly, the grass ends, and scattered patches of dollar bonnets appear. The entire grassbed may only be a few hundred yards wide, but that is where a significant percentage of the lake's bass are in April.

If you are looking for bedding bass, some of which are still spawning this month, move to the inside edge of the grass where it joins the dollar bonnets. That grass/dollar bonnet line is so well defined that savvy anglers just put their trolling motor down and ease slowly along it in the search for bedding fish. Once a bed is found, standard sight-fishing techniques with tube lures and Texas-rigged plastic worms in June bug and pumpkinseed, or combinations of black-and-blue on darker days, produce best. This is an excellent tactic for the afternoon fishing.

For those who like to get up early, there is an even better bet.

"Some of the fastest action on this lake happens when the bass finish spawning and start feeding on shad," Parker notes. "They start to do that as soon as the spawn winds down in early to mid-April, which normally coincides with the young-of-the-year shad showing up. It's not uncommon to move into an active area and catch 20 to 30 bass in the first couple hours of the morning."

The key area where shad and bass meet is the outer edge of the grassbeds on the deepwater side of the sandbar - especially on points of grass and in areas where wind and current sweep shad to the grass. Some of the traditionally productive areas include Rocky Point, the southeast corner of Drayton Island, Willow Point, Lisk Point, Nine Mile Point, the east side of Hogg Island, and anywhere along the east or west shoreline where eelgrass extends out toward the main-lake waters.

Parker's decision on where to fish hinges on baitfish.

"Look for those grassbeds that have shad," he advises. "And then look to see if any bass are busting them. If I just see good cover but quiet water, I'll get back on the motor and keep looking. Bass will be busting shad somewhere on that lake on any given morning and I will take the time needed to find those spots."

A little "looking" will go a long way in improving your "catching," because once you find bass and shad together, you are into a bunch of fish instead of just a few stragglers.

Spinnerbaits are top choices here, and most lake regulars prefer a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce tandem spinner with a small nickel Colorado blade in front and a gold rear blade, combined with a white skirt. If the water is stained, parker prefers a No. 4 Colorado on the rear, and shifts to a willowleaf in the same size in clearer waters. If the light levels are dim, however, a 1/2-ounce white single-bladed buzzbait often draws larger fish, albeit fewer strikes.

Shad-sized noisy prop or popping topwater plugs can often be deadly in scattered grass, while soft-plastic jerkbaits in the 4- to 5-inch range can often be the ticket when bass are feeding in thicker grass.

The morning "shad feed" can last until 11 a.m. on some days, and during April it normally lasts until at least 10 a.m. Once that is over, Parker turns to another pattern.

"There is a lot of dead wood - stumps and laydown logs - on the inside edge of the eelgrass bar in 2 to 3 feet of water," he explains. "And that will hold fish that are not actually on a bed. The mid-day is the best time to fish the wood, and the fish are not real active. I think they go there after the morning feed, stick their nose up to the wood, and just wait out the midday hours. But if you work each piece of wood slowly with a spinnerbait or a Texas-rigged plastic worm, you can have a ball!

"I have gone to the wood at noon and caught 25 bass by 3 p.m. A lot of anglers think that the bass they were catching in the morning either moved to deeper water or went on the spawning beds at midday. Some undoubtedly do. But a lot of them go to that wood and they can be caught right in the middle of the brightest day," Parker concluded.

As one of the country's top bass fisheries, Rodman probably needs no introduction. Also, during the month of April, a successful day requires little in the way of expertise to take advantage of the opportunities it holds.

"It's hard to do something wrong on Rodman in April," says veteran tournament angler Gary Simpson, who also manages The Tackle Box in nearby Gainesville. "In my opinion, this is the best month to fish this lake. You still have bass spawning, and those that are done will still be fairly close to the spawning areas. As long as anglers key on the waters around those spawning sites, they really can't go wrong."

Bass can spawn in many areas of Rodman. In fact, they even spawn on cut-off stumps in the deeper waters of the main pool, if those stumps come up to within four or five feet of the surface. It may sound strange to be looking for bedding bass in 10 feet of water, but it is not at all uncommon to see them bedding on stumps in that situation. A quicker way to zero in on top fishing, however, is to locate the shallow areas that lie close to a deeper creek channel.

Rodman bass, like those in virtually any manmade reservoir, are oriented towards creek channels. These provide their pathways, resting points, and for much of the year the place where all bass movement starts and ends. The spawning season is no exception.

One of the top areas in which to look for bass this month is the Barge Canal itself, since bass move up to spawn on top of the berm wall lining the canal. Also, Doctors Cove, the Orange Springs flats, the flats immediately adjacent to Deep Creek, the cove to the south and east of Blue Springs, and the southern side of the original Oklawaha River channel near the dam are good.

When it comes to a game plan, this is simple fishing.

"Topwater plugs in the early morning are deadly on Rodman this month," says Simpson. "I start the morning throwing them along hydrilla on channel edges, because that is a great way to catch bigger bass."

A number of surface baits can be effective. But Rodman experts have found that the more subtle "quiet" baits are often the most productive. A slender minnow-shaped jerkbait in gold with a black back and orange belly stripe is the best choice, although perch or subdued shad patterns can also produce.

If bass are seen moving inside the hydrilla, don't hesitate to shift to a weedless soft-plastic jerkbait in a shiner or shad pattern, or a Texas-rigged plastic worm in June bug, red shad, or a brown-and-black combination of colors. Six- to 7-inch plastic worms are the norm, but many big-bass experts swear by lightly weighted 10- to 12-inch models that are slowly swum through the cover instead of being worked in the traditional manner. In scattered hydrilla, don't overlook gold hard-plastic jerkbaits, or a spinnerbait. These can produce reaction-type strikes from non-feeding fish.

Once the dim light and morning bite are past, savvy anglers search the flats for bedding fish, or flip soft-plastic worms or crawfish into thicker hydrilla areas along the channel edges.

Located about three miles west of Starke just off State Route 100, lakes Sampson and Rowell are not household names. And it's not hard to see why. When you are tucked in among such historically popular fisheries as Orange, Lochloosa, Santa Fe and Rodman, it's not hard to get overlooked. Sampson covers about 2,000 acres, while Rowell, which connects to Sampson via a navigable canal, is only 360 acres.

Another reason for a lack of fame is the single boat ramp on the lake. Located on Southeast 115th Street (commonly called Trestle Road), the launch site is a very good one that can handle 20-foot boats, but it has a small parking area that strains to hold much more than a dozen trailers. That limits access.

The bottom line is that neither lake sees a lot of angling pressure, which is just fine with veteran guide Jim Romeka.

"These are productive lakes just about any month of the year," says Romeka, "but when the spawn is on they offer some of the best sight-fishing in north Florida."

It's not hard to see why. Sampson is normally a very clear lake, while Rowell is more tannic but still more than clear enough to spot spawning beds at a distance in its waters. Both lakes offer a wealth of shallow spawning cover such as arrowhead, bulrushes, pencil reeds, lily pads and some emergent maidencane. Both also have a wealth of offshore hydrilla that provides plenty of deep-water cover that can make bass tough to find for much of the year. When the spawn rolls around, however, the fish have to come out of hiding.

"Bass on both these lakes," Romeka notes, "start to spawn in early March and continue right on through April. I normally like to start on Rowell, because its small size is not hard to cover quickly to see what spawning activity is happening. I normally begin the morning tossing topwater plugs, soft-plastic jerkbaits and plastic worms along the bulrush points that extend outwards to the deeper hydrilla. That's the first point of contact for bass moving up to spawn, as well as the place they drop back to when they are done, so you have a pretty good chance of finding some fish right off. Once the light gets up, I get in shallow and start looking for beds."

His approach to Sampson is a bit different. This lake offers some significant offshore structure, with several distinct ledges and deeper holes. Given the water clarity, this is traditionally where the bass spend much of their time. But the hydrilla has changed that.

"The way the hydrilla is growing now," Romeka explains, "it actually shrinks the lake quite a bit. The bass used to have to make some long migrations to the spawning shallows, but now they can hold on the inside edge of the hydrilla line in the 5- to 6-foot depth, and that is where I start looking for them first thing in the morning."

The same mix of topwater and soft plastics that work in Rowell is his choice here, but Romeka also uses a hard-plastic jerkbait in gold with a black back and orange belly stripe. If bass are just boiling on the topwater plug without taking it, the subtler jerkbait often turns them into biters.

Once the sun gets up enough for anglers to locate beds, which does not have to be far due to the water clarity, Romeka starts looking for them. But not all the shallow cover is worth checking.

"These fish like to spawn a bit deeper here than on other lakes," he states, "and they don't want to get too far from deeper water. The really extreme shallows are not normally productive for larger fish because the fish have to cross a lot of very shallow and clear water to use them. I find the best fish on the outside edge of the shallow cover, especially around pencil reeds.

"There are also several canals on the lake, and the bass like to bed along their edges, or just up onto the flats next to them."

To contact Jim Romeka for a day of guided bass fishing on lakes Samson and Rowell, call him at (904) 291-8052.

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