This good-sized reservoir just southwest a bit from Indianapolis offers fine largemouth bass action, along with a chance at tangling with a bronzeback or two as well. (April 2009)
Bass fishing on Cecil M. Harden is almost a rite of passage. Anglers who haven't caught bass in the spring in the Hoosier State have a good shot at a real wallhanger on this lake. It can be a tough bite, but when you tangle with one of Harden's big bucketmouths, you'll be graduating into a class of bass angler who knows how to enjoy the best that Indiana has to offer.
Cecil Harden Lake is known by several names. The official name is Cecil Harden, but if you're stopping to ask for directions, you might get fewer blank stares if you ask for Raccoon Lake. Mansfield Reservoir is another name for this 2,060-acre reservoir. The important thing is that you find it and fish it!
The last Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) survey on Cecil Harden was completed a few years ago and little has changed since then. According to fisheries biologist Rhett Wisener, largemouth bass in the 20-inch class are present and he's sure the electro-shocking survey didn't catch the biggest ones. Keeper-sized 16-inch bass made up 18 percent of the total catch from the lake and over one-third of all the bass sampled were 14 inches or longer. All of the bass in the survey were largemouth bass, but Wisener does hear of smallies being taken by anglers on occasion.
The population of Cecil Harden bass is healthy and growing. It appears that over the last several years, there have been successful spawns and good survival rates for young-of-the-year bass resulting in several good year-classes. The fishery is being carried by several year-classes and the best fishing action is just getting underway.
Bass metabolism increases with the warming water temperatures and the need to feed more often becomes a priority. Savvy anglers won't miss this eat-anything-that's-moving period when a variety of baits are productive. Active bass will be in the backs of coves in shallow water once the spawn kicks into full gear. Those largemouths not spawning will be chasing shad near the spawning areas; if you find a concentration of shad, you'll probably find active bass taking advantage of the easy pickings.
The spawn starts in earnest when the water temperatures reach around 64 degrees. Bass begin to get in the spawning mode as the daylight hours lengthen and the lake's water begins to warm.
Bass feed aggressively at this time of the year. Lipless crankbaits and spinnerbaits top biologist Wisener's personal list of spring baits. If the weather conditions are good and the bass are locked down on their beds, Wisener covers water to find the largest number of bass and can often catch several on one outing. According to Wisener, this is the time of the year to catch the biggest bass in the lake.
Ryan Lemley is the assistant manager of the Raccoon State Recreation Area; he has a positive outlook for the bass fishery for this season in spite of high water levels in 2008. The bite can be tough when the water levels are fluctuating, but the bass are all still there. Some of the tournaments have had respectable weigh-ins and local anglers are still tangling with nice-sized bass, despite the fluctuating water levels and ever-changing weather patterns.
Lemley enjoys bass fishing on the lake enjoys catching plenty of 3-pound fish. There are a lot of bass between 12 and 16 inches, and Cecil Harden is an up-and-coming fishery in his opinion.
The unpredictable water levels in Cecil Harden are a problem for many anglers. Lemley has heard the complaints about the tough fishing due to the high water that has flooded the lake during the last couple of years; but, in his opinion, high water is a good thing. After all, high water will ultimately contribute to good bass recruitment and the survival of bass fry. The bass will spawn far up into the coves when the water is deep and the flooded vegetation provides both food and spawn for the young bass. As the water recedes, good numbers of smaller bass will join the larger fish in the main reservoir.
There are some big fish in the reservoir and they can be found, said Lemley. The 16-inch minimum length limit supports the good sizes of fish and anglers' preference for catch-and-release virtually guarantees an excellent fishery.
Bass locations in Cecil Harden depend on the water level in the early spring. Bass will nest over soft, sandy substrate and fan out a nest in just a few feet of water in coves or in other shallow water with appropriate lake bottom. If the lake is flooded, the locations will be different than when it's low.
The best advice is to check shallow water along the shoreline rather than looking at specific locations since the bass will adjust to conditions. The spawning bass will follow the depth changes. If you can find the right combination of depth, lake bottom and out-of-the-current conditions, you'll up the odds of finding the lunkers.
Look in the shallows along shoreline cover, in the backs of bays and in areas with some protection from wave and wind action. Spring hotspots are back in the coves, around stumps, boat docks and fallen shoreline trees, on shallow points and near the boat ramps.
Spawning bass will use the bay where county Route 1010E crosses the lake west of U.S. Route 36. The bay is long and thin with water approaching 20 feet deep, but it has shallows that are protected from the wind and wave action during stable water levels. The bass spawn usually begins in late April, lasts throughout May and sometimes into early June.
Post-spawn largemouths begin staging on the dropoffs outside of the coves. They'll hold here for a while to recover from the rigors of reproduction before spreading back out into the lake and will start relating to traditional bass habitat.
As the water continues to warm, bass will start to frequent dropoffs and deeper structure. The bigger bass will be in these offshore areas during the daytime and then move toward shore to chase the lake's abundant panfish. For fast action but smaller size bass, go to the riprap near the Route 36 bridge.
Small Rapalas and in-line spinners along the rocks will take plenty of the smaller bass. In the early morning and late evening hours, try larger crayfish imitations to pick up a few of the bigger fish.
Lemley is knowledgeable when it comes to the hot baits.
"I've had luck on deep-diving crankbaits and decent-sized jigs tipped with a 3- or 4-inch curlytail," Lemley said.
There are some areas that are generally hotspots for largemouths right now, lake conditions
permitting. A stumpfield in the 12-foot line on the Trotmans Branch side of Cecil Harden is a bass magnet. The stumps extend across the lake on the northwestern side. Another hotspot is the row of gravel pit outcroppings off old SR 36. Bass will hold in these spots in late spring after leaving the bays and backwaters where they've spawned. Christmas trees were sunk some time ago near the boat ramps and remnants are still drawing panfish and the occasional hungry bass.
This is definitely a lake where sonar and GPS units can come in handy. Using good electronics puts you on the advantage over other anglers. Of course, the best bet is to check the structure when the water is down, then GPS likely holding spots for various water levels and then map it before you come back. This is a tactic that eliminates a lot of dead water ahead of time.
As far as John Misiora of D&L Sporting Goods in Rockville is concerned, Cecil Harden bass have to be worked for. The fish won't jump into the boat and can be tough to find.
The high water is the culprit, said Misiora. It's been high and uncooperative. The best bass fishing, in Misiora's opinion, requires some stable water levels and that's anything but what the lake has been getting. Cecil Harden picks up a lot of rainwater from the watershed areas and it doesn't take long to raise the lake's water levels.
The predictability of the largemouth bass under these conditions is a challenge and finding the right combination of depth, structure and nearby food is crucial for success. As the water column goes up and down, different types and locations of cover fall into the right depths and the fish will move to make use of it. When the structure or weeds being used by bass become either too shallow or too deep, the bass will move on to greener pastures.
Misiora's top picks for spring bass are the north side's no-wake areas where personal watercraft and speedboats aren't literally rocking the boat. Even with the uncertainty of water levels, the best spots to target the bass are typically around boat docks, stumps and fallen trees, by the boat ramps, on the white rocky shorelines on points and back in the coves.
Work the lake's traditional bass habitat hard, said Misiora. Piers and shoreline cover hold plenty of bass when the water is murky. Flippin' jigs are used by bass anglers along the rocky shorelines in depths of anywhere from 1 to 10 feet of water. Crankbaits and soft plastics are productive for picking up bass along shoreline cover or when they're suspended over deeper water along drop¬offs.
One undisputed problem with Cecil Harden bass is that they're an educated bunch. They've seen a wide selection of hardware thrown their way and have become adept at avoiding baits that have fooled them before. It's believed that bass can remember a lure they've been hooked on for several months. These bucketmouths can give new meaning to the word "finicky."
Try undersized baits or those that are larger than traditional bass fare. Once the water warms, switch to spinnerbaits, in-line spinners and buzzbaits, but don't be afraid to be creative. Bobbing a floating crankbait along the top of the water can also take a few bucketmouths. Try whatever you think other anglers have overlooked.
Though Cecil Harden contains a population of smallmouth bass, most aren't in the reservoir, said Misiora. The ones that are will be running few and thin. Most are on the smaller end of the scale and will be found around the Portland Mills area over rocky structure. The smallmouth fishing picks up downstream from the tailwaters in the Bridgeton area south of the dam in the Little Raccoon Creek. The creek is the discharge for the reservoir and the smallies reach as far as Mansfield. Anglers are finding them much more numerous in the river stretches than in the reservoir.
In-line spinners excel on the smallmouth bass. Small baits with plenty of flash and vibration generally fool these bass. Tiny Rapalas and other floating or sinking crankbaits also account for fish caught.
The striped bass are causing growing excitement at Cecil Harden. Lemley is especially excited about the success of the stripers that have been stocked into the lake and the catches anglers are making. Thousands of these rod-benders have been stocked annually into the lake for several years. Two years ago, the DFW and Wildlife stocked as many as 12,000.
"It's an awesome striper lake," Lemley said.
Wisener agrees. The lake was sampled for stripers in October of 2008 with surprising results. The stripers are doing quite well. Fish weighing 20 pounds were caught with one measuring over 38 inches and weighing in between 21 and 22 pounds. According to Wisener, the stockings of striped bass are looking successful and there will be some nice fish being taken on down the road.
The formula for catching stripers is simple. Fish deep and use bluegills for bait. Follow the old channel through the lake and hit the dropoff points. For those preferring artificial baits, jigs with 4- to 6-inch curlytails account for a lot of the fish brought to the boat.
Many stripers aren't landed because anglers come unprepared. Fish in the 25-pound class are caught and there are fish taken that tip the scales a bit further. Fish weighing in at 20 pounds are common.
Heavy tackle is a requirement. Regular bass gear can end up a shambles if a striker is hooked. A good 20-pound line and a heavy-action rod are pretty much standard fare.
The striped bass fishery in Cecil Harden will soon surpass the excellent fishing in lakes like Patoka where stripers are highly successful as well. According to Lemley, Cecil Harden has been the runner-up to date, but that might soon be changing. Based on what's happening in Cecil Harden, in a few years' time, the lake will be at the top of the list of the Hoosier state's striper fisheries, second to none.
Route 36 bisects the lake from east to west. Several boat ramps include the one off 36, the Mansfield Ramp on the southwestern shore, and the Portland Mills Ramp on the northern end and the Walker Dam access on the eastern side in the southern section of the lake.
There is a 16-inch minimum length limit on the lake's largemouth bass with a five-fish daily bag limit in combination with smallmouth bass. The smallies have a 14-inch minimum. Stripers have a two-fish daily bag limit with no minimum length limit.
The campground on the lake offers 300 sites or so and makes an excellent base of operations to enjoy the spring bassin'. Most of the sites are electric and can handle any camper you want to bring. Reservations can be made to ensure a spot. There are several restaurants in the general vicinity where you can get a home-cooked meal, fast food or just a cup of coffee to warm cold fingers.
It should be noted that wake violations are being ticketed more consistently over the last couple of years and more stringent enforcement of the boating regulations should leave bass anglers with a little more peace and quiet.
Cecil Harden is located nine miles east of Rockville on U.S. Route 36 in the Raccoon State Recreation Area in Putnam and Parke counties. The lake is 50 miles west of Indianapolis and 35 miles north of Terre Haute.
For more information, contact the DFW's District 5 at (765) 342-5527, the Raccoon SRA at (765) 344-1412, the D&L Sporting Goods at (765) 344-0281 or the Raccoon Bait and Tackle Shop at (765) 344-1855.