Many lakes acquired by the Division of Fish and Wildlife over the last 10 years are now providing good bass angling. These waters are worth a visit this year for some bragging-sized fish. (May 2006)
Larger lakes and reservoirs in the northern part of Indiana get quite a bit of lip service from bass anglers, but there are literally hundreds of smaller standing waters that offer plenty of opportunity for actually lipping a bass or two.
Sure, the larger, much-heralded lakes and reservoirs absorb the lion's share of the bass action in Hoosier waters, but there are many smaller standing waters that host good numbers of black bass (primarily largemouths), not to mention some lunker fish.
Here's what Bill James, chief of the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) Fisheries section, said about smaller standing waters and their importance to the overall bass fishery picture of Indiana:
"A healthy and desirable largemouth bass population has good numbers of small, intermediate and larger-sized bass, growth rates that are average or better, good recruitment of new bass most years, and the presence of some really big, old bass."
In general, it's harder to maintain desirable bass populations in ponds and small lakes than in large lakes and reservoirs. Why? Smaller waters are more prone to having things bumped out of balance. For instance, a typical 1-acre pond in Indiana may support only 35 pounds or so of bass. That could be 35 bass that are 1 pound each or 70 bass of 1/2 pound each -- or any combination of sizes that adds up to the carrying capacity (about 35 pounds) for that particular pond.
It's not difficult to remove too many bass from these small waters. In fact, one fisherman could potentially remove enough bass on one trip to upset the apple cart. That's why bag limits, size limits and catch-and-release are vitally important for maintaining desirable bass fishing.
"The good news is that with gentle handling, bass can be recycled; they can be caught and released over and over. Bass don't grow as fast as some people think. In southern Indiana, it takes about four years to grow a 14-inch largemouth bass. In northern Indiana, it takes five years. And how about that fat 18-inch bass that's pushing 3 pounds? It will be 6 to 8 years old, depending on the location. And that really big bragging-sized bass that everyone wants to catch may need to survive for a decade or longer to reach that size. Not many bass live that long, even if they do survive being caught. That's just the way things work in nature," James said.
"Indiana is an intensively fished state and largemouth bass are a favorite target. With the innovative use of different size limits matched to particular waters, we believe that bass populations are in pretty good shape, overall. However, a key to having more real rod-benders swimming around, especially in the smaller lakes, is catch-and-release fishing coupled with quick and gentle handling. It's harder to find a 20-inch bass in a lake where anglers are keeping every 18-inch bass they catch!
"Small lakes and ponds are an important part of Indiana's aquatic landscape and virtually all of them contain bass. There's an estimated 50,000 private ponds scattered across Indiana, plus countless small public lakes and ponds. I think a lot of Hoosier anglers got their first taste of bass fishing on these smaller waters. Some of your best chances for hooking up with a bass of record proportions are these small waters -- the more remote and lightly fished, the better."
To get a better view of the bass fishing picture on smaller bodies of water in Hoosierland, we asked the five northern district biologists of the DFW to put names to the spots they think will offer good bass action this year.
By districts, they are: District 1, Bob Robertson and his assistant, Jeremy Price, 16 counties of the far northwest corner of the state; District 2, Neil Ledet, three counties of the far northeast corner of the state; District 3, Jed Pearson, three counties and the northern part of Kosciusko County, just south of District 2; District 4, Ed Braun, 14 counties south of District 3 and the southern part of Kosciusko County; District 5, Rhett Weisner, 20 counties the width of the north and central parts of the state.
Bob Robertson and Jeremy Price, like other district biologists of the DFW, find it difficult to nod approvingly on a single body of water as the best bass water this spring, but they do not hesitate to opt for 8-acre Knop Lake, the largemouth angling gem of Knop Lake Public Fishing Area near the town of Edna Mills in Carroll County, and Bruce Lake, 245 acres, six miles west of Winamac in Pulaski County. Both will offer good bassing this year, they say.
Created by an earthen dam near Wildcat Creek in 1963, Knop Lake was part of a private campground until the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) gained control of the property in 1980. Fishing regulations on Knop Lake before 1980 was a 12-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass and six fish. The DFW quickly upped that 12-inch minimum to 14 inches (the standard minimum for the state) and launched a series of studies of the lake from 1981 to 1997. The conclusion of these studies found that the lake offered little fishing opportunity.
Thus, Knop Lake was renovated in the fall of 1998 and restocked with 1,635 largemouth bass, including 20 adults, along with bluegills, redear sunfish and channel catfish.
Few fish were found in the lake in a follow-up survey in 1999, but another check of fish populations in 2000 indicated the renovation was a success, with largemouth bass making up 54 percent of the all species being caught by fishermen. By weight, largemouths made up 53 percent of the sample. Today, bass reproduction and growth rates are excellent, the biologists said.
The Knop Lake Area is on CR 650 south, west of the town of Edna Mills. Kokomo angler Pat Campbell finds the western half of Knop offers the best bass fishing. He also finds surface lures effective.
Robertson and Price surveyed Bruce Lake last spring to collect 970 largemouths that ranged from 4.3 inches to 19.9 inches, with 39.6 percent of these fish ranging into "catchable" size. Ten percent of the catch was 14 inches, which is the legal minimum size.
Price, who has fished the lake for many years with his father, Jim, said bass tend to congregate in channels, adding that many of the larger bass found in their survey were in the channel at the north end of the lake. He also sees the shallow, flat area of the southwest shore as a good bet for bass.
The public access site is off County Road (CR) 150 north at the southwest corner of the lake, about six miles east of Winamac.
Biologist Neil Ledet pointed out that 202-acre Shipshewana Lake, a mile west of the town of that name in Lagrange County, should not be overlooked as a bass fishery. But his top choice is diminutive 34-acre Fish Lake. Fish Lake is four miles north and slightly east of Millersburg in Elkhart County.
"They both offer pretty good bass fishing (largemouth that is), and both have good public access sites," he said.
Fish Lake's public access site is off state Route 13 roughly 3.5 miles north from Millersburg to county road 34, then east to the lake. Public access for Shipshewana Lake is a mile west of the town of that name on CR 250 north, and half a mile north on CR 900 west.
Ledet said Fish Lake, not to be confused with upper and lower Fish lakes of LaPorte County, was first surveyed by fisheries biologists in 1970 and 1977 when bluegills and largemouths were dominant species. When the lake was surveyed again (1987), bluegills remained dominant at 40.1 percent of all species and largemouth bass were second at 19.8 percent. Fish management programs were not recommended at that time.
Biologists believed the lake would take care of itself without the intervention of humans, and the latest survey of the lake in 2004 tends to support that thinking. The DNR survey that year produced 284 fish of eight species, with the dominant species being largemouth bass (35.9 percent), and bluegills (33.8 percent).
Ledet said that the 2004 survey brought in 102 largemouths that weighed 99.36 pounds, ranging from 5.6 inches to 21.7 inches, for an average of 12 inches. Bass of the 14-inch legal size limit made up 18.6 percent of the sample. He added that 16-inch-plus bass comprised 13.7 percent of the bass sample. The figure for 18-inch-plus fish was 5.9 percent.
Growth rates of bass of the first year were average, but in subsequent years, growth rates were above average for northeastern Indiana natural lakes. Ledet points out that overall numbers of largemouth bass collected have increased with each survey.
"Fish Lake continues to support a satisfactory sport fish community," Ledet said, adding that it is "dominated by largemouth bass and bluegills." The two species represent 79.7 percent of all species in numbers and 44 percent in weight, he said.
Ledet pointed out that a 2002 survey of Shipshewana Lake revealed that 41 percent of the largemouth bass captured (and released) were 14 inches or longer, adding that is outstanding for northern Indiana lakes. He added that the growth rate for all year-classes of bass captured in the survey, except 4-year-olds, was above average for northern Indiana lakes.
Choosing the top largemouth bass lake of District 3 was no easier for Pearson than it was for the other fisheries biologists of the DFW, but after some deliberations, he opted for Loon Lake, a 222-acre natural body of water on the Noble/Whitley county line, roughly seven miles north of Columbia City.
But after assuring us that Loon Lake was the place for a bass angler to be, Pearson pointed out that both Shock and Spear lakes (on the Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area) could not be overlooked by those in quest of a lunker bass. Shock, 37 acres, and Spear, 40 acres, are bass-angling mainstays of the DFW's Quality Bass-Fishing Program, which provides for an 18-inch minimum size limit and daily bag limit of two fish.
Because muskellunge have been stocked in Loon Lake since 1978 to create a predator-prey situation aimed at increasing the size of bluegills, Pearson conducted an extensive survey of the lake in 2004. This survey also was aimed at determining how bass regulations affected bluegill sizes and numbers.
With bluegills dominating Loon Lake, a 12-inch minimum size limit was instituted on largemouth bass in the fall of 1990, and that was upped to 14 inches in the summer of 1998 when general bass regulations cut daily creel limits of bass from six to five.
For the record, the predator-prey experiment appears to have failed to increase the size of bluegills.
"In contrast," Pearson wrote, "the most notable changes as a result of predator management efforts at Loon Lake include the creation of muskie fishing opportunities and increases in density and size structure of largemouth bass. Although overall fishing effort is down and fewer anglers now fish for bluegills, more than half of Loon Lake anglers are drawn to bass (41 percent) or muskie (14 percent) fishing."
Pearson calculates that Loon Lake contains nearly 3,000 largemouth bass. He said roughly 1,302 of the bass ranged from 8 to 11 inches at the time of his survey, while 534 were 12- to 13-inch fish, and 1,007 ranged from 14 to 17 inches. His study indicated that Loon Lake contains almost 100 bass that are 18 inches or larger.
"Largemouth bass growth was normal compared with other natural lakes in northern Indiana," Pearson wrote, "although growth tended to slow slightly at ages 2 and 3 and then increase among bass of 5 years of age or older."
In tapping 59-acre Robinson Lake as the best bass water in his district, biologist Ed Braun pointed out that it is one of Indiana's quality largemouth bass fisheries, and thus, is the state's best-known lake for trophy bass.
Having been owned and operated for many years as a Boy Scouts of America camp, it is one of the last lakes in northeastern Indiana natural-lake country that has little residential development around it.
Situated some four miles northwest of Larwill, Robinson Lake straddles the Kosciusko/Whitley county line. Formerly known as Crossland Scout Reservation, and subjected to very light fishing pressure for many years, Robinson Lake was purchased by the DNR in 1992 and opened to the public as Deniston Resource Area in 1992.
Before its purchase by the DNR, the only public access to the lake was via a long, unimproved lane that was controlled by private landowners who would not allow building, but did maintain a little-used private ramp that was available for a fee.
Braun conducted a survey of Robinson Lake fish populations in 1993. As a result of his findings, Braun estimates that Robinson Lake hosts more than 30 largemouth bass per acre, one of the best populations in numbers of any natural lakes in the state. Moreover, Braun's studies of the lake indicated some 8 percent of the bass in the lake are 18 inches or longer.
"To prevent over-exploitation of this fishery with expected increase in fishing pressure . . . changes in largemouth bass size and bag limits were proposed," Braun wrote in a report on his studies. These changes became regulations in 1996. Size and daily bag limits remain at an 18-inch minimum, and two bass per day.
Biologist Rhett Wisener faced an even greater dilemma when asked to pick a small bass lake that was better than all others in his district. However, b
ecause his district is about twice as big as any of the others, this is not difficult to understand.
Thus, it was not surprising when he, with wrinkled brow, opted for a triumvirate of bass lakes he thinks will be hot this year. So bass enthusiasts will get three lakes for the price of one in District 5.
We offer these manmade lakes in the order that they were mentioned.
They are: Rockville Lake, 100 acres on the north side of the town of Rockville in Parke County; Whitewater Lake, 199 acres in Whitewater Memorial State Park in Union County; and Middle Fork Reservoir, 177 acres, a water-supply reservoir for the city of Richmond.
Rockville Lake is owned and operated by the Little Raccoon Conservancy District. This small watershed lake was built in 1972. It hosted an overpopulation of bluegills and a marked shortage of largemouths from the start.
Fisheries biologists suggested winter drawdowns of the water level, and this management tool appeared to give existing bass populations a chance to eliminate some of the bluegills while bringing numbers of the two mainstay species into better balance.
Bass were the dominant species through most of the 1990s, Wisener said, adding that an ideal balance of the two species seemed to exist in a DFW survey of the lake in 2001.
Bluegills were the dominant species in a 2003 survey, but bass were a close second. Wisener said that a recent survey counted 299 bass, 19.9 percent of the total sample in numbers, and 50.6 percent in weight. Bass ranged up to 15.2 inches and averaged 8.9 inches.
Wisener said the important growth rates were about normal for 1- and 2-year-old bass. Bass tend to hit the magic 14-inch mark at 4 years of age, he said.
Whitewater Lake was built in 1949. The lake's game fish population suffered from an overpopulation of shad, and a spillway that periodically needed repairs until it was replaced in 2001.
However, replacement of the spillway eventually led to a solution to the shad problem and to a burgeoning population of bass after the lake was restocked in the fall of 2001.
A fisheries survey in 2002 to evaluate the success of the eradication and stockings indicated that bluegills were the most abundant species, but largemouth bass accounted for 25.1 percent of the sample by number and 18.2 percent by weight.
Wisener said that survey turned up only one 15-inch bass, but he pointed out that growth rates were better than normal. That should mean that many of the sub-legal-sized bass found in the 2002 survey would meet, or top, the 14-inch legal size this year.
Middle Fork Reservoir was built as a city of Richmond water supply reservoir in the early 1960s. Middle Fork Reservoir is managed by the Parks and Recreation Department of that city.
Bluegills and white crappies dominated Middle Fork's early history, but by 2000, the largemouth bass population had expanded. Wisener's 2002 survey counted 191 largemouth bass, and they weighed a total of 178.71 pounds. Bass were again first in abundance by number (27.2 percent) and second by weight (19.8 percent).
"Compared with other populations of largemouth bass across central Indiana, bass at Middle Fork Reservoir are growing slightly better than normal to age 3 and near normal after that," Wisener said.