Despite widespread damage throughout Florida, the bass fishing waters in the northern half of the state escaped Irma's wrath relatively unscathed.
Back on Sept. 9, Hurricane Irma blasted into the Florida Keys and then for two days battered the peninsula, as it moved steadily northward. After its second landfall around Naples and Marco Island, the storm moved inland through central and north Florida, wreaking havoc along the way.
As with any such event, concern for lives and lost property are the first orders of business. Only later do folks survey what the hurricane meant for fisheries. As the year enters the prime months for targeting largemouths in north Florida, it's time to take a survey of the region and its bass waters.
When the storm reached the bass lakes and rivers to the north of a line from Tampa to Orlando, it had weakened a great deal. Still, the flooding and winds did have some effect on that part of the state's fishing waters.
Fortunately, nature has a way of being prepared for the problems she inflicts upon an area. Plants, animals and fish all take such events in stride and are soon on their way back to normal.
"In general, impacts were less than with earlier hurricanes that ripped out vegetation," said Allen Martin, fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We're not sure why that didn't happen this time."
As it turns out, the biggest culprit affecting fishing was what washed into the river systems. The downpours of rain and heavy winds associated with Irma carried a lot of organic matter from the swamps into the waterways, along with stagnant, warmer water. Additionally, the organic muck stirred from the bottoms of streams put a real nutrient stew in the water. Even worse, hurricanes usually cause several days of cloud cover, which creates a "perfect storm" to cause a fish kill.
The clouds block sunlight that aquatic plants use to produce oxygen in the water, causing respiring that uses oxygen. Additionally, the water coming from the swamps is dark and tannic, which further blocks sunlight and adds to the issue.
Thus, with no new oxygen being produced and decaying plant material using up what's already there, a fish kill becomes inevitable. Indeed, two large kills were recorded, along with scattered smaller ones across north Florida.
"We've seen some kills and we expect dead vegetation to collect and decay, which could lead to more," said Barron Moody, FWC biologist. "But, history shows we will recover."
Based on those assessments, there were four fisheries that were heavily affected by Irma. Three of those took a hit, but surprisingly, the fourth actually improved due to the violent weather.
ST. JOHNS RIVER
The St. Johns is the state's biggest river. It was heavily affected by Irma's visit, which came in the form of fish kills. The portion that took the brunt of the impact was from just south of Lake George at the town of Astor and upstream.
While the FWC termed the fish kills as "not unexpected or catastrophic," the local populace had a differing opinion soon after the storm, with a front row seat to see the masses of floating fish, as well as having to endure the smell.
"There are blankets of dead fish, primarily from Astor to as far south as you want to go," said Stephen Bishop. "I've got contacts from all corners telling me the same thing. I've experienced this before, and it was nowhere near this size."
By the end of September, the fish kill had tapered off. While bream and bass were present, including some 5- to 7-pound largemouths, the vast majority of the fish were reported to be tilapia. Indications were that the bass population may have taken a hit, but should still have plenty of fish this spring.
As to catching them, two patterns apply. To begin, the fact vegetation was not uprooted is good news. The abundant lily pads and dollar pads still provide shoreline mats upstream to Lake George, toward lakes Dexter and Woodruff. Targeting the edges with live golden shiners is the go-to method for hooking big bass.
Those shiners can be in the 7- to 8-inch range and fished under floats with only minimal weight. Casting to the edge of the weed line and letting the bait swim up under the mat is the preferred tactic.
Those who prefer artificials should look for spawning beds in backwater ponds off the main river or in canals and feeder creek mouths. The best tactic is to drop plastic baits, either with or without weight, right in the beds. Worm, craw and lizard patterns all work for this fishing.
Pro Adrian Avena: Big Bass on Big Worms
The Withlacoochee River rises in the Green Swamp near the Green Pond community in Polk County. From there it meanders northward through central Florida to empty into Lake Rousseau at Dunnellon. Portions of that 157-mile course run through the Withlacoochee State Forest.
The stream's origin in the Green Swamp is the source of its water and also its problems after Irma. That vast wilderness area dumped a great deal of stagnant water and vegetative debris into the river, priming it for fish kills. In the 10 days following the storm, kills were reported in Hernando and Citrus counties on the river. Fortunately, they were termed as light to moderate by the FWC.
As with other areas, some bass were seen in the kills, but most fish were of other species. It seems unlikely that the overall bass population in the river was seriously affected.
Though the Withlacoochee is better known as a canoeing destination than for fishing, the river has a good largemouth population. According to the FWC's TrophyCatch Tracker program, the river has produced 38 largemouths weighing between 8 and 10 pounds, as well as another four that were between 10 and 13 pounds. That's not a bad record for a stream that at best is a moderate-sized flow.
As far as the spring angling goes, the Withlacoochee action is similar to that on the St. Johns. Aquatic vegetation is the key to the fishing, particularly for bigger bass. Using live river shiners can't be beat, but on this flow options are a bit more varied. They can be fished under floats along the edges of the weeds, but many anglers score by free-lining baits. That way the minnow can swim up under the mat where bass hang out. Additionally, shiners can be hooked through the nose and trolled along the edges of vegetation to cover more water.
Another successful tactic is to throw soft-plastic baits around snags or any other available wood cover that is in shallow water. These lures also are sometime successful around the patches of aquatic plants.
Lake Rousseau begins at Dunnellon, where the Withlacoochee River runs into it. The lake is unusual in the Sunshine State in that it is man made. The river was dammed in 1909 to form the 3,700-acre reservoir that is 12 miles long by one mile wide. Up until 1965, Florida Power maintained a hydroelectric plant at the dam.
Another facet of its history is that the lake was to be part of the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal in the 1970s. The roughly 10-miles of the Withlacoochee River from the dam to the Gulf of Mexico was actually dredged and channelized for that project.
However, the lake is so different from the river that it is worthwhile to consider them as separate fisheries. The impact of Hurricane Irma was similar, but more pronounced on Rousseau's waters.
After Irma passed through this area, anglers on the lower reaches of the impoundment described the fish kill as "epic." Bass in the 6- to 8-pound range were reported floating belly up around boat docks. Similar scenes were reported from the upper end of the lake at Dunnellon as well.
According to Sam Burel, who lives on the lake, "Lake Rousseau is hurt, but not dead," which mirrors the FWC assessment as well.
To put the bass fishery on Rousseau in context, a look at the TrophyCatch stats is eye opening. The reservoir has reported 88 largemouths caught in the 8- to 10-pound category, with another 14 in the 10- to 13-pound niche. There also has been one bass taken that cracked the 13-pound mark.
The fishing mirrors that of previous rivers covered. Live shiners fished free-line or under a float around the abundant islands of floating pennywort or hydrilla account for most of the lunker largemouths. However, trolling a shiner or crankbait along the drop into the old river channel also can pay dividends. A bend in the channel provides even better odds for a hook up.
Lochloosa Lake is a 5,700-acre natural lake located just south of Hawthorne in Alachua County. It is connected to Orange Lake to the southwest by historic Cross Creek. Unlike much of the Sunshine State, Lochloosa benefited from the visit by Hurricane Irma. Having suffered from low water levels for most of the past decade, a wet summer followed by the torrential rains of the storm has the lake completely full.
The water level here raised 3 feet in three days, according to Christine Mundy, bureau chief for the St. Johns Water Management District. That brought the lake to within 9 inches of its all-time high, recorded in 1948. After the lake crested in mid-September, the water level began to fall about 6 inches per day. Mundy says she does not expect any permanent damage to the lake from the Hurricane Irma rainfall.
With regard to fishing, Lochloosa has always been best known for its black crappie population, with less attention and pressure directed at bass. That's not to say the lake doesn't hold a good population of largemouths. In fact, it gives up respectable numbers of the fish, including 20 TrophyCatch bass between 8 and 10 pounds, plus another 8 that made the 10- to 13-pound class.
The lake is bordered by old-growth cypress trees, and for the first time in years there's enough water around them to provide cover for bass.
The other cover in the lake is composed of knotgrass, and in the deeper water, spatterdock beds. Those plants, also known as cow lilies or bonnets, are the best bass cover, along with some hydrilla.
Tossing weedless plastic lures to the spatterdock, or working topwater lures along edges offer the best possibilities for some bass action on Lochloosa in the spring.
Now it will be awhile before the full affects of Irma will be known, but the fishing in Florida should still be pretty good, especially in the north where the damage was less.