March 03, 2015
Florida was synonymous with big bass long before the current wave of genetically engineered largemouths spread across the nation about 30 years ago.
In fact, the particular strain of largemouths found in the southern two-thirds of the Sunshine State is the fountainhead of most of the record fish reported from all over the southern half of America. Micropterus salmoides floridanus, with its genetic potential to reach larger size than the common northern largemouth bass, has been stocked far and wide.
But there's still no better place to catch a 10-pound-plus Florida bass than in Florida, and no better time than in late winter through early spring — the time when the spawning urge moves big females into shallows and makes them much easier to locate than other times of the year, as well as adding considerably to their bulk.
According to Tom Champeau, director of Freshwater Fisheries for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), bass spawn as early as December in the southern-most waters of the state, with the nesting urge gradually working its way north as winter turns to spring.
February and March are prime time in the bass rich waters from Lake Okeechobee north to Lake George. If you truly want to put a double-digit bass in the boat (hopefully just long enough to take a picture), then this zone should be ground zero. The first two weeks of April are usually pretty good from about Orlando northward as well.
In most Florida lakes, bass in the spawning mode seek out hard sand bottoms with scattered maidencane, AKA "Kissimmee Grass," bulrushes or lily pads at depths from 2 to 6 feet. In lakes where the primary cover is hydrilla, bass move into sparse areas in the weed mat and fan down to hard bottom — in clear water, this can be as deep as 8 to 10 feet.
Residential canals and the lower end of feeder creeks are also favorite areas. In lakes like Rodman Reservoir, northeast of Ocala, bass also spawn under hyacinth and water lettuce drifts, where the raft has pushed up over a shallow flat.
In most lakes, it's possible to see the beds; they look like a whitish-yellow bowl about 24 to 30 inches wide on the otherwise dark bottom. Whether you choose to fish for females that are actually bedding or not is up to you, but fishing near the beds during pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn, will put you in the area where you know the largest fish are located.
Rodman Reservoir is one of the spots high on the list for large numbers of bass over 8 pounds every winter, mainly because shiner fishing has been developed to a high art there. Rodman is an impoundment on the Ocklawaha River, which feeds into the St. Johns system, including Lake George. If you headquarter in Salt Springs or Palatka, where there are numerous fish camps, you can also fish Lake George, Lake Crescent and other highly productive waters nearby.
Equally good, and a better choice, if you're a devout lure tosser, is Lake Kissimmee and the other lakes in this chain south of Orlando. There are several fish camps on the south shore of Kissimmee, east of the town of Lake Wales. If you're an intrepid soul, not afraid of alligators, there's lots of shallow weed flat on the shore where you can wade and find bass spawning — you don't have to have a boat, though having one will open up vastly more water. Alligators are hunted on the chain and usually stay clear of humans in boats, but when anglers get down to their level in the water there is some risk — stay in shallow water and keep your eyes open.
Lake Istokpoga, which connects to the Kissimmee Chain through an outlet creek, was restored by the FWC a few years back via scraping away tons of muck to reveal good spawning bottom and stimulate native vegetation, and it is one of the bright spots in Florida's bass fishery these days.
Lake Okeechobee, which is the last lake in the Kissimmee Chain, is a vast inland sea with countless big bass. Restoration projects on the north shore have created outstanding reed flats that can absolutely load up with spawning fish when conditions are right, but the big lake has a highly variable water level due to Corps of Engineers dams on the south side.
If the water is at a level where the reed flats are at depths of 1 to 4 feet, the fishing will be off the charts January through March. If it's too high, the fish will plow back into remaining marsh and be tough to find, and if it's too low, the fish can't get to the reeds at all. Check with area guides and fish camps on water levels before planning a trip.
At the same time, don't overlook the headwater lakes of the St. Johns River. These are marsh impoundments created to filter the water going into the river over the last 20 years. When first built, the Stick Marsh and Farm 13 became nationally famous as monster bass factories, but then growth of algae slowed production. Two new impoundments, Fellsmere and Three Forks, will come on line this year (2014-15), and these areas likely will be red hot soon after they fill. Visit here for maps and details.
While the south to central part of the state is the "Trophy Bass Belt," there's plenty of good bass fishing elsewhere. For example, the canals that line the roads in the Florida Everglades, at the southern tip of the state, can be quite good in late spring as water levels drop, pulling fish out of the vast marshes and forcing them into the narrow but deep canals.
Hit one of these strip-fisheries, like that along Alligator Alley between Naples and Miami, at the right time and you can catch 30 to 40 bass a day, along with a stray snook or two that might wander upstream from the coast. Noisy topwaters are among the favorite lures, and anglers don't need a boat to get at the fish.
Check any map to find many miles of these ditches along many of the routes south of Okeechobee — some of the best are right on the outskirts of Miami.
In north Florida, the Ochlockonee River coming out of Lake Talquin, west of Tallahassee, can be excellent if you hit it right. There's a good spring crankbait fishery there — toss fast-divers or lipless cranks around shoreline cover as you drift the dark flowage and crank hard to connect. You'll get snagged a lot, so take plenty of tackle. Lake Talquin was once a good lake and may be again thanks to restoration efforts soon to get underway, but for the time being it's not a prime location.
Also good is the March and early April fishery in the lower Apalachicola River, when bass move downstream to feed on migrating shrimp. Soft plastics in shrimp colors fished around bulrushes catch lots of these fish, averaging 2 to 4 pounds. You'll also get some redfish mixed in most days.
Lake Seminole, above Woodruff Dam, is also a famed late-winter, early spring fishery, especially in the Flint River and Spring Creek arms. Bedding fish can be found in pockets of coves and sandy flats, primarily during March and April. Worms, crankbaits and spinnerbaits are all effective. However, the east side of the lake is in Georgia, so be sure to check the regulations here.
Live Bait Magic
There's no surer way to catch trophy largemouth in Florida than to offer them a large, wild, golden shiner. This baitfish, which reaches lengths to over a foot, has a special attraction for the largest female bass. If you're a visitor to the Sunshine State with a limited amount of time to spend fishing, your odds of putting a 10-pound fish in the boat will go way up if you fish live shiners.
The easiest way is to hire a guide, who will have both the tackle necessary and the jumbo live well essential to keep several dozen of the big baits lively.
Basically, anglers use shiners 5 to 8 inches long either hooked just behind the dorsal fin, for running under weed floats, or through the lips, for slow drifting around hydrilla beds. The baitfish are for sale at bait shops in areas where the tactic is popular, particularly around the St. Johns River Chain and the Kissimmee Chain. Don't be shocked, however, at the price — you'll pay $8 to $15 a dozen, and you'll need several dozens.
A hook known as the Kahle, a light-wire, semi-circle hook, is the preferred design because it tends to be self-setting and holds the lively baits well; most anglers use 4/0 to 5/0.
Most anglers fish the big baits on at least 30-pound-test mono or 65-pound-test braid with a baitcaster reel rigged on a stout, two-handed rod that's 7.5 to 8 feet long. The big rod makes it possible to cast the giant baits, and also to sweep up lots of line in a powerful hookset when the time comes. The fish are usually in heavy cover, so wimpy tackle simply won't work here — you have to either go big or go home.
The big baits are typically eased into the water at the edge of a hyacinth drift or weedbed and allowed to swim back under the thick cover, sometimes 50 feet or more. Sooner or later they come into the view of big fish prowling the area for food, and when they do, the "roof" of vegetation may be knocked a foot into the air as the bass attacks.
The angler then lets the fish take the bait for a few seconds, cranks up slack and slams the hook home. It's mano a mano action, but it's incredibly effective. Captain Sean Rush, who plies the trophy-rich waters of Rodman Reservoir northeast of Ocala, sometimes brings four or five fish over 8 pounds to the boat in a single morning during prime time, along with lots of 5's and 6's.
For Lure Anglers
Though nothing is as certain as tossing live shiners, a big plastic worm is a close second. For fishing the spawn, pre-spawn and post-spawn, dark-colored worms of 8 to 12 inches are common, fished on 5/0 to 6/0 hooks and weighted just enough to find bottom. Soft plastic "critter" baits also work, as do punch jigs, dressed with soft plastics in dark colors — a good choice where weed mats roof over the hydrilla beds.
During the spawn, soft plastics are fished slowly, right in the beds. Sometimes it takes dozens of casts to convince a big female to bite, and some pro tournament anglers have been known to work a single fish for hours. Pre- and post-spawn fishing can be much more aggressive. The fish are on the move and hungry, so lures that offer motion become effective.
Spinnerbaits are effective, as are swimbaits, swim jigs and, my personal favorite, buzzbaits. The attack of a big bass on a sputtering buzzbait is a sight to see — sometimes they come in a rush just under the surface, creating a bow wave that ends in an explosion as they crush the lure. In scattered reeds and maidencane, this can be the way to go.
Another tactic, practiced less often but still deadly, is to toss a low-impact topwater like an F9 or F11 Rapala into pockets of lily pad beds or hydrilla and simply twitch it along, with frequent pauses. Though you'll catch a lot of smaller bass with this tactic, you also catch some very big ones — for steady action, it's almost as effective as live bait at times.
While the lures have to be fished on spinning gear for effective casting, if you load the spool with 15-pound-test braid you'll be able to handle most fish.
There are other locales where bucket-mouths are available, and numerous methods for bringing one to the boat. But these, areas and tactics, work.