June 13, 2019
By Larry D. Larsen
Florida hasa wealth of manmade waters that many of the state’s anglers seldom fish due to lack of confidence fishing deep, clear bodies full of unique structure. They consist of phosphate pits, barrow pits, rock quarries, sand pits, metal mining, stock tank ponds and small lakes. While Florida’s shallow, natural waters are more commonly found in most counties, our man-dug places usually offer a higher catch rate than the natural bodies of water.
Tactics of the so-called “structure” fishermen may vary from what often works best in shallow, highly vegetated lakes. Impoundments offer a more diverse set of possible habitat and topography calling for more variety of lures in the arsenal of an angler, which can be concerning to some. But in reality, different structures, points and habitat edges can help concentrate bass and aid the angler in locating them.
A good example of a very productive manmade lake is located on the 1,000-acre Promise Ranch near Howey-in-the-Hills in Central Florida. The semi-private operation has a 350-acre rock quarry with 10 miles of “points and pockets” shoreline and an irregular bottom of varying soil composites of clay, limestone outcroppings, boulders and sandy pebbles. Anglers that stay at nearby Mission Inn Resort can book trips to these waters with head guide Captain Schirra McDaniel or a visit can be scheduled to the catch-and-release lake directly with the captain at Promise Ranch.
Various Differences In Prime Habitats
Unlike most waters in the state, the waters offer extreme depths to 100 feet with humps, channels and quick drops, all constructed by huge bucket dredge excavators. Along the edges of the manmade lake is a narrow littoral zone with varying vegetation such as milfoil, cattails, pencil reed, lily pads and fallen brush. Rock and hardwood covered berms separate “fingers” of the lake which are commonly found in many man-dug waters.
The self-contained ecosystem at Promise Ranch Lake even has a natural spring coming from the Florida aquifer that creates water movement and moderate water temperatures and keeps the lake’s waters crystal clear. In fact, Schirra asked me if I could tell the difference between a plastic bottle of lake water he had filled and one from the cooler with spring drinking water. I couldn’t. The guide then told me of a visibility disc test that a fisheries biologist had done in the lake, noting it was visible down to 30 feet.
Winter and summer water temps are ideal for year around bassing, and the spring’s oxygenation allows the deeper-inhabiting fish to seemingly fight better and longer than bass in waters more affected by temperature extremes. The lake, like most of the state’s man-dug waters, has a larger average size bass and there are some whoppers swimming in here. On my most recent trip, Schirra, his guide friend Captain Don Hutson and I caught five fish weighing 40 pounds in a half day. My 11-pounder anchored the catch and we added another 8 or 10 smaller largemouth to pretty much eliminate any downtime we could have experienced.
Effective ClearWater Lure Selection
Big baits for big fish are the choice of all three of us in these types of waters. They usually produce the big fish, but even using 4-inch long finesse worms will catch a 10-pounder. Whether fishing a drop shot rig, swimbait or a Texas rig with small soft plastics, knowing how to fish deep structure is vital to doing well in most man-dug waters.Natural looking swimbaits such as the 3/8-ounce Storm 360GT Searchbait with life-like jig head and soft plastic toe-in boot tail design is a lure that I’ve used to locate bass along drop-offs in a lot of pits all over Central Florida. The Swim’N Runner and other ¼ ounce, shad-profile Road Runners fished slowly in the deep clear waters also have been very effective on pit bass for me.
Outsized 10-inch long, Texas-rigged worms are also often productive for the giants, according to Schirra. One of his clients enticed the Promise Ranch Lake record bass, a 13-pound, 3-ounce beauty by slowly dragging a giant soft plastic down a limestone rock point off of one of the many fingers in the rock quarry. There are numerous ditches and rocky canyons with limestone vein crevices throughout the bottom where the giants hang out, according to Schirra.
“Deep water fishing techniques all work well here because the bigger bass stay down at 20- to 30-feet depths year round, except when bedding,” says the guide who has fished the lake for almost 9 years. “We usually fish deep when it is hot and when it is cold. In the spring, they will be on beds for a few weeks lying about 3 feet or so off the rocks in 6- to 8-feet of water. The angler still can easily see them as a fluorescent green glow in the clear waters.”
Equipment Choices for Deep Structure Techniques
Once spawning is over, the heavy, bottom dragging baits, deep diving crankbaits and drop shot rigs or other techniques that get the bait down deep in the clear water visibility will draw trophy bass strikes. If a cloudy, low-light situation with a little wind rippling the surface exists, there is a topwater bite. With the high shoreline walls around the lake and between each of the soil “fingers.”
Schirra loves to toss his shad-color, round-bill crankbaits parallel to the shorelines and points and then retrieving them in a medium to fast speed to get them down to 8- or 10-feet. The guide employs a 7-foot, medium-heavy action rod and 3000- or 4000-size spinning reel for most of his pit fishing ventures. He opts for 12- to 15-pound test braid with 2- or 3-feet of 12- to 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader tied with a double Uni-knot for most of his plug casting techniques.
Soft plastics are the staple for numbers from the depths and drop shot rigs are perhaps the most effective. He and fellow pit guide Don Hutson, utilize a split shot, #1 or 1/0 stand out hook and a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce drop shot sinker for the light rig with a “finesse” or “trick” worm in watermelon, June bug or natural colors. Both guides go to a wide-gap 4/0 to 6/0 offset hook for most other soft plastic rigs (Texas or Carolina) with a 1/4-ounce, tungsten bullet weight to help it reach the bass concentrations.
Promise Ranch Lake, like most man-dug waters is usually fishable even in high winds, according to Schirra. Even when fishing the brush piles on the leeward points, the deeper running cranks or soft plastic bottom scrapers are effective. When casting to the bank, most strikes occur between 5- to 10-feet off the bank which is where the quickest drop occurs off of the shoreline shelf, according to the guide. If you don’t get the strike there right after the lure lands, then the next strike will be when it falls or dives to 25- or 30-feet.
“Smaller fish hang along the sides of the walls and the bigger fish ambush the walls,” says Schirra. “With the clarity of the water, the big fish can see the lure or bait 30-feet away and easily come right to it. If it is in the vicinity of the big bass, she will come eat if interested. We almost always get a fish over 5 pounds, and one memorable day we caught only 12 bass, a low catch rate but they were all trophy size. They ranged from 7- to 11-pounds.”
Trophy-Producing Live Bait Drifting
While most of the Promise Ranch Lake bass are caught on artificial lures, many of those giants are often caught on live bait. Like most Florida pits, the predominate forage is threadfin shad, bluegill, crayfish, shiners, grass shrimp, or small speckled perch (crappie). Bluegill or wild shiners are often caught directly from the lake using small #4 Kahle hooks and bread balls prior to the fishing trip.
“Our “Bream-rig” for forage fish is a 5/0 live bait hook and pegged 1/2-ounce bullet weight,” says Schirra. “We then free-line the live bait off a 7-foot 6-inch medium- heavy rod with 4000-size bait runner reel behind the boat. We leave it out there as we work along the various arms of the pit.
“The live bait bite is always good when you have cloud cover and some wind because the water is so clear,” he continues. “Bluebird sky and no wind usually equals a bad day of fishing in the clear water pits. If you can locate the right depth of the concentrations of bass along the walls in the lake at depths between 5- and 40-feet, you should have a great day.”
Where to Find Florida’s Man-Dug Waters
Anglers who want to check out some of the waters that offer submerged humps, brush, bars and points with deep, relatively-clear water and large gradients should explore one of several man-dug impoundments scattered around Central Florida. Here are your best bets:
Promise Ranch Lake near Howey-In-the-Hills is a private pit that is available to fish via their head guide or through reservations made at the closest accommodations, Mission Inn Resort. The 350-acre rock quarry with 10 miles of shoreline and an irregular bottom is almost always clear and fishable from one of the Ranch’s boats. For more information or bookings, phone Capt. Schirra McDaniel at (352) 636-0197 or contact Mission Inn Resort at (800) 874-9053.
Tenoroc Fish Management Area located north of Lakeland is a 7,300-acre bass fishing area created from former phosphate mining lands. It has a series of 24 lakes that range in size from 7 to 227 acres and vary in depth and clarity. Some are “un-reclaimed” with steep banks and brush-covered shorelines, while others are “reclaimed” with gently sloping shorelines vegetated with cattail and bulrush. Call (863) 499-2422 for permit and additional information.
Edward Medard Park Reservoir is a 770-acre reclaimed phosphate mine located east of Brandon, one mile south of SR 60 on Turkey Creek Road. The catch and release Medard Reservoir has an extensive, irregular shoreline and topography with depths ranging from 9 to 33 feet. For more information on the special bass length and bag limit regulations contact Turkey Creek Bait and Tackle at (813) 737-1566.
Hardee Lakes Park Fish Management Area located west of Fort Green off Ollie Roberts Road includes four reclaimed phosphate lakes that vary from 47 to 120 acres. They are extremely fertile with irregular bottoms and a near shore area of bulrush and pickerelweed. The fisheries are controlled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, but check with the Hardee Lakes Parks office at (863) 767-1100 for rules and regs.
Saddle Creek Fish Management Area is 321 areas of pits between Lakeland and Auburndale off U.S. Route 92 that were converted from phosphate mining operations. There are a number of public boat ramps on Saddle Creek Park Road, which runs through the middle of the park. An abundance of bank fishing makes this a unique Fish Management Area.
Webb Lake is a man-made 395-acre water body located on the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area 9 miles south of Punta Gorda. It is 1 1/2 miles in length with a series of lagoons extending laterally from the 30-foot wide, 10-foot deep main channel. Three Marl Ponds, each 2 acres are located off Tuckers Grade Road. A Daily Use Permit is required for fishing Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area.