Florida Panhandle Bass Fishing Trifecta
February 13, 2018
While the peninsula gets more attention, these three lakes show Florida Panhandle bass fishing is just as good, if not better.
Often overshadowed by the legendary monster bass waters of central and south Florida, Panhandle lakes can also produce giant bucketmouths. Not far from the state capital, three lakes stand out for awesome bass fishing that rivals any waters in the Sunshine State.
"Lakes Seminole, Jackson and Talquin all offer anglers very good bass fishing," explained Bob DeMauro, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist. "Each one can produce some really big bass. On these lakes, spawning usually takes place from late February into April, with the peak in March. We've had good spawning conditions and good year-classes for the past few years in all three lakes."
About 45 miles northwest of Tallahassee, Lake Seminole ranked No. 7 in the Southeast on the 2017 "Bassmaster" magazine list of the Top 100 bass lakes in the nation, higher than any other Florida lake except Okeechobee. Lake Seminole covers about 37,000 acres near Chattahoochee. The lake record bass exceeds 16 pounds.
"Lake Seminole has a good population of bass 18 inches long and larger," DeMauro said. "It produces many 5- to 8-pound fish and some bigger ones. It has hydrilla throughout the lake, which tends to help bass fishing."
Accessible via the Chattahoochee River, the lake straddles the Georgia-Florida line. The Chattahoochee River forms part of the Georgia-Alabama line and feeds into Lake Seminole from the northwest. The Flint River extends northeast up through Georgia. North of the dam, the Chattahoochee River, Flint River and Spring Creek merge to create the Apalachicola River.
The lake averages about 8 feet deep, making it a shallow-water angler's paradise. Grassy patches, stumpy flats, submerged logs, woody shorelines, humps, islands and other cover create excellent bass habitat.
"The lake can produce some really big fish," said Jody Wells, (www.jodywellsguideservice.com) who guides out of Seminole Lodge Marina (seminolelodge.com). "I've heard of some 11- and 12-pounders. It's not uncommon to catch five fish that weigh 35 to 40 pounds."
The Chattahoochee River carries the most water so it usually looks more stained. Fed by underground springs, Spring Creek generally runs very clear. Not as clear as Spring Creek, Flint River normally looks less stained than the Chattahoochee.
"Spawn season is big bass time," Wells said. "People frequently sight fish for bedding bass on Lake Seminole in March. During the spawn, we might even look for bass in a foot of water. If it rains a lot, the main lake body will stain, but the backwaters of Spring Creek stay clear almost all year long."
When actively spawning or guarding young on the nests, bass don't eat much or chase baits very far. However, they might attack anything that poses a threat to eggs or fry. For tempting bedding bass, most anglers use soft-plastic creatures that mimic nest raiders.
"When sight fishing, back off from the beds and make long casts with a lizard, worm or any kind of soft bait," Wells instructed. "Twitch it a little bit and hang on. People might need to look for a little while before they find bass, but once they find fish, they should be congregated."
Besides Spring Creek, many anglers fish the Fish Pond Drain. Fish Pond Drain flows into the main channel near where the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers merge. Massive grass flats and islands near deep water offer bass access to shallow feeding flats or comfortable depths.
"Fish Pond Drain has a lot of fish in it," said Andy Koundourakis, tournament fisherman. "I've caught some bass in the 10- to 12-pound range. The Flint River has many good backwaters. Horseshoe Bend is a good spot to flip a beaver or brush hog, or throw chartreuse and black or firetiger crankbaits."
Although mostly shallow, some holes in the old river channels drop to more than 60 feet deep. As the water warms, anglers start looking for bass along the channel drops and river ledges.
"After they spawn, bass move back to where they were in the prespawn, in 6 to 8 feet of water trying to get fat off the abundant shad in the lake," Wells explained. "The river ledges are good places to fish. Through the years, the rivers deposited a lot of structure on the bottom of the ledge drop-offs."
American Indians who lived in the Florida Panhandle called it Okeeheepkee, which means "Disappearing Lake." Centuries later, Lake Jackson still periodically lives up to its name.
Lake Jackson, not to be confused with another lake in Highlands County, covers about 4,000 acres of Leon County just north of Tallahassee. About 7.5 miles long, the shallow, weedy lake sits over two huge sinkholes — Porter Sink and Lime Sink. During drought years, the aquifer lowers and the lake nearly disappears down the sinkholes.
"Lake Jackson has no stream outflow or runoff," said Katie Woodside, FWC freshwater fisheries biologist in Panama City. "Almost all the water in the lake comes from rainwater. The water goes down through the sinkholes during periods of low rainfall. It just depends upon the rainfall and the groundwater table. Because Lake Jackson periodically renews itself, that makes the bass growth rates so good."
When full, the lake averages about 7 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 30 feet deep. In the driest years, patches of water remain in the deepest holes. The cracked, dry lake bottom releases nutrients and vegetation sprouts. When the water returns, the fish population explodes to fill the new cover.
"It's really similar to how we might drawdown a lake," DeMauro said. "It doesn't disappear completely, but I've seen it come really close. Organic matter dries and consolidates. That creates better habitat for the fish when the water returns. With a new lake, spawning habitat improves. When it re-floods, the fish population takes off for a number of years."
Bass that survived the last drawdown should tip the scales at impressive weights now. Even fish spawned immediately after the water returned should stretch lines.
"Lake Jackson has always been known as a big bass lake," claimed Cliff "J. R." Mundinger with Fish Tallahassee Guide Service (www.fishtallahassee.com). "In 2016, I caught four bass exceeding 10 pounds from the lake. The biggest fish I know about since 2002 weighed nearly 13.5 pounds. I've seen fish sitting on beds that would top 15 pounds."
Shallow and weedy, Jackson grows up with thick vegetation. Filled by natural springs and rainwater, the lake remains exceedingly clear, offering anglers excellent sight-fishing opportunities.
"With such clear water, Lake Jackson tends to turn on earlier in the spring," Mundinger said. "Late February to mid-March is the time to fish Jackson. From the third week of February until April, people might catch 60 to 100 bass a day with the possibility of catching one bigger than 10 pounds."
When sight fishing, wait for the sun to rise high enough for light to penetrate the water. In early spring, many anglers fish during the afternoons so the sun can warm the waters a bit.
"We catch many bass on topwaters and by flipping creature baits with 1- to 1.5-ounce weights," Mundinger said. "Swimming a worm with a vibrating tail through the grass also works great. A topwater frog is another good bait. If I wanted to catch one big fish, I'd throw out a very large fluke or soft-plastic jerkbait that imitates a big shiner. I'd fish it around bedding areas in 3 to 5 feet of water."
If Lake Jackson typifies shallow, grassy natural Florida lakes, Lake Talquin stands apart from most of the state. Created by damming the Ochlockonee River in 1927, the lake spreads across 8,800 acres near Quincy about 20 miles west of Tallahassee.
"Lake Talquin is not a typical Florida lake," Mundinger said. "It's an impounded reservoir more like lakes found in Alabama or Georgia. It holds many big bass. In 2017, I witnessed more than a dozen 10-pounders come out of the lake."
The lake can produce bass exceeding 14 pounds. The state stocked the Florida bass subspecies into Talquin. These fish naturally grow larger and faster than northern largemouths. In addition, bass grow fat feeding upon abundant shad.
"Bass on Lakes Talquin and Jackson have better growth rates than Seminole," DeMauro stated. "On those lakes, it's not uncommon to catch 8- to 10-pound bass and some over 10 pounds. Every other year, we stock Talquin with about 75,000, 3- to 4-inch bass fingerlings, which have better survival rates than 1- to 2-inch fish. The larger fingerlings can also take advantage of the shad hatch immediately."
Deeper than most Florida lakes, Lake Talquin averages about 15 feet deep, but some holes in the old river channel plunge 40 feet. Numerous stumps, some from massive ancient cypress trees cut by loggers nearly a century ago, line the old riverbed and creek channels.
As waters warm in the spring, bass move up the channels and onto the ledges and flats looking for hard bottoms to spawn. Unlike on Lake Jackson, anglers probably won't see as many bass sitting on the beds in the deeper, darker water. Look for hard structure, such as humps, fallen trees, shell beds and similar bottom features.
"If anyone comes to Talquin without good depth finding equipment, they'll have a hard time catching bass," Mundinger advised. "Spring is the best time to fish Lake Talquin. From mid-March to mid-April, people need to fish the shallow water in the backs of the creeks and bays. Bass will key on hard structure like rocks, shell beds and stumps."
Points and sandbars that offer fish good access to both shallow and deep water make great places to start looking for bass in the spring since they move up and down the water column at that time. Anglers can also fish the drop-offs with crankbaits, spinnerbaits or soft plastics.
"It's common on Lake Talquin to sit in 25 to 30 feet of water and bring a bait across a ledge in 16 to 18 feet of water," Mundinger said. "Pay attention to where bass hit. When I find the right depth, I throw a crankbait parallel to that depth. If bass fish stop hitting a crankbait, I fish the area slowly and thoroughly with a 5/8- or 3/4-ounce jig or a Carolina rig. I might also use a Texas-rigged worm worked tight into cover."