April 23, 2021
Florida's Lake George has long been a destination for anglers looking to match wits with big largemouths. The giant lake on the St. Johns River is infinitely bio-diverse, though 2017's Hurricane Irma dramatically changed the way it fishes. All the same, Lake George still produces large numbers of bass, as well as a few wall hangers, for anglers in the know.
Bordering the Ocala National Forest in the north-central part of Florida, Lake George offers bass fishermen some of the Sunshine State's most productive springtime angling. The shallow, 46,000-acre lake is the second-largest in the state and has an average depth of only 8 feet. The lake has about 50 miles of shoreline, two islands (Drayton and Hog) on the north end and a St. Johns River inlet (south end) and outlet (north end).
There are also three major cool-water spring runs (inlets) located just off Lake George's west side: the 9-mile-long Juniper, the half-mile-long Silver Glen and the 5-mile-long Salt Springs. The big lake features extensive shallow-water flats with relatively clear waters that stretch for miles. The vegetation in the lake was extremely dense prior to September of 2017 when Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, moved up the Florida peninsula.
Although Irma had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it powered through central Florida, it did considerable damage to the aquatic vegetation infrastructure of Lake George.
A lot of the aquatic plant communities were devastated, and the bottom soil was substantially stirred up, which affected much of the root structure and inhibited growth for the following year or two. The lake's forage and largemouth are still there, but successful anglers now focus on the manmade wood structures and small depth changes.
Lake George consistently rates as one of the state's top waters, and has yielded numerous giant largemouths between 10 and 14 pounds, according to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Trophy bass are often caught in the spring months when the biggest ones move shallow to spawn, but to be successful, anglers have to know where to find them given all of the structure and water flow.
Largemouths in George are now mostly found around manmade structure, including pilings, piers, canals, fence posts and a few artificial reefs. There are even circular clusters of pilings in the middle of the 5-mile-wide lake that pull double-duty as aids for a military bombing range and fish "attractors."
Fishing is allowed around these bomb targets, as live munitions are seldom dropped, but planes wanting to use the targets let anglers know.
In the summer, pilings and piers can hold bass for a couple of hours or forever, depending on the availability of food and deep water, says Welaka, Fla., guide Fred Chivington, who has been guiding bass fisherman on Lake George and the St. Johns River for 49 years. His clients often catch and release 30 largemouths in a day, with opportunities for a trophy fish or two.
According to Chivington, structure is the key to Lake George largemouths, even in just 3 to 4 feet of water.
"I'm almost always fishing structure of some kind, such as blowdowns or submerged timber along the banks with current," he says. "The docks, pilings and jetties can all be productive to fish in an outgoing tide, but they can be difficult places to fish, too. If the bass are current-oriented and the tide goes slack, I'll either wait for it to move again or head for docks in the back of a cove where the largemouths are less reliant on currents as they are away from moving water.
"Bass move like a wolf pack, up and down a set of pilings or jetties," Chivington continues. "In 15 minutes, you may catch a bunch of bass, or not. Some will move on and return later, and if you are catching them on a flat, the school might follow the activity closer to the boat."
Schoolers averaging 2 to 3 pounds can be found in the less-vegetated waters on the north end of the lake around Drayton and Hog Islands, and in deeper cuts like the inlet, outlet and the dredged navigation channel. One of Chivington's favorite areas is near Beecher Point on the north end of Little Lake George, which lies just north of the big lake.
The two waters are actually part of a chain of lakes connected by the northward-flowing St. Johns River, and both are affected by daily tidal effects.
The lake's vegetation is slowly coming back, and anglers may soon see eelgrass, water hyacinth, coontail, lily pads (spatterdock), hydrilla and bulrushes that typically yield good numbers of bass in the spring. Reeds and bulrush patches along the bars and near shore are very productive cover right now for those chasing big fish.
Some of Lake George's most prime locations around the lake include Black Point; the east side of Hog Island; the docks and pilings near Georgetown; the Drayton Island docks, pilings and boat trails; and the flat on the south side of Rocky Point.
Other productive areas are the navigation channel jetty at the mouth of the lake (mid-week when the lake is not busy with personal watercrafts and pleasure boats), shoreline pilings off Nine Mile Point and the flat at Willow Point. Bass also hang out around the mouth of all three spring runs in the early spring.
The most popular lures on Lake George year-round are soft-plastic worms around 7 inches long.
Scented worm baits (like Berkley Powerbait Power Worms) are usually Texas-rigged with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce slip sinkers for fishing around structure such as pilings, jetties and docks and down drop-offs in semi-open water during the late spring. If the largemouth are still spawning in March, shorter grubs, crayfish replicas and tube baits are effective around the beds. Forage-hued plastics are productive in the semi-open waters.
In dense piling structures, wacky-rigged soft plastics in purple/blue, black/blue or green pumpkin, as well as hard-plastic topwater plugs (think chuggers) and minnow baits that mimic forage are all effective. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and weedless spoons worked around the pilings will also net strikes.
Many anglers fish wild river shiners on the Lake George flats during the spring. They can be very effective when bass are spawning or just afterwards. In fact, when I first moved to central Florida many, many years ago, my first venture to this lake for giant largemouths was to a popular fish camp resort at the time, Jungle Den. I went out on the lake with a local guide and used giant shiners to catch three big bass that day. Two were just under 10 pounds and were my largest ever at the time.
Plenty of local guides still use giant shiners for the monsters that inhabit the expansive shallows in the lake, while others may employ small live panfish or other forage fish. They either fish the baits under a bobber, slow-troll them or free-line them in a drift.
Other anglers sometime go to more unique live baits such as crustaceans, salamanders or frogs. Some, like Chivington, opt for a unique, coastal type of bait with a salty twist.
Starting in May and continuing through September, the annual white shrimp spawning runs from the Atlantic occur from about Racy Point on the St. Johns River southward to the town of Astor, which lies just south of Lake George.
In August, there will be numerous boats cast-netting the prime live baits, which average 3 to 5 inches in length, and are a favorite of the lake's bass. Chivington is an expert at using big, lively shrimp on spinning gear to catch fish around the numerous pilings.
The guide rigs his shrimp on a 1/0 straight-shank "J" hook with a split shot below a sliding float, and tosses it toward pilings just 15 to 20 feet away from his boat. On a recent June trip with the 67-year-old guide, a friend and I managed to catch 29 bass from the Lake George flats. All exceeded 12 inches, and five of them measured 16 to 19 inches in length. Chivington's largest bass taken on a live shrimp with relatively light tackle weighed 10 1/2 pounds.
There are several other sportfish in the lake that anglers often catch, such as hybrid striped bass, striped bass and panfish. Lake George and the St. Johns River system are the southernmost range of striped bass in the country. In 1970, supplemental striped bass stocking began on the north end of the lake at Welaka; just 11 years later, hybrid stockings started.
In spring, stripers are found at the jetties and the bombing range pilings in the middle of the lake. Later, cool water from the springs (Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs and Juniper Springs) attract stripers and hybrids. A shrimp-tipped Road Runner or Mr. Crappie Slab Daddy jig are deadly on small hybrids and panfish.
"Hybrids can be caught faster than bass when you find a school," says Chivington. "They will also go after dead shrimp or pieces of shrimp. Largemouths primarily want to eat a live bait, but a variety of other fish will also go after cut shrimp, especially if you chum the water a little with pieces of shrimp."
There are several public boat ramps on the lake, including the Georgetown ramp off Highway 17 and the Drayton Island Ferry Road on the north end, the Nine Mile Point ramp off Highway 3 on the southeast side and the Jetty Ramp on the southwest side off Highway 40 and Blue Creek Lodge Road. Perhaps the best ramp is a private Salt Springs Campground pay ramp on the northwest side off Highway 19.
Top guides in the area include Capt. Bob Stonewater (386-717-6289) and Capt. Fred Chivington (386-329-3159). Accommodations on or near the lake are mostly rustic and include Georgetown Marina, Lodge & RV Park (866-325-2003), Elite Resorts at Salt Springs (352-685-1900) and Astor Bridge Motel & Marina (386-749-4407).