Frigid conditions have been seen all the way to the Gulf Coast this winter, but it's not too early to think about spring bass fishing. Maybe it's time to plan a Florida bass fishing trip.
By Ian Nance
Spring is one of the best times to target trophy bass — those large, breeding females trying to continue the species. And luckily, the Sunshine State has a lot of areas where anglers can pursue those fish.
"Spring is one of the best times of the year to target bass because the majority of the population is up shallow to spawn," said Trevor Fitzgerald, professional bass angler and owner of Fitzgerald Rods. "This makes them easier to target, and they're more aggressive as they guard their nests."
Indeed, bass rule Florida's lakes, ponds and other waterways during spring. From meandering deep-woods rivers to residential golf course water hazards, bass are accessible and eager to strike. For anglers chasing that catch of a lifetime, this is also the time to hook into trophies, typically large, breeding females.
Florida's freshwater fisheries comprise 3 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and approximately 12,000 miles of fishable rivers, streams and canals, all teeming with the most popular gamefish in North America.
Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and the second largest within the United States. It supports a nationally recognized bass fishery popular with tournament and recreational anglers alike. The relatively shallow features of the lake combined with an array of vegetation, such as bulrush, peppergrass, eelgrass and hydrilla, produces large amounts of prey species, as well as cover for spawning bass.
According to Amber Nabors, Communications and Marketing manager for the Florida Wildlife Commission's Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, 86 largemouth bass weighing 8 pounds or heavier had been approved by the TrophyCatch program for the year by August 2017, with six of those weighing more than 10 pounds.
The heaviest TrophyCatch on Okeechobee during that time was an 11-pound, 12-ounce largemouth caught by Ronnie Critcheloe on March 18, 2017. The better spring fishing occurs from the north end of the river near the outflow of the Kissimmee River west and south past Moore Haven and Clewiston.
Okeechobee is also ground zero for trophy bass fishing with shiners. This might not be everyone's bag, but there's no arguing with success.
Back in 1968, the Army Corps of Engineers was in the midst of developing the politically doomed Cross Florida Barge Canal to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean for a faster, safer shipping route. As part of this project, the Rodman Reservoir was created after the Corps had trampled down the forest and flooded the area to assist in navigation.
Fifty years later, what remains is 9,500 acres of dynamite bass fishing. Much of the fishery's success is attributed to abundant habitat in the form of flooded woodlands, remnant tree stumps and submersed aquatic vegetation. The lake's water level is reduced every three to four years for habitat management.
The Heaviest TrophyCatch on Rodman in 2017 was an 11-pound, 12-ounce largemouth caught by Dale Webb on March 5th, and two bass over 13 pounds have been recorded by this program since it began.
As the bass are spawning, seek shallow areas with submerged vegetation and cover. Portions of Rodman — the canal and river channel in particular — have water depths up to 30 feet deep and won't bring much luck this time of year.
HARRIS CHAIN OF LAKES
The Harris Chain of Lakes — generally considered to be lakes Eustis, Dora, Griffin, Yale, Carlton, Harris and Little Lake Harris — is situated in the middle of the peninsula. These lakes attract all manners of freshwater recreation, but they are a hotbed for bass fishing when fish are bedding.
As one might expect, these lakes differ in water clarity, amount of vegetation, depth and waterfront development. Lake Harris is the deepest with more development, while Lake Griffin is shallowest with the least amount of homes. The vegetation consists of Kissimmee Grass, peppergrass, lily pads and cattails. In the late '80s, the bass fishing crashed with the introduction of grass carp and herbicides to fight hydrilla. Through careful management, the fish have returned, and the Harris Chain is a popular tournament venue.
Settled between so many Lake County communities, access is plentiful. Fishing around docks, canals and shoreline cover is the most productive spring method. Little Lake Harris is known for producing trophy bass year 'round.
Lake Istokpoga in Highlands County has one of the highest largemouth bass catch rates in the state. The diverse aquatic vegetation includes spadderdock, bulrush, cattail and pondweed. The Kissimmee grass around the entrance of the Istokpoga Canal is reportedly productive when there is flow into the canal. This area is popular with shore-bound anglers. The grassy island areas produce bass year 'round. Wade fishing off the Cow House Road boat ramp is another possibility.
As of June 2017, there have been 372 TrophyCatch submissions of bass larger than 8 pounds since the program was launched, with 303 fish entered into the Lunker Club and 69 into Trophy Club, including Deborah Hanson's 10-pound, 6-ounce catch that was the cover image for the 2016 Freshwater Fishing Regulations Summary booklet.
Another popular tournament lake, Istokpoga is rife with access points, marinas and fish camps to accommodate traveling anglers seeking action removed from civilization.
FWC has conducted extensive supplemental bass stocking in Lake Talquin from 2000 to present. Biologists have collected bass in excess of 12 pounds, with the heaviest bass registered with TrophyCatch in 2017 being a 12-pound, 10-ounce largemouth bass caught by James Johns on April 29.
With depths up to 40 feet in some places, Lake Talquin, a reservoir located west of Tallahassee, is deep compared to other Florida lakes, but represents one of the better opportunities in the Panhandle for quality bass. Aquatic vegetation is relatively scarce, so anglers work the shallower shorelines around submerged logs, grass patches, treestumps and other cover. Plying the creek mouths around the lake is also a popular tactic.
For those seeking a mixed bag and a unique fishing opportunity, Lake Talquin is also stocked with striped bass. Though they can be caught year 'round, February, March and April are considered the best months for stripers.
THE STICK MARSH
Those looking for a wild place to bass fish this spring should consider the 6,500-acre St. Johns Water Management Area, also known as The Stick Marsh, in Indian River County.
For bass anglers, the shallow depths and strict catch-and-release rules make the Stick Marsh a top-draw for trophies. The Heaviest TrophyCatch in 2017 was a 10-pound, 1-ounce largemouth caught by Harry Wayne Klekamp Jr. on March 25. Anglers work around vegetation, woody structures and other debris but also around water control structures when they produce currents.
The Stick Marsh has its drawbacks, though. For one, the catch-and-release policy won't fill coolers. Next, it's named the Stick Marsh for a reason. Anglers should pay heed to submerged and floating timber throughout the impoundment. Additionally, protected birds utilize certain islands on the north end for roosts and nesting. These are closed year 'round, and an in-water buffer is closed seasonally to protect nesting birds.
KISSIMMEE CHAIN OF LAKES
The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes could be considered the spine of bass fishing in Florida, with numerous lakes, from Cypress Lake in the north to Lake Kissimmee in the south, which forms the headwaters of the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades system. Without a doubt, this area is loaded with bass fishing opportunities.
The heaviest bass approved in TrophyCatch in 2017 from Lake Kissimmee was a 13-pound, 3-ounce Hall of Fame Bass caught on February 13, while Lake Toho produced a 11-pound, 6-ounce bass on Feb. 24, 2017. Both lakes are well-known tournament destinations. Hatchineha is another popular go-to within the Chain.
As with other locations in central Florida, focusing on shallow water vegetation, such as hydrilla and Kissimmee grass is the ticket to finding fish. Being such a vital watershed, KCOL is extensively managed. Millions are spent on reducing exotic vegetation, removing muck and hydrilla management. Electrofishing and anglers surveys are conducted annually on Lake Toho and Kissimmee to monitor the health of the bass fishery.
CONSERVATION AREAS 2 & 3
In terms of sheer size, it's hard to look past Water Conservation areas 2 & 3, logging in at 210 and 915 square-miles of south Florida, respectively. These WCAs, designated to receive and store flood waters, are considered north Everglades habitat and managed by FWC for multiple uses.
The best fishing occurs during periods of low water levels, typically winter and spring. This forces bass out of the marshes and into surrounding canals. This concentration of fish leads to some of the highest catch rates in the state. When water levels are higher, anglers enjoy a flats fishing-like experience across the marshes.
The majority of fishing in WCA-2 takes place within the L-35B and L-38E canals, which are each approximately 12 miles long. The main access is through the Sawgrass Recreation Area. Holiday Park is the primary access point for the major canals within WCA-3, though bank fishermen do well along the Tamiami Trail.
With this much room to roam, and a wide selection of other freshwater species willing to pop an artificial, this is another wild region in Florida to explore with a rod.
Now one of the best places to learn about freshwater fishing in Florida is at www.myfwc.com, including regulations, bag limits and size limits, as some areas, such as The Stick Marsh, have different rules. Also, while anglers can typically keep one fish over 16 inches, this doesn't mean that it should be done. Spawning females are best released regardless of size.
Also, anglers participating in FWC's TrophyCatch program, who are in compliance with TrophyCatch rules and fish handling guidelines, may be in temporary possession of one bass 13 pounds or greater over the legal length limit and bag limit while waiting for FWC staff certification. The fish must then be released in the water body where it was caught.
Outstanding replica mounts have long-replaced the skin-and-scales taxidermy of times past. Take measurements and take pictures, and release with care to Florida's outstanding bass fishery endures for generations to come.
Lures To Consider
As spring bass protecting nests aren't as picky as during other times of the year, folks can get away with a lot; however, variables, such as weather, water clarity and habitat, often dictate the most effective offerings.
"I like to use a jig a lot when fishing this time of the year," said Trevor Fitzgerald, pro angler. "I will swim a 1/2-ounce Texas Jig by Fitzgerald Fishing in junebug color. I also like to flip/pitch a 3/4-ounce or 1-ounce MEGA JIG to shallow cover."
The goal of using any lure during the spring is to attract a reaction strike when working it near bedding bass. When fishing heavy vegetation, braided line and stiff rods help pull bass out of the thick weeds without breaking off.
And, of course, plenty are brought boatside each year with simple rubber worm or soft-plastic rigs, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits and crankbaits.