In addition to its well-known amusement parks, shopping and restaurants, Kissimmee bass fishing offers some awesome action.
By Ian Nance
Running a finger along a map south from Jacksonville down the St. Johns and Kissimmee rivers into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades traces the hydrological spine of Florida, and identifies the backbone of the state's trophy largemouth bass fishery.
Smack dab in the middle of this route is the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, where anglers enjoy excellent bass fishing as the months change from spring to summer. While plenty are capable of churning out lunker largemouth throughout the year, hooking up with a trophy through June is dependent upon adapting to changing conditions, both seasonal and manmade.
The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes (KCOL) is generally considered by anglers to be West Lake Tohopekaliga, Lake Cypress, Lake Hatchineha and Lake Kissimmee, but the surrounding watershed includes more than two-dozen lakes, numerous tributary streams and the Kissimmee River. This region is the headwaters for the Everglades system. Here, bass is king, though bluegill, shellcracker and black crappie are sought after, too. The primary lakes are large and filled with mats of vegetation and grassy islands that provide food and safe harbor for bass, if not for the outboard motors upon which many bass fishermen rely. Fishing camps and other lodgings cater to travelers, many sites appearing relatively unaffected by time. But, as has the entire state, the KCOL area has witnessed plenty of change over the last 60 years.
Jim Sweatman is the Fish Orlando Project Leader with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission's Northeast Region Freshwater Fisheries Management Division. He worked as a fisheries biologist on KCOL from 1992 to 1998 and has studied this change both professionally and as a fisherman.
"Prior to flood control instituted in the late 1960s, these four lakes fluctuated as much as 12 feet," Sweatman said. "The extreme high water flooded wetlands — producing baitfish — stranded mud mats and shaded out nuisance native vegetation. The extreme low water dried up the muck associated with decayed aquatic vegetation. The end result was balanced native vegetation, hard-sand bottoms and abundant fisheries and wildlife."
However, since flood control has been in effect, the lakes only fluctuate 3 feet, which has hurt aquatic habitat and resulted in excessive vegetation and muck accumulation. Fortunately, habitat management — reducing nuisance vegetation and removing muck — has helped the area maintain world-class bass fishing. Keeping open water balanced with hydrilla beds has been key to continued success in the flood control era. As development on Toho continues to reduce historic wetlands that no longer flood due to restricted lake highs, it is important to develop watershed projects to address water quality issues."
Such projects require cooperation with governmental entities on both local and state levels. The South Florida Water Management District is the lead agency coordinating a multi-partner effort to improve the health and sustainability of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) works with local counties to create community fishing opportunities on several lakes designated as fish management areas.
Crappie, Panfish & More
Bass aren't the only game in town. The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes is well regarded for its panfish and crappie fishing, too. In fact, the FWC has identified Lake Kissimmee and West Lake Tohopekalia as top destinations for 2017.
For Lake Kissimmee, the FWC suggests drifting minnows in open water near the mouth of the C-37 canal, the north end of North Cove, between Brahma and Bird Islands, and around channel markers 7 and 8. On Toho, they say good numbers of fish are caught by drifting minnows in open water between Makinson and Paradise Islands, the mouth of Shingle Creek and around channel marker 24.
Shellcraker and bluegill are popular draws throughout the year, and the entire chain lends itself to quality panfishing. FWC reports successful Lake Kissimmee anglers fish Brahma and Grassy Islands and shoreline areas at 27-Palms, Jackson Slough, Philadelphia Point and Lake Kissimmee State Park.
Historically, mid-February to late April is prime time for shellcracker fishing on Lake Kissimmee, while the warmer months (May-September) are ideal for bluegill. This is true, too, for Toho where Browns Point, the mouth of Goblet's Cove, South Steer Beach and the eastern shore of Makinson Island are hot spots. Locals suggest using crickets for bluegill and earthworms or red wigglers for shellcracker.
The daily bag limit for panfish — including bluegill and shellcracker — is 50 fish, while black crappie anglers can keep 25 fish. No person shall be in possession of more than a two days bag limit of freshwater game fish. Visit myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/regulations/ to learn about licensing requirements and other regulations. — Ian Nance
Mitigating the effects of nuisance vegetation and urbanization around KCOL is one macro-challenge but as a vital resource that generates needed revenue to surrounding communities, FWC pays close attention to the health of the bass population and adjusts management practices as required.
"Electrofishing and fishermen surveys are conducted annually on Lake Toho and Kissimmee in order for our biologists to stay connected to the latest status of the Kissimmee Chain bass fishery," said Sweatman. "Equally important are tournament results and reports from guides. Just recently (July 1, 2016) we changed our statewide bass regulation to a five-fish bag limit less than 16 inches, of which one may be 16 inches or greater. The goal of the new regulation is to increase quality by allowing anglers to harvest bass from the population surplus thus protecting the bigger females for the sport fishery."
From an angling standpoint, summer bass fishing is a different game than the prior months when bass were spawning and bedding. The rising temperatures and water-level fluctuations dictate where the fish will be feeding.
"The bass will primarily be in the very outside edges of the emergent Kissimmee grass, as well as in the open water shell beds and hydrilla," said Sweatman. "This is due to two factors — high water temperatures and low water levels. Our summer temperatures (air temps in the high 90s with lows in the 70s) almost always kick in by June, and water surface temperatures start to climb into high 80s. Additionally, the lakes are drawn down in March/May to get them to their lowest point of the flood control schedule by June."
Sweatman says that in regard to June fishing patterns, Carolina- and Texas-rigged plastics are great for probing open-water shell beds and hydrilla. Also, topwaters in early mornings or late evening are good, as are flipping craws when the sun in high. If there is some wind and cloud cover, June is a great time to throw willow-leaf spinnerbaits or crankbaits.
Anglers should also look for schooling activity in the early morning, particularly around the tip of Little Grassy, Lanier Point and Browns Point on West Lake Tohopekalia. Schooling fish are primarily feeding on threadfin shad. Fish in the grass edges, open-water shell beds and hydrilla.
Lee Cepero is the host of Trophy Taker Outdoors TV and Radio, heard on 102.5 "The Bone" Saturday mornings from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. out of Tampa. Cepero has fished B.A.S.S, FLW Professional Circuit, the Florida Bass Federation and several Florida-based bass fishing tours, and is very familiar with the difficulties Kissimmee can present to summer bass anglers.
"Fishing on the Kissimmee Chain always has its challenges — finding fish anytime of the year can be challenging, but even more so with post-spawn and the beginning of those hot summer days," said Cepero. "As a former pro bass angler and having fished Kissimmee for over 25 years, I've seen many changes year to year on the lake. It seems like every year my fishing spots never look the same due to water fluctuation and non-native vegetation control. The lake changes different areas dramatically. This just means you're going to have to do a little searching and come up with a strategic plan."
According to Cepero, coming up with a plan requires working backwards from the tactics that brought fish boat side just a few months prior. He recommends looking for bedding areas as a place to start, as some males are still protecting fry. After hitting the beds, move deeper, about 3 to 6 feet, which provides fish the option to feed shallow and move deeper as the day gets hotter.
As for baits and lures of choice, Cepero suggests tapping into a weakness by playing right into what makes bass such a fun fish to catch.
"Bass are predatory fish and typically if you put a fast moving bait by them, you're going to get a reaction bite," Cepero said. "In order to get a reaction bite, you will need to use a reaction bait such as swimbaits, topwater plugs or crankbaits — these are lures that get the fish to bite when the fishing gets really tough. You can never go wrong with a topwater bait. One of my favorites is a hollow body frog. The great thing about this lure is the reaction bite it creates. The bait stays in the strike zone longer, is weed-less, and big fish love it."
However, these lakes are immense and not every promising location holds fish. Successful anglers have learned not to loiter too long on unproductive areas.
Cepero looks for Kissimmee grass and hydrilla in about 3 to 6 feet of clean water, working baits in boats cuts and pockets in the grass.
While bass fishing the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes during June is more of a crapshoot than the prime late winter and spring months, there's little questioning the area's productivity. The population of bass remains high despite changes to the ecosystems. Of course, situated within easy driving distance to millions of Florida fishermen, this area, with continued foresight in resource and watershed management, will long be a popular destination for bass fanatics.