As the mercury begins to rise, Florida bass anglers start researching locations and preparing tackle. Around this same time, their quarry begin moving toward shorelines in search of food to help sustain newly heightened metabolic rates.
Spring is on the horizon, which is one of the best times to chase a lunker. Those who plan to get in on the action need to get everything ready, as the Sunshine State has a great many locales from which to choose, some of which are expected to produce big fish, while others will consistently provide large numbers of fish on the line.
Those who are a fan of flipping and pitching through heavy vegetation should consider a trip to the 12,550 acres of Orange Lake, about 20 miles southeast of Gainesville.
Orange Lake is unique in that it maintains a strong connection to the Floridan Aquifer. During drought conditions, the aquifer forces the lake into a drawdown period. While a drawdown can make fishing conditions exceptionally challenging for a few years, once the lake returns to normal levels, it can mean a welcome increase in opportunities.
According to regional freshwater fish biologist Allen Martin of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), this boost in activity can be correlated with the aquatic vegetation re-germination cycle that occurs as a result of the drawdown.
"When water levels rise, floating plant islands called tussocks form and drift across the lake," stated Martin. "These tussocks can create an unusual set of obstacles for boaters; however, they are also known to be habitat for big bass."
Since the last drawdown took place in 2011, the fish population has had plenty of time to rebuild, with trophy fish over 10 pounds now being reported. Just keep in mind that the arrival of consistent temperatures paired with falling barometric pressure will be most conducive to the pursuit of a lunker-size bass on Orange Lake.
Another word of advice, take along a stout 7 1/2-foot flipping rod and a supply of 1- or 1 1/2-ounce weights that can break through thick surface cover since the tussocks have root systems that often hold several inches of mud bottom. Aside from flipping and pitching with heavy gear, Martin suggests working lipless crankbaits and topwater frogs around the edges of lily pads. Texas-rigged soft plastics in watermelon and June bug colors also work well.
"Boaters can launch by using the single lane ramp at Heagy Burry Park near the southwestern part of the lake," said Martin. "All boaters should also be mindful of the floating tussocks since, depending on the direction of the wind, they can make it a challenge for anglers to directly access the boat ramp."
The floating vegetation does help to step up the level of bass fishing though, so waiting for one of these tussock islands to move by isn't an entirely bad thing.
"I have a feeling that Orange Lake is going to turn on this year," Martin commented. "This lake has been through the cycles and it's due for a good year."
Another Alachua County waterway worth keeping an eye on this spring is Lochloosa Lake. Although Lochloosa and Orange are often considered to be "twins" since they are so close in proximity, the similarities between this 5,700-acre waterway and its much larger neighbor are few by comparison.
"Lochloosa Lake and Orange Lake are two vastly different fisheries," said Martin. "The predominant vegetation on Orange Lake consists of hydrilla and lily pads, whereas the Lochloosa is distinguished by moss-draped cypress trees and grass patches."
Most of Lake Lochloosa's shoreline is surrounded by the Lochloosa Wildlife Conservation Area and is primarily undeveloped. Live golden shiners or bluegill imitating-lures are some of the most effective baits when it comes to landing larger fish during the spring months. In fact, the FWC Trophy Catch Program has confirmed 15 largemouth bass catches on Lochloosa Lake between 8 and 9.9 pounds, with seven additional fish being recorded between 10 and 12.9 pounds.
There is a public boat ramp on US Highway 301, which provides boat access to the lake in the town of Lochloosa. Aside from ramp access, anglers can also fish the lake from the public pier that is located south of the town of Lochloosa on Burnt Island.
CONSERVATION AREA 3
Spring fishing in Everglades Water Conservation Area 3, specifically the L-67A Canal, is expected to provide anglers with some of the highest catch rates in the state. Those interested in consistent action, with the occasional chance at a sizable bass, should consider this south region spot.
"The key when planning your trip to the L-67A Canal is to hold out for dry conditions when water levels in the surrounding marsh areas drop," said FWC biologist John Cimbaro. "During these low-water periods, fish are forced to move into the canals in large numbers, and the high catch rates we've recorded are very water level dependent."
One helpful tip that anglers should remember is to fish both sides of the canal. Often the fish will bite differently from one side of the canal to the other depending on water flow.
Also, considering that much of the canal shoreline appears to look the same, it helps to keep an eye out for fallen trees or brush piles, and focus on those areas.
"Minnow-imitating lures are a good choice when it comes to covering a significant amount of water in order to find the fish," advised Cimbaro. "Topwater lures can also be effective, especially during the early morning or evening hours."
Shoreline access is limited, but there are two boat ramps that provide boat access to the L-67A, one on the northern end at Holiday Park and one on the south end off of Tamiami Trail.
In contrast to the dense vegetation and warm waters associated with most shallow Florida lakes, the rocky limestone shoals and cold, spring-fed waters of the Chipola River present an entirely different type of fishing experience for shoal bass. To add to the intrigue of the shoal bass, the Chipola River is the only waterway within the state of Florida where the smaller and leaner cousin to the largemouth is an endemic species.
Due to the limited range and spawning habitat of shoal bass, a catch-and-release conservation zone for this species has been established between Peacock Bridge and Johnny Boy Landing. This catch-and-release zone was implemented to protect shoal bass in a section of the river that is critical shoal bass spawning habitat. Largemouth bass are still legal for take between Peacock Bridge and Johnny Boy Landing, but fall under the five black bass daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or longer in total length. While there is no minimum length limit for largemouth bass, there is a 12-inch minimum length limit for shoal bass that are caught outside of the catch-and-release zone.
Effective spring shoal bass tactics focus primarily on medium-action tackle using 8- to 12-pound-test line. Soft plastic crawfish-imitating lures, beetle spins, jerkbaits and small crankbaits fished on monofilament or fluorocarbon line should produce bites from both shoal bass and largemouth bass. The difference between targeting shoal bass or largemouth really comes down to location. Shoal bass are found in rocky areas of moving water while largemouth bass prefer to hold near slower moving water and timber.
"When packing your tackle box for a Chipola River trip, I recommend bringing line that has a low level of visibility in order to avoid spooking the fish because the water is exceptionally clear," advised Chris Paxton, FWC fisheries administrator for the northwest region. "Try fishing the downstream sides of the limestone shoals, eddies and deep pockets. Just be cautious while fishing near the limestone shoals and snags since it's fairly easy to get hung up if you're not mindful of your line."
Spring and fall are two of the best seasons to target shoal bass since there is a limited amount of tubing and water recreation activity that takes place during these periods. In the summer, when weekend visitors take to the cool waters for respite from the Florida heat, the shoal bass are far more likely to move into deep holes away from the commotion above.
"Shoal bass also present a great fishing opportunity for fly anglers willing to work wet flies, such as woolly buggers or streamers, through the clear, cold waters," said Paxton. "If wading isn't your style, you can launch a kayak or canoe from the boat ramp off of Johnny Boy Landing Road in Calhoun County."
Those without access to a boat can partake in spring bass fishing at Suwannee Lake in Live Oak. This 63-acre man-made lake re-opened in June of 2016 after undergoing an extensive multi-stage renovation period that included deepening portions of the lake, contouring the bottom to create islands, planting native emergent vegetation and stocking Florida strain largemouth bass.
"While there aren't many big bass in the lake at this point, there are a good number of fish and we expect the lake to produce large fish once they have a few more years to grow," said biologist Allen Martin.
Since there are several shore fishing areas on Suwannee Lake, in addition to two fishing piers, it is an ideal spot for a day of fishing with the family. The lake is shallow around the edges with plenty of vegetative cover, so effective tactics include live shiners under a popping cork or casting dark-colored soft plastics, gold spinnerbaits and shiner-imitating lures toward the brush. Spinnerbaits tend to be very productive in the spring, particularly when they are slow-rolled around islands, drop-offs and areas of cover. There is also a concrete boat ramp on the lake that enables access by boat. To allow fish to grow, Suwannee has a size limit of 18 inches for largemouths
Whether anglers prefer pitching to heavy cover or slow-rolling a spinnerbait, there's a spring bass fishing spot that's available. Don't hesitate to answer by focusing efforts on the northern and southern parts of the state this year. From clear, spring-fed rivers to Everglades canal systems, anglers can be spoiled by some of the most diverse black bass fishing experiences Florida has to offer.
Webb Lake Shoreline
Bank fishing bass fans shouldn't overlook the 395-acre man-made lake on the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County. While a Daily Use Permit ($6 per vehicle) or WMA Stamp is required to gain access, the area is open to the public from 1.5 hours before sunrise to 1.5 hours after sunset. Just remember that catch-and-release is the rule for black bass on Webb Lake in order to protect the fishery. To be successful, anglers should:
- Approach shoreline areas slowly and quietly to not spook bass that may be hanging out in the shallows.
- If bringing the kids along, you may want to try fishing from the pier on the west side of the lake. There is a section of the pier that is shaded to offer respite from the sun on warm days.
- Due to the amount of vegetation around the shorelines, your most productive artificial baits during will those that are weedless. Try Texas-rigged plastic worms in June bug, watermelon, red-shad or smoke colors.
- Start by targeting shallow water. Cast parallel to the bank, and then slowly work baits toward the shore. You might be surprised to see how many fish will take your bait right near the shoreline.