Scarce Fishing Stories…But Plenty of Fish

African Pompano

For the second straight week, good current fishing stories were so scarce I didn’t know how I would fill this space.  So, scrambling for interesting content, I used part of my day off Wednesday to try and scrape up a fishing tale on my own.  After running errands all morning, I launched my Ranger onto Newnan’s Lake at Power’s Park.

I checked my favorite bassing spots, working areas that have produced through the years.  But after two hours, I had zero bites and was telling myself “maybe this is why I’m not hearing any stories”.  My shirt was soaked with sweat.  But I pressed on in the heat and finally, running in open water, came across an area with shad schools pushing dimples in the water.  I sat the old Ranger down and put down the trolling motor.  The shad seemed to be widespread, and in a few minutes I saw the thing I was hoping to see…a couple of fish busting panicked minnows at the surface.  But the bass wouldn’t take just anything.  A bunch of casts with several different lures had produced just one ‘follow’—when the day finally took a turn for the better.

Jeff Septer of Twin Lakes Fish Camp called with the first really good panfish report of the week.  One of his customers, Kelvin Toombs of Gainesville had just docked at his Cross Creek camp with a fine cooler-full limit of big bluegills and shellcrackers.  The Gainesville angler had found his fish cane-poling with grass shrimp in the Lochloosa Lily pads.  I told Jeff where I was and he asked how many I’d caught…had to reply, “none, but I’ll figure ‘em out”.   And just a minute after hanging up, a Bill Lewis Tiny Trap finally produced the first bass of the day.  Yearling largemouths kept rounding up the shad, and I kept casting the little lure with success.  For quite a while, almost every cast yielded either a ‘swipe’ or a catch.  The little bass ran between one and three pounds.  Only one other boat was in the area, and the two fishermen in it looked to be pulling in panfish of some kind at a nice pace.  Except for the swelter, it was sure fun…until a thunderstorm ran me back to the boat ramp.

My bassing trip was pretty good, but it didn’t hold a candle to the day some of the Gainesville Bassmasters enjoyed Saturday during their monthly tournament.  This one was out of Palatka on The St. John’s River.

Casting Texas-rigged Zoom worms around boat docks, Wally Grant and Gary Lough employed a classic shrimp-run bassing pattern.  Although they saw no jumping shrimp—or anyone cast-netting for shrimp—the pattern worked well as the men combined to boat a good many fish.  Their six best (the club limit is three each) weighed in at just a tad under 20-pounds.  Grant’s 6.8-pound beauty easily ranked as the heaviest single bass of the day.   Atop the club standings, Keith Chapman made the run upriver to Little Lake George to finish the day in second place individually and easily hold his overall lead.

In July, we usually receive more good reports from salt waters than from freshwater.  This wet summer has altered that a bit.  Even so, some salty anglers are faring well.  Out of Cedar Key on Monday, Sean Campbell, Joey Gonzalez, and Rick Pena went after trout and redfish.  Fishing near Seahorse Key, the Gainesville trio boated five reds that all took topwater lures and seven nice-sized trout that went for hard-bodied twitch baits.

Mackerel reports have varied wildly out of Cedar Key—ranging from dozens of fish to two.  Farther offshore, weekend red snapper action remains excellent, but grouper are much tougher to locate.

The ICAST show rolls around each July to showcase every tackle manufacturer’s offerings for the coming tackle year.  For a few years now, the “International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades” has been held in Orlando, giving Florida dealers a quick trip to the biggest tackle show of the year.

It has long been said that there are no truly new ideas in fishing—only refinements.  And that might be true…but some of this year’s refinements are mighty cool.  Tackle dealers will be receiving their orders of the newest innovations in fishing gear through the coming days and weeks.


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Plenty of Fishing in July

Mid-July brings quite an interesting mixed bag for fishing locally.

There’s obviously heat and humidity enough to alter the energy with which most fishers practice their craft. Lots of folks flatly tell us they don’t fish in July or August due to the oppressive heat. Anglers both serious and tough, though, are happy to focus on the longest days, the highest tides, and the lengthened list of available saltwater species that summer brings.

On the other side of that coin you have the fish….and various species are likewise tough and not-so-tough in the heat.

Some favorites seem to be hardy enough that that they are rarely forced to seek cooler water. It’s not very out of the ordinary to actually find bass best in a foot of hot water. If the dissolved oxygen is good, the cover is adequate, and baitfish are present, Florida bassers shouldn’t be surprised to find largemouths in 90-degree shallows. The same is true with redfish in salt water. Then you have the bluegill that seem increasingly happy and active the hotter it gets. Like the salty redfish, the bream become thinner-bodied in mid-to-late summer, but they dependably congregate and feed vigorously in the shallows.
And some of Florida’s greatest fish are only present here when it’s hot. Fans of extreme sport are hooking tackle-busting tarpon and cobia that will mostly disappear when the water cools in autumn.
But other sought-after species fall on the side of those heat-avoiding anglers.
Though they obviously must feed year-round, speckled perch activity definitely declines as the summer heat builds. It is interesting, however, that following very rainy summertime periods, speck catches pick up noticeably in the resulting cooler water. We have seen this over the last month on Newnan’s Lake, where rare June and July crappie limits have become common.

Possibly the number one target of local inshore saltwater fans, the speckled trout is another heat-avoiding fish. As water temps rise, the top trout catches come from deeper and deeper grass flats. Most trout fishers focus on grass flats in three-to-six feet of water. But for a few weeks now, some of the best gulf trout-catching tales have come from a twelve-foot-plus deep zone of mixed sand and grass off Suwannee known as ‘Spotty Bottom’.

You might need to switch your target species—and your fish of choice might not be where you caught them last spring…but the hottest part of summer does offer the angler excellent opportunities.

A very large number of people enjoy fishing occasionally and would love to introduce their children to the sport—but they have no good places to go and no fishing equipment.
Here in Gainesville, we are fortunate to have an exceptionally nice answer to that problem. One Saturday each month, the Fishing for Success program presents a Family Fishing Day at the University of Florida’s IFAS Millhopper ponds (7922 NW 71 Street). This Saturday, July 15, is one of those very popular Family Fishing Days.

Each event this year has attracted between 200 and 500 people, and from 6,000 to 8,000 children and their adult chaperones participate annually.

Between 8 a.m. and noon, the FFS folks will make six ponds stocked with bass, channel catfish, and bluegill available to the public. To boot, they offer loaner poles and prepared, bagged bait (but participants are welcome to bring their own tackle and bait). There’s no need to RSVP for the morning of fun, family-oriented fishing—just stop by the registration desk when you arrive Saturday morning. Participants are asked to leave their pets at home and, if possible, to bring empty aluminum cans and printer cartridges to donate. Fishing for Success recycles these, ultimately turning them into bait and tackle.

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Positive Summertime Changes

By Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons

In fishing, things change fast. Not only might the fish change mood in an instant—their habitat can also shift greatly in short order.

For instance, Gainesville’s closest major water body, Newnan’s Lake, has gone from inaccessibly-low to downright high in just five weeks.

In lakes that had been previously low, fish usually love new water…and all the new water has brought the best Newnan’s fishing of the year….even though July should be far from the best fishing month here.

Around noon on Friday, Mark Geiger stopped by the store. He had just left Newnan’s, after using the newly-risen lake as testing grounds for his boat and outboard ahead of a planned scalloping trip. While he was running his engine, Geiger stopped off Palm Point to troll minnows and Hal Fly jigs for a bit. He caught a speckled perch. Then another.

The short ‘dry run’ had gone well. Geiger’s boat ran fine…plus, he boated 20 nice Newnan’s Lake specks.

But nobody has had better luck with the specks than Willie Watson of Newberry. Last Thursday, Watson caught a nice 14-inch Newnan’s Lake slab while trolling a jig/minnow combination on the lake’s north end. This is nothing unusual for Watson, but this fish was toting an FWC reward tag worth $100. And actually, this is nothing new for Watson, either. “That was my fifth hundred-dollar tag in the last two years”, he explained. “Three of the specks came from Newnans, and I caught the other two on Lochloosa”.

Specks aren’t the only fish biting following the water’s rise.

Marvin Cannon and Larry Fogarty fished Newnan’s on Sunday. The Gainesville men boated up to the lake’s north end and fished earthworms and grass shrimp in lily pads. When they left the lake that afternoon, they had 30 catfish, 5 mixed bream, and one speck.
For the first time in months, Twin Lakes Fish Camp is again able to rent boats and motors. Tuesday, one of the first parties to take advantage of this filled limits of bluegills and shellcrackers while tight-lining grass shrimp amongst the Lochloosa lily pads.

Last week we relayed the story of the recent capture of two seldom-seen sailfish off Steinhatchee by the Phil Wagner party. On Saturday, Wagner’s 32-foot Contender continued its streak of unusual (nearly unique) Big Bend catches. Daybreak on first of July saw Wagner, his sons Reid and Ryan, co-workers Bryan Harrison, Scott Daniels, Rob Edmunds, and Rob’s son Owen heading offshore from Cedar Key. Their primary target was red snapper, and their goal was to fill limits in time for lunch back on the Cedar Key waterfront.

A short stop to catch bait yielded a baitwell full of pinfish and sardines. The group then headed out to a spot in water 60 feet deep that produced several hefty red snapper up to 10 pounds. While the snapper were biting, Rob hooked a fish that fought differently. Once he had the fish near the surface, the angler couldn’t believe what he thought he saw. But once aboard, he and Phil knew that they had an African Pompano. Then a little while later, another live bait produced a 3-pound yellowtail snapper.

After a few more red snapper, a clean cut-off made Wagner think that kingfish were present, so he rigged and put out an unweighted flat line. Five minutes later, Ryan was hooked up and following a fierce battle, the 7-year old had his first-ever king…and a whopper at 25 pounds.

They put the flat line back out with another live bait and after a short while, Owen was fast to another hard-pulling fish. But it was clear that this was not another king. Finally, after several minutes, 5-year-old Owen had his fish to the boat. All were amazed that it was another African Pompano…and this one was bigger than his dad’s fish. At this point, the Gainesville group ended their epic fishing day to make that Cedar Key lunch.

Inshore anglers are also scoring. Some Suwannee speckled trout fishers say they are running all the way out to Spotty Bottom to catch keeper fish. The water here is around 15 feet deep. Others, though, are still finding trout in the hot shallows. Monday, Bobby Crevasse and Dwayne Bush cast jigs in water four feet deep very near Cedar Key. In an hour and a half, the Gainesville fishermen had a double limit of trout that included a pair of 20-inchers.

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June Rains Bring Better Fishing

In fishing, many variables determine the anglers’ success or failure. Some have to do with the angler and his ability to put himself in good spots at the right times with the proper equipment.

Then there are the variables the fisher cannot control.

Among the game changers presented by weather, rain is a biggie—and usually, a positive one when it comes in reasonable amounts. Times of extended drought, on the other hand, are especially tough on local freshwater anglers. Their home lakes are shallow in the first place…and when the lakes drop just a couple or three feet, the new water level brings access trouble and often makes for poor fishing.

One month ago at what turned out to be the end of a year-long dry spell, area anglers had been forced to all-but abandon a few favorite fishing lakes. Then out of nowhere, it started raining. It seemed to rain all June long. And just that fast, the lakes that had been low are today clearer, cooler, deeper, and producing good fish.

Bassers know that run-ins and runouts created by big rains attract their favorite fish like magnets. On Lochloosa, Orange, Newnans, and Santa Fe Lakes, anglers have reported fast fishing where they’ve found moving water. Less expected have been the greatly-improved catches of speckled perch. Lochloosa and Newnans, especially, have put out very good crappie numbers over the last two weeks.

We have been keeping track of the changing water level at a Cross Creek fish camp. A month ago, the camp’s boat slips were mostly dry. Two weeks back, Jeff Septer reported the rental boats at his Twin Lakes Fish Camp were now partially surrounded by water. Last week, the water had risen a bit more. On Wednesday, Septer sounded excited. “For the first time in four months”, he said, “I actually had someone use my boat ramp today….he went out, fished the pads in Little Lochloosa with grass shrimp and picked up a good mess of bream”. Good news from the Lochloosa fish camp continued, “The creek is running well now…and we’re seeing a few boats coming through”.

Saltwater fishing is also good, and last weekend produced several notable catches from the gulf.

Friday, Shaun Abolverdi headed out from Cedar Key with son, Foster and Foster’s girlfriend, Alyssa Ashworth. Fishing sand bars near North Key with live bait, they had caught a few trout and a nice redfish when a larger fish took Alyssa’s mud minnow. She battled the powerful, fast fish for a good while before finally whipping the 36-inch snook. After a couple of pictures, the fine fish swam away.

The next day, the three fishers returned to the productive area along with Joe Ambrose. And, on this day Joe got the big bite while casting a Slayer, Inc. swimbait. Following a long fight, the young Gainesville angler boated another North Key snook—a fat 32-incher.

Two weekends ago, Jim Fleming and Myra Zeigler found abundant Spanish mackerel on Cedar Key’s famous mackerel hangout, Seahorse Reef. The Cedar Key couple took a cooler-full catch of sizable macks up to 5-pounds. Last weekend, they revisited the reef to find that ladyfish had apparently replaced the mackerel as the best-represented baitfish terrorizers. The fishers adjusted, running to a nearby area known as “The Kingfish Hole”. Trolling a Mann’s Stretch 30 on that 25-foot deep spot, Jim bagged a whopping 33-inch gag grouper.

Richard McDavid and Blake Wright ran offshore from Cedar Key Saturday. Anchored over structure in water 40 feet deep, the Lake City men dropped live baits to the bottom and quickly hauled in limits of red snapper. These were fish pushing ten pounds…considerably heftier than the typical ‘keepers’ taken so near shore. They then added a 40-inch cobia as a nice bonus.

One negative impact sometimes created by lots of rain falling in a relatively short period of time comes as darkened, stained water in the gulf’s near-shore shallows. This can adversely affect hook-and-line fishing, and when it arrives in summer, scalloping fans find it a real aggravation.

While conditions in the primary scalloping territory remain fine, darker water does seem to have clipped off its southern end near Horseshoe Beach. South of Pepperfish Keys, folks are having a hard time seeing scallops. In the fifteen or so miles of grass flats northward from Pepperfish and including Steinhatchee, water remains clear and scallop numbers are strong.

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Shallow to Deep—Gulf Waters Productive

Christopher Sessums

The month of June has produced very nicely for offshore gulf anglers. Recent years haven’t given them a lot to celebrate, but right now things are actually going the way of the salty deep water fans. Gag grouper season has opened, red snapper season is reborn.

We have heard uniformly-good reports from fishers targeting both of these favorites…..but maybe even more impressive have been crazy reports of seldom-seem species. Take for instance the fish caught by Mike English and his crew earlier this month. The anglers were slow-trolling live baits for kingfish in about a hundred feet of water off Steinhatchee when something struck and took hundreds of yards of line. They thought it must be a giant king….until it jumped. Eventually, the anglers did boat and release the big sailfish 8 feet long. And that day they also caught another scarce gulf beauty—a blackfin tuna weighing 25 pounds.

Also earlier in June, Phil and Reid Wagner, Chuck and Austin Roadley, and Joel Wilson ran to the Florida Middle Grounds in search of grouper and large red snapper. They succeeded with these, plus a few mangrove snapper up to 8-pounds. But the highlight of the trip came when they spotted something on the surface in the distance. Thinking it could be mahi-attracting flotsam, they eased over for closer inspection and were amazed to see a pair of sizable sailfish finning along. Reid and Chuck grabbed spinning rods, quickly baited up with live herrings, and pitched them to the sauntering sails. Both fish took the baits and were eventually boated and released.

Much closer to shore, the gulf shallows are alive with boats full of fishers and snorkelers. Scallop season in the gulf is a week old now, and most of the army of shellfishing fans have reported adequate water clarity and nice numbers of smallish bivalves. The most satisfied shellfish gatherers we’ve talked with have gone out of Steinhatchee.

Last week, we were pleased with the much-improved water levels of local lakes. This week, things are looking better yet. Even the neediest of our lakes are in their best shape of the 2017 year. I visited Newnans on Tuesday and had no trouble boating anywhere I wanted to. Last week, Jeff Septer reported that his rental boats at Twin Lakes Fish Camp were still largely high and dry. This week, boats at the Lochloosa/Cross Creek camp have about four more inches of water around them, and the boats are again available for rent—without engines. Septer says folks drifting open water in both Lochloosa and Orange are picking up nice catches of speckled perch.

Congratulations are in order for the Florida team that competed last week in the B.A.S.S. Nation Eastern Regional in Upper Chesapeake, Md. Of the twenty-man team consisting of ten boaters and ten no-boaters, five are area anglers. Dennis Hart of High Springs, and Ocala’s Chad Dorland and Kaleb Wagner competed as boaters, while Barry Brunges and Jimmy Keith of Gainesville and Newberry made the trip as no-boaters.

The team of twenty Florida bassers won the team aspect of the three-day contest, besting teams from 17 other eastern states. Among the locals, the highest-finishing individual was Capt. Jimmy Keith, who tallied a third-place overall co-angler finish with 29-pounds 8-ounces. Advancing to the National Championship as Florida’s top boater is Lakeland’s Kyle Fox (39-15). James Topmiller III of Orlando (32-1) will represent Florida’s co-anglers.

Now, the winning Florida team will have to figure out how to split their prize—a fully rigged Skeeter bass boat—twenty ways.

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