Good Bass Nearby, Good Specks Nearer

florida bass fishingWhile lakes near Gainesville haven’t fully come around following the big influx of water from Irma, local bass anglers don’t have to travel very far to find biting bigmouths.  Excellent catches are coming from the Harris Chain of Lakes near Leesburg and from the St. John’s River, between Palatka and Lake George.

In Saturday’s First Annual FCCCU “King of the River” tournament out of Palatka, BASS Elite pro Terry Scroggins showed up and, along with partner Bill Counts, claimed that title.  The St. John’s locals basically took five bass weighing six pounds apiece to the weigh scales.  Their total weight of 30.27 gave them an emphatic win by a relatively large margin.  However, seven other teams also weighed fine limits of twenty pounds, plus. 

Two Saturdays ago, the Florida BASS Nation Team Championship saw outstanding catches from the Harris Chain, another top-notch bass destination.  As in many Florida fresh waters, water is moving through creeks, runouts, spillways, and drains, concentrating feeding fish in areas with the heaviest flow.  Area anglers from the Bassmasters of Gator Country competing in the tourney said they caught upwards of thirty bass during the practice and competition days.  Seventy federated teams from around the state competed in the two-day event, with the top four teams to move on to BASS Nation’s National Team Championship scheduled for later this year on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell.  And it turned out that three of those four would be teams from nearby North Florida bass clubs.  From Dunnellon and hailing from the Citrus County Bassmasters, Nick Manfredo and David Frost won with a 37.11-pound two-day total.  Our own Bassmasters of Gator Country claimed second place with the 36.18-pound catch registered by Matt Rittman (Starke) and Jay Daily (Hawthorne).  The third place team of Ray Trudeau and Fred George, members of the Lakeland Bassmasters, had 35.24.  And rounding out the top four with a 34.60 total was Alan Agnoli and Frederick Boettjer.  The Chiefland men are affiliated with the Citrus County Bassmasters.

Nearby boat ramps closed by high water are slowly reopening.  Orange, Lochloosa, Newnan’s, and Santa Fe Lakes can all be accessed now by at least one public launch site.  Folks getting back on the water again are finding that speckled perch are biting best—at least as well now as before the storm.  Lochloosa and Newnan’s are producing especially fast speck action.

The folks at Twin Lakes Fish Camp at the Lochloosa end of Cross Creek have seen a water rise of two full feet since Irma.  Although that’s an impressive rise, it pales against the flooding suffered at Kate’s Fish Camp on Prairie Creek below Newnan’s.  This week it was business as usual at Twin Lakes, and owner, Jeff Septer fished Tuesday morning with Cross Creek neighbor, Sam Mooney.  They eased out through Little Lochloosa into the big portion of the lake and started slow-trolling crappie jigs in open water 8 to 12 feet deep.  The specks were biting.  Before noon, the men headed back to the fish camp.  They had released all but the larger, fillet-size specks and still had 28 fish.  When I asked whether the fish had shown a preference for a particular color, Septer said he had tried jigs in eight colors, and each one had produced good bites.

Over the last decade or so, we have heard steadily-increasing reports of gulf anglers hooking snook farther north than anglers a generation ago could have hoped to. 

This week Gary’s Tackle Box ran a Facebook inquiry in an attempt to shed more light regarding the northward march of the snook—and the frequency of catches.  Crystal River/Yankeetown was once considered the northernmost zone one might expect to encounter a lineside, and so we inquired only about catches made north of there.  Within a day, respondents had reported recent catches of 6 Cedar Key, 5 Suwannee, and 4 Steinhatchee snook.  Several anglers mentioned that when they cast-net baitfish in the shallows as far north as Steinhatchee, they frequently find juvenile snook in their nets.  A breeding population is clearly in place along our stretch of coast.  However, as other fishers pointed out, the first lengthy temperature plunge below 20 degrees will likely doom large numbers of the stellar gamefish. 

Even considering the inevitability of such natural corrections, I expect that the snook’s pleasing expansion into our nearest gulf waters has taken solid hold.

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Post-Storm Angling Nearer Normal

fishing reportGulf anglers continue to confirm that, while Hurricane Irma wrecked some aspects of North Florida fish-catching, the storm did not hurt action in the salty shallows.  To boot, catches along the gulf coast are improving as the water slowly cools.

Speckled trout fishing seems to be best on the grass flats from Steinhatchee to Horseshoe Beach, while post-storm anglers have found the biggest numbers of big redfish in the long stretch from Suwannee, south to Crystal River. 

Saturday, Robert Bounds and Elliott McDavid fished north of Yankeetown.  The young anglers arrived before daylight and motored slowly up the coast near high tide.  When the sun broke over the treeline, they cast topwater lures, spoons, and swimbaits to a clear, shallow flat with hard bottom.  Redfish were present, and the strikes came fast.  In short order, the Gainesville men had released 25 reds ranging in length from 24 to 30 inches.  Impressively, they were back home in time to watch the Gator game’s noon kickoff.

Lots of folks are wondering about the possibilities of fishing our nearby lakes again.  However, not all of our frequently-used fishing spots can even be accessed due to flooding and obstructions left by the recently-passed storm.  Alachua County released a summary Monday regarding the post-Irma state of its parks and waterbodies.

Lake Santa Fe Park at Melrose was closed at the beginning of this week, as a good bit of debris still had to be removed.  The park was expected to open sometime this week.

The Lake Alto Park ramp is open.

All ramps on the Santa Fe River remain closed.

Accessing the Little Orange trio of lakes just southeast of Hawthorne is still ‘out’.  High water separated the Holden Pond boat dock from its shoreline mooring.  Its new position—plus uprooted vegetation—prohibits use of the boat ramp.

Public access points onto Lochloosa and Orange Lakes are open.  Launching onto Orange, however, can still be tricky, as those pesky rafts of floating vegetation have alternately plugged one Orange ramp and then another.  Early this week, the Marion County ramps were covered up, while the Marjorie Rawlings access was open.

On Newnan’s Lake, one of the two public boat ramps has reopened.  The Owens-Illinois Park (better known locally as the ‘Windsor Ramp’) is again usable.  Parking for tow vehicles with boat trailers here is a bit limited.  Powers Park, the larger ramp at the lake’s south end, remains shut off to vehicles and boats by a long chain link fence, as the playgrounds and pavilions remain flooded.  Also, large trees are down that cannot yet be accessed by cleanup crews.

Bobby Gaff was relieved when Newnan’s Lake’s Windsor Ramp reopened last Friday morning.  His wife, Doreene, had already filled her two tags to harvest Newnan’s alligators, having taken big reptiles of 8 and 11 feet on August 30 and September 1.  Bobby was feeling some pressure to fill his gator tags, too.  He and Carl Barnes arrived early … in fact, he figures his might have been the first boat to ease down the ramp since the storm.  And with Barnes’ help, the High Springs gator hunter did take alligators of 8 and 10 feet.

Fishing-wise on Newnan’s, a few anglers who have slid very small boats in alongside Lakeshore Drive at Palm Point have told of good fishing for bluegill and speckled perch.  Now that the Windsor ramp has reopened, widespread catches should resume.  Wednesday, Albert Pons came in the store for speck jigs.  He was looking especially for anything in orange.  The High Springs angler had taken 21 slab-size specks that morning.  “I only keep big ones”, he said.   Pons went on to let us know that his tally on this day had not even been quite up to his post-storm par.  Drifting crappie jigs just outside the Newnan’s cypresses, he had filled limits on Sunday and Monday.

Cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, the 5th Annual Santa Fe Lady Raider Inshore Slam has been rescheduled go out of Steinhatchee’s Sea Hag Marina on Saturday, October 14.  The popular tournament awards cash prizes for top catches in categories like “Heaviest Trout”, “Heaviest Bag Limit of Trout”, and “Heaviest Redfish”… and it also features a separate Paddleboard/Kayak Division.  There is a mandatory captain’s meeting at 5:30 on the morning of the 14th.  For more info, call 352-538-7575 or 386-882-4350.

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Saltwater Still Best Post-Irma

Two local construction companies have a number of avid fishers among their ranks.  After holding monthly fishing tournaments through the spring and summer seasons, Complete Network Solutions gears up for one big tournament at the end—and they invite their friends from Vintage Electric.  The Complete Network Solutions / Vintage Electric Annual Fishing Challenge went out of Steinhatchee on Saturday.

The big bragging rights tourney drew 80 participants that enjoyed varied and generally-good catches.  Jamie Gardner of Vintage Electric (VEI) caught the best redfish of the day at just a hair under six pounds.  Close behind with the second and third-best reds were Chris Capella (CNS) and Debbie Macallister (CNS).

Peter Skelly of CNS bagged the best trout at 2-07.  The top Spanish mackerel, taken by Jason Evans of CNS was a real eye-popper at 4-14.

The “Coolest Edible Fish” winner was Courtney Perry for his nice 2-11 flounder.

Of the competing kids, Cole Miller had a 3-07 jack crevalle, Jordan Schutte boated a 1-11 trout, and Dawson Perkins hauled in a 1-09 flounder.

The Florida Redfish Pro Series’ Big Bend Division also held its fourth qualifier out of Steinhatchee on Saturday.

That afternoon, Doug Stringfellow and I had just weighed in our two-fish limit of embarrassingly-small reds…our only two keeper redfish bites all day.  Walking down the Sea Hag Marina dock on our way back to the boat, we met the Macallisters, participating in the Complete Network / Vintage Electric event.  They were carrying up a large bucket filled with ice.  Three redfish tails were sticking out.  And, unlike ourselves, they were fired up.

James and Debbie Macallister and Josh Edwards were, all at once, telling about the school of redfish they had encountered.  The Starke and Newberry family had been drifting in about 6 feet of water north of the river off Rock Point when Josh spotted “flashes” in the slightly-murky water.  “They were reds…all around the boat”, James related.  James was casting a swimbait, Debbie, a Gulp bait set under a float, and Josh, with live shrimp.  In short order, all three anglers were simultaneously hooked up.  “There were so many”, James continued, “they were striking Debbie’s popping cork while she was fighting her fish”. 

Now, I was happy for the Macallister/Edwards family and sure appreciated their enthusiasm.  But, keep in mind that this had happened on a day when 18 of 38 teams competing at a fairly high level in the Florida Redfish Pro tourney had failed to weigh even one slot red.  There were some funny sideways glances as the family walked their fish up the dock, past high-powered anglers who had struggled on this day.

Actually, the best catches in the Redfish Pro Series were impressive for the teams that made the long run from Steinhatchee to the Cedar Key area.  Chase Norwood and Brett Molzen won with a nice 13.29-pound brace of fish.  Danny and Nick Allen nailed down second place with 12.87, and one of their two reds was the day’s largest at 7.30.  Finishing the year as Big Bend point champions were consistent high-finishers, Matt Cowart and John Lannon.

Cedar Key, it seems, has been the hottest gulf zone for reds since the storm. 

Last Thursday, Bob Hudson of Cedar Key took his friend Ray Zilke, visiting from Colorado, for redfish.  Zilke had never caught a red…or been in an airboat, so they took Bob’s airboat to the Cedar Key backwaters.  That plan, however, didn’t work out, as there were no fish to be found in Hudson’s favorite creeks.  Undaunted, the Cedar Key angler took his buddy out to the islands.  And there, they found the redfish.  With cut bait, the men boated a dozen legal reds and came in with two fine upper-slot fish.

Local saltwater fans were excited last year when Ed Ellett won a nice boat in the Coastal Conservation Association’s Florida Star Tournament.  The Gainesville fish-catching sage’s fine prize came via drawing from the cobia entries.  Amazingly, this year it was Marcia Ellett’s turn, and Ed’s wife won in nearly identical fashion.

Marcia’s winning entry came on September 3rd, the day before the tournament ended.  While fishing Cedar Key waters from the 33rd Strike Group catamaran they won last year, she hooked the nice ling near a channel marker.  When Ed gaffed the fish after a well-fought battle, Marcia had her CCA Star cobia entry and eventual winner.

A couple of weeks later, CCA Florida Tournament Director, Leiza Fitzgerald called the Elletts to let them know that, just as Ed had a year earlier, Marcia had won first place in the random draw among cobia entries.  In late October, she will receive her 19-foot Bossman Karma Micro Skiff, powered by a 25HP Yamaha outboard.

 

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Post-Storm Fishing Best on the Gulf

Photo by Ebyabe

Before Hurricane Irma, the all-time lowest tide registered at Cedar Key occurred on September 18, 1947, when the water fell to 4.2 feet below the mean low tide mark.  During Irma, the Cedar Key Weather Station registered an astonishing new low of minus 5.2 feet.  When the tide did come back in , it rose to 4.5 feet above mean low—a tidal excursion of 9.7 feet…and, of course, another all-timer.

With persistent flooding and still some roped off boat ramps, Irma has temporarily wrecked area freshwater fishing.  However, despite the wind, the rainwater runoff, and this historic dewatering of the flats, the first saltwater fishers to return to the gulf reported fish-catching at least as good as it had been pre-storm. 

Most years, the fishing report would have already mentioned the Spanish mackerel beginning to gather on perennial gulf ambush spots like Seahorse Reef, off Cedar Key.

Just about the time gulf anglers started thinking about the sharp-toothed rockets, a menacing threat in the Caribbean turned our collective attention away.  Now that many Gainesville-area anglers have cleaned up from the storm and can breathe easier, some have started thinking again about the sporty macks.

Checking out his favorite mackerel spot with a longtime friend visiting from Berlin, Steve Beeland headed to Seahorse Reef just a few days ahead of Irma’s arrival.  Along with Victor Von Reiche, Beeland did, indeed, find what he was looking for.  Beeland and Von Reiche did not have a lot of strikes, but the jigs and spoons they trolled along the edge of the reef through schools of baitfish did produce seven Spanish mackerel.  And four of the macks were big ones measuring better than 24 inches.

Beeland was among the first anglers to return to the reef post-storm, visiting the famous mackerel haven again on Wednesday morning.   This time, his fishing partner was fellow Gainesville angler, Bill Frederick.  When they arrived on the reef, they found the water’s visibility good and baitfish schools present.  Only one other boat was there.  The anglers trolled spoons and Floreo style jigs, and occasionally stopped to drift while casting jigs.   And they whacked the mackerel.  Just after noon, the men headed back to the Cedar Key boat basin with a full 30-fish limit of Spanish.  Most impressively, almost all of their fish were whopping beauties over 26-inches long.

Apparently, the fall-run mackerel arrived en masse somewhere near the arrival of Hurricane Irma.  We might be a tad late to the party, but, thanks to Steve Beeland and his fishing buddies, at least we know that the party’s going on.

There were reports of a few dead fish seen along the Big Bend coast following the storm—presumably, slower swimmers such as puffers, or fish trapped in pockets of water that eventually went away.

Mike Dumas and Rick Rufo took a trip to Cedar Key last weekend to try out the fishing after the storm.  In another boat was Mike’s son Briton and his young grandson Case.  The Gainesville anglers said the water, while not as clear as it had been a couple of weeks earlier, was not terribly turbid.  Scattered baitfish schools and occasional surface strikes in the distance offered them good hope.

Their luck was far from stellar, but Mike and Rick did manage two legal redfish and a pair of trout.  The Other Dumas men went home with fewer fish.  But, also fishing live shrimp, they did manage a major highlight as three-year old Case hauled in and released his first snook.

We haven’t talked with many, but reports from anglers who have fished offshore since Irma’s passing have been surprisingly impressive. 

Tuesday, Dale Reed fished out of Homosassa along with his brother Mike, nephew Ryan, Glen Rousseau, and Mike Saincome.  The Gainesville anglers fished several rocky spots in water ranging from 30 to 45 feet deep, finding the 83-degree water murkier than usual.  The darker water did not hurt the fishing.  Trolled Mann’s Stretch 30 lures produced for them two nice gag grouper, but bottom fishing was the ticket.  They dropped frozen sardines and live pinfish to the bottom to catch grouper steadily, releasing scores of slightly-short gags and also four short red grouper from 17 to 19 inches long.  But there were good-sized gags biting, too.  The five anglers returned to port with ten fine grouper on ice, topped by 15-year old Ryan’s 31.5 inch beauty.

 

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Thinking Fishing, Eyeing Irma

The approach of a terrible storm seems to have everyone’s mind scrambled. Understandable, considering the combination of Irma’s intensity and a path that suggests she is determined to visit us full of bad intent. If things go well, the most damaging winds will not come our way. But even if we are blessed in that regard, there’s sure to be lots of rain. Where it will all go? Following the wettest summer season on record, the ground must still be fairly saturated and our nearby lakes and rivers are brimming with water already. Having so recently witnessed the heart wrenching scenes of a flooded Houston does not ease the trepidation of folks in low-lying areas.

The ongoing run of saltwater shrimp up the St. John’s River has become a good one. Most shrimpers I’ve talked to say they have filled 5-gallon limits in a few hours of cast-netting in the Palatka area. The shrimp, for the most part, are plenty large to harvest—averaging on the big side of ‘medium’. I should mention, though, that in past years the annual run has ended rather abruptly following major weather events bringing heavy rainfall. Apparently, the sudden decrease in the river’s salinity can cause the much-loved crustaceans to head back out to the Atlantic Ocean as fast as their swimmerets can carry them.

For a couple of months now, Newnan’s is the area lake that has received most of the visits from speckled perch fans—and rightly so. After going from inaccessibly low to extremely high in just two months, Newnan’s has lived up to their expectations, producing fine catches of crappies regularly.

But Newnan’s isn’t the only area lake putting out good specks.

Last Thursday, Orian Davis and Brian Roe launched at Lochloosa and headed out to mid lake. The men put out several poles rigged with colorful crappie jigs and trolled them slowly.  The bites came fast, and they pulled 45 good fish from water 8-to-9 feet deep. Roe returned alone on Sunday, again trolling jigs out deep, to pull in 40 more specks.  Then on Tuesday, Roe hauled in 50 Lochloosa specks. He harvested only a few of the largest—all over a pound and up to 1 ¾ pounds.  The Gainesville speck specialist said the fish showed a distinct preference for Crappie Slider jigs in two colors: a bright green and yellow commonly referred to as ‘John Deere’, and junebug/chartreuse.

In the Lochloosa lily pads, cane-polers armed with crickets and worms are still pulling in nice numbers of bluegills; with occasional warmouth, shellcrackers, and catfish thrown in.  The bedding activities of bluegill are winding down, though, and finding congregations of bream will become less likely as summer turns to fall.  On the other hand, in the coming cooler weather, speckled perch action should only improve.

If you haven’t been on Orange Lake this year, you should plan a visit.  The lake looks great… and lake managers want to keep it that way.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold a public meeting to provide an update on the management activities carried out on Orange Lake under last year’s work plan and to discuss the plan for the upcoming year.  FWC will also provide a progress report on its Habitat Management Plan at the meeting scheduled from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12 at the Alachua County Public Library in downtown Gainesville.  The meeting going off as scheduled, of course, will depend upon the track of Hurricane Irma.  To confirm the meeting’s status, phone FWC’s Ryan Hamm 352-620-7341.

 

 

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