Outdoor Journal: Lake Kissimmee largemouth bass don’t disappoint

My annual trip to Florida last week was supposed to begin with a successful Osceola turkey hunt and
PHOTOGRAPHER:

My annual trip to Florida last week was supposed to begin with a successful Osceola turkey hunt and what I had hoped would be the beginning of another National Wild Turkey Federation Grand Slam. Unfortunately, the turkeys had other ideas.

After spending more than 12 hours sitting with my back against a big cypress tree overlooking a field where I had placed my decoys, all I saw was cattle, squirrels, sandhill cranes and what I believe was a wild boar. Not once throughout the day did I hear a single gobble or get a response to my many calls. One day was not enough, but that was all I could spare on this family vacation.

That first turkey I hoped to harvest with my new MDM Tom­wacka 12-gauge muzzleloading shotgun never showed up. But the end of this month, I’ll be bringing the gun to Pennsylvania for the beginning of its spring turkey hunting season, and then back to New York when ours begins May 1.

Somehow, toward the end of our vacation, I managed to find six free hours to join a gentleman who introduced himself to me at an on-the-water bait shop on Lake Kissimmee when he saw my Bass Angler Sportsman Society shirt. Works every time. Jim, which was the only name he gave me, was a transplanted Michigan resident who retired to Florida about 10 years ago. Now, all he did was fish.

In our conversation, he asked if I had ever shiner fished for bass, and when I told him only once, he asked if I would like to join him the next day on Kissimmee. Not wanting to disappoint him, I accepted.

For those of you who are not fam­iliar with Lake Kissimmee, it’s a 44,000-acre body of water noted for its excellent largemouth bass population and as an annual site of many national professional bass fishing tournaments. In the last annual creel survey taken by Florida Game and Fish, it revealed that 273,515 fisherman hours of angling resulted in 61,595 bass caught.

But in late March, these bass are beginning to spawn, and therefore offer anglers not only quantity, but also quality — lunker quality. How big? They say that during the spawn, eight- and nine-pounders are

frequent, and 10-plus-pounders are not uncommon.

For this trip, I would be happy with anything over five pounds. Actually, since this would be my first time on the water this year, I would be happy with anything that bent my rod.

GOLDEN SHINER FISHING

As a bass guide, weekend tourn­ament contestant and general ang­ler for the past 40 years, I’ve prim­arily used only artificial baits for bass. But on this particular day, Jim and I would be using golden shiners, which is a common practice in central Florida during the largemouth bass spawning period.

Now, before continuing this fish tale, it’s important to note that this was strictly a catch-and-release trip, and I forgot my camera, which should give you a clue about what was about to happen on this day. You will just have to believe me — fishermen don’t lie.

It was just getting light when I backed Jim’s boat in the water. It was a 20-foot Ranger with a 225-hp Evinrude outboard, and it was fully rigged with a 36-volt trolling motor, dash-mounted GPS and a Humminbird LCD depth/fish finder. As we idled out of the marina launch site, he asked me to check the shiners in the aerated livewell, and explained that to be the most effective, they must be lively. Dead bait are just not that attractive to bass.

Once out on the main lake, Jim turned on the GPS and entered in the number of our first stop, which the machine said was 3.2 miles away. At 60-plus miles per hour, it didn’t take us long to get to our destination, and when he throttled down, I could see a large area of

hydrilla beds dotted with large open areas within them. These open areas are where we would be fishing. One in particular had a lone stick floating in the middle of it, but as we got closer, I saw that it had line around it. This was Jim’s way of marking his spot. This is a tactic used by bass anglers during tournaments to mark their spots.

On his command, I lowered a

15-pound anchor off the stern into the six to seven feet of water, letting out about twice that much more rope before tying it off to the boat cleat.

EQUIPMENT

All the rods and reels were already rigged. The rods were

71⁄2-foot graphite flipping sticks, with large line capacity baitcasting reels spooled with 40-pound-test big-game monofilament. All his reels were equipped with audible line-out clickers that alert you when a fish has grabbed your bait. These reels allow the fish to take the bait and move off with very little resistance. When it’s time to set the hook, a flip of the lever locks the spool. All that’s left is to reel in any slack and set the hook. Hook setting, just as in northern pike fishing, should not be immediate. Wait five to 10 seconds, then set it hard.

To accommodate the 8- to 10-inch golden shiners, we used large heavy red 5/0 and 6/0 hooks. The red hook theory is that predator fish are attracted to blood, and the red simulates the gill flash of a feeding fish. This is the trigger that says, “It’s time to eat.”

There are several options on how to rig the bait. We hooked them behind the dorsal fin, which makes the bait swim up and around, allowing them to be seen more easily by the bass.

The only other time I fished with golden shiners, we used large tennis ball-sized bobbers, but not this time. We actually only used those a little larger than a golf ball, and placed them about three to four feet above the bait. The smaller bobbers allow the bait to move freely, and adds to their attraction.

Using long, gentle casts, we set out three lines — two in the large opening in the hydrilla and one out along the weed edge. It was then that I could feel the excitement begin to build inside me. There’s something exciting about watching a big shiner pulling a bobber around the water surface. It makes the adrenaline boil. But it is even more thrilling when, all of a sudden, that bobber starts to buzz across the water.

“Something is after it; get ready, but don’t lock the reel yet,” Jim instructed. A 10 count, then I flipped the switch, pointed the rod tip at the water, reeled in the slack and set the hook hard.

The rod bent immediately, but I had the bass coming to me, and did not let him turn back into the weeds. Just under five pounds. My first largemouth of the season.

Just minutes after re-baiting my rod, we heard the clicking as the line slowly moved off the reel on the rod we had out along the weed edge. Jim was right on it, and when he set the hook, the bass came out of the water. And he was big. Sev­eral minutes later, we put him on the scale, and it weighed seven pounds, three ounces. Nice fish.

Within the next hour, we hooked and released two more fish, one over five pounds, the other just under. Then it got quiet and we decided to move.

A five-minute run, and we were in a spot that looked exactly like the first, and it even had one of Jim’s stick markers on it. After setting out the baited rods in the same pattern, we hadn’t been there more than 15 minutes when the reel next to me began to scream. Quickly, I picked it up, waited a few long seconds, reeled in the slack and hit him hard. And when he hit back, I wasn’t

really ready, and he buried himself in the hydrilla.

Fortunately, the heavy tackle did its job, and after about 10 anxious minutes, I was able to bring him to the net. He measured just over 26 inches, and Jim’s Xtools digital scale read nine pounds, four ounces. All I could do was stand there holding and looking at this magnificent fish before releasing him back into Lake Kissimmee.

For the next couple of hours, we hooked and released another four largemouths, the largest weighing six pounds, 14 ounces. Jim lost one we estimated to be well over 10 pounds when it made one last run by the boat before straightening the hook and getting its freedom.

Back at the launch that afternoon, I thanked Jim, who said if I returned next year, I could find him at the same marina. It was a great day, and one I will never forget. And speaking of forget, on my way back to the condo, I made one stop at a store and bought a camera case that hooks onto your belt. I will never go on the water without a camera again.

Categories: Sports

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