October 24, 2012
Decisions, decisions. At the beginning of each year, Editor In Chief Doug Stange asks the magazine staff to outline their plans for editorial excursions for the following year. Most of my travel centers around bass fishing, so I review reports I've heard about hot bites and peruse the list of prospective sites around the continent that promise some of the hottest bass fishing anywhere. As we've noted in recent features in In-Fisherman magazine, largemouth populations are booming in many areas of the United States, many in the best condition they've been in 25 years or more. Ditto in spades for smallmouths, a scene covered by Matt Straw's companion article in this special issue.
As a frequent traveler, I know that timing is everything, well, not quite everything, but it comes close when fishing journeys are considered. We're a victim of inappropriate moon phases, cold fronts, and plain old cases of lockjaw. Just ask Jack Wingate, the laconic maestro of Wingate's Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole. The sign at the entrance to his lodge greets visitors with the encouraging message, "Cuz They Bit Yesterday." On the reverse side is the lament, "Cuz They'll Tear It Up Tomorrow."
As an editor of In-Fisherman magazine and chief writer on bass topics, I have the luxury of receiving tempting offers to fish the finest waters of North America. Often, I need only purchase a plane ticket or trailer my boat. Fishing with local experts and guides is, after all, the way to provide In-Fisherman readers with the fullest information on top bass tactics and destinations.
Planning a trip
I try to arrange my excursions at peak times that fit our editorial plans. And we always need more photos of big bass, along with scenic shots, and images focusing on particular lures.
Over the last six years, I've found that Mexican destinations fill these requirements nicely, and four January days in the sun provide a welcome break from Minnesota, where temperatures drop to -30°F with chilling regularity. Picking a lake and time to go still requires some planning, a weighing of competing factors. A hot new lake with lots of fast-growing bass offers the opportunity to test new lures and techniques, and even provides a large enough sample size of caught bass to compare lure color and size.
Or would a lunker hunt be better, for the challenge of trying to figure out double-digit bass? To get the true scoop on Mexican lakes, it's necessary to critically evaluate deskloads of hyperbole about 100-fish days, multiple 10-pounders, and the like. Obviously, lodge operators and their agents like to inform potential visitors about the best catches made over the season, easily neglecting the poor folks who scratched for 4 or 5 modest-size bass in a day's fishing. And this happens, even on the best lakes in the US, Canada, and Mexico.
I don't put as much stock in moon phase as many anglers and promoters do, but I've seen fortuitous moons pay off with lunker catches and also with disappointing results. Plan, too, for seasonal patterns that are somewhat predictable in a body of water, but may shift over a week or two. When targeting southern largemouths, I like to shoot for the mid to late Prespawn Period, if possible.
Expect savage action from big adult bass holding in thick cover. And there's no better time to catch the biggest bass in the lake. In northern waters, though, this theory doesn't hold as well. Fall, after turnover, is the best time for giants. Even where bass season is open year-round in northern lakes, the biggest bass are elusive unless you encounter the narrow window shortly after ice-out when the big gals move shallow en masse. Research shows, though, that some waters excel during the Postspawn and Summer Periods.
Some folks like to plan. My buddy from Georgia, biologist Bob Reinert, spent a year planning and preparing for his trip to Rainy Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border. He talked to resorts and guides, bought maps, and even tried to get inside information from Al Lindner. For Bob, planning is a large part of of the fun of an exotic trip. But his planning paid off; he caught the biggest smallmouth bass he'd caught in decades, and he learned a lot about that incredible fishery.
Roger Bullock of Eugene, Oregon, is an avid angler and traveller. He's fished in 47 states and several provinces in search of hot bites, as well as spending lots of time chasing trout, steelhead, shad, salmon, and warmwater species in his home waters, and devoting time to Pacific fishes of all sorts. In addition to his sojourns, his travels also are designed to help him choose a spot to retire to; so far he favors the Gadsden, Alabama, area due to its proximity to countless topnotch fisheries for a variety of species.
Bullock's network of friends and contacts keep him advised of action around the country. "I could envision a whole year of travelling around the country, scheduling stops at prime spots, beginning in January and running right through Christmas. Then the next year, another whole itinerary could be planned, never hitting spots from the year before. And fishing would be equally good."
Sounds like a plan — hitch the boat to the Winnebago and go. But how to fund such a venture? Bullock doesn't have unlimited income from his job with the US Postal Service, so he travels economically, staying at campgrounds or with friends whenever possible. He'll occasionally enlist a guide, but he's found a bit of gratis guidance from local anglers can get an experienced angler well on the way to superb fishing.
To start the year right, Bullock recommends headquartering in Hemphill, Texas, right between two of the most famous hawg holes on earth. "Toledo Bend offers superb fishing for numbers of fish, like its bonanza years in the 1970s," he says. "Now, the difference is that introduced Florida strain bass are expected to push the lake record over 17 pounds.
"To access some of the best water on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend, drive north to Milam and cross the bridge. In January, look for early prespawn fish bunched in deep creek channels not far from the best spawning flats in larger coves. Fish can hold from 10 to 40 feet deep, but 25 feet is a good depth to start looking.
"Big Sandy and Six Mile Creeks get a lot of attention, for good reason. But I've had great success without much company in Britain Creek and in deep spots at the mouth of Patroon Bayou. You won't want to fish this lake for fewer than 4 or 5 days.
"The August 1998 fish kill at Sam Rayburn set it back a bit, but big year classes of young fish promise a fast revival. And some giant fish remain. Big plastic worms and lizards, Carolina rigged, and heavy jigs with big trailers are the ticket on both lakes. Deep and slow are key words. I like to launch in late winter in San Augustine Park, or at Massa if it's windy. Look for creek channels that provide access to spawning flats and coves.
"After spending a couple weeks in Texas, I'd zip over to Florida to catch the late Prespawn Period. Lakes there are thriving, due to habitat improvements, stricter harvest regulations, and increasing voluntary catch and release. Start south at Lake Okeechobee and work northward. A guide is a must on this vast lake, and I'd say the same on any big Florida lake. For trophy bass, live shiners put the odds in your favor, though weedless spoons and giant plastic worms (up to 15 inches) Texas rigged take some fine bass, too."
Traveling just 30 miles northwest from Okeechobee, Bullock makes strong recommendations for Lake Istokpoga, a 28,000-acre lake full of bass and hydrilla. Look for numbers of 4- to 8-pound bass with a few in the 15-pound class taken in recent years. Wade fishing is possible here. Bring your stoutest flippin' stick, braided line, and a fluorocarbon leader, he suggests, and bait with lures or live shiners.
"Just 30 miles north, don't miss a stop at Lake Jackson near Sebring (not to be confused with the other great Lake Jackson near Tallahassee)," Bullock says. "If you're after a 10-pounder, this is a great pick, and fish to 14 pounds recently have been caught. Early spring is lunker time, but outstanding fishing lasts into May.
"From there, I'd move to Camp Hammock on Lake Kissimmee, where the habitat has been rejuvenated by drawdowns and muck removal. Kissimmee bass will make five days fly by. After that, I'd stow my flipping stick and take a break from lunker hunting by fishing American shad on the St. Johns River between Lake Monroe and Puzzle Lake. Late February should find them densely schooled with hybrid stripers and striped bass."
Back to texas
At this point, Bullock might make side trips to Tennessee and Arkansas for a shot at big hybrids and stripers plus trout and walleyes, before heading back to Texas. His first stop would be Caddo Lake on the Louisiana border, a beautiful natural lake with plenty of 9- and 10-pond largemouths and a lake record of 161„2 pounds. Texas-rigged plastics and topwater lures should be the ticket in March.
On the way to Lakes Cooper and Fork, Bullock wouldn't pass up an opportunity to fish Richland-Chambers Reservoir near Corsicanna. "You'll find the upper arms alive with spawning activity," he notes, "providing great sight fishing. But there's even better spinnerbait action if you slow roll through dense wood cover."
Lake Fork beckons Bullock, as it does every true bass angler, with its incredible numbers of 4- to 7-pound bass, and always offering the possibility of a teen-weight fish. Most experts say it still offers the best chance of any lake in the world for a 12+, despite 15 years of intense fishing pressure. The top end of the protected slot limit has risen to 23 inches, a fish of at least 9 pounds in spring.
Spinnerbaits, jig-and-pigs, big rattlebaits, and soft stickbaits score with amazing regularity. "Don't linger too long at Fork, though," Bullock warns, "or you might miss the prespawn bite at Lake Cooper, a 6-year-old reservoir northwest of Dallas. Overshadowed by Fork, Cooper's bass have grown at an incredible rate, and locals are salivating with the thought that one of the local bass experts, or a fortunate visitor, may nab a 17-pounder this year. Tens were common last year.
"Flooded timber is the primary cover at Cooper, and heavy spinnerbaits and big Texas-rigged worms fill the presentation bill most of the time. But jerkbaits have taken a share of giants so far, and Cooper offers a good spring topwater bite."
After refilling his tackle bags, Bullock would lean toward an excursion to the Red River system south of Shreveport, that is after focusing on Toledo Bend's incredible crappies in the "Chicken Coop" area and the massive white bass migration up the Trinity River. He'd then travel to Caney Lake, Louisiana, still an incredible lunker hole. If he missed the fast postspawn bite as females resume heavy feeding, he'd head to the vast Mississippi Delta where the bass bite is bigger and better each year, and 10-pound red fish provide exciting distraction.
From there, Bullock would push east toward one of his favorite fishing holes, Millers Ferry Reservoir, west of Selma, Alabama, stopping enroute to test the waters of Ross Barnett in Mississippi. On Barnett, hitting the prespawn isn't critical for catching big bass, as they bite throughout the year, with the worst lull in the dead of winter. Stocking of Florida subspecies bass is thought to have boosted the lunker potential of this reservoir. Flipping stumpfields, working lily pad fields with frog baits, or flippin' worms into pockets in the pads will get attention after the spawn.
"Miller's Ferry is one of the all-round best fishing lakes in the country," Bullock claims. "It's a moderate-size (22,000-acre) impoundment, but largemouths can run 8 to 10 pounds with an occasional 12 taken, products of the nutrient-rich Alabama River. After the spawn, they typically hold in hydrilla or other underwater vegetation, providing a great spinnerbait bite.
"Fishing is excellent from February through May, as well as in fall, and you'll find relatively few anglers there. Another smaller and even less promoted Alabama lake is Inland Lake, south of Oneonta. It's a beauty, with largemouths of the Florida strain and hybrids over 10 pounds.
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"Moving northeast, Lake Murray near Columbia, South Carolina, always merits a stop. And if time allows, E. B. Jordan, just south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, should not be missed. Lake Murray, a 50,000-acre impoundment on the Saluda River, has the diverse structure and cover to offer prime bass fishing in almost any season or condition. The spawn occurs in March and April. In early summer, focus on expansive beds of Brazilian elodea, an exotic hydrillalike plant that thrives in the lower end of the reservoir."
Elodea's not as thick as hydrilla, offering options with crankbaits and rattlebaits, as well as Carolina rigs. And countless boat docks offer shady sanctuaries for bass and tempting targets for jigs and tube baits. Its clear waters also offer a fine topwater bite in early summer, with fast action at dawn along inside and outside weededges and pockets.
"If Murray's not up to snuff," Bullock continues, "we won't delay our northward trek, for one of the all-time bass greats awaits us. Call it John Kerr Reservoir or Buggs Island Lake, but know it's close to paradise for bass hunters, not to mention its fabulous crappies (peaking in April), massive white bass (occasionally over 5 pounds), and a nice run of stripers up the Dan River. Expect 30 bass from 3 to 6 pounds per day if spring weather cooperates with sunshine and moderate water levels.
"Like other eastern impoundments, Kerr is prone to high water in spring, which can murk the water and slow action. If the water's moderately stained, look for points in the 10- to 15-foot depth range in early prespawn and as fish hold off the bank to provide a great crankbait pattern. When water's into the bushes, this lake's a flipper's paradise, and topwater baits and spinnerbaits work well, too."
During summer, Bullock usually targets other species during the day, such as riverine smallmouths and schooling white bass. At night, he looks for hot topwater action from largemouths and stripers. In his initial suggestions on great bass fishing locations, Bullock limited himself to southern locations, to create a workable seasonal schedule; workable, that is, if you have six months of vacation and a limitless credit card.
Stars of the north
Many northern lakes in the U. S. and Canada offer great summer fishing for largemouths, as well as smallmouths, walleyes, muskies, and other species. Several of the best have closed seasons until the end of May or into June. Bass fishing pressure remains remarkably light from Washington to Wisconsin, as well as Canada, despite the fact that many weedy natural lakes, ponds, and impoundments have dense bass populations, with fish that average nearly the same as in many prime southeastern waters. But top end size is a bit under 7 pounds through most of the northern belt. In northern New England and upstate New York, a similar situation occurs.
By all accounts, Lake Champlain on the New York-Vermont border and stretching into Quebec is one of the top largemouth lakes in the north, as well as arguably the best smallmouth lake in the US. The southern half of this 125-mile-long lake houses more largemouths, from clear-water weedlines and lily pad bays of the Vermont side south of Burlington, to the weedy eutrophic waters around Ticonderoga. Largemouths from 3 to 5 pounds can be taken virtually any way you want to fish for them.
Midwestern visitors intent on largemouth action should not miss Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka on the outskirts of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, one of the nation's busiest waterways on summer weekends. But Tonka houses a population of largemouths that seem to keep getting bigger. Milfoil edges key many summer bass patterns, with fish moving from the dense weeds to rock outcrops or sandy inside edges and nearby shallow cover. Tournament averages sometimes exceed 4 pounds, and 8-pounders have been caught.
Lake Waconia, just east of Minneapolis, is ruled by a 17- to 21-inch protected slot limit that keeps its population in great shape. Another gem is Pelican Lake, in the northern part of Minnesota near Orr. This densely vegetated lake regularly produces some of the biggest bass in the state, despite a short growing season. Bring flippin' gear with worms, buzzbaits, weedless spoons, and slop frogs.
Outside the usual realm of bass factories, North Dakota's Nelson Lake outside Mandan offers bass hunters great fishing for 3- to 6-pounders, as a heated discharge lengthens the growing season and provides open-water fishing when nearby lakes freeze. The result is the biggest bass in the region, including the 81„2-pound state record. Warmwater effluent also enhances La Cygne Reservoir in Kansas, where 10-pounders are occasionally caught, generally the biggest fish of that region.
North of the border, 22,000-acre Rice Lake in Ontario stands as the premier producer of largemouth bass. In-Fisherman contributor Gord Pyzer calls it Canada's Lake Okeechobee. Lots of similarities are seen between this pair of densely weeded ecosystems. The shallow environment fosters fast growth and a high biomass of preyfish and panfish, as well as bass. The largemouths commonly reach 4 to 7 pounds.
Top bass patterns include flipping worms or jigs into pockets in the grass and fishing emergent vegetation with spoons and buzzbaits. In fall, pitching jig-and-pig combos along weededges or wild rice stalks should entice some the lake's biggest fish. Several other bodies of water on the Trent-Severn Waterway also merit a trip, even from the most southern latitudes. Pigeon, Buckhorn, and Chemung lakes, each range from 5,000 to 12,000 acres. Shallow fishing predominates at these lakes as well.
Best of the west
In the far west, the Cal Delta stands among the best bass waters in the world, perhaps the best of all, according to folks who fish it regularly. This estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers includes nearly 1,000 miles of channels, backwaters, creeks, oxbows, and connected lakes, all loaded with largemouth bass.
During last year's Bass Anglers Sportsman Society California Invitational tournament, California bass pro Mark Tyler boated a 14-pound 9-ounce largemouth bass, the all-time B.A.S.S. record. Robert Lee, winner of that tournament also set a record for the highest tournament weight, 15 bass that weighed 78 pounds, 3 ounces. While these catches astounded bass fans around the country, local experts weren't surprised.
In spring, staging bass hold along mid-depth banks (4 to 8 feet) and move through cuts. Jigs, worms, spinnerbaits, and medium-running crankbaits attract bites among the weedy cover. As the year progresses, duckweed and algae mat on top of vegetation and in dead-end sloughs, producing an excellent bite on Scum Frogs, Mann's Rats, and similar baits. Imagine a 12-pounder blasting through the slop to annihilate a frog.
Several southern California reservoirs continue to produce the largest bass in the land, though the world record doesn't seem in jeopardy. Yet some bass experts believe a 20-pounder could come from one of a dozen or more waters from the San Diego area; from Lake Casitas, south of Los Angeles; or from waters farther north that have been stocked with Florida subspecies bass and receive rainbow trout plants. Incredibly complex structure and clear water offer bass lots of habitat, making these impoundments challenging to fish despite their small size.
During the Prespawn Period, live craws fished weightless or on split-shot rigs are deadly, but soft plastic baits and crankbaits take some giants, too. After the spawn, the biggest bass pursue trout in open water, and huge bass are caught on huge baits — A. C. Plugs, 9-inch swim baits, and other muskie-size offerings.
Outside California, Arizona's Canyon Lake and Lake Saguaro also offer chances for outsize bass (8 to 12 pounds), with enough 4- to 7-pounders to make it interesting. March is prime time as fish head to the bank and hold on shoreline extensions. Deep-diving crankbaits, Carolina rigs, and finesse worms on Mojo rigs excel. For much of the year, though, the best bite is at night in these clear impoundments where daytime summer temperatures exceed 110°F.
Other waters? Yes, tons. As Bullock maintains, there are plenty left to plan another year's tour of fine fisheries. Visit Grand Lake, Oklahoma; the Arkansas River; Lake Barkley; the Potomac River; Rodman Reservoir; Truman Reservoir; the Tennessee River; Lake Eufaula; and Santee-Cooper; plus many more waters throughout the country.
Remember that many lodges in popular fishing destinations fill months ahead during prime times. Top guides have full books, too. Making plans early helps ensure that you get what you want. The anticipation itself is part of the reward.