As the fine fishing of fall dwindles in the face of frosty mornings and ice on the rod guides, thoughts turn to locations to hunt lunkers year-round. In the southern reaches of the United States and further south into Mexico, the best fishing occurs when northern anglers are cutting holes in the ice.
Selecting a destination and a time to travel requires planning and weighing competing factors. A hot lake with lots of fast-growing bass offers the opportunity to test new lures and techniques. Or would you rather try a lunker hunt, a mission to nab a legendary double-digit bass?
In south Florida, spawning may commence as early as December, though big fish are taken year-round. Mexican trophy lakes vary in the timing of the best bite, with local elevation, weather patterns, and fall rainfall amounts important.
Florida's Bass Fisheries
A wet summer and fall has blessed all southeastern fisheries with plenty of water. That bodes well for Florida bass populations, as lakes and reservoirs rise to flood shorelines grasses. Expect a good shallow bite. Most importantly, water induces heavy shad spawns, producing plenty of food for bass of all sizes. Finally, bass reproduction is maximized when waters rise and stay at full pool at least into early summer.
Lake Tohopekaliga--Affectionately known as "Toho" to thousands of fans, looks to be the cream of the crop for 2004, and the bite is hot right now. Guides favor wild shiners during winter bass season, and there's no denying the appeal of a 10-inch wild shiner. Late fall (December) topwater action can be hot, while worms or other soft plastics score in the lake's abundant hydrilla beds and stands of emergent grasses. In the coldest times, deeper holes and mussel beds hold numbers of bass, offering a bite on crankbaits and bladebaits, as well as soft plastics on Carolina rigs. Other lakes of the Kissimmee Chain, including Lake Kissimmee, also offer fine fishing. Combine trophy bass fishing with a visit to Disney World, less than 10 miles away. Contact: Captain James Jackson, Freelencer Guide Service, 800/738-8144, www.orlandobass.com; Guide Chuck Leach, 877/326-3575; Kissimmee-St. Cloud Convention & Visitor's Bureau, 800/327-9159, www.floridakiss.com.
Farther south lie two more gems, Lake Weohyakapka (also known as Walk-In-Water) at 7,500 acres and 28,000-acre Istokpoga, south of Sebring. Both are managed with a 15- to 24-inch protected slot limit to keep production of trophy-size fish high. A drawdown at Istokpoga in 2001 spurred the fishery by deepening shallow mucky shorelines to enhance bass habitat. At peak times, 10-pounders are a daily occurrence. Contact: Guide Carroll Hagood, 941/967-8097; Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, 941/688-8551; Polk County Sports Marketing, 941/534-4370, www.cfdc.org.
Stick Marsh/Farm 13--A Created in 1987 by flooding 6,500 acres of farmland on the St. Johns River watershed, these shallow lakes near Fellsmere have flourished since the low-water years three years ago. Catch and release is the rule, and we grant Master Angler Awards for lots of bass over 25 inches long. Hydrilla beds in the south end of Farm 13 yield big bass on shiners, spinnerbaits, and topwaters. Contact: Guide Larry Fetter, Pine Island Fish Camp, 352/753-2972; Guide Hugh Crumpler, 800/325-9656.
Lake Okechobee--The "Big O" has more bass than any water in the world. While the big ones can, at times be tough to find in this shallow, bowl-shape lake of nearly half a million acres, there's always plenty of action. Okeechobee has benefited from higher water levels in recent years, and while 10s aren't as common as at Toho, 50fish days occur when bass gather on the shallow flats at the north end near Okeechobee. Clewiston, at the southern end, offers access to the Rim Canal, a bass haven when colder temperatures turn off the shallow bite, hi between lie countless grass islands canals, and deeper holes that load up with bass. Fishing patterns are similar to those at Toho. Contact: Glen Hunter Guide Service, 800/541-7541; Guide Chet Douthit, 863/902-9471; Chappy's Guide Service, 800/358-5541, www.chappysguideservice.com; Guide Chuck Pippin, 941/564-4273; Roland Martin's Lakeside Motel, 941/983-3151.
South of The Border
Mexican bass lakes offer unmatched action for big bass in a carefree setting among the scenic highlands of Mexico's west coast.
El Salto--This storied reservoir continues to produce double-digit bass for visiting anglers from its opening in October until closure in late June (the hot and rainy season). Prespawn action can be outstanding in December and January, with patterns ranging from magnum chuggers to Carolina rigging and deep cranking. Senko-style softbaits and large swimbaits have been hot, too. At Angler's Inn, a deluxe lodge on the L shoreline, top bass pros, such as Kevin Van Dam, Alton Jones, and Jay Yelas, conduct fishing seminars from fall into mid-December when the pro tournament season begins. Contact: Angler's Inn, 800/583-8133, www.anglersinn.com Pro Bass Adventures, 866/FISHMEX.
Lake Huites--I visited Huites last spring with staff photographer Jeff Simpson, and we returned with hundred photos of monster bass, most caught on swimbaits. We stayed at Bill Skinner's new Trophy Bass Lodge, a fine establishment. Huites' lodges open in October, and excellent fishing lasts through winter. Huites lies to the north and at a higher elevation, so the spawn is typically delayed into late February or March, providing a long prespawn bite, with crankbaits a favorite at this steep-sided reservoir on the El Fuerte River. During the spawn, bass are finicky, and nest too deep to be seen. But by late February, a hot topwater bite may erupt. Contact: Bill Skinner's Trophy Bass Lodge, 888/769-0220, www.bassmex.com Lake Huites Lodge, 888/744-8867, www.mexicanadventures.com.
Lake Baccarac--Known to produce the biggest bass in Mexico, Lake Baccarac is subject to fluctuations in quality due to water levels and local netting pressure. The good news is that it is fishing well, with giants over 15 pounds taken last year. Contact: Bass'n Mexico, 888/769-0220; Chapman Balderrama Lodge, 011-52-311211-5128; www.chapman-balderrama.com.
Aqua Milpa--This is the largest and most recently impounded of Mexico's bass lakes, and it has quickly become the most consistent producer of bass from 4 to 8 pounds, with the occasional 10-pounder taken. It lies farther south, closest to the city of Tepic in the state of Nayarit, and it has a mild climate due to high elevation. With hundreds of acres of standing timber, top tactics during January and into February are flipping worms and craws and casting spinnerbaits. Its steep rocky banks also offer deep cranking possibilities, along with vertical jigging and slow-rolling spinnerbaits. Contact: Chapman Balderrama Resort, 011-52-69-16-60-13; www.chapman-balderrama.com; Arley McMillon, 405/354-0358.