Rousseau On the Rebound

This popular Dunnellon area lake is once again producing topnotch bass fishing, and looking better than ever.

Scenic Lake Rousseau near Dunellon is once again producing good bass fishing.

It’s easy to get distracted watching a lure skitter across the surface because you just know that—any second now!—it’s going to get crushed. No angler wants to miss that show.

That’s likely why my worm-rigged casting rig was dangling loosely from my hand as I watched Jimbo Keith’s speed worm zip over a patch of Lake Rousseau eelgrass.

The speed worm isn’t exactly a topwater bait, but it was impossible to miss the white lure as it streaked along just beneath the surface. Also impossible to miss was the silver-green streak that rose from the grass and collided with the lure in a roiling boil.

Scenes like this have been playing regularly on Rousseau, a beautiful Citrus County impoundment that’s been on the rebound following a major fish kill.

Hurricanes that hammered the Gulf Coast in 2004 dropped a lot of much-needed water on Central Florida. But, that water didn’t do Rousseau any favors.

“The Withlacoochee River is the primary feeder for Lake Rousseau, but its headwaters are actually a swamp,” says FWC biologist Allen Martin. “With the high water from the hurricanes, we got a lot of spillover from the swamp that entered the river. That swamp water is acidic, has a low oxygen content, and a lot of decaying organic material. That huge influx and oxygen depletion did cause a significant fish kill.”

It knocked the population back quite a bit, but it didn’t destroy it.

“The hurricanes didn’t cause any aquatic plant damage,” Martin notes, “so once the oxygen-depleted water moved through, the population began restoring itself. We’ve had good spawns every year since and Rousseau seems to be recovering very well. DEP has a hydrilla control program that involves a slow chemical drip, and that has kept hydrilla levels down and allowed a lot of very desirable native plants to come back strong. The water quality and vegetation are in excellent shape.”

Captain Jimbo Keith, who literally grew up on the lake and guides there regularly, agrees.

“This lake is looking better now than it has in years,” he says. “There is still hydrilla, but it’s not blanketing the lake like it has in years past. The balance is good. We’ve also got a lot of shallow eelgrass growing, along with pads, and bulrush and cattail islands. That’s a great combination of cover, and the water is nice and clear. We’ve had great spawns since the fish kill, which has repopulated the lake, and there are big fish that didn’t get caught up in the fish kill. This is now the best place in this region to catch a 12-pound bass, along with a lot of smaller fish.”

There is no better time for big bass than during the February through May period. That covers the pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn period that will see a lot of the larger fish in shallower covers. The peak spawning months are March and April, but bass begin orienting toward their spawning sites in February. Once the spawn is over they aren’t in any real hurry to leave them, and May can produce excellent action in the same areas.

Locating those areas isn’t particularly difficult. A lot of the time all it takes is a look at the type of vegetation present.

“Anywhere there’s hard sand bottom, with some vegetation on it, in three to five feet of water, is a place Rousseau bass will use to spawn,” Jimbo says. “Some of these areas can be right on the shoreline, or on a mid-lake bar in the main pool, or submerged points in the upper lake. A quick way to tell the hard bottom from the silted areas is to look for eelgrass or bulrush. Both of these need a hard sand bottom to grow, so if you find those plants at the right depth you’re in potentially good water.”

It’s also going to be relatively clear water, given the filtering effects of the eelgrass. Veteran anglers often find that this type of water is best approached by leaving the blade baits in the box and going with soft plastics and subtle hard plugs.

Anglers who hit the water early are well served with quiet topwater plugs, especially if they’re looking for bigger bass. The Rapala No. 13 floating minnow and the Bagley Bang-O-Lure are proven choices on calm days. If there is a bit of ripple on the water, shifting to a double propeller plug (like the Devil’s Horse or Boy Howdy) can often be more effective when twitched with the same slow pace as the others. In either case, gold with a black back is the color combo favored by local experts.

Under dim light conditions these can be effective anywhere, but they are a bit slow when it comes to covering a large submerged grassbed. Many experienced anglers find they are at their best along distinct strike zone edges. They would include those places where a channel meets a spawning flat, the edges of islands next to a spawning site, or even individual stumps (of which Rousseau boasts a plentiful supply) in spawning areas. When it comes to covering larger areas of submerged grass, quick-moving weedless soft plastics are often a better bet.

“Two ideal lures to work the eelgrass with are the Zoom Speed Worm, and the Bass Assassin Charmer, which is a ‘trick-type’ worm,” says Jimbo. “If you rig them right you can have a weedless buzzbait, a weedless spinnerbait, and a stop and go subsurface lure. I can’t think of too many situations where one of those won’t produce on Rousseau.”

Angler holds a bass caught on a bubblegum “trick worm.”

The Speed Worm is designed to be worked at a steady pace and the amount of weight added to it will determine its running depth. If you want the lure to run near, or even at, the surface, just rig it with a 2/0 to 3/0 offset bend worm hook and don’t add weight. Keith favors this rigging for relatively shallow grassbeds. If he wants it to get down two to three feet, slipping a 3⁄16-ounce worm weight onto the line ahead of the worm will drop it deeper with the same quick retrieve. The colors that have proven most effective are plain white, watermelon red, and black with a blue glitter on those days that are heavily overcast. With either rigging method, the worm is at its best when retrieved at a quick and steady pace. It’s not much different from retrieving a spinnerbait or a Rat-L-Trap-type lure.

The Bass Assassin Charmer is a similar weedless plastic bait, but with a different presentation. Jimbo rigs that with a 2/0 offset bend worm hook, tied to a 12-inch leader, connecting to a small barrel swivel on the main line without any weight. Unlike some other “Trick Worm” users, he rigs it straight on the hook and not with a bend that makes it rotate.

“If the bass aren’t responding to a straight retrieve on the Speed Worm,” he notes, “I’ll get this out there and just twitch-twitch-pause it near the surface. I use real visible colors like bubblegum, white or yellow. That quick twitch andpause retrieve is erratic and gets their attention, and most of the strikes will come on the pause while the bait falls.”

Working the spawning grass is the tactic early, late or even all day if there is an overcast or a breeze that ruffles the surface. Run into dead calm at midday, however, and Jimbo reaches for a Texas-rigged plastic worm.

“We have eelgrass flats that grow right out to a channel dropoff,” Jimbo says.“If the fish decide to come off the flat that’s one of the first places they go. I like a larger worm, like the 7½-inch Bass Assassin in June bug or red shad, and just work it over the submerged grass and down the drop.”

Keith notes that this tactic can often produce larger fish. But, whether they chase them on the eelgrass flats or the channel edges, anglers will find Rousseau is indeed on the rebound.

Digging Them Out

Flipping to grass pockets of Rousseau’s islands yields bigger bass in general.

While Jimbo Keith finds deeper channel edges a top spot during bright conditions, Steven Keith opts for a different approach.

“Any angler fishing on Rousseau is well advised to carry a flipping rod,” he states. “When the weather gets bright and still, it’s one of the best ways to get onto bigger fish.”

Like many successful tournament anglers, Steven prefers to do his flipping with a compact 3- or 4-inch soft-plastic crawfish that slips easily through surface matted cover. That is rigged with a compact tungsten weight in the ½- to full 1-ounce range, depending on the density of the cover. In that regard he has several productive options.

“There are a bunch of small islands scattered throughout the lower and mid-section of the lake,” he notes. “Most of them are ringed with cattails and have floating debris drifted in around them. When you find one that is located close to a channel edge and near an eelgrass spawning flat you’ve got a spot that will hold big bass.”

Another option, and a great one when wind makes the lower lake uncomfortable to fish, is to move into the Withlacoochee River itself. DEP has installed a slow speed weed control drip near the mouth of the river that is controlling hydrilla in the lake. Above the drip the riverbanks are lined with a distinct hydrilla edge.

“Flipping that hydrilla edge, especially on outside bends,” Steven claims, “produces a lot of big bass, and it’s easy to fish in even a high wind. I consider it a backup pattern, but it’s won a lot of tournaments on Rousseau.”

Rousseau Access

The most convenient boat ramp on Lake Rousseau is the public (no fee) ramp at Peaceful Acres on SR 40. It is located about 5.5 miles east of Hwy. 19 and about 3.5 miles west of CR 336. This ramp in midway down the lake on the north side and provides quick access to both the lower pool and the upper river. Parking is limited to about 30 rigs, but the single lane ramp will easily handle full-sized bass boats.

In the town of Dunnellon, on the east side of the lake, is another good ramp by the old Riverview gas station plaza. Just across the street is Riverland Bait and Tackle, (352) 465-2755, a well-stocked shop that keeps tabs on the bite at Lake Rousseau and other area waters, including the Rainbow River.

At the western end of the lake, near the dam at Inglis, is the Lake Rousseau RV Park and Fishing Resort, (352) 795-6336, lakerousseaurvpark.com. In addition to RV sites, there’s secure dockage with electrical hookups for chargers, a bait and tackle shop and furnished rental units starting at $89 per night for a one-bedroom.

To reach Capt. Jimbo Keith, call (352) 535-5083.