Late summer is back-to-school time for sunshine bass on Lake Seminole.
Northwest Florida anglers tend to overlook one of the year’s best times for catching sunshine bass. It occurs in late sum-mer and early fall when water temperatures are more in line with what they were in the springtime when the fish gang up on schooling shad.
Without really anticipating any action from sunshines I motored out to a favorite spring hole near Lake Seminole’s Booster Club landing one fall afternoon. I rigged two rods with deep squidding spoons and a third with a surface shad plug. Sunshines had not been reported in the area—in fact I had been told earlier that it was too late for them. I had just anchored up and was preparing to drop a spoon in the spring when the water off my port side suddenly exploded with panicking shad. I shot the squidding spoon out. A heavy fish grabbed it. I shoved the rod into a rod holder and grabbed the surface plug and fired it into the quieting waters. Another fish grabbed it. Somehow, I managed to land both fish. Each one was a 7-pound sunshine. I went to the same spot at the same time for the next three afternoons after that. It never happened again. It was apparently a case of being at the right spot at the right time and having it pay off.
Fishing guide Steven Wells, who guides on weekends out of Jack Wingate’s Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole just north of Chattahoochee, told me of a similar event. Again it was early fall and he had taken a father and son up the Chattahoochee River side of the reservoir to a spot he knew. A mile or two upriver a point of land runs out into the river. They got there a little after sunrise and anchored within casting range of the rocks Steve knew were scattered out into the water there.
It wasn’t long before they were into fish. Casting spoons into the rocky area brought one strike after another. Steve said, “They hit so fast that I couldn’t keep up with them. I’d be trying to get the father’s fish out of the net and the son would be holding another at boatside waiting for me to get to him. They were 5- to 7-pound hybrids and they kept right on hitting like that until 11 o’clock. That’s pretty rare for those fish but sometimes it happens when they’re schooling.”
The operative word here is “schooling.” The reason the fish are schooling is the presence of shad. Large bunches of them. If the shad aren’t there, neither are the bass. Wells has some theories about these matters that I’ll explain later but when he phoned me in late August last year all I heard him say was “…schooling at the Booster Club. Pick you up there at 4 o’clock,” and I was rattling up my fishing rods ready to go.
I beat him there. But I wasn’t alone. Two of his guide buddies—Tim Neeley and Westley Pellham—were ahead of us. Squinting into the sun’s glare, I could pick out Pellham in his boat west of the Booster Club landing already standing up and doing his thing with a well-arced fishing rod.
Patiently waiting for me at the dock was Tim Neeley in his boat, the big outboard idling. As I stepped aboard with a pair of rods and a tackle box, barely two casts from the dock, the water suddenly exploded.
“Whoa! They’re feeding right in here at the dock!”
Neeley didn’t look too surprised. “Probably whites,” he said. “It’s a good sign.”
We eased out a way while I rigged up. Meanwhile, Wells and his Party Barge arrived. He launched then came out to meet us. With him was his 11-year-old son, Brock. Thinking there might be more room for photo action aboard the Barge, I jumped aboard Steve’s boat. Brock, who intended to waste no time, was casting toward the area churned up by the feeding fish. On about his second cast he fought one in. Pellham was right. It was a white bass.
Whites, however, were not what we were after. Steve was anxious for us to get into the hybrid action. Neeley and Pellham’s boats were already over the spot where they expected it to happen.
Nothing about the lake looked any different to me but the fishfinders were picking up something important below the surface. It was a large rise in the bottom, clear of any obstacles, including weed. Or so it seemed. As I was getting ready to cast a favorite spoon, Steve fished around in his tackle box and handed me another.
“No need to try anything else,” he said. “About the only thing they’ll strike is that one there.” It was a 31⁄2-inch Krocodile spoon, but there was a difference from most I had seen. This one was a bit beat up but it had a bright blue line running down half of its back. That line looked homemade.
“The blue line have anything to do with it?” I asked Steve.
He nodded. “Fish think so.”
“You draw the line?”
“Yeah…well, I did on that one. I lost all the regular ones with factory-made blue on them. So I bought what they had of the silver spoons and added the line.”
“Interesting,” I said. “What worked?”
“One of those Marks-A-Lot permanent markers. Brock had one. Lays on a color just as good as the original.”
I tied on the spoon. “From the battle scratches the fish must not care how good your artwork is. They like it okay.”
“Whatever works,” grinned Wells.
I shot it out. Few things cast finer than a good hefty spoon.
My retrieve was the usual one I used for these fish. I let the spoon sink a few feet then brought it back with a jerky return. Two casts later Wells was correcting my method.
“You gotta let it go all the way to the bottom. Once you see slack in your line, then start your retrieve. Whip it a
nd crank your reel handle about three times. Then let it drop back to the bottom and do it over again. Looks like a crippled shad. Don’t worry about hangups out here. Everything’s pretty clean.”
Wells was right. A couple casts later a sunshine hit. I worked the fish in. It was about two pounds.
“Ummmm,” I said. “I hope they get bigger than that.”
Steve thought this comment was worth relaying to his guide buddies. “He’s wondering where the big fish are,” he laughed.
The next few bass were also small ones. Good scrappers but not over a couple pounds. Wells’ remark and what we were catching suggested we weren’t likely to see any of those 7-pound sunshines I had found last year not far from this site. But that thought hardly cleared the brain waves when something with far more authority clobbered my blue line spoon.
I fought the fish for several nice runs then handed the rod to Steve. “Here, you have the fun while I shoot some pictures.”
So Wells did the honors while I worked the camera. Sadly we were at the end of the day and good light for photographs was about gone. That’s the trouble with sunshines, they’re not up to their name. They like to shine when the sun is either just coming or just going. Later, after we hauled out the boats and the guides kindly offered to give me all the fish, I took my 5-pounder for supper and left them contemplating a big fish fry for their families. Wells and I talked briefly about what had happened and how anglers might anticipate these things.
I asked Steve when the sunshine action begins on Seminole.
“Summertime fishing for them is usually from the first to the middle of July,” he said. “You find them mostly over sandbars. There’s probably six to eight of those on the lake.” He explained that the best fishing occurs when the water is hot and shad by the thousands gather on top over these bars and begin “podding,” or gathering up in great number.
“This only happens in the summer,” said Wells. “The hybrids come in underneath and see the concentration of baitfish above them. When the schools of sunshines attack it looks like films we’ve all seen of piranhas tearing up the water in a feeding frenzy.”
Then, according to my guide, anglers within casting range have to match the hatch as closely as possible or the fish may not take their lures. That means if the shad are running around three inches long, that’s the size lure you toss at them. If the shad run smaller, you downsize. This frenzied feeding action takes place in the early morning before the sun is well up, and during late afternoon about when it reaches the tree line and is fading fast. Wells’ theory is that the hybrids don’t strike in a high midday sun because they can see their target better when the sun is at a lower level.
“They school in the morning and late afternoon,” he continued. “Usually they start later than largemouth bass. With a largemouth if you can see to cast, they’ll bite topwater lures. I’ve found a hybrid generally waits until the sun gets above the treetops. When you can see the sun they really start schooling. There’s just maybe 30 minutes’ difference there.”
He told me that if the fish start schooling and feeding at 6:30 a.m., then 9 o’clock would probably be the latest they would feed on a sunny day. On a cloudy, overcast day they may last until 11 o’clock.
The feeding frenzy repeats itself daily from about the middle of July through the middle of September.
“But August will be the best,” said Wells. “The shad are on top sucking air and the hybrids are going to get them. In the springtime we catch them running up the rivers; it’s totally different. They don’t school on top at all. They’re on the bottom. That happens in late February through March and the first part of April.”
Though these fish don’t breed or spawn, Steve feels the reason they run upriver is due to some instinct that harks back to their ancestry. Something their white bass or striped bass forebears did before man stepped in and mixed milt with eggs to make the non-reproductive hybrid.
I asked Steve what tackle he preferred and he said he used a baitcasting reel with 12-pound-test line and a drag set appropriately.
“Generally hybrids are in open water. You can’t hawg them to the boat. You have to let them play out. Twelve-pound test is good—they don’t see it too easily.” No need for a heavier leader; they don’t bite off.
The best lure, according to Wells, is the currently popular 21⁄2-inch Krocodile with the blue stripe either factory-added or drawn on. When the shad size increases, they use the 31⁄2-inch size. He said the Rat-L-Trap in chrome with a blue back is also good. Many troll with it, but whenever possible he avoids using his outboard, finding that it runs off both the fish and the bait. His advice is to anchor near one of the bars and cast.
When the fish are schooling heavily he often throws a floating MirrOlure at them. It’s the large shad lookalike. He favors it because he can twitch his rodtip on retrieve and make it skitter and dart back to him much like a wounded shad. The hybrids go wild for it.
So there you have it. Don’t worry too much about those dates. From experience we’ve all found that schooling fish often do the unexpected, just as those 7-pounders I caught where they weren’t supposed to be. But if the shad are there, you can bet the sunshines aren’t far behind. I’ll never forget boating back with a bunch of other duck hunters on a frosty day not long after duck season opened and we had targeted canvasbacks. As we headed home against the reflected light of a setting sun, almost a quarter of a mile of water along shore was being ripped up by feeding fish.
Yep, it was sunshines, doing their thing on a pretty chilly fall day. And if I had had enough sense to be waiting there quietly in my bass boat the next afternoon with casting rods and blue line Krocs ready to go, I’ll bet they’d have done it again.
But I wasn’t there. My mind had already shifted gears for the season. It was time to go duck hunting, not sunshine fishing. That’s the way it goes.