Golf Course Bass Fishing

Any way you slice it, golf course ponds can be prime sites for hooking largemouths.

Some courses authorize, or even encourage, fishing. Writer Doug Kelly wets a line at Innisbrook, hoping for a bass like the one below.

I learned to enjoy the best of both worlds long ago as a caddy at the Doral Open in Miami. After lugging around the bag for Julius Boros during a practice round, we small-talked a bit until the conversation swung to our mutual fondness for fishing. Boros said he always brought along his tackle for tournament sites where bass and bream filled the water hazards. Accordingly we rendezvoused an hour later near the tenth green at Doral’s Blue Monster course with rods in hand.

By dark we’d released a dozen bass up to three pounds and oodles of chunky bluegills while casting small chuggers and plastic worms. Thereafter we looked forward to hitting the lakes after each round of golf.

Boros wasn’t the only pro wetting a line around the course that week. Most preferred to fish alone, letting the calm, waterside tranquility diffuse the pressures of tournament play. However, at one point Sam Snead sauntered over with his plug rod, telling us one joke after another, keeping us in stitches and somewhat distracted as we competed to see who could catch the most fish (Snead did). It’s a scenario played out similarly nearly every week now on the PGA Tour. While many Florida-based tour veterans such as Ray Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, Greg Norman, Andy Bean, Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger consider fishing their favorite avocation, so too do numerous club pros and tens of thousands of amateur golfers such as myself.

Since that memorable experience with Boros, I’ve often doubled the fun by planning golf vacations and even one-day outings on courses that allow bass fishing. Such was the case on a memorable trip last year to Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida. I’d heard the bass fishing in the resort’s extensive lakes was spectacular, and the prospect of teeing it up at the famed Copperhead course and then jousting with lunker bass lit my fire. In fact, I scheduled an entire day of the three-day visit just to fish and the sticks stayed in the trunk.

Of Innisbrook’s five golf courses, the best bassin’ occurs around Lake Innisbrook, which borders the first six holes of the Island course. Other productive sites include the tenth tee of the Island course, the third hole of the North course and the pond by hole 18 of the Island course near the side of the clubhouse where several 10-pounders have been caught. In addition, a parking lot on the side of Lake Innisbrook is adjacent to the first fairway of the Island course. The reed patches hold plenty of bass and bream just 30 or so feet from your car.

Frogs are can't-miss lures, attracting bass along grassy shorelines.

I mainly concentrated on the waterway along the left side of the first hole, particularly a grassy point midway to the green or the cart-path bridge from the green to the second tee. Bric-a-brac surrounds the bridge culvert and a surprising flow of water gushes through it, providing eddies on the down-current side that serve as no-brainer ambush points. I worked a small topwater chugger (my favorite bass lure) along the calm eddy edges and only the rare retrieve didn’t draw a hit or at least little-guy follows.

Rigging for golf course fishing is no different from elsewhere, with everything in play from livies such as worms, crickets and shiners to plastic imitators. I tried a weedless frog across the outer bases of reed stands at Innisbrook and instantly nabbed a 2-pound bass. The setting—as on many golf courses—also looked ideal for flyfishing, with the characteristic open terrain posing no obstacles to back-casts.

As a general rule, early mornings and late afternoons will see more fishing action than midday, plus fewer golf balls will be in the air. Among courses which are open to fishing, you’ll find the policy is usually catch-and-release. That was the case at Innisbrook. Fishermen are advised to exercise proper etiquette—remaining quiet and staying out of the way —as golfers play through.

One nice advantage to these settings: Fish don’t spook easily. They’re accustomed to angry golfers tromping by looking for lost balls or riding carts near the banks. You can approach most bodies of water with all the grace of Godzilla and unless you walk directly upon fish, they stay put. Relatively little angling pressure on golf courses also often relates to better than off-course action.

Doug Schmidt, Director of Business Development at Innisbrook, doesn’t know if the lakes were previously stocked, but he did relate a nuance for which few other courses can boast.

“While there’s a healthy bass population in the lakes, we utilize an environmentally safe water waste system that also allows connecting via a berm to the Gulf of Mexico to adjust water levels. That means we also have saltwater species enter our waters at times. More than once while fishing near the berm I hooked what I thought to be a big bass and instead it turned out to be a huge snook or red.”

Schmidt favors a 4/0 hook in a slow-sinking plastic worm. He also stated that Innisbrook waterways vary in depth down to 30 feet, providing a variety of habitats with an abundance of forage such as tilapia, minnows and bream. This all comes together to frequently produce outlandish rushes of action. Case in point: Tour pro Jason Gore once found himself lugging his own golf bag during a practice round because his caddy didn’t want to leave a frenzied session of multiple hookups that included three bass over six pounds. Although the fine bassin’ at many Florida golf resorts and country clubs isn’t well-known, it’s attracted a growing legion of devotees.

I met one such fellow from Miami (who asked to remain nameless) who visits Innisbrook three times a year with his wife. He fishes all day, she relaxes by the pool and reads. He swears he’s never been skunked by always employing the same rig and method: A weighted chartreuse plastic worm cast 30 feet from shore, left on the bottom and only occasionally twitched.

Look close, and you'll see those are fishing sticks in the back of that cart.

The word about Innisbrook’s fishing assets hasn’t escaped the corporate world, either. Conferences are popular here and many attendees fish before and after meetings—some even during lunch breaks. Notable visitors include some members of the Hemingway family, who hold reunions here mainly to fish the Island course when it’s closed periodically for maintenance. You don’t even need to lug around your own fishing gear – at the resort’s recreational center you can rent a rod for as little as six bucks and also receive a small plastic tackle box loaded with lures, hooks, split-shot and bobbers. Hey, they want you to fish here.

Some of the best golf course anglers start at a young age, such as 17-year-old Derrick McMann from Orlando. As a youngster he cut his teeth with a canepole fishing at a municipal course. I witnessed McMann fishing nearby on Lake Innisbrook and his rod stayed bent constantly. It lit me up like an anteater finding a termite mound, but alas I caught very little. McMann noticed my futility and rubbed it in after each of his fish strikes by screeching, “Boom chicka wow wow” and then back-of-the-hand snickering. I felt like taking a sand wedge to the kid after hearing that refrain for about the tenth time, but quickly repressed it and instead retreated to another fishing spot.

Golfers at a club in Daytona Beach get their fishing Jones sated with special tournaments. Pelican Bay Country Club—which sports two courses with water access on nearly every hole—periodically sponsors a “Fins and Skins” tournament from May through September. The format entails teams of fivesomes playing a regular scramble format, but one of the five must fish each hole until the team holes out. Cell phone pics and a yardstick provide proof of catches. Strokes are taken off the final scorecards based on the number and size of the fish caught.

“It’s been a great event for us and a new market we’ve tap into,” said Steve Francis, Assistant Pro at Pelican Bay. “It’s so popular that the same teams return over and over along with a growing number of new participants.”

Florida Sportsman Contributing Editor Terry Lacoss reports that salt- and freshwater fish flow through the creeks connecting golf courses at Omni’s Amelia Island Plantation near the border of northeast Florida and Georgia. “Reds up to 15 pounds and tarpon to 40 pounds can be caught right along with bass,” said Lacoss. He recommends the lagoon bordering holes six, seven and eight on the Oak Marsh course for a mixed bag, and for pure largemouth action casting plugs and flies in 50-acre Red Maple Lake on the Ocean Links course.

Some would argue that golf requires more talent than fishing. Having quite a bit of experience with both sports, I concur that landing a weedless worm across a line of lily pads proves an easier challenge than hitting a high fade with a one-iron to a well-bunkered green. But that’s a dubious debate anyway—bass masters consistently rack up more catches than less gifted anglers regardless of their handicaps.

Author tees up at Innisbrook. Not too worried about water hazards, obviously.

The fact is, when playing a bass-laden golf course I often daydream about a pot-bellied bass crashing my chugger; when fishing for largemouths I frequently fantasize about crushing a tee shot past Tiger Woods. Such is the neurotic dichotomy of a golfer-fisher. It matters not if you’ve never broken 90 or can’t get a nibble in a school of starving stumpknockers— the only simultaneous cure is a visit to a fishy golf course. FS

Into the Fish at Innisbrook

Those who prefer an upscale golf resort where bass fishing reigns supreme will find that Innisbrook fits the bill. The golf is top-notch with the Copperhead and Island courses–both host sites for PGA and LPGA Tour events–regularly rating among the best in the nation. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with a wide choice of one- and two-bedroom suites, villas, guest and executive suites and vacation rental homes. Innisbrook also offers tennis, a superb series of golf instructional institutes and the Indaba Spa. Nothing tops the relaxation of a nice side-by-side couples massage after a day of golfing and fishing.

The resort’s restaurants feature informal grills with outdoor patios overlooking the golf courses, a market offering specialty foods, a festive pub and a snazzy sports bar, and Packard’s Steakhouse, which is as close to carnivore heaven as one can get.

The green sweep of the Innisbrook courses, the deserts of white-sand bunkers and the labyrinth of ponds that reflect bordering oak and cypress trees are entrancing. Superb bass fishing amid plentiful birdlife on an upscale resort is icing on the éclair. For details on rates and packages contact Innisbrook at 888-794-8627 or visit www.innisbrookgolfresort.com.

Fishing and Fairways

Here’s an alphabetized list of my Top 11 Florida clubs and resorts that allow fishing and possess good to excellent bass waters. Most sites are members only. If you’re not a member, it’s wise to befriend one and fish as a guest. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to join a club as a member for access – staying as a vacation guest as I do, for even one night, punches your ticket to fishing.

Some clubs allow non-members to patronize restaurants and other facilities, which sometimes includes fishing. Get in touch first to get the details. If a resort or country club is too pricey for you, check with municipal courses in your area. In all cases, being courteous to golfers and never leaving any debris, fishing line or other messes behind ensures continued access.

1. Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach
2. Doral Golf Resort in Miami
3. Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor
4. Jacksonville Golf & Country
5. Okeechobee Golf & Country Club
6. Omni’s Amelia Island Plantation in Amelia Island
7. Pelican Bay Country Club in Daytona Beach (open to public)
8. Pensacola Country Club
9. Quail Valley Golf Club in Sebastian
10. Stoneybrook Golf & Country Club in Sarasota
11. Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart

First Published Florida Sportsman December 2013