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Small Lake Bass

Small lake bass fishing in Florida offers a lot of promise. Picking the right lake is key.

Nice drainage lake bass taken in mixed hydrilla and pads.

Reno Alley wheeled us into a small boat ramp off a side street in Haines City and we quickly launched his 18-foot bass rig. Sixty seconds later, we made our first cast. We weren’t more than a modest rifle shot from the ramp and never needed to put the boat on plane to get there. Within minutes we boated a fat 3-pound bass, and that was the start of a steady parade of fish. By the time an early afternoon thunderstorm ended our day, we had tallied over 20 bass. The best was pushing 7 pounds.

I doubt if we burned a quart of gas. Most of the time, the trolling motor provided all the propulsion we needed on the 450-acre lake.

Big lakes garner a lot of publicity, but the dozen best-known big lakes in Florida are dwarfed by the 7,000 named lakes, rivers and ponds that share the peninsula with them. That’s a lot of fishing water that a lot of anglers ignore, and many are easy to access. Polk County, for example, has over 500 small lakes in the 200- to 500-acre range, and most have excellent county-maintained ramps. The same situation occurs in many other areas of the state. In a lot of cases, you can pull your boat up to the ramp on a Saturday morning and have little, if any, company. Alley, who operates Memory Makin’ Guide Service from his home in Frostproof, likes that.

Reno Alley gets away from the crowds and into the fish.

The Small Lake Advantage

“Big lakes have a lot of water,” says Alley, who has been guiding and fishing tournaments in central Florida for over 22 years, “but they also get a lot of pressure. Some have a tournament on them virtually every weekend, and those anglers who fish those tournaments spend a lot of non-tournament time on the lake to keep up with the fish. The result is that the bass are looking at a lure darn near every day of the week.”

With high usage also comes congested ramps, limited parking and a lot of boats vying for the best spots. But, just a few miles away there could be a small lake that may not have seen an angler in weeks.
“First thing I do on any small lake I’m considering is to just idle around the lake and look,” explains Alley. “If I see a lot of docks with a lot of boats, I can figure that the lake gets pounded pretty regularly. This is especially true if there is an RV park or mobile home park on the lake. That indicates retirees, who spend a lot of time fishing. I won’t waste time on lakes like this because there are plenty of others that get little pressure that I can look at.”

Once a lake passes that basic test, Alley will get down to finding bass. Given the smaller waters, that’s not that difficult to do because prime cover is not abundant. Locate the key areas and you can expect to find fish there on subsequent trips.

The key areas depend upon the type of small lake you are fishing. There are two basic types in Florida: drainage lakes and sinkhole lakes. Each presents a different habitat and the techniques for finding bass are different.

Drainage Lakes

These are characterized by being somewhat “soup bowl” in shape, with very gradual depth contours and little in the way of offshore structure. Relatively shallow, maximum midlake depths seldom exceed 12 feet, and many (especially in coastal and northern portions of the state) have stained water that prohibits the growth of vegetation much below six or seven feet, although some may have offshore hydrilla.

If offshore hydrilla is not present, the fish-holding cover will be the littoral zone. Most drainage lakes are rimmed with shallow vegetation extending outward to a defined weedline in five to seven feet of water. Bass on these lakes don’t live deep and move shallow to feed. They live shallow and move to outer weedlines to feed.

Locating drainage lake bass is simple. I like to stick a 6-inch shiner four feet under a float, toss it 50 feet behind the boat, put the trolling motor on slow speed, bring the boat to within 10 feet of the outer weedline, and then just circle the lake. Note every place you get a strike—or, where the shiner just went ballistic. Either indicates that bass are there. The shiner is your “bird dog.” You can learn more about a drainage lake in one day slow-trolling shiners than you can in a week of casting lures.

If shiners are not an option, toss a 5-inch hard-plastic jerkbait (Bomber Long A, Rapala, Yo-Zuri, Sebile, etc.) 60 or so feet behind the boat and slowly troll the edge under outboard power.

Once you find active areas, expect bass to move to outer edges (especially vegetation points extending to deeper water) early and late and retreat to shallow overhead cover at midday. Topwater lures, countdown crankbaits and jerkbaits are excellent choices on the outer edges. Inside, opt for weedless soft-plastic jerkbaits, frogs, spinnerbaits, and flipping soft-plastic lures.

The only real exception to this is if offshore hydrilla is present. In that case, find it! During the extremes of heat or cold this becomes prime bass habitat.

Circular sinkhole lakes dot the terrain near Avon Park. In foreground, Glenada and Lelia.

Sinkhole Lakes

Often fed by one or more deep springs, sinkhole lakes are characterized by a narrow littoral zone; water clarity ranging from clear to slightly stained; and a wealth of offshore structure in the form of bars, drops and holes, some as deep as 30 feet. Given the clarity, vegetation such as eelgrass, shrimp grass, hydrilla and milfoil can easily grow deeper than 10 feet, and often does. There are a lot of these lakes along the Florida Ridge and in phosphate country. And, bass don’t live shallow in these lakes.

“Unless the bass are actually spawning,” Alley notes, “fishing bankside vegetation is largely a waste of time, because the mature bass are going to be holding on offshore structure.”

Locating offshore structure on a big lake can take time. Smaller lakes are easier.

“If I’m prospecting a new lake,” says Alley, “I’ll spend an hour or so just idling around watching the depthfinder. On all of these sinkhole lakes it comes down to deeper water structure, drops and cover on them. The bass will stay deep, but they want to be around something—grass, a drop, a hole or a hump.”
A key fish-holding area on any of these lakes is where eelgrass, milfoil or other submerged vegetation grows on a 6- to 10-foot flat that ends with a distinct drop to deeper water. That becomes a feeding area and bass will maintain their depth, but move along that drop and slide up onto the grassflat to feed. Spring holes are also excellent, especially during extremes of heat and cold. Most such cover will be well-removed from shoreline vegetation. But, there is one exception where fishing shoreline cover can pay off—manmade dredge holes.

A number of lakes have dredge holes. They may be located close to the ramp, or next to someone’s backyard. This is where fill sand was removed to build the ramp or level a lawn, and the resulting hole has sharp drops and good depth that provides a deepwater refuge close to shore. Bass can live here and move to the nearest weedline to feed early and late in the day. This is one case where bass and grass can mix when the fish are not spawning.

The tactics for locating bass are different, and so are the best ways to catch them. Clearer water is best handled by lighter lines (8- to 12-pound mono). Carolina worm rigs, or compact Texas-rigged worms, are ideal for probing deeper grassbeds. Bass on these lakes also school on the surface at times, making compact topwater plugs and countdown crankbaits a good choice.

Finding small lakes with ramps isn’t difficult. Most county maps will show them. If in doubt about the facilities, call the county parks department or the nearest FWC office. You may have to sort through a dozen lakes to find a couple of prime ones, but it’s time well spent. Find a few good lakes close to home, and you can have excellent fishing throughout the year. Less can truly be best when it comes to small lake bass. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman November 2009