If you can’t catch a 6-pound bass on this lake near Vero Beach, something’s wrong.
What happens when you rear back into the biggest bass of your life, it dives into a hydrilla mat, and your premium grade hook snaps in half? You bite your lower lip, rig another plastic worm with shaky fingers, and keep casting, if you know what’s good for you. Especially when drifting across the amazing Stick Marsh near Vero Beach.
Veteran guide Jim Porter could only shake his head, and said he’d never seen such a thing happen. “There’s plenty more fish out here—the very next cast can produce a 10- or 11-pounder, you just never know,” he said
Porter has seen a few trophy fish in his time here, like a thousand or so. Even before this all-release bass lake opened to the public in early 1991, he was asked by state biologists to test-fish this virgin impoundment, a task few could ignore. They had to launch an unsteady Gheenoe from a levee, probing several miles of thick vegetation. There were no complaints, however, just steady action on 3- and 4-pound bass.
Today, the lake, which is really a flooded marsh with small trees that turned into knobs just below the surface, has matured but remains incredibly productive. It’s widely believed to be the best bass lake in Florida, and as they say in Georgia, “that ain’t bad.” Other fish abound, as well. In spring, fat 1-pound shellcrackers and bluegills bed up in tremendous schools, with rapid-fire action for those tossing Beetle Spins. Even the catfish population is said to be phenomenal, mostly white bullheads that grow a little bigger than three pounds. (Jim has nailed lots of these catfish on all sorts of bait, ranging from apples to shrimp, but he says sharp cheddar cheese is his favorite).
The Stick Marsh and connected Farm 13, similar impoundments of 2,000 acres connected by a deep canal, have surprisingly little boat traffic during much of the year, except winter and early spring. After March, boat traffic on these two lakes begins to dry up. Why? Because those anglers with homes far to the north (in the parlance of our times) depart for cooler temperatures. The car-topper boats vanish.
This past spring was pleasant and cool, however, with few boats and lots of wind, which is exactly what Jim prefers. Protected by levees and dampened by extensive hydrilla, these two blackwater lakes were amazingly calm in a 25-knot east wind. We drifted over hydrilla weeds only two to four feet below the surface, tossing his short, salty, plastic worms way downwind. To slow our drift, we deployed a 4-foot plastic drift anchor from the bow. This kept the boat exactly broadside to the wind, allowing equal casting chances for everyone on board. The trolling motor we used on occasion to adjust the drift to accommodate a choice tree as we drifted by, or sometimes to ease up quickly on a big bass that had buried itself in hydrilla.
With a huge fish hooked but buried in the weed, the trick is to position directly overhead, grab the line and gently pull upwards, and net the fish just as it pops up. This works like a charm if the fish is well hooked and the hook is strong, and the bass actually fits in the net, which they sometimes don’t in these waters. If you miss with the net, a big fish will lunge away and get into all sorts of mischief under your boat, or around a stump.
Twice, Jim has netted 15-pounders on this lake, and he’s seen fish that were bigger. Some that were 30 inches long would only fit half their bulk in his landing net. For that reason, these two lakes almost demand saltwater landing nets. “Oh yeah,” he says, “there are some hogs in this lake. We saw one recently that left us shaking our heads. We’ve seen him three times, and we know where he lives.”
At one point, both of us were hooked up to 4- and 6-pound bass, a bonafide doubleheader on head-shakers, each one lathering the surface white in dark water. I advised Jim to drop the mushroom anchor, certain this spot might hold even more fish. He did so, but somehow after that minor distraction, both fish were lost. A few casts later, as the boat resumed its drift, I was hard into an estimated 9-pounder that had the length-to-girth ratio of a cinder block. It nearly cleared the water, dove down into the weeds, then broke the hook after we stopped the boat just above.
We were determined to get something bigger than the casual 4-pounders we both caught on the first drift. We went through almost two dozen fish from one to three pounds, but another big fish evaded us. Perhaps the cows were lying down in the fields? “Nah,” said Jim, “you’ve just got to drag it past a ‘big ’un’.”
We were fast-jigging with short, stubby saltwater worms that have no action whatsoever, but sink on their own accord without a lead weight—something local fish prefer. Doing so all day (jigging almost twice per second) requires a light, 5-foot spin rod with medium to heavy action. We were using no-stretch, 14-pound Spiderwire line tied directly to the worm. Slamming those worms into solid fish was satisfying work.
We had to get off the lake early in the afternoon, but we finally got our fish when Jim hauled back on one that would weigh exactly seven pounds. At the time I was landing a 2-pounder when he yelled for the net. I hastily unhooked my fish and tossed it willy-nilly overboard with one hand, while groping around for the net. His bass surfaced from the weedmat alongside us like a black U-Boat, and it took me two desperate, weedy digs with the landing net (while using harsh language) before that fish was finally subdued. It was in prime shape with glaring eyes, the nightmare of every frog on that lake.
When we weren’t tossing worms a mile downwind, we picked up his short, ultralight spin tackle and flicked some green Beetle Spins. We concentrated in one spot, where a school of these fish had been only two days prior. We caught seven or eight fine fish of a pound or so that put up a commendable fight when matched against the right tackle. I was in favor of saving a few for two guys with canepoles back at the ramp, so we popped these fish into the livewell. However, when we returned, the entire parking lot was deserted, so the fish were released.
As were the bass, of course, since this all-release lake requires that bass go back immediately. That and the lack of tournaments here (can’t have much of a weigh-in without fish) means these two marshy lakes are much more Old Florida than one would believe still possible today.
Normal November fishing in the Stick Marsh finds the bass feeding heavily in preparation for the spawn, which starts in mid-December and lasts through the last of February.
Crappie also start to turn on as the water cools. Bass are very active on topwater baits early and late. Jerkbaits are great, fished with lots of action. The slow pull and drop method also works fine, too.
On the Farm 13 side, the grass will still be heavy from the hot summer season, so the key will be to find areas of submerged grass. The next pattern will be to fish jerkbaits in holes in the grass, along any points of grass that project from a large grassbed, and around grasslines around levees or submerged canals.
The Stick Marsh portion is best on the western half, out over the submerged wood. There will be some minor submerged grassbeds in the wood in places. When the jerkbait comes up with a piece of grass, or if a bass is caught, toss out a float marker and work that area hard. The bass will key to grass down there, no matter how sparse, because there just isn’t much of it. Soft plastics in Junebug and in green pumpkin are Jim Porter’s favorites. He uses salt-impregnated worms, which are handy, sinking without the addition of a lead weight.
Spinnerbaits in white or chartreuse, as well as shallow crank plugs, do well as long as they’re compatible with the grass at the location being fished. Other favorites are poppers such as the Storm Chug Bug and Rebel Pop-R. A Rat-L-Trap or other lipless crankbait is super where submerged grass is 3 to 5 feet below the surface.
Finding the Stick Mash isn’t difficult. Anglers approaching from south of Vero Beach on Interstate 95 can take the Sebastian-Fellsmere exit, heading west on Highway 512 to Fellsmere. At the blinking yellow light in that town, turn right and go north on Highway 507. After almost 4 miles, you reach the C-54 canal. Don’t cross the canal, but turn left (west) and follow the canal along the dirt road for 5.5 miles. It ends at the boat ramp.
When approaching from north of Vero, take the Palm Bay-Malabar exit, and go east on Malabar Road only one third of a mile. At the intersection, turn right on Babcock Road (Highway 507) and go 12 miles to the C-54 canal. Cross the bridge and turn right on the dirt road.
For maps, motels and other information about the lake, go try Jim Porter’s Web site at www.stickmarsh.com.
Hurricane Update on Stick Marsh
The recent passage of hurricanes has all of the dead trees down in the Stick Marsh lakes, though there weren’t that many left to begin with. A few live palm trees fell around the lake’s perimeter, as well. Water levels were high. Lots of water in also means lots of water out.
Strong currents at the incoming gates attracted bass, crappie and catfish by the hundreds, feeding on baitfish that also gathered. Since water was also being dumped out of the marsh at a high volume, the whole impoundment was basically in a state of current flow. Submerged canals on the Farm side, with paths of least resistance, had very good moving water. With a moving water situation, each and every intersection of the canals, as well as the north ends, carried stacks of bass. The big opening from the Farm 13 side into the Stick Marsh proper (on the west end) was the only path for the flowing water through the place. Bass sat in feeding schools all along that opening, as it was right on a big submerged canal that runs its length.
The water then flowed out of the Stick Marsh through an opening in the tree line, right by the boat ramp. That opening had some super hot action. In addition to these specific spots, the moving water also caused a tremendous amount of surface action, with bass chasing shiners and shad everywhere.
“With such a rise in water volume, it’s awesome when the water gets like this. I verified this action with two other guides that work the lake,” guide Jim Porter said.