By Ted Alfermann
Hitting the peak of a fishery can be a once in a lifetime event. The crowds, the buzz, the anticipation, all combine for great memories. Long-time Florida anglers will remember the incredible bass fishing on Lake Jackson (Leon County) in the 1960s and 70s or Lake Okeechobee prior to Hurricane Francis in 2004 — fishing that made even novice fisherman look like Bill Dance or Kevin VanDam. Those moments are few and far between, but one of them is happening right now in the panhandle. And the craziest part? Hardly anyone knows about it.
The time to catch a monster shoal bass and set the mark for a new state record is right now in the Chipola River, located 50 miles west of Tallahassee. In December of 2014, Charles Tucker caught and set the first official state record shoal bass, weighing 4.15 lbs. Just 3 months later on March 8, Tucker Martin caught a 4.49 lb shoal bass. That record stood solo for a total of 9 days when Jamie Coleman contacted FWC with his co-record bass of 4.50 lbs on March 17 (A state record under 5 lbs, must beat the previous record by ¼ ounce). It’s likely that this record will be broken again between now and next spring as shoal bass put on the feed bag for the fall and for spawning in spring, and it’s not a coincidence.
So why now? What makes this past year and the upcoming months the time to catch a giant shoal bass? FWC biologist Andy Strickland explains: “Shoal bass year classes on this river are largely controlled by spring water level. Low-water years produce big year classes while high-water years can result in poor year classes. All the big fish we’re seeing are likely 7, 8 and 9 year old fish from the low water years of 2006, 07,and 08.”
And what about fishing pressure? “Our major user groups on the river are tubers/paddlers and bream fisherman. There isn’t much bass fishing pressure on the river” says Strickland.
For the best chance at catching a giant shoal bass, anglers should fish between Magnolia Landing and Lamb Eddy Landing and pay attention to water levels. The location of these ramps can be found using FWC’s public boat ramp finder at myfwc.com/boatramps. Anglers can access water level data by going to the USGS Real Time Water Data website (waterdata.usgs.gov), clicking on the state of Florida, and then the Marianna gauge. The best time to fish will be when the gauge height is below 7 ft. Small crankbaits and soft plastics will produce numbers of bass. For trophy-sized shoal bass, anglers should throw large spinnerbaits, swimbaits or even large crankbaits, all on 8-10 lb. test monofilament line. Areas of shallow water and rock outcroppings present navigational hazards to boaters, therefore, float trips using small jon boats, canoes, and kayaks will be the most effective and safest way to fish the river.
Upon catching a possible state-record shoal bass, anglers should contact the FWC regional office in Panama City at 850-265-3676 who will dispatch a fisheries biologist to come and verify the fish. If possible, fish should be kept alive in an oxygenated live well and not frozen because it can reduce the weight of the fish when thawed. Anglers should also consider entering the state’s Big Catch angler recognition program if a shoal bass at least 16” or 2 lbs. if caught by an adult or at least 12” or 1.5 lbs. by an angler under the age of 16. FWC’s Big Catch program recognizes exceptional angler catches of over 30 freshwater species. For more information about the program, visit BigCatchFlorida.com.
Hot fisheries don’t last forever. Now’s the time to catch a state-record shoal bass. At the very least, anglers will come away having fished one of the most picturesque rivers in the state and gain an appreciation for one of the most unique fish in the entire Southeastern United States.