On reclaimed phosphate pits, forget everything you know about Florida bass fishing.
Let me give you the secret weapon.” Streamsong Resort guide Bill Read threaded an AirHead on a big offset worm hook and told Alex where to cast it. The lure hit the water and must have sunk right into the face of a big largemouth. The line started moving sideways and Alex set the hook before he had a chance to turn the reel handle. Shortly after, the biggest bass he’d ever caught was in the boat, posing for photos (later added to Streamsong’s Bass Fishing Hall of Fame).
Not too long ago if you wanted to fish for largemouth bass in one of Florida’s reclaimed phosphate pits, you had to be a V.I.P., trespass, or visit Tenoroc. Some new waters have been made available recently, though (see sidebar). If you want to fish in a pit you now have more options than ever. It’s still not a bad thing to be a V.I.P., though.
My son Alex and I fished in the private pits at Streamsong Resort, a luxury golf resort and conference center in Hardee County. The Mosaic Company—a global giant in the production of phosphate-based crop nutrients—developed this 16,000-acre property and opened it in December 2012. Among the attractions is guided bass fishing on a number of one-time mining pits.
Guide Bill Read explained the differences between a phosphate pit and a natural lake. “Most natural lakes in this part of Florida are shaped like bowls, more or less,” he said. “They are deepest in the middle and shallowest at the water’s edge. That’s not true in these phosphate pits. The pits were dug out with enormous shovels, and have roads, and cliffs, and humps, all different kinds of topography to the bottom.
“Our pits have lots of lily pads along the edges. Under the pads the water could be six or eight feet deep. One of the most effective techniques is to work a Texas-rigged soft plastic bait slowly through those lilies, making sure it bounces down the slope as you work it back to the boat.
“A lot of the time you have to fish pits differently than a natural lake, though. For instance, I love using topwater plugs, but have never caught a fish on one in these pits. The bass hold to structure on the bottom of the pit and just don’t seem to be willing to come up to the surface for a lure.
“For bigger bass one of the best techniques is to cast to where an underwater hump is, water that’s six or eight feet deep surrounded by much deeper water. The fish collect on top of those humps. You cast out to where the hump is and leave the bail on the reel open until the bait stops sinking. That way it falls straight down, not in an arc, as it sinks. As you crawl it back you can feel the sinker bouncing off the rocks. But some casts you never get to move the bait before a fish has it.”
Bill had us using all manner of soft-plastic baits—worms of various sizes, jerkbaits, lizards, crayfish, the D.O.A. AirHead, and some weird-looking things with flappers and legs, in a variety of colors. The days we were there purple seemed to work best, but Bill assured us that’s not always the case. He usually puts an unpegged bullet weight of 1/4 or 3/8 ounce in front of the hook.
Bill says he has spent quite a bit of time examining the action of plastic worms in swimming pools. He thinks the unpegged Texas rig works better than pegging the sinker. “If you throw an unpegged Texas rig into the water and watch it, the sinker hits the bottom about eight inches in front of the worm,” he said. “Once the sinker hits, the worm just drifts downward like a dead thing. I get a lot of quality bites before I even start to reel and I think that’s why.”
It certainly worked for Alex.
We never threw any, but Bill likes crankbaits, too, with the Rat-L-Trap being a particular favorite. There are lots of small shad in the pits. You can see them flashing in the green water, and hear the little splats they make at the surface. One bass we caught spit up a couple shad by the boat, so clearly they are an important forage source. Bill’s favorite colors are gold with a black back and silver with a blue back.
Lipped diving plugs work, too. For anglers fishing without electronics, slowly trolling a deep-diving lipped plug is the fastest way to find those underwater humps that the bass like so much.
What Do Bass Eat in Pits?
The phosphate dug from the pits is shipped all over the world for use as fertilizer. The residual phosphates left behind at the end of the mining process fertilize the pit’s ecosystem once the pit fills with water. Because of this fertilizing effect, phosphate pits are often significantly more productive than natural lakes, with higher-than-normal growth rates for bass and other resident fish.
The fertilizer usually causes the pit water to be green with algae.
Filter feeders like threadfin and gizzard shad thrive in this environment and provide an important forage source for bass. Other food sources that bass enjoy in the pits include crayfish, various species of minnows and shiners including golden shiners, and of course all of the various species of sunfish.
The knowledgeable angler chooses his phosphate pit lures with the above factors in mind. Lures that vibrate or make noise help bass find them in the green water.
Fisherman who prefer natural baits would be well advised to choose their bait based on the available forage base.
Oxygen in the Depths
Bill told me to contact Eric Johnson to get more information about pits. Eric is a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission who I’ve known for a long time. He was quite helpful, and gave me some insight as to why the bass lurk where they do.
“As you know, phosphate pits can be as deep as 30 or 40 feet in some areas. Typically, in late spring and throughout the summer months, oxygen levels in pits decline rapidly once you get deeper than 10 feet. I have measured oxygen levels as low as 1.0 parts per million (ppm) at depths of 25 to 35 feet in pits. Most fish need at least three or four ppm to breath comfortably. However, I have caught bass in 25 feet of water on plastic worms and then measured oxygen down there and got readings of 1-2 ppm.
“I have to believe that fish in pits have the ability to adjust their metabolism and breath for a short while at deep depths where there is little oxygen. I have no idea how long they can stay down there in low oxygen environments but they do it. “Most of the fish you will catch will be in 18 feet or less, because oxygen levels are better above 18 feet (probably 4-8 ppm). Once you go deeper, oxygen levels range from only 1 – 3 ppm.”
Making the Adjustment
Pits fish differently than natural lakes. Tossing lures into the vegetation along the banks sometimes works in pits just like it does in natural lakes. When it doesn’t though, you need to find that underwater structure out in the middle on the lake. A depth-sounder is a useful tool here. Again, for anglers fishing without electronics, slowly trolling a deep-diving lipped plug is the fastest way to find those underwater humps. Especially during the summer, most of the bass may be congregated on humps or suspended along vertical drops in water as deep as eight or ten feet.
Fishing Florida phosphate pits will require some adjustment in your usual bass fishing techniques. But the payoff once you figure it out will more than compensate for any frustration encountered while you climb the learning curve. FS
Where Are the Pits?
Tenoroc Fish Management Area:
Two miles northeast of Lakeland. Fourteen lakes of 7 to 227 acres; quality fishing for largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, sunfish and sunshine bass. Boat ramps (some motor restrictions), bank access, restrooms. Daily use fee $3. Open Fri.-Mon., 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 863- 499-2422.
Hardee County Park:
Four phosphate pits managed jointly by Hardee County and FWC. The lakes range from 47 to 120 acres. Open Fri.-Mon., 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. See www.hardeecounty.net.
Medard Park and Reservoir:
About six miles east of Brandon. Fertile and productive impoundment with extensive, irregular shoreline.
Mary Holland Park:
East of the Bartow Civic Center. Three lakes (Heron, Cardinal and Purple Martin) are interconnected. Fishing allowed from shore, piers, and boats (no gas engines permitted).
Saddle Creek Park:
Series of pits on 740 acres off U.S. 92 east of Lakeland. Boat ramps and bank fishing for largemouth bass, channel catfish and bluegill. Phillips Bait and Tackle is located in the park; call 863-666-2248.
Lake Crago Park:
Sixty-acre pit off SR 33 in Lakeland. Bass, channel catfish, crappie, sunshine bass. Averages 13 feet deep. Idle speed/no-wake zone. Three boat ramps access Lake Crago via Lake Parker.
Private waters near Bartow. To book a fishing trip, contact J.B. Edwards at 901-488-6837, 863-285-2434, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Private waters near Fort Meade; www.streamsongresort.com, 863-428-1000. Mosaic Fish Management Area: About 2 miles south of Fort Meade. High-quality reclaimed lakes and several mine-pit lakes. Open Fri.-Mon. Call 863-648-3200.
Bienville Plantation: Private collection of 12 mineral-rich, reclaimed phosphate lakes near White Springs. Trophy largemouth bass, crappie and sunfish. Half-day and full-day guided fishing. Also lodging and dining; www.bienville.com, 386-397-1989.