Off the chain fishing, on the chain.
Looking down into water that resembled the crystal clear salt water of the Keys, I had almost forgotten where I was: 60 miles inland of the coast, bass fishing! That was of course until I noticed a 4-pounder swim by. With its gin clear water, cypress swamps and superb fishing, the Butler Chain of lakes has a lot to offer the angler. The most impressive thing is that this beautiful collection of waters is found smack dab in the concrete jungle of Orlando. The chain is 4,927 acres and consists of 11 interconnecting lakes,Lake Butler, Lake Tibet, Lake Down, Lake Sheen, Lake Louise, Lake Chase, Pocket Lake, Lake Blanche, Wauseon Bay, Lake Isleworth and Little Fish Lake. Butler is the biggest of the bunch, hence the collective title, Butler Chain.
Making the Connections
The links in the Butler Chain are actually the result of human activity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, local timber companies harvested the cypress and other trees for lumber from around these lakes. There was only one problem: getting these logs to where they needed to be was very difficult. The timber companies decided to cut canals from lake to lake for easier transport, connecting all 11.
Clean and Clear, For a Reason
I recently fished the Butler Chain with Capt. Chuck Pippin (Chucksguideservice.com) and Capt. Ed Zyak of D.O.A. Lures. The first thing you will notice when fishing here is the clarity of this body of water. It’s stunning, with visibility to 25 feet in some places. “Keep your eyes peeled for fish swimming by,” said Pippen. Sure enough, within a minute, there were fish cruising by us as if we weren’t even there. We were able to drop our lures to a few of these fish watch them suck down our baits. In another spot, Chuck kept pointing out sand spots in 12 to 15 feet of water. Come to find out these were deep water bass beds. Unfortunately we were a little late in the season to target these fish, but it was still very cool to see.
The Department of Environmental Protection deemed the Butler Chain as “Outstanding Florida Waters.” Due to its natural attributes, the Butler chain is worthy of special protection under the set of laws applied with the “Outstanding Florida Waters.” In a nutshell, these laws prevent anybody from polluting or causing potential harm to the lakes and the associated ecosystem.
Deep Water Dwellers
A favorite tactic amongst Florida bass anglers is targeting the shoreline, whether it’s with a topwater frog, or with a jig. Fishing the shorelines is productive, but the Butler Chain secrets lie in the deep water.
Chuck explained beforehand that the fish were responding well to a weightless, wacky rigged finesse worm in previous days. The bait of choice was D.O.A’s new 5-inch finesse worm. The dense plastic and salt of these finesse worms allows for a perfect falling rate throughout the water column, and even the most lethargic of fish have a hard time passing it up. Color-wise, darker, more natural colors were working the best, due to the clarity of the water. Black/blue fleck and avocado/red fleck produced the most fish.
Karst topography played a major role in the formation of these lakes. Over time acidic ground water causes erosion of the soil and sedimentary rock (in this case limestone), forming sinkholes. Deep depressions and sharp dropoffs found throughout the chain reflect this. These spots offer a great place for fish to stage. The fish tend suspend along these depressions and dropoffs. Once you find the right depth the fish are holding at, the fishing can get good, fast. If you are fishing with a buddy, fish two different baits, at different depths, until you figure out what they are keyed in on that day.
When Chuck, Ed and I fished the lake we were fishing close to these edges and dropoffs, but were doing something a little different. Often times you will find isolated peppergrass beds in this deeper water. Not only is this a home for the bass, but this is also a great ambush point for them as well. “Six years ago, we never had pepper grass beds like this. Now they are a year-round spot, with them thickening in the summertime,” says Pippen. Once finding this submerged vegetation, Chuck would position the boat adjacent to it, staying 50 to 60 feet off of the edge. We would cast the wacky rigged worms up to the edge and just let them fall. Often times we would get a bite almost immediately on the fall before even clicking our reels into gear. These fish were quick to come out of the vegetation and ambush our baits. A few times these fish would bust in the middle of the weeds, and if you were fast enough, you could toss your worm right to where it busted and hook up.
If you happen to be cruising the Butler Chain and come across a school of bass busting on the surface, chances are they are feeding on a school of shad. There is a good population of shad on these lakes and they are a big part of the bass’ diet year round. When scanning the lakes you can see these schools of shad on the surface; the bass are usually close behind. Often times these fish are “schoolie” size fish in the 1- to 3-pound range, but don’t be surprised to hook an eight pounder below the school. These bass are fired up and are not too picky on what they eat, as long as it has some resemblance to a shad. My favorite way to target them is with a topwater walking plug. Casting past the school and working the lure fast will often cause an angry largemouth to come cartwheeling out of the water for your offering. There is really no rhyme or reason to where these shad will be in terms of depth; some days the school can be in six feet of water, some days in 25 feet.
As the bass are working these bait schools from the below, there are often pelicans and seagulls working them from above. It’s similar to a saltwater bait blitz off of the beach, with all the predators enjoying an easy meal. These birds are residential and will feed on these shad year-round as well.
Bass aren’t the only fish to be caught on the Chain. The crappie and bluegill fishery is great and can be a good resort if the bass bite is slow. You will often find the crappie in close vicinity to the bass. Crappie favor the deeper water and can be caught on live minnows and crappie jigs. Trolling isn’t a bad option for covering a lot of water until you find where the fish are. With the supreme water quality of the Butler Chain, you can assure your catch to be as tasty as they come!
One of the first things I noticed when fishing the lake is the amount of long nosed gar there were. These fish will swim right up to the boat and will pretty much eat anything. They can be fun to catch, but watch out for their teeth. They are as sharp as razors and can do some damage. Chuck informed that seeing these gar is a good sign when fishing an area. Typically when you find the gar; you will find the bass close by.
There is only one public launch into the Butler Chain. R.D. Keene Park is located on Lake Isleworth and has a $5 a day fee for usage of the ramp, with parking for up to 49 vehicles and trailers. Park hours are 6:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. in summer, and 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. in winter.
Another way you can fish these lakes is by renting a boat. Whether you want to rent a pontoon boat for family fishing or a bass boat for a day out with the buddies, there are rental companies that will cater to your boating needs. If you get the opportunity, rent a boat on a weekday, there is much less boat traffic.
Since most fishing done on the Butler Chain is a finesse style approach and you don’t have to worry about losing fish to structure, you are able to fish light tackle. A 7-foot, medium-action baitcasting setup will suffice. Line wise; they all work for this style of fishing, monofilament, braid and fluorocarbon. Although, if you are trying to suspend a bait slower, fish monofilament. If you want to get your bait down to the deep water fast, fish fluorocarbon. Twelve-pound mainline is a good starting point, since the water is so clear, try to avoid bright colored lines such as orange and yellow. FS
First published Florida Sportsman September 2015