May 16, 2011
Bassin' the Ditch.
Let's be honest: With the exception of spawning season, rarely do we find trophy bass hiding under lily pads in two feet of water. Once a bass reaches the 5- to 6-pound size range, it's an upper-level predator that fears little and wants to eat big. They don't spend much time hiding in the shallows and chasing 2-inch minnows. Big bass are big-water fish, where they can grab a big meal, like a crappie, bluegill, or gizzard shad, in one mouthful. On most Florida waters, the biggest bass spend most of their life in the deeper waters, or on deeper cover edges, and only venture shallow to spawn, or briefly to feed.
For a textbook study of tactics for catching those deep fish, check out the channelized upper Kissimmee River in central Florida.
Fishing on the so-called “Ditch,” guide Dick Loupe and I opened a few doors—literally—into the habits of open-water bass.
It started with the lock at Turkey Hammock, which we passed through to reach the river from the ramp on the lake side. When the doors opened, we were greeted by a wad of feeding bass.
“Every time they run these locks, you'll get some fish to go into a quick feed,” explained Loupe, head guide at Westgate River Ranch, located just a few miles below Turkey Hammock. “It usually doesn't last more than 30 minutes or so, but if you happen to be sitting on fish at the time, it can be fun.”
Loupe explained that the 13 or so miles of Kissimmee River between Turkey Hammock and the next downstream lock is one of the better places to target 10-pound-plus bass.
“I've caught a number of them up to 12 pounds and had customers have fish on—that I saw—that I'm certain would have gone over 15 pounds,” he said.
As good as the fishing is, I should point out that the Kissimmee Ditch represents something of an environmental scar on the Florida landscape. The original river wound like a snake through countless acres of prime pastureland, with numerous creeks flowing into it. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a straight line through the snake's coils. The result was a series of oxbows—the original river channel—that connect with the Ditch, wind through flatlands for miles, and then re-enter.
Many of the oxbows on the east shore are overgrown and not passable by boat. But, they are still prime shallow cover for juvenile fish and great spawning sites. Those on the west side are clearer. Some have silted in and provide two to three feet of channel water, but are dotted with deeper holes up to 12 feet. Others have channel depths to eight feet. All are lined with vegetation and fallen trees. Add the inflowing creeks, and there is plenty of sheltered water for juvenile fish, and for mature fish to spawn in.
The Corps has back-filled some stretches of the channel to restore the natural flood plain, but some 13 miles of Ditch remain at the 29- or 30-foot mark. There's a lot of deep water and plenty of full-size prey, especially with the baitfish washing in from Lake Kissimmee over the spillway or through the locks. That deep water also serves as an excellent buffer zone in times of extreme heat, cold or drought, which gives bass time to reach trophy size.
Angling pressure is light, another factor which allows bass to mature.
“The only time you get heavy boating traffic,” says Loupe, “is on a nice weekend. And, those folks are just running up and down the Ditch enjoying the water. Anglers are few and far between. I can fish three or four days in the middle of the week and count the fishing boats I see that whole time on one hand.”
As to strategy, Loupe says, “Shiners are the best way to take trophy bass, and in the Ditch, the most effective way to get one in front of a bass is to slow-troll them right along the edge of the shoreline cover.”
There is a wealth of shoreline cover consisting of Kissimmee grass, gator grass, pencil reeds and lily pads. They grow on shallow shelves in two to four feet of water. Immediately outside of that is the first drop to the channel, which in most places will be 15 to 18 feet. Just outside of that is the main channel drop to 29 or 30 feet. Bass may be on the grass line, the first drop or the second drop.
With a trolling spread not far removed from the saltwater kingfish circuit, Loupe covers all three spots at the same time. Here's how:
• First bring the boat to within kissing distance of the grass line.
• Put one shiner on a float rig right on the edge of the grass and within 20 feet of the boat.
• Drop a second shiner over the stern about 50 feet behind the boat, sans float and with a 1/8-ounce bullet weight slipped onto the line.
• Rig a third shiner to the outside, farther back than the stern bait, with a 1/4-ounce weight.
• Using the trolling motor on low speed, drag baits along the edge.
While shiners are a top choice for bigger bass, lures will often score more numbers. There are several tactics that will produce.
One of Loupe's favorites is to parallel the grass line with a deep-diving (10 or 12 feet) crankbait in chrome/blue back or Tennessee shad. By fan casting ahead of the boat and spacing his casts from the grass line to 30 feet outside it, he can determine which drop the bass are holding on that day. This works anywhere in the Ditch, but some spots are key.
“The mouths of the oxbows and creeks can be a goldmine, especially if they are releasing water from Kissimmee and there is a current,” Loupe explains. “Most of these have a small submerged point coming off of them and bass can stack up on those points. Banging a crankbait over those points can really produce some action.”
In dim light, or when clouds and wind predominate, bass often move up tight to the shallow grass line. Quick-cranking a countdown crankbait (like a Rat-L-Trap, Sugar Shad or similar lure) can be deadly. If those conditions occur during the January through April spawning cycle, Loupe will even work a willowleaf spinnerbait through the more scattered shoreline grass.
Outside the Channel
Oxbows and creeks are the “numbers” spot. And, the lure selection changes.
Some creeks wind for miles and Loupe likes to put his boat right in the middle so he can fish both cover edges. His favorite lure is a Zoom Horny Toad, fished quickly on the surface without weight, along grass edges and through any thinner grass. Willowleaf spinnerbaits are also an excellent choice, and hard-plastic jerkbaits (like the Bomber Long A or Rapala X-Rap in gold or chrome) can be very productive when twitched just outside the grass line on the deeper waters of the outside bends.
The Ditch may not be the most picturesque water in the state, but there's plenty of it to fish, and plenty of big bass to be caught.
I'd love to spend a week downthere with a livewell full of foot-long shiners.