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Fish Shell Bars for Largemouth Bass

Mike Surman speeds a crankbait across a shell bar, prime bass habitat often bypassed by other anglers.

Most Florida bass lakes offer a mind-boggling array of casting targets in the form of emergent vegetation and shoreline cover, places that just shout bass. Thus it's easy for the novice angler to overlook another excellent but much-less obvious category of fish-attracting structure: Shell bars.

Colonies of freshwater mussels and clams are scattered around many Florida lakes and rivers. Charts occasionally indicate their whereabouts, as do periods of low water, when you might spot iridescent bits of shell on bottom or along nearby shores. But mostly these biologically rich areas are hidden from view. Minnows, panfish, crawfish and freshwater shrimp are often associated with the bars, and largemouth bass know that—as do savvy anglers like Mike Surman, of Boca Raton.

Surman is a 20-year veteran of the FLW tournament circuit, with all the chops of a traveling pro. One of many patterns he's relied on consistently through his career is fishing the shell bars.

“Back in the late 1980s, I found this one mussel bar in a grassy area on Lake Okeechobee,” Surman recalled recently. “I must have won 25 tournaments off that bar—I could consistently catch 26-, 27-pound limits of fish there. I'd wait till all the boats ran past. Every morning fish would get in there to feed. When you find places like this, they are really special.”

Surman—who continues to play the shell bar wild card in competition—offered some hints on finding and fishing these structures.

When you snag one of these, it's worth marking the spot.

Appearance: Look for what's not there. “Typically, mussel bars do not have grass growing on them,” Surman said. “They may have grass growing around them, but in the middle, the bar area will be void of grass. Fish that relate to the surrounding grassy areas often come out early and late in the day to feed on the mussel bars. It's really hard to find them on charts. You may have places you fish continuously for years, and once in a while the mussels die off or silt over. Depths aren't specific, either; it's kind of a hunt and peck thing. I'd say in Florida, anywhere from 2 to 12 feet—those are key feeding areas.”

Technique: Catch the active fish first, then go after the big bite. “One of my favorites is a Yo-Zuri 3DB Pencil for the topwater bite,” Surman explained. “Then I'll go to a crankbait like a Rattlin Vibe or the 3DB Square Lip. I like to cover water. After I catch the initial 5 fish—or sometimes as many as 10 or 12, I'll slow down and fish a worm slowly on the bottom, like a Gambler 10-inch worm. Throw that worm and work it really slow and you might get the biggest fish, the one that didn't go after the aggressive, faster lures.”

Finding Bars: “In the old days, the only way to find them was casting something and feeling it drag on the bottom, a characteristic duh... duh... duh feel. One standard a lot of guys used over the yearsis a Carolina rig. You can also fish a crankbait that hits bottom, like that 3DB Square Lip, which works great in 4 feet of water or less. Also, today's technology makes a difference—using my Gen2HDS Lowrance with Side and Downscan, I can see the bars represented as a series of little dots—they show up differently than bass dots.”

Seasons: “Shell bars are good year-round in Florida, but they fish best when the weather is stable and the fish are active. When it gets really cold, they may leave the bars, but a warming trend could bring them back.”

Parting Hints: Pay attention! On a hot summer morning in Central Florida, I watched Surman and Ryuji Sonoda, a lure designer from Yo-Zuri, pull a dozen hefty fish from a mussel bar that would've been tough to locate. Surman, of course, knew the spot.

A few things I noticed: One, there was a suspicious group of cormorants working open water, again and again. Now and then, one would come up with a sunfish. Sunfish don't typically roam open water. Their presence suggests submerged structure or a food source—in this case a mussel bar.

Two: The bar was set back in a circle of Kissimmee grass (a.k.a. Egyptian paspalidium). This type of emergent grass, with long, flat blades dividing from thick stems, typically roots in hard sand bottom. That's precisely the kind of substrate favored by freshwater mussels. FS

First published Florida Sportsman October 2016

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