Just north of the hustle and bustle of Orlando and all of its tourist attractions sits Lake County. Home to over 1,000 named lakes that include the famous Harris Chain and some of the most productive private bass lakes in the country, Lake County provides immense opportunities and incredible habitat diversity for trophy largemouth and more.
I was introduced to this freshwater fishing Mecca as a nine year old when my grandmother purchased a home on Lake Eustis in 1976. It was on these very shores where I caught my first largemouth bass with a grape plastic worm from Creme Lures. I remember the day as if it was yesterday.
It was exciting fishing so close to the shoreline because we could see bass bumping the reeds in the dense cover.
Seven of the Harris Chain of lakes are situated within Lake County and include Lake Harris, Little Lake Harris, Lake Griffin, Lake Eustis, Lake Dora, Lake Beauclair and Lake Carlton. Lake Apopka, the eighth and southernmost lake in the chain is divided by Orange County, with its western shore splitting the counties. What makes this watershed special is that water from the Harris Chain flows north to the St. Johns River and into the Atlantic Ocean. It might take a while, but one could access the ocean from the Harris Chain.
Through Adam Ashton of Lake County’s Economic Development and Tourism Department, I hooked up with second generation Lake County bass guide and up and coming tournament professional, Tim Frederick. After a few conversations we were set up for a day on the water and I was one step closer to visiting my old stomping grounds.
Memories of my first fish filled my mind as I drove up the Florida Turnpike knowing that I would soon be reliving my childhood. The plan was to start the morning in Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris and then run down to Lake Apopka as Tim advised there were some recent reports of big bass taken in the area.
We met at Brooker’s Bait and Tackle early in the morning and launched Tim’s freshwater hot rod at a Lake Griffin boat ramp. With so many interconnected lakes it didn’t surprise me when Tim had a completely different plan for the day. Soon we were cruising north across glass calm water at nearly 70 mph in true Bassmaster style.
Our first stop was a heavily vegetated shoreline where Tim positioned the boat over the top of dense eelgrass in slightly deeper water. Adam and I were handed Okuma outfits loaded with 30 lb. braid and proceeded to flip Bitter’s black/blue glitter gobies rigged on 4/0 wide gap Texas hooks with one-ounce tungsten worm weights.
Within minutes of scouring the dense vegetation, Adam broke the ice with the first fish of the day. It was exciting fishing so close to the shoreline because we could see bass bumping the reeds in the dense cover. Fishing heavy cover certainly warrants the use of braided line, that is if you want any chance at landing trophy largemouth.
We continued slowly motoring and pitching lures along the edge until out of nowhere, Tim stopped our troll and deployed the dual Power-Poles to hold our position. My next flip deep into the reeds resulted in a solid strike that yielded a quality fish that otherwise would have cut me off without the braided line. We caught a few more fish on Tim’s honey hole and continued on looking for some larger schooling fish.
Back on plane, we raced a short distance to a cove off the lake surrounded by a residential area with lots of docks and covered boat lifts. The area’s lakes feature incredible habitat diversity and a variety of water clarities and color. With the help of good light and polarized sunglasses, we spotted numerous largemouth busting the surface in addition to alligator gar, bream and bluegill. After a couple catches we picked up once again and ran to the other side of the lake.
Switching to lipless crankbaits and spinner baits, we focused our efforts on the area docks, putting our baits in shady spots that border sunny spots, since adult bass use this type of habitat to ambush unsuspecting forage. Casting skills will be put to the test in this scenario and Adam and I certainly faced our challenges.
Watching Tim methodically work the docks was nothing short of amazing. After catching a few small fish, we trolled away to a cove that was close to a relatively new spillway where Tim believed the moving water would hold fish. At our new hot spot, Tim quickly boated three fish faster than we could fire out effective casts, proving his worthiness as a serious tournament competitor to look for.
As we continued catching largemouths for the next hour, I asked Tim to share his experience on the Harris Chain, specifically on how these lakes have come back from near death to attracting big money professional bass fishing tournaments. Tim mentioned that in 1990, a Bassmaster tournament on the chain had the nation’s lowest average catch rate of the circuit and anglers were looking for answers. The negative publicity focused on pollution from herbicides to control unwanted vegetation, in addition to the artificial control of lake water levels. However, with the implementation of daily limits and restoration efforts to improve the health and success of area lakes, local anglers have experienced a rebound in fishing action and report that the lakes are back to producing giant bass. This area has never been a numbers fishery, rather a home to truly big bass.
As the sun heated the shallows, we ran back to the ramp, put the hot rod on the trailer and drove a few miles south to a launching point near Buzzard Beach. Finally, I was back on Lake Eustis. We worked a dock just outside of the ramp as the sun was nearing its highest point of the day. Tim knew there was fish to be had here, but they weren’t cooperative so we decided to move on to Lake Dora.
Lake Dora is connected to Lake Eustis via the scenic Dora Canal. From experience fishing tournaments on the Harris Chain where time is money and not getting to the scales in time results in weight penalties, Tim told us that it takes exactly 21 minutes to traverse the canal at idle speed. It’s a no wake zone the entire way, but the natural beauty is nothing short of spectacular. Slowly cruising the cypress hammock, Tim made casts to the numerous fallen trees that create structure for big bass to hide out while waiting for their next meal.
After emerging in Lake Dora, Tim ran to a favorite dock that produced many trophy bass over the years. No one was home on this particular day, but after seeing all of the pictures on the walls of Brooker’s Bait and Tackle of double-digit giants with this particular dock in the background, I can tell you that I will soon be returning to fish this spot. I’m sworn to secrecy on the dock’s location, but if you book Tim to take you fishing I’m sure you will learn of this sweet little honey hole.
We ended up back in Lake Eustis at the dock just outside of the public ramp. Upon our return we were pleased the bite turned on. After catching multiple bass in the 3-pound range we hooked the largest alligator gar I have ever seen. The fish escaped at boatside and took an expensive crankbait with it before we could snap a photo, but it was an exciting end to a special day.
The next time you plan on visiting the Orlando area and all of its touristy attractions, think about staying a little bit out of town in Lake County. At the very least, set aside a day or two to chase bass in this wonderland of freshwater fishing. With approximately 80,000 acres of wetland encompassing the Harris Chain and over 40 local boat ramps, there’s clearly no shortage of accessibility to fishy waters. And while we never did connect with a true monster that day, we certainly caught plenty of fish and went home far from disappointed.
Docks and boathouses provide important cover for bass, particularly in areas where shoreline development has depleted natural cover. However, not all of these high percentage spots are created equal. Focus your efforts on docks with varying water depth and plenty of cover. Approach with stealth and flip jigs or softbaits like tubes and worms by each piling and deep into boat stalls. Bass often hold far underneath docks and platforms, especially on bright sunny days. This is when skipping baits with a sidearm cast may be the most effective tactic.