Frustration to Fame

While most locals are dusting off their wakeboards and water skis in anticipation of warmer weather, serious bass fishermen know spring is one of the best times to be on the water. West Lake Toho in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, located in Central Florida just south of Orlando, is a great place to be if you’re serious about lunker hunting. You won’t find many recreational boaters here, because the shallow, murky water scares them off. The locals don’t help, spreading tales that too many creatures live in the water and that it isn’t a good place for water sports. In reality, the famed fishery is best known for the record-setting 45 lb. 2 oz. bag limit weighed in by pro angler Dean Rojas during the 2001 Bassmaster Top 150. This remarkable catch remains the largest 5 fish limit in the history of Bassmaster tournaments.


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Photo: Boone Oughterson

Since that record-setting tournament there have been hundreds of local, state and national events held on this grass-filled bass haven. None of which have come close to breaking the record set by Rojas. However, 35-pound limits are very commonly needed to win even the smallest tournaments. In fact, during the early summer of 2010, I fished a 25 boat buddy tournament that took over 38 pounds to win. My partner and I weighed in an impressive 30.64 pounds and still placed 5th.

Don’t marry a spot simply because it looks good to you. Florida largemouth don’t care what looks good to you.

Over the past 11 or so years, I’ve fished and guided on this body of water over 2,000 times. So you could say I’m pretty familiar with the local fishing patterns, or lack thereof. The absence of distinguishable fishing patterns on Lake Toho is actually the key to understanding the fish. Confused yet? You should be, because many top tournament pros fear seeing the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes pop up on their tournament schedules. Denny Brauer, a household name in the sport of competitive bass fishing was quoted saying, “If all the lakes in the world dried up, Lake Toho would be my favorite.” His reasoning is mainly because it can be nearly impossible to build a pattern on this impressive body of water.

Outside of the Sunshine State, patterning fish is generally the key to successful days on the water. In pre-spawn phases you may find fish on the main lake and on secondary points. In the spring you’ll find fish in the back of creeks. During summer months you may find fish on humps and ledges. Being able to detect the staging and feeding patterns of bass is how professional anglers make their living. Here on Lake Toho it’s usually a shot in the dark. You’ll find yourself covering miles of grassy water to find pockets of fish holding in small areas that look just like the areas not holding fish. There’s really no rhyme or reason.

If there is a pattern for Lake Toho, it would be to find bait and then you may find fish. Aside from post cold front conditions during winter months, a potentially good fishing spot will almost always be defined by frequent surface activity. If you troll up to a grass line and don’t see some type of surface commotion within 15 minutes, you likely aren’t around any catchable fish. Don’t marry a spot simply because it looks good to you. Florida largemouth don’t care what looks good to you. What looks good to them are shad, wild shiners and bluegill. Find these favored forage species and you’ll likely find big bass.

On any given day you could start your morning by catching schooling bass on topwater plugs, lipless crankbaits and soft plastic jerkbaits. An hour later you could be casting a 10-inch Texas-rigged worm to isolated hydrilla beds. By lunchtime you could find yourself punching alligator grass mats with a 1 ½ oz. tungsten weight and your favorite creature bait. The main problem is that virtually every inch of this 22,000-plus acre fishery looks good to the average angler. Successful fishermen that frequent the lake know to look for small areas of life, which means covering lots of water in the process. When a fish is caught it’s imperative you thoroughly work the area.

Now that I’ve likely frightened you off from ever thinking of spending the day fishing West Lake Toho, one of the most popular lakes in the entire Kissimmee chain, I’m going to tell you the best approach to finding semi-consistent success. I’ll fill you in on the secrets only the locals know about. If you stick to these basic techniques, you’ll be considered the KVD of your local bass club.

Though Rojas’ catch occurred in January, it is actually one of the toughest fishing months of the year. Frequent cold fronts followed by warming trends seem to infect the fish with a serious case of lockjaw. February and March are considered the heart of the spawning season, and big bass caught sight fishing and flipping often dominate the tournament scales during these months. Most visiting anglers seem to think early in the year is the best time to fish here. However, most local anglers know April through June are likely the best months to find consistent success. This is considered largemouth bass post-spawn period, and the time when many baitfish and panfish begin to spawn. Bass are usually hungry after coming off their spawning phase and although you can catch them flipping and punching mats almost any time of the year, forget about that if you’re fishing here during the post-spawn. There’s no need to flip and you’ll have more fun and catch a lot more fish by trying some of following lures and associated techniques.

First and foremost, you should always have a Texas-rigged worm ready to go. An 8-inch ribbon tail rigged with a 3/16 oz. bullet weight is highly recommended. You can use any color you want as long as it is black with blue flakes! Throw this worm everywhere…outside grass lines, scattered grass, isolated grass, open water, shell beds, and on schooling fish. Work it slow and when you think you’re moving it too slow, slow it down even more.

Lipless crankbaits also work great and there’s really only one you need—1/2 oz. chrome with a blue back. Lunker bass will smash this lure during early morning hours and under nearly any weather condition. However, during any other time of the day you should put it away if you don’t have at least 10 to 15 knots of wind. It should also be noted that a rapid retrieve with sporadic pauses works better than a constant retrieve.

Swim jigs can be the cat’s meow for the day and this is one lure where you can vary the color. My two favorite patterns are white and black/blue. Again, the crank and pause method seems to be the best retrieve. These lures are very versatile and have proven effective just about everywhere along the Kissimmee Chain.

When all else fails, try these simple lures and techniques and I’m sure you’ll find success when others are pounding their heads in frustration. It’s important to get out first thing so you can experience the early morning bite. Here, the fishing usually tapers off by mid-morning, which is a perfect time to run back to Big Toho Marina for breakfast. You’ll be back on the water just as the breeze picks up and catch more fish as they’re looking for lunch. It’s also important you know that West Lake Toho runs north to south. Just because your bass boat runs 70 mph doesn’t mean you need to go flat out for 10 miles to find fish. I’ve won more tournaments within sight of Kissimmee Lakefront Park than anywhere else. During the spring and early summer months you’ll catch all the fish you can handle on the top half of Toho. Good luck and don’t get too upset if you can’t figure it out right away. This fishery frustrates even the most seasoned bass anglers.

Patience Pays

Soft plastic jerkbaits are top producers on Lake Toho. A favorite is the D.O.A. 5 1/2 inch C.A.L. in watermelon. Rig this bait on 15 lb. Toray fluorocarbon with a 4/0 offset wide gap hook. Keep it simple and stealthy by avoiding sinkers, swivels and weighted screw lock hooks. There are several ways to effectively present this lure. The most common is the twitch…twitch…pause retrieve, which keeps the lure close to the surface. This works great around scattered emergent and submerged grass. Another favorite way to work a C.A.L. is to dead stick it. Cast it out, let it flutter to the bottom, twitch it, then let it sit for a minute before repeating. The approach requires patience, but works great around outside grass lines and isolated shell beds.