When it comes to producing monster largemouth, no state can mess with Florida. Fortunately, the Sunshine State’s subspecies of largemouth bass grows faster and substantially larger than northern largemouths native to most other states. Although there’s a real possibility of catching a serious lunker nearly any day of the year, freshwater anglers catch the largest bucketmouths in winter and early spring before big females swollen with roe spawn.
For spawning bass search out saucer-shaped beds. In clear waters that are prevalent in many of Florida’s lakes and streams anglers frequently sight fish for giant bedding bass. Sometimes, an angler may cast at one specific fish for hours until the fish strikes or finally flees.
The old adage that big baits equal big fish holds especially true in this endeavor.
“Sight fishing is like hunting,” said Shaw Grigsby, a professional bass angler from Gainesville, FL. “The challenge is finding the fish. Once we find them, we can often get them to bite. Bass on the beds don’t feed. They grab baits instinctively to protect their eggs and fry.”
To tempt bedding bass anglers routinely toss soft plastic tubes, jigs, lizards or crawfish. These resemble notorious nest raiders like salamanders and crawfish. Even when they aren’t spawning or feeding, bass often attack salamanders just to kill them.
“Bed fishing can be highly productive in the right spot,” said Terry Segraves, a professional angler from Kissimmee, FL. “To get a reaction, sometimes I let fish look at the bait and jerk it away just before they rush in to eat it. Do that several times and they’ll murder it when they get aggravated enough.”
Bedding bass typically won’t chase baits far or fast. From a distance, toss a temptation behind the nest and drag it into the bed. Leave it there, occasionally giving it a little shake. Even with no apparent action, a crawfish or creature bait twitches and undulates with water movement.
“My number one bedding bait is a soft-plastic crawfish,” said Terry Scroggins, a professional bass angler from San Mateo, FL. “The pincers actually stand up in the water column when it’s sitting still. It looks like a natural predator and has live action even when it’s not moving. In clear water, fish may spook so I position the boat farther away and make long casts. Sometimes, I mark the bed with a stake and come back to it.”
When not sight fishing many anglers routinely fish matted vegetation, the dominant cover in most Florida lakes. While many anglers fish grassy edges, big bass typically lurk under the densest mats, which provide a cool retreat from the hot sun. When fishing matted grass, few lures work better than a Texas-rigged buzzing frog. When fishing frogs you’ll want to utilize a steady retrieve so the legs disrupt the surface, but be sure to pause occasionally. In broken cover, try the “hop and pop” approach. When crossing open pockets, let it sink and twitch before crawling it over the next pad. Bass in pockets often inhale them on the fall.
“I like to concentrate around areas that hold a mixture of lily pads and hydrilla,” advised Tim Fey (bassfishingfl.com) of St. Cloud, FL. “Bass really tuck up under the pads and hydrilla because it’s shady. I’d have to say that 90 percent of my bass 7 pounds or larger come between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.”
While many artificial lures tempt big bass, most Florida giants fall to live offerings. Wild river shiners grow to 12 inches and provide essential forage for adult bass. The old adage that big baits equal big fish holds especially true in this arena.
“Wild shiners are like candy to largemouths,” said Steve Niemoeller (cflfishing.com) of Deland, FL. “Fishing wild shiners is probably the best way to consistently catch really big bass in Florida. I use 8 to 12 inch shiners on floats. I find a grassy point with some hydrilla and holes around it. Throw the float right against the hydrilla and let the bait work.”
Shiners cost a few dollars each at bait shops, so some anglers catch their own baitfish with a cast net. Normally found in salt or brackish water, mullet enter freshwater in areas like the St. Johns River. More streamlined than a shiner, mullet usually tempt more bass, although shiners catch bigger bass.
“The St. Johns River holds tons of mullet,” Niemoeller said. “I prefer baits in the 3 to 6 inch range. Mullet are more sleek than shiners so bass actually take them quicker. The first time I used mullet for bass I fished an area where I had used shiners a lot. Bass took the mullet as soon as they hit the water, even quicker than hitting shiners. Sometimes, shiners in the exact same spot might sit there more than 15 minutes before bass even look at them. Maybe bass hit mullet quicker because they struggle a bit differently.”
A legendary bass venue, the St. Johns River runs 310 miles from Fellsmere to the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville. The watershed covers more than 1,888 square miles and runs through many lakes. The second largest freshwater lake in Florida, Lake George sprawls over 46,000 acres northwest of Deland and sits adjacent to the 383,000-acre Ocala National Forest. A few other waters stand out for producing monster bass. The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes covers more than 100,000 acres of lush wetlands south of Orlando. The Kissimmee River links several lakes and tributaries in the chain.
“The Kissimmee chain has been one of the crown jewels of Florida bass fishing for years,” said Rob DeVries, a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. “We hear about people landing 10- to 14-pound bass each year. I know of at least one person who landed a 16-pounder from Toho. On another lake in the chain, I personally saw a bass that approached that size, but we couldn’t get it into the boat.”
Lake Tohopekaliga, affectionately known as Lake Toho, anchors the northern section of the Kissimmee Chain. During a January 2001 tournament, professional angler Dean Rojas set a one-day record with five bass for an aggregate weight of 45 pounds, 2 ounces! Rojas won the tournament by setting a four-day record with 20 bass for an aggregate weight of 108 pounds, 12 ounces.
The Kissimmee River flows 56 miles south from the 44,000-acre Lake Kissimmee at the southern end of the eponymous chain into Lake Okeechobee, the granddaddy of all Florida bass lakes. The largest freshwater lake in Florida, “Big O” covers approximately 730 square miles. The giant lake averages about nine feet deep, but drops to about 12 feet deep in some places.
Just about any Florida waters can produce really bass exceeding the double digit mark In fact, small neighborhood retention ponds scattered throughout the state often provide outstanding fishing because these tiny waters see so little pressure. In some ponds, many trophy bass grow fat and die of old age without ever seeing a hooked bait or lure. You just never know what may be lurking in the shadows of your nearby lake or pond.