FLORIDA FRESHWATER FISHING PROFILES:
By Jim Porter
(Please take note that this article appeared in a national magazine some years back. At that time Lake Rousseau was full of floating timber and many obstructions, making boating very hazardous. Since then, the lake underwent an effort to clear the obstructions and make it safer. However, any lake with standing timber will always have some collasping into the waters due to rotting and winds. It is my personal opinion that this lake remains dangerous for boating at any speed above idle.)
Our travels have taken us to many lakes and rivers within the Sunshine State and it can truly be said that Florida is a land of angling excellence. Of the 20-plus locations recently visited, we could only present to you the top 12, a very difficult selection task. However, the subject of this final installment, Lake Rousseau, would have easily been a top choice even if the selection pool had contained a thousand bodies of water. Rousseau was, and is, that good. It provided quality angling, with a capital 'Q'.
Lake Rousseau lies in the West-central portion of the Florida peninsula, approximately 35 miles West of Ocala and within 10 miles of the Gulf coast. One of the few man-made impoundments in the state, it lies on the trace of the famous Withlacoochee River and is also fed by the earlier merging of waters of the Rainbow River and Lake Panasoffkee. The lake is approximately 12 miles long, one mile wide and covers some 3700 acres. It generally lies southeast to northwest, with the latter few miles taking a 'dog-leg' bend to the West. The surrounding topography is dominated by slightly rolling hills, intermixed with low swamp areas. This topography also carries over into the submerged lake bottom and, as we were to find, provides the angler with readily identifiable and productive fishing 'structure'.
Rousseau was formed in the 1920's by the construction of a dam on the Withlacoochee River near Inglis. Later, it was selected to be a significant part of the ill-fated Cross-Florida Barge Canal, that political 'football' which showed the incompetence of Government to manage a program or cooperate among its elements. Like a monument, the idle barge lock stands as a symbol of Man's mockery of Man.
Lake Rousseau, although not physically a large body of water, takes on a relatively larger dimension due to the boating restrictions one must observe to safely navigate its timber-infested waters. Accordingly, we were unable to personally tour the entire lake during our brief stay (actually, the fishing was so good, we fished a 'bit' more than we explored). The result is that we are going to provide you with a general description of the lake, which will insure your ability to identify and locate areas of interest. Then, we will cover the lower portion of the impoundment, that with which we became familiar, in more detail.
In general, Lake Rousseau consists of two sections. The broad portion beginning at the Inglis Dam and extending some five miles eastward to the Pig Pen area (refer to the accompanying map) is actually what is termed locally as 'Lake Rousseau' (use County Road 495 or river marker AR 13 West as a general dividing point). The remaining section, running about seven miles to Dunnellon, is called 'the Backwater'. It is important that this be understood, especially if asking directions or fishing advice from the local folks.
The large population of timber residue also presents extreme boating hazards and we found NO location in the lake where it was safe to run above an idle speed. Although the deeper, submerged Withlacoochee River channel is marked and void of standing timber, it contains a significant number of free-floating drift items, many of which we found to be very large and just below the surface. The channel markers have, in many cases, drifted or otherwise been dislodged and can no longer be considered any guarantee of an accurate indication of the channel location.
Another series of markers along the lake and 'Backwater' areas, called Angler's Resort (AR) markers, are used purely for location reference. Those extending from Dunnellon westward are AR (Angler's Resort) West. Those extending eastward, up the river to State Road 200, are AR East. Pay attention to the numbering system used for these markers, in that they provide reference points for finding your way, as well as referencing good fishing locations.
The marked boat-runs found in certain areas off the main river channel are even more dangerous than the main channel, in that the majority of the marker floats have drifted out of position and the supposedly cleared zones are normally clogged with drift. Strong words to the wise- do not run a boat fast in this lake. The absence of water skiers should immediately indicate this to you. And, when you are operating the combustion engine, wear a life jacket and use a positive engine kill switch as though both were religion.
The 'Backwater' section, that above marker AR 13 West, is very congested with vegetation and the open water becomes limited. The main Withlacoochee River channel twists and winds, often turning back upon itself. In general, the main channel has a depth of about 14-17 feet from this point to Dunnellon, with some deeper holes on the outside of sharp bends. The flats to the side of the main channel are often very shallow and remain, as earlier noted, dangerous to operate a powerboat in. A few old canals and boat lanes will be noted in the side flats, but are not safe for movement above idle speeds. There are a few residential canals that were totally man-made and have no timber remains; but, unless you specifically know they are clear, run your boat accordingly.
During our two-day visit to Lake Rousseau, we headquartered out of Safari Campground and ramp located on the lake's southwest side and about three miles from its West end. (NOTE: It may have been sold and the name now changed.) On the enclosed map, it can be found just off County Road 488, at the end of Northcut Avenue. This was an ideal section of the lake to fish, in that it had sufficient open water and depth to allow positive patterns to be developed for both visible cover and sub-surface structure. For example, we noted depths ranging from three feet in the shallow zones to better than forty feet in the old river channel. Good structure drop-offs were located both adjacent to the old channel and in the backwater flats. Although there was a tremendous amount of standing timber, choking surface vegetation was found to be more the exception than the rule in this downriver area.
Our first task was to conduct a map review of the area and discuss the lake with some of the local anglers. From this effort, we gleaned one very timesaving piece of information-that being the location of the small, original Lake Rousseau which existed before the area was dammed and flooded. In addition, we were very specifically informed that the most productive way to fish Rousseau for bass was with live, wild shiners. Artificials, it was explained, were too difficult to fish in the thick cover of reeds, grass mats and timber. The only hope for the artificial lure purist, we were advised, was to use the 'flipping' technique in the thick cover. So, the challenge for the artificial was issued!
Other important information items which came forth were the location of the Withlacoochee River channel; the general lie of the back-water boat lanes and how each was (or was not) marked; and, a lecture on the hazards of the timber remains.
Our first goal was to locate the deepest water available, outside the bounds of the actual Withlacoochee River channel. From our discussions with the local population and our map, we determined that two deep-water locations were close by. Obviously, the original Lake Rousseau would be expected to be deeper than the surrounding terrain. And, it did prove to have 16 feet of water surrounded by the normal seven to nine feet of the flats.
The second deep area was that marked on the map as the 'graveyard area'. Why it was deep, we do not really know, but it had up to 18 feet of open water in some locations. Normally, graveyards are situated on high ground. One local angler theorized that the Government moved the graves before lake flooding. And, to insure they had not overlooked any remains, came in with bulldozers and dug up the entire area. The only thing that would not support this theory is that we found no significant topographical irregularities to indicate what was done with the vast amount of soil that would have removed from this rather large hole (estimated at 300 by 200 yards).
Starting out from the southwest section ramp and proceeding carefully up the poorly marked boat run along the South shoreline, we found the area to be infested with timber remains. We also noted some intermittent deep and shallow sections of water, generally ranging six to 17 feet. This data we filed away for later use. Off to our left and just off the main river channel, we noted thick reed and grass stands. A few lily pad clusters were also noted around the reeds. The two largest of these vegetation groups are noted on the accompanying map as Grass and Bird islands.
As we drew adjacent to Bird Island, the boat trail entered an area of thick grass. Off to our right, we noted an open area in the timber extending all the way to the southern shoreline. From the map, we concluded this to be old Lake Rousseau. With the boat rubbing across the remains of once standing timber, we worked our way the short distance in to the open water of the old lakebed.
Our first task was to evaluate the lake. The high resolution of the Lowrance X-75 was generally wasted as it showed a mucky, soft bottom, probably so from the years of silting and settling of decaying vegetation. But, the depth was a good 16 feet. Turning to the western edge of the lake, we eased our boat towards the visible timber. As we moved, the old lake bottom began to become shallower. And, at a depth of about 10 feet, those beautiful submerged beds of hydrilla and milfoil began to make their appearances on the LCR screen. At first just a flickering, weak signal return, the vegetation gradually began to thicken and show a reasonably solid mass growing off the bottom and to within six feet of the surface. As we moved closer to the lake edge and the timber, the grasses thicken and grew nearer to the surface. At the edge of the timber and back into it, we still had three to four feet of water over the vegetation.
Moving back to the open water and the beginning of the submerged growth, we made careful lure selections. The two selection criteria were depth and adaptability to the grasses. Obviously, a small four-inch worm was the best way to induce strikes and find if bass were present. So, we rigged purple Slider worms with 1/0 wire hooks and 1/16 ounce slip sinkers. The slip sinkers were pegged to prevent slipping as the lure was pulled over the stands of grass. Lure presentation was made with light spinning tackle and 8-10 pound line.
The second lure choice might surprise some readers, but we choose a small, lipped, diving crank plug. The intent was to apply a very rapid retrieve to a plug which would continually run at about five feet (give or take a foot, depending on how high or low the rod tip was held). Our choice was a Rebel Deep Teeny R and it proved perfect, in that it ran just above the top of the vegetation. While a free-running lure, such as a Rat-L-Trap, was acceptable, the angler would have had to pay attention to depth control and retrieve speed. With the small Rebel, we could concentrate on the depth of the grass being fished and the continual timber hazards threatening the trolling motor.
Our first six casts with the crank plugs produced as many fish-four bass and two very large chain pickerel. The bass weighed from two to four pounds and that started our Lake Rousseau odyssey. The crank plug continued to work exceptionally well, so long as the grass was deep enough that we did not foul on it.
The four-inch plastic worm is, in my opinion, the best bass-producing lure in the world (outside a stick of dynamite). On Rousseau, we found it to be devastating, both over the submerged grass and around the thick surface cover areas. The light line and tackle played important roles in being able to cast the small lure and to feel the strikes, respectively. In order to keep the worm from sinking into and tangling with the submerged open-water vegetation, it was necessary to fish it with a series of small jerks, occasionally allowing it to sink momentarily back towards the grass. The strikes normally came on the drop of the lure.
The Graveyard Area also proved good. It was too deep in the open water and we generally had to fish the edge of the timber to locate submerged grass. There were also a couple of submerged humps out near the boat run that produced big bass.
Just West of the ramp area, a point of land called the 'Big Timber Area' is found. Directly out from it, the old Withlacoochee River channel makes a sharp turn on its way to the dam. The observant angler and his depth sounder will note some interesting structure along the South edge of the drop-off into that channel. Specifically, he will find six feet of water, dropping to a 10-foot shelf, descending further to a 16-foot shelf and then going into the main channel depths. We found a lot of small bass on the drop-offs to each shelf. But, being on the edge of deep water and current flow, this is an ideal location for trophy bass. Don't pass it up. Try a deep-diving 3-inch Fat Free Shad along these drops.
Rousseau is also an excellent lake for giant shellcrackers. While we did not fish for them ourselves, we did watch a local angler catch 19 that collectively tipped the scales at 26 pounds. Now, that's shellcrackers with a capital 'S', partner. The best months for these panfish wonders are April through June. Crickets and redworms presented near the bottom are the best baits. Watch for clusters of anchored boats as a giveaway to the location of the shellcracker beds.
Speckled perch (crappie) grow big in Lake Rousseau. They spawn in the shallow grass and pads during February and early March. Other times they are found schooled over the deeper water and drifting with live minnows is the preferred method.
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