LAKE OKEECHOBEE AND IT'S 'GRASSY BASS'
By Jim Porter
Structure anglers pull their hair out and swear they are going to sell the boat and all their bassin' gear. Tourists come with great anticipation and, if the services of a knowledgeable guide are not employed, usually go home muttering to themselves. Many of the local anglers even give up on them six months out of the year. What in the wide world of bass fishing causes such frustration? With virtually featureless bottom structure and endless expanses of thick cover, it is the shallow grass bowl lakes of Florida.
The shallow, weed-choked natural lakes of the Sunshine State have long presented a frustration in bass fishing for many anglers. Relatively few have mastered the techniques of logically isolating potentially productive water when faced with miles of similar-looking cover. The usual solution is to simply start casting, hoping that a concentration of fish will be stumbled upon. This 'hit-or-miss' approach might work out for an exceptionally lucky angler, or it could take days. As with any body of water, the proper method to find bass in shallow, grassy lakes is to, firstly, do a map study. Note, particularly, any areas where moving water might be available, such as feeder creeks and canals. Recent rains, or existing high water conditions, indicate the likelihood of flow in these locations. Bass will school and feed here.
Also, look for any indication of rocks, whether they be natural or along causeways and bridges. Finally, mark areas where there are rapid contour changes. Granted, there won't be major drop-offs in a naturally shallow lake, but there is a special reason to key in on these places. One of the best kept secrets among Florida fishing guides is the productivity of mussel beds. Mussels are habitually found on the slopes of these drops, particularly where the contour is irregular and has small points jutting out. Bass will gather on the shell bed because it is a hard, clean area, normally on a sandy bottom. Unless you happen to know where the beds are, dragging a worm along is about the only way to find them. Many local anglers search out the shells by casting heavy lead weights and carefully 'feeling' for them. A finely-tuned depth finder can also help by showing the angler hard, versus soft, bottom areas. Mussel beds are schooling spots so work them thoroughly.
After completing the map study and prior to fishing, take a boat tour of the section of the lake you intend to fish. Look for, identify and evaluate the features found on the map. Also, take note of the vegetation.
Weeds and other plant life are a form of 'structure' in Florida lakes. Bass will key to certain of these, depending upon the conditions. High water conditions dictate that the bass will be back in the grass, in the bays and large pockets. Low water causes them to instinctively move towards the deeper areas and the outer grass. Early and late in the day, we can expect the fish to be on the edges of the cover. But, once the sun is up a bit, they will move deeper and tighter into the cover.
Reeds and bulrushes are favorite holding covers for bass. However, there is another factor that must be taken into account. Those reeds need to have grass or weeds in their midst. NEVER go and spend your time fishing reeds unless there is also grass present.
Places where two types of cover meet or join are also prime spots. For example, where bulrushes meet pepper grass or where a lily pad field is bordered by hydrilla beds can be real hot spots.
One point we should note about thickly matted surface grass is that looks are deceiving. Below the surface, the grass normally grows in individual clumps. As its tentacles reach the surface and continue to grow, they spread across that surface, gradually intertwining with other grass plants until they form a sometimes solid mat. Below the thickly matted vegetation, the water is actually very open and the bass move about quite freely. The shade and the rich oxygen production of the plant life makes for a cool and comfortable habitat, a perfect home for the fish. Consequently, exceptionally thick cover is ideal fishing water, provided we apply ourselves to getting a lure to the fish. This is why flipping with a heavy jig or worm rig is so effective. Every small opening in the mat should be fished and, if there are no openings, make one with the rod tip.
Lure presentation in areas of heavy cover is extremely important. For short periods early and late in the day, one simply works the outside edges of the cover in a conventional manner. But, other times, the lure must be placed well into the growth to be effective. Whether the lure be a buzz bait, a spoon, or a plastic worm, this rule holds true. Depending on how active and aggressive the bass are, they may or may not be willing to chase a lure very far. Consequently, it pays to work a potential area very thoroughly. When flipping, always start with a heavily-weighted worm rig and get as far into the thickest cover available. You will find that pegging the sinker with a toothpick will greatly enhance control of the lure and prevent the sinker from breaking through the cover, while leaving the worm behind, hung up on the surface mat.
Okeechobee is a prime example of a grassy lake that, at times, can be frustrating. However, it possesses enough diversity that the knowledgeable angler can usually be successful. The recommended map study will show that there are over a dozen connecting canals, plus the Rim Canal which virtually encircles the lake. These are usually deep, with their channels extending for some distance out into the lake. The drops along these channel protrusions can be exceptionally good, especially if recent rains have a good current running. The waters up in the canals can provide excellent bass fishing, especially along the brush, rocks and trees that line the banks. If the winds are high, or have been so on the preceding day, go directly to the canals. First, you can safely fish there. Second, the shallow areas of the lake are probably muddy from the wave turbulence. Start with a medium depth crank plug and parallel the banks. The wave action in the canal, itself, will have washed food off the banks and drawn the bait fish up. If the crank plug is not productive, go to the plastic worm. In places where the cover is exceptionally heavy, try flipping the worm and cover the area thoroughly.
If you do your homework well, you are going to find an area of rocks in the Pahokee-Belle Glade portion of Okeechobee. This is hard, though shallow, structure and draws bass like a magnet if the water is reasonably clear and the level is normal, or higher. Locate it and go to shallow crank plugs and Carolina-rigged worms. Because the water can be very clear, it is recommended that the angler lay back from the rocks and make long casts.
For the angler who prefers grass, look for the pepper grass beds and bulrushes, particularly where the two converge. Spinner baits may be the ticket, if the cover is sparse enough to fish it. The plastic worm will be the next best bet, worked along the outsides of the growth and then flipped deep into the vegetation. Regarding the worm, the most productive color in Okeechobee is always dark. The locals recommend grape and blue-black. If the bass are found to be very aggressive, a Johnson spoon with a plastic worm trailer is particularly effective for the larger bass. With this lure, remember to 'give to the fish' a split second before setting the hook. This gives her a chance take the single-hook bait further in after the initial strike.
June on Okeechobee means schooling bass and shad lead a perilous life. If the winds are calm, breaking bass can be detected along the outsides of the grass lines and in the larger open areas, particularly where it drops quickly into deeper water. These schooling fish are highly susceptible to a chrome Hot Spot or Rattle Trap. Quite often, the bass school holds on the hard, clean area of a mussel shell bed and comes up when a swarm of shad happen by. Once the school has gone down, switch to the plastic worm and work all around the area of the break. Chances are very good you'll find the shells, and when you do, you'll find the bass. For some strange reason, Florida breaking bass will often completely ignore a crank plug or top water bait, even when cast right into the active breaks. Don't loose your cool and start ripping through the tackle box for a different plug or color. If this happens, simply go to the worm. They will jump on it every time. Just be prepared, because most of the strikes will come on the drop.
A few words of caution are in order, as we close out. Okeechobee can be a dangerous lake. It is huge and open and even light winds can create monstrous waves. Do not, under any circumstances, get caught in open water during a storm. Additionally, that section of Florida has a very high number of lightening strikes. Out on the lake, you and your boat may be the highest point for miles around. The lake has some submerged areas of rocks, uncommon on most other Florida waters of its type. Check your map closely and watch those rocks, especially if the water level is low. Finally, Okeechobee is BIG. You cannot see across it. It is very easy to get lost, especially if there is no sun. Make sure you carry a compass and know where you are at all times.
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