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Jim Porter

The Sunshine State is known the world over for its outstanding and consistent bass fishing. Ask most any angler, native or tourist, to describe that fishing and you are probably in for an explanation of how to fish grass beds and reed stands in the shallow, natural lakes that abound within the state. Lead the discussion around to deep water angling and you will find that eight feet is considered deep and 12 feet is ultra-deep. 'Structure' mentioned during the dissertation will generally be limited to shell beds and the features of feeder creeks and drainage canals entering the lake.

Take a guy who has always fished the man-made reservoirs of the rest of the country and this information will probably leave him in a daze. It certainly did this writer.

In the years that I have resided in Florida, I have yet been able to solve the riddle of how to consistently locate bass in the miles and miles of grass and cover in the natural Florida lakes. Sure, I have learned that some types of cover hold more potential than others and that moving water will draw bass like a magnet. But, other than that, it seemed the method was to work all the grass you could and hope to run across a concentration of fish. Then, one fateful summer day, a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologist introduced this poor transplanted and beaten angler to a bit of Heaven-and, 'Heaven' was a phosphate pit!!

Phosphate pits are the remains of the mining industry that supports the gathering of raw materials for fertilizer manufacture. Environmentalists often criticize the mining operations for the destruction and permanent scarring of the land. There are even laws today, which require that new excavations be filled, vegetation planted and the countryside returned to its original condition. I doubt anyone can argue with the valid intent of these requirements. But, I must say that I am glad many of the older pits still remain, for they provide what is probably the finest bass fishing in the world.

I have been fortunate enough to fish in some of these man-made lakes which have up to 70 feet of water in them and not a bit of visible grass or other cover anywhere, except a sparse amount along the shoreline. Many of these magnificent bodies are literally teeming with bass, a very high percentage being trophies. However, a large number of the native anglers, faced with little visible cover and not having had northern reservoir and structure fishing experience, are as perplexed with the 'pits' as I still am with their grass-bowl lakes. Accordingly, only a fairly small number of anglers really apply any fishing pressure to these waters.

A phosphate pit is just a hole in the ground, but it has some definite characteristics which are valuable for the bass fisherman to know. The bottom is usually comprised of a rather sticky, gray clay and there is very little, if any, bedrock. On occasion, one may find some high concentrations of sand mixed with the clay base and this will form fairly hard, clean areas. There are some rocks, but they are not igneous types. Rather, they are more like very hard and compressed clay. The water in the pits originated and is maintained primarily by seepage from the high water table of the Florida peninsula. For obvious reasons, there are no feeder tributaries.

Since the land is rich in phosphate minerals, it and the waters are very fertile. Accordingly, plant growth is rapid. Some sparse grass will often be found continually growing at depths up to 12 feet, a rarity considering the lack of light penetration. There are high concentrations of algae and plankton, making the water rather green and limiting visibility to about two feet, at the most. These basics of the initial food chain insure a high density of smaller aquatic life and, therefore, a rich and steady bait fish population for the bass.

The lay of the bottom of a phosphate pit does not follow any of Mother Nature's normal rules, since it was totally created by the machines and handiwork of man. One will not find any submerged erosion gullies or old channels. Underwater points will not necessarily be where the shoreline topography seems to indicate they should. Likewise, deep and shallow water locations cannot be estimated visually. When the pits were dug, some of the old miners have told us, the less-than-adequate machinery of that time often was not capable of handling extremely hard soil areas. Consequently, they would simply dig around them, leaving hard mounds of varying heights. As well, if the soil being scooped up was not considered rich enough in the appropriate minerals, it was piled off to one side. These were called 'spoil piles' and they still exist beneath the surface of the pits. Where the huge machines scraped away the matter of Mother Earth, the result was often long trenches with sheer sides. All these features, which remain confined and submerged within the depths of phosphate pits, form outstanding bass fishing structure. And, the concentration of so many ledges, mounds and drop-offs is very dense for a given area of water. The angler simply has to turn from one structure feature, cast in the opposite direction and he will usually be fishing another.

At this point, there is a prime safety rule to note. Because there is no way to tell where the water is deep and where it may be extremely shallow, it can be very dangerous to operate a combustion engine. Until you know, absolutely, where all the high spots are in a pit, never run the motor above an idle. Remember, many of those mounds are there because they were too hard and tough to dig out.

Although they can be found scattered throughout the state, the major concentration of phosphate pits is in the Lakeland area, some 40 miles south-southwest of Orlando. At this point, I would like to relate to you experiences on two of these pit areas.

Just to the South of Lakeland, near the town of Bartow, active mining is still in process. In the midst of the operation, however, there are some very old pits with outstanding bass populations. One of these, called P-4, is fished only with permission of the mining company. Although not open to the general public, it is an excellent example of a very fertile and highly populated phosphate pit. P-4 is nearly a perfect square, one mile on a side and surrounded by a levee created from the excavation. It averages around 50 feet deep, with some 70-foot sections. The banks have some sparse brush and grass and drop off sharply into deep water. In surveying the pit with both a flasher depth finder and a graph, we discovered that it contained fish life from nearly top to bottom, even in the deeper zones. The shad population density was staggering to the imagination but, then, so were the bass.

After surveying the waters of P-4, we noted where some of the spoil piles and mounds were located, but began our fishing along the shorelines. Even with some limited amounts of cover present, there were few bass along those banks. Moving out to the open water, we began to fish a mound which was 12 feet deep at its pinnacle and surrounded by 50 feet of water. This is where the fish were congregated, as well as on every other similar feature we would later sample. Two people, two hours, 200 bass-really congregated'!

The next area of pits we visited is on the Tenoroc Reserve, right on the outskirts of Lakeland. The reserve is a series of nine old pits, an a good bit of adjacent land, donated to the state by the Borden Mining Company. With the Department of Natural Resources acting as reserve manager, the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission uses the pits for fishery management studies. Open to the public, each pit has a differing set of bass fishing regulations governing it. These include slot limits, reduced creel limits and, on one, a restriction on the tackle which can be used. For comparison purposes, some pits allow current state limit catches. Their study data has been very enlightening. While we don't have room here to go into detail, it is readily apparent that fishery management programs do work in the sustainment of quality fishing. Particularly noted is the positive effect of slot limits on maintaining the prime brood stock of bass. Even with high removal rates outside the slot sizes, the bass population is able to remain constant. In fact, it even increased during the last year.

What we found from fishing the Tenoroc pits regularly, over a one year period, is reflected in the specifics contained in the remainder of this article.

Phosphate pits should be approached from the standpoint of pure structure fishing, both for quantities of bass and to acquire trophies. If there happens to be adequate shoreline cover or grass beds, by all means try them. However, the majority of the bass, particularly the lunkers, will be offshore.

As we have previously said, the topography of a pit cannot be estimated with the naked eye. Further, there are no maps available. Therefore, we must turn to our sonar devices. The primary feature that we search for is a high spot in ten feet, or less, of water. It should drop off sharply and have the deepest water in the area directly adjacent to it. (This is important for really big bass.) Idle slowly and watch the sonar for sudden changes on the bottom. When you locate a mound or spoil pile that appears to have good potential, drop a marker buoy. Try to place the marker off the structure feature in the deep water. You only want to use it for a reference, not scare the bass as the marker's weight descends. These locations normally hold schools of bass, rather than singles.

Lures to be employed may wind up being personal preference, but I expect you will gradually settle on the plastic worm. It is, by far, the most productive lure we have found in all the pits sampled. While we can only theorize, it appears that the bass have such a tremendous food supply available that they simply are not inclined to chase a moving lure very well. Accordingly, crank plugs produce rather slowly compared to the worm. The one exception is if you are after only a trophy bass and want to cover a lot of water rapidly searching for him. In that case, a large, deep Bagley Divin' B III, in silver foil and black, has proven very effective. You will not catch many fish but, when you do, you had better have a good grip on that rod. Our records show that of 22 bass taken on the big plug, the smallest was eight pounds and the largest slightly over 12.

Remember we said that the bottom of pits was usually a soft clay? Well, that was found not to be very conducive to the use of a bottom-hugging, Texas rigged plastic worm. We fully solved the problem and tripled our catch rate by going to a high flotation worm and using it on a Carolina rig. The Bass Buster Company's "Super Floater" worm was the one we settled on, rigged about 20 inches out behind a heavy slip sinker and swivel. The result was a plastic worm configuration that remained slightly off the soft, mucky bottom and was easy for the bass to inhale. When using the Carolina rig, be sure to set the hook as quickly as you can or the bass will take the worm down his gullet.

Generally, the bass have always been found on the top of the high spots, with the exception of winter (if there is such a thing in Florida). It appears that many may even spawn on the shallower ones. During the colder months, the fish are usually located off the sides of the drops, about halfway to the bottom. This is really no different than other one would expect in a normal reservoir environment. As the spawning season approaches, expect many of the bass to move towards some of the bank areas, as well. They will usually be 12-15 feet deep and hugging the steeper banks. Then, as the water warms, they move on up into four feet, or less.

As is usually the case, lure color seems to effect fishermen more than it does phosphate pit bass. The darker color plastic worms (black and purple) hold a slight edge. In crank plugs, however, the fish that were caught seemed to show a decided preference for a silver or chrome finish, which most closely resembled the shad supply. In final observation towards color, the most productive will be the one the angler has confidence in and keeps wet. Dry lures catch darn few fish.

So, whether you are Florida native or tourist, you are not necessarily confined to the shallow, grassy lakes of the Sunshine State. There is plenty of deep water available and it is highly productive if one approaches it in the correct manner.


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