LAND OF THE GIANTS
by Jim Porter
Russ Johnson was a newly-acquired fishery biologist of the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission when we first met. His supervisor had called and asked me to take Russ fishing and to introduce him to the Florida largemouth bass. Now, what must be understood was that, while Russ had studied the bass a bit during his college years, he had never fished for them. Having always resided in the far Northwestern part of the country, his fishing interests had always been saltwater oriented. Being assigned to South Florida and to work with fishery management programs involving largemouths was quite a change for the young scientist.
Our fishing area was a special place, one where Russ would be doing a goodly amount of his study effort. He learned his lessons well that day and wound up catching his share of the fish. I remember, so vividly, the look on his face when that first giant bass broke the surface and threw out the plastic worm. I estimated it to be in the vicinity of 14 or 15 pounds. A genuine 'grown' fish, for sure!
The very next cast, to the same location, produced another pick-up. However, this strong, stocky bass tipped the scales at 'only' a mere nine-plus pounds.
While we landed no more true trophy bass that day, Russ and I managed to land and release approximately 40, a good number of which were in excess of five and six pounds. And, the nice thing for you readers is, we were fishing waters open to the public.
In Southwestern Florida lie the cities of Lakeland and Bartow. In and around these communities, the business of phosphate mining is a major part of the economy. In addition to the many shallow, natural lakes which abound in this part of the State, there are a tremendous number of man-made bodies of water, the remnants of the mining effort. Often criticized by the government and some of the public at large for ravaging and scarring the earth in the quest for minerals, the mining companies have actually created the best bass fishing waters in the World. Phosphate 'pits', due to the high Florida water table, quickly fill with water and form lakes. Soon, either by stocking programs or the transfer of fish eggs on the legs and feet of birds, these pits gain an initial fish population. The extreme fertility of the pits supports an outstanding food chain of aquatic plant, animal and fish life, and, coupled with the semi-tropical climate, results in a very rapid growth and expansion of the bass populations. The bottom line is that phosphate pits become bass angling meccas.
The location Russ Johnson and I were fishing in the lead-in to this article was the Tenoroc Reserve at Lakeland. Lying on the edge of the city (in fact, a portion of it actually falls just inside the city limits), Tenoroc is a 6000 acre tract of land which was donated to the State of Florida Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1982 by the Borden Mining Company. Mined into the mid-1970's, its 1000-plus acres of water were known as fairly good fishing locations for the mining company employees. Once mining operations ceased, however, the area was opened and heavy public fishing pressure began to deplete the fish populations.
With its donation to the State, there came the opportunity to use Tenoroc for fishery management studies. The Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission had been awaiting just such a chance and here was an area that met all their needs: it was State-owned; was small enough to be managed effectively; and, it already had an initial population of most all game fish. All they really needed was a study plan, a group of dedicated personnel, a bit of funding, and some anglers to do the fishing.
Commission fishery biologists believed that this was an ideal chance to put forth a major effort toward largemouth bass management strategies. The massive influx of people in the State, coupled with the steadily-improving fishing expertise of the anglers, had resulted in a significant increase and stain on Florida's bass fishery. It was time to evaluate alternative management techniques which might sustain and improve the existing fishery.
The plan at Tenoroc centers around 'management through regulation', for protection of the bass populations and to provide the opportunity for quality fishing experiences. Biologists intend to study the effects the various regulations have on the bass populations and to extend those with merit to other public fishing waters, if necessary.
Tenoroc consists of nine open lakes, or pits, ranging in size from approximately 20 to 250 acres. Each has a specific set of rules and regulations governing its fishing. Additionally, a bag limit exists. of which Lake A, on the other hand, is total 'catch and release' on bass. Another lake is set aside according to normal State of Florida regulations, meaning that an angler can keep up to ten bass of any size on a given day. Two of the remaining pits are set aside for special purposes: Hydrilla is limited to fly fishing tackle, only, and Lake 2 requires that each boat contain at least one angler of age 15, or younger.
The purpose of the some of the differing regulations, of course, is to allow measures and comparisons of their effects on the bass populations.
A portion of the Tenoroc Reserve was opened to public fishing, under the regulations of the management studies, in November 1983. In 1984 and 1986, the remaining pits were added to the study program. The initial thrust centers on a five-year study effort, with an second five-year period probable.
In order to gather the data required for the study, the Tenoroc biologist group conducts bass population counts each Spring. The fish are stunned by harmless, mild electro-shocking devices and then counted, weighed, measured and released. Comparison of the data with preceding years information provides information on the changes in actual numbers of bass in a given lake and the average sizes. By evaluating these data results in light of the angler catch reports, the overall effects, both positive and negative, of the various regulations can be determined.
The angler catch reports are very important to the study. One of the requirements for being allowed to fish the Tenoroc Reserve is that each fisherman must complete a 'creel sheet'. On this is recorded the number of fish caught, the size of each, and the quantity kept or harvested. In actuality, the angler is the most important part of the study effort, for from his reports is the final determination made of the successes and failures of the management techniques and the overall program.
While we don't have space to go into detail on the study results to date, there are some broad findings that all bass fishing enthusiasts will find interesting and important.
First, the lakes where there are no special restrictions, and Florida State regulations apply (ten bass per man per day and no minimum size), there is a very noticeable decline in the bass population, both in quantity and average size. However, where the slot restrictions are in effect, the average size of the fish remains very high. In addition, since the slot bass constitute the primary brood (spawning) stock, the population counts have continually risen. On the pits which are governed by total 'catch and release', the population counts and the average sizes have increased dramatically, often as much as 400%. (Remember, these lakes were subject to open fishing pressure prior to 1982 and the populations were then very low.) Even before the initial five year effort is complete, it is obvious and indisputable that 'catch and release' and slot restrictions are positive management practices of very significant value.
If there is any one problem with the Tenoroc study program, it is the low numbers of bass actually caught by the average angler. Generally, the catch rates average about two to four bass per man per day (a day equaling eight hours). However, a select few anglers consistently average 30-50, and more.
This difference in catch rates is not a result of the ineffective anglers being poor fishermen. Quite the contrary, many are very fine Florida anglers on the other waters of the Sunshine State. The problem lies in the difference between the average phosphate pit and the shallow grass-bowl lakes most are accustomed to fishing.
First off, phosphate pits are normally deep (often as much as 30 feet) and abound in structure. That is to say, the results of the mining operation and its heavy machinery left a multitude of deep holes, spoil piles, underwater mounds, and drop-offs. For example, a spoil pile is a feature formed by scooping the earth from an area and piling it off to one side, because it was not considered rich enough in mineral content to process. When a good vein of phosphate-bearing soil was discovered, however, it was removed until depleted, often leaving a very deep hole. In some cases, areas of very hard clay or bedrock were encountered. Often, the machinery of that era was not capable of handling it and the hard mound was simply left in place and the digging continued around it. The result is a absolute wealth of bass fishing structure. The average Florida angler simply has never encountered that type of bottom terrain and has trouble adapting to it, without a good bit of time and effort.
Another characteristic of pits is the lack of shoreline cover and open water vegetation. Shallow pits may have some, but the deeper ones usually have little. This, then, requires that the angler move to open water structures, where the predominance of the bass are located.
There are two basic rules for fishing pits. In the interest of safety, NEVER operate a combustion engine above idle speed until you are absolutely sure you know every inch of the water. Those hard mounds may be just beneath the surface and they were left there because they were hard composition. Lower units are expensive! The second rule is to turn on your depth finder before you launch the boat and don't turn it off until that boat is back on the trailer. The depth finder is positively the most important piece of fishing equipment the phosphate pit angler can have. Mother Nature did not make those pits and their bottom terrain, and the angler cannot 'read' the shoreline and the underwater terrain, as he might do on other bodies of water. it is nearly impossible to determine where the structure is without electronic assistance.
Finding bass-holding structure in a phosphate pit is easy, primarily because there is usually so much of it. The key features are the mounds and spoil piles that come with eight to 12 feet of the surface. The more productive ones will have a sharp drop and deep water on at least one side. Quite often, one will be found that extends from the shoreline and out into the pit, much like a long, narrow point.
The mounds and piles which are small and narrow across the top will usually produce fish on a year-round basis. The small, deeper ones are the primary structure to address during the Winter (if there is such a thing in Florida).
Experience has shown that bass structure fishing in phosphate pits is at its best during the hottest part of the Summer. At this time, the bass will be strongly schooled and on a nearly constant feed to support their warm water-induced metabolic rate. The result is that the school will be very loose and active and in need of sufficient area to forage. Consequently, the large, broad structures are the tickets to quantity bass catches during the Summer period. Often, the angler has to only anchor his boat on one of these locations and catch and release bass until he has had his fill.
Phosphate pits, particularly Tenoroc, have excellent populations of ten pound, and above, trophy bass. In a six month period, we caught and release 24 over nine pounds, 11 of which broke the magic ten pound mark. (All were taken on artificial lures, I might add.) In nearly every case, these giants were found on, or just slightly below, the drop-off line at the edge of a high spot. It's a good point to remember, if you are after a wall-hanger.
By far, the most productive lure in the Tenoroc pits is the plastic worm. Crank plugs can be good at times, but cannot be depended on. We suspect that the massive amounts of shad and crawfish in the waters contribute to this. The fish are very well fed, food is easy to catch, and they just won't waste the energy to chase down a plug. A slowly moving worm, however, is 'easy pickings' and difficult to pass up.
Lure color has not proven to be of any significance when fishing Tenoroc. Dark worms, such as purple and black, always produce. In crank plugs, the most productive color has been silver or chrome, no doubt the best imitation of the bait fish.
Specific lures which have been very successful are the 4 inch Power Worm, and the Fat Free Shad series plugs. Since the Tenoroc bass have proven reluctant to chase a fast-moving crank plug, we normally use a stop-and-go retrieve. When a lure is stopped, it seems to trigger the strikes.
If your desires are to simply catch a lot of bass, we highly recommend four inch worms on light tackle. There is usually nothing for the bass to tangle you in a pit, since the existing cover was removed, and light tackle is much more fun, as well as easier to use. If trophies are your game, go with seven and eight inch worms. You won't catch as many fish, but the size will be much better. Owing to its large size, the Fat Free Shad series plugs are also a good choice for trophy bass. Use the middle-size one on every hump you find and hold on!!
As a final tip on lures, the Carolina-rigged worm has proven to be the best configuration. The bottom of most phosphate pits is predominately a gray, sometimes sticky, clay. The normal Texas-rig hugs that bottom, where the Carolina-rig floats slightly above it. The bass will virtually inhale the Carolina version and you seldom will miss getting a good hook set. Try and set the hook quickly, so that you don't hook them in the throat or gut.
For a quality bass fishing experience, don't pass up the Tenoroc Reserve. Approach it as we have indicated above and you are sure to be successful. It IS the 'land of the giants'.
In that the number keeps changing, call the Lakeland operator for the Tenoroc telephone number. You will need to make a reservation, but normally it is no problem and spaces are available.
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