Northeast Florida Pond Action
by Larry Larsen, Bass & Caribbean Travel Editor
Catch these bass while wading, tubing, walking the bank or from a johnboat or raft!
The soft bottom sucked at my tennis shoes as I tried to back out of the waist-deep water. The seven pound bass was fighting on her terms, moving from one potential weed entanglement to another. Fortunately, during the battle I was able to lead her away from the weed clumps scattered along the point I was fishing.
I felt more comfortable in the knee-deep waters trying to land the fish, but the bass was still "green." She swam into possibly the last shallow grassbed near shore and stopped. I kept a tight line as I waded toward her. Then, suddenly, the fish became free of the obstruction and headed right toward me.
The reel handle was seemingly a blur while I tried to reel in the slack. The bass with crankbait firmly affixed charged between my anchored legs. I was thinking of the treble hooks on the plug when the line cracked like a whip. The largest fish of the day was history, but I was out of a predicament caused by my attempt to "horse" a large, active bass.
I had caught nine bass while wading out to waist deep water off the small pond's gradually dropping point. Two fish were in the four pound class, and the others ranged from 14 to 17 inches. The day was a success without the seven pounder, but that's the fish that I would remember the most. The other battles and landings had gone by the book.
Such experiences are interesting and highly productive on the small, unnamed waters that pocket the upper two-thirds of Florida by the thousands. Natural ponds are ideal to wade, since they seldom have surprises in the way of quick drops or unexpected submerged timber lying across the bottom. Soil is typically sand and relatively firm, and the primary structure in most is some form of vegetation.
Trail Ridge Lakes
The lakes around Keystone Heights really get very little pressure but the bass fishing is often excellent. Anglers passing through the junction of highways 21 and 100 are usually on their way to one of the larger "name lakes" around Gainesville or Palatka. The so-called "Trail Ridge" lakes clustered around Keystone Heights, though, deserve recognition... when they are full of water.
Drought has plagued these lakes since the mid 1970's, and a rain shortfall over most years doesn't help the situation. Some of the little lakes that were 25 feet deep at one time have almost dried up over the years.
While droughts affect these waters rather substantially (I once had to back 100 yards farther down the lakeshore to launch my bass boat at one lake), the fishing remains productive. The deep dimples in the sandy soil around Keystone Heights generally hold water and largemouth. Many of the 40 or so lakes and ponds have names and a few have ramps, but most are fished only by locals.
Finding a way to launch a boat on many of these waters can be difficult. Many are ringed by lots and lakefront homes, making public access without an owner's permission impossible. On those lakes with access, the ramps are often poor, and a 4-wheel drive vehicle is advised if you are launching a full-size bass boat. A small aluminum boat or fiberglass two-man craft will fit the bill on most of these waters, however. Use a small outboard or powerful electric for mobility, a sonar unit and some deep-running baits, and you are properly equipped.
While living in Jacksonville several years ago, I visited the area often and found the typically small bass very eager biters. More than once, I was able to top my day's limit with a 6 or 7 pound largemouth. Lake records on some of the clear water bodies are over 15 pounds. Almost all of these lakes are spring-fed and connected to the Florida aquifer.
"Trolling your toes for gators" works nicely where ramps aren't available.
Since the waters are gin-clear, the bass tend to hang offshore in the short grass covering the bottoms in some waters. "Bank-runners" will not find a lot of success in most of the lakes, except during low-light times in the spring and fall. Those that drift or troll the open waters will usually be very productive, however. If you can fish offshore structure with light tackle, you may be in for the fastest action of your life. Twenty bass per person on some days is very possible. Summers are most productive on these deep little lakes.
I fished most of the waters of North Florida in my "field research" while preparing my book, Guide To North Florida Bass Waters. There were many, many outstanding waters in the northern portion of the sunshine state, and following are just a few excerped from one of the chapters.
Area Bass Lakes
Lake Geneva, located on the east side of Keystone Heights, has a good ramp that is usable when the water level is normal. When the water is low, a private campground with hard sand beach allows easier access. This crystal-clear, 1,630-acre lake is one of the most productive in the area. Fish the grassy dropoffs in 8 to 10 feet of water for best bass action.
An excellent ramp exists off highway 100 on Lake Brooklyn, north of Keystone Heights, when the water level is normal. This lake is often the hardest hit by drought. Brooklyn is one of many lakes that drain into Etonia Creek which, in turn, dumps into Rice Creek on its way to Palatka and the St. Johns River. Sinkholes, however, drain off some of the water. The largest, according to hydrologists, is a 315-foot wide one at the bottom of the lake.
The deepest part of this 645-acre lake is about 35 feet, but most of the productive bass fishing takes place in waters around 10 feet. Deep-running crankbaits and Carolina-rigged worms are the best bet for largemouth action here.
The 1,263-acre Lowery Lake in the Camp Blanding Wildlife Management Area has a good ramp on its west side. Fishing in the super clear waters is best done at night. The lake is ringed by shoreline vegetation and has numerous brush piles along the maidencane grass beds. The bass average just over a pound in this lake, but there are a few monsters. Fish the edges of the grass and the brush after dark for best action.
Kingsley Lake, east of Stark, is a 1,652-acre water sports lake that is full of largemouth. Drifting a Texas-rigged worm in the middle away from the skiers and swimmers will bring fishing like you haven't seen for awhile. I spent several days on this water using the unique approach of fishing open water, dragging a worm along the bottom, and I caught numerous bass. They won't be large usually, but the action is consistent.
A couple of my favorite lakes in the area are Georges Lake and Little Orange Lake. On the former, I've released bass over 11 pounds back into the pretty, remote lake. It has a good depth off its sawgrass perimeter and also offers the esthetics of cypress trees and other vegetation. A friend fishing with me on Little Orange caught and released a beauty over 10 pounds from the east shore one spring day. This lake is another sleeper with excellent bass fishing.
Palestine Lake (911 acres) and Lake Butler (420 acres) are two Union County waters that offer good bass fishing for smaller fish. Both are near the town of Lake Butler. The 558-acre Crosby Lake, located in Bradford County just west of Starke, offers yearling bass fishing also.