While we agree that Southwest Florida has some of the best inshore saltwater fishing in the state, there are times when most anglers enjoy exploring new water. Planning a trip to camp and fish a new saltwater destination is always fun — but it can also be a little iffy when it comes to predicting wind, tides, weather and potential red tide effects.
So when we recently had an itch to hit the road, we decided a trip inland to chase bass on Highland County lakes was in order. While wind and waves can get a little dicey on these shallow lakes, the issues of tidal flow and red tide never show up. Rainy weather can raise the water level quickly and send bass so far back into the weeds that they become inaccessible, but the regular ebb and flow of tidal changes is never an issue.
The predictable afternoon thunderstorms are something to plan for and avoid while on the water, but they usually occur during the heat of the day when fishing is slow anyway. After the storm, the cooling air and water can produce a bite for a brief hour or two, if you’re ready to launch.
Les’ family owned several orange groves back in the ‘80’s and lived on Lake June in Winter near Lake Placid. (No, they didn’t spend winter on Lake June — it’s named “Lake June in Winter.”) While visiting, we spent our days on that lake chasing bass, speckled perch, bluegill, and chain pickerel from his father’s little boat. Later, with our interest in kayak angling, we found ourselves wishing we could go back in time and fish those same spots with our kayaks.
Nearby Grassy Lake is small enough to explore with paddlecraft and has a good population of bass. We knew about the bass there from tent camping at the Lake Placid Campground years ago and seeing fishermen fillet large bass after sunset. Forty years ago, more anglers kept large bass for the table. Nowadays, most anglers release them to ensure a healthy population of breeding females.
But they say you can never go back, and that proved true for us on our recent trip. Grassy Lake used to be wild with a mostly undeveloped shoreline. Now it’s surrounded by houses and docks that have replaced the grassy areas. Maybe we forgot how to fish these lakes, or maybe the fish are getting smarter, but we didn’t find the big bass we remembered. We caught and released lots of smaller fish, but the high water and lack of a natural shoreline made larger fish hard to find, even from our kayaks.
Then there was the rain. It was nearly constant during our three-day adventure. We took breaks periodically to dry out and cool off in the camper. With the humidity hovering near 100 percent, the rain felt good — but the mosquitoes it brought out became an issue. Out on the lake, we had no problem. However, launching and loading gave them the opportunity they needed to attack en masse.
All the bass we caught struck popping bugs on flyrods at dawn and dusk. We tried trick worms, Horny Toads, and even live bait (mud minnows, because shiners weren’t available). But the popping bugs were the only producer.
Even these smaller bass were often able to burrow back into the grass. It’s not that our 8-weight rods didn’t have the backbone to turn these fish. The problem was the kayaks moved toward the bass faster than the bass came toward us. This resulted, as it usually does, in a lot of lost fish when they tangled up back in the weeds before shaking the hook loose.
While the fishing was not as amazing as our long-ago tent experience, camping was far more civilized, thanks to our A-Liner camper. It stayed dry during three days of rain and with its air conditioner, was cool and comfortable. In addition, the sound of the AC unit drowned out the trucks on U.S. 27 just 100 yards away.
In retrospect, we realized the biggest issue we were dealing with was probably the season. Our memories came from fishing these lakes in the winter during a time of limited rainfall and lower water levels. We found ourselves fishing the same spots with the same lures, but with different results.
Looking forward, we are planning another trip that way next winter to see if we might still be able to get back to the “good old days” and catch some big bass there. Stay tuned.
Kimball and Les Beery, authors of the waterproof “Angler’s Guide to Shore Fishing Southwest Florida” and “Angler’s Guide to Kayak Fishing Southwest Florida,” contribute these columns to promote the excellent fishing available in Southwest Florida. Their books are available at most tackle shops in the area, AnglerPocketGuides.com, or Amazon as a download or hard copy.