If you want a break from rinsing salt off your gear, here’s a spot within an hour’s drive that offers freshwater fishing and camping. We searched for a nearby state park to explore that was kayak-friendly and had a few amenities we enjoy.
Our little Aliner camper is comfortable for two, and has creature comforts like A/C and a microwave if we can plug it in. The only noticeable thing missing in any 15-foot pop-up camper is a bathroom. Luckily, Florida state parks have some of the finest bath house facilities we have encountered as we camp and fish between here and Colorado.
Located about 9 miles east of I-75 on State Road 64, Lake Manatee is dammed on the west side, which prevents saltwater fish from swimming into it from the Manatee River. Bass, bluegill, channel catfish and speckled perch bring anglers here. You could visit for the day, but camping lets us access the lake from dawn until dark. We tried the morning fishing but found the times around sunset were the most productive. The campground is very nice; clean well-spaced sites with plenty of trees for shade.
Lake Manatee is large enough that boats are popular, but they’re limited to 20-horsepower motors. Kayaks are great here, but this lake is large enough to discourage open water on windy days. Thankfully, there are areas along the shore that provide protection from most wind directions. As usual, a drift sock helps kayak anglers slow down and really work these areas intensively.
This time of year, frogs are active and comprise a large part of the diet of the largemouth bass we were after. Our favorite lure is the Zoom Horny Toad in Watermelon Red, rigged weedless on a 5/0 wide gap hook with 14-pound fluorocarbon leader. They can be fished several ways. If you watch the bass shows on TV, you’ll see them used almost exclusively as buzz baits, retrieved at high speed across the surface with their legs flailing the water.
This is a good way to cover lots of water looking for a bite but we seldom catch bass fishing it this way. Instead, we prefer to fish them as finesse baits along the shore over and around the emergent plants there. We use this presentation in most situations.
Cast the frog up onto the vegetation or the bank before slowly “tickling” it across the weeds to open water at the edge. It is not unusual for a bass to attack the lure when it is slowly crawling across these plants. More commonly, the strike comes as the bait leaves the floating weeds and hits open water. The bass will track it from below as it hops along and ambush it there.
By “tickling,” we’re not talking about making it laugh. Rather, this technique involves holding the rod tip high and shaking the tip as gentle pressure is applied. Too often, anglers will get impatient and jerk the lure harder and harder until it pops loose, which results in a 5- or 10-foot leap away from an interested fish.
It works a lot better if you maintain the same tension and rely on repeated tiny jerks to make the frog move slowly across the vegetation. Bass hanging out below the matted weeds can see or sense the movement of the vegetation and will move towards the disturbance.
While they are exciting, explosive strikes back in the weeds are hard to work with. Too often, a bass hooked this way will unhook itself as you struggle with the situation. Your target fish will bury back into the weeds when you set the hook, and it takes really heavy tackle to bring in the fish with 30 pounds of salad attached.
It is possible to use heavy tackle and accomplish the goal but it makes casting light lures difficult. Also, old smart bass will avoid the frog if they see a thick leader dragging it around.
If the bass digs into heavy cover, so will you. The harder you pull, the faster you hit the bushes. If you had time, you could deploy an anchor — but in the midst of the chaos, this is not an option.
So, Plan B is to prepare for impact. This entails pointing your rod toward the back of the kayak to avoid breaking it in the bushes. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the bass will swim under the kayak back into open water, leaving you and your kayak tangled up in the weeds. Usually you have to go in after it. At some point, you may need to hand-line your bass out of the weeds. We call this part of the battle “hand-to-hand combat.”
It can be hard to see a fish in the weeds, so it’s good to make sure before you grab it by its lower jaw that it’s a bass and not a toothy mudfish. If it’s a mudfish, those teeth can ruin your day. And make sure you are aware of what’s on the shoreline you’re fishing. Large alligators, when startled, can cause quite a commotion as they dive off the bank and head for deep water to hide. Having fun yet?
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.