The largemouth bass is North America’s most popular game fish – driving a billion-dollar industry and a tournament fishing scene with all the glitz and glamour you would expect of a professional sport.
After six months away from my family on a recent business assignment, we had planned a holiday to Disneyland in Florida to celebrate being back together. Whilst my wife and daughter were getting excited about the thrills and spills of the theme parks, I was looking forward to trying my hand at bass fishing and seeing what all the fuss is about.
For the first week, we were staying in a town called Kissimmee, about 30 minutes’ drive from Orlando. The town sits on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga (locally known as Lake Toho, its full Native American name meaning “we shall gather together here”). The lake is renowned for its bass fishing and bird watching. My pre-holiday research revealed several local guides specialising in bass fishing on the lake and offering ‘no fish, no pay’ guarantees.
Arriving on a weekend, we had several hectic days planned at the resorts. However, if I could endure the crowds and queues, my better half had promised me a day-off for a few hours’ fishing later in the week. As it turned out, the parks were excellent and, surprisingly, as much fun for adults as kids.
In the evenings I continued my research into the guiding services available. I tried calling Captain Dean “Gator” Puller, who appeared highly recommended, but turned out to be booked up on the chosen day. However, after a helpful conversation he set me up with Jay’s Bassbustin Guide Service. My instructions were to meet Jay at the tackle and bait shop at Big Toho Marina at 06:25 so that we could be on the water for first light – I couldn’t wait!
Having never fished with a guide before, I didn’t really know what to expect. I took with me some food, plenty of water and sun cream for my 6 hour session, and a few bits and peices of tackle. I had packed my travel spinning rod, a reel and a selection of lures that I thought would work as well for the predatory bass as they do for pike and perch back in the UK. As it turned out, there was no need to worry as Jay’s boat was very well equipped with numerous rod setups, as well as hull full of lures of all shapes and sizes.
It was still dark when the taxi dropped me off at the marina. The tackle and bait shop was easy to find as it was the only building around. The guides were already there, sat on the decking waiting for their clients for the day and chatting about the prospects for the day’s fishing ahead. Jay was amongst them and stepped forward to introduce himself. Ushering me into the shop, he offered me a coffee and sandwich before leaving me to make final preparations on the boat. I mooched about the shop sipping my coffee. It’s always interesting checking out tackle shops in different countries – noting the nuances in tackle used to catch local species. On the wall there was a picture of Larry “Coach” Joseph – presumably some local hero – taken in 1979 with an impressive haul of specimen bass. In most instances, the story that accompanies such photos is that the fishing was much better in those good old days, but, having seen the pictures on Jay’s website, I knew there were still plenty of big bass in Lake Toho.
By 06:30 there was enough light for us to board Jay’s boat and set out for the fishing grounds. The boat was a proper bass busting mobile. Essentially a speed boat, it had two sportscar style seats to provide luxury comfort when motoring between spots and a flat deck to fish from when anchored.
Lake Toho is a big water and it was a 15-minute ride to the first spot. With a surface area of 35.5 square miles, it is over six times the size of England’s largest lake (Lake Windermere in Cumbria). Whilst it would be red hot by mid-morning, I was glad to have brought my jacket as it was quite chilly speeding across the water at dawn. We chatted on the way and exchanged our back stories, Jay informed me that he was an ex-tournament fisherman who now guided nearly 365-days of the year. I informed him I did plenty of fishing back home, mainly for trout and pike, but had never caught a bass before. He assured me I would break my duck that day.
We anchored up in mid-water at our first spot for the day. The sonar indicated around three metres of water and a weedy bottom. Jay informed me that this mark had been producing well that week and the plan was to start off by live baiting. For bait we were using ‘shiners’, which looked similar to roach or rudd. They were fished on a ‘free roving’ float rig – a large egg-shaped float was fastened to the line around two metres from a single hook. The shiners would then be free to swim naturally just above the weed bed where the bass would hopefully be lurking, ready to pounce. A couple of good casts put the floats around 20 metres downwind from the boat and we sat back in anticipation.
The wait was not long. Within ten minutes one of the floats started moving up-wind, I wound down and struck, but didn’t connect. The bait returned with a few scars and Jay recommended it should be changed for a fresh one (unlike pike, bass will rarely pick up a dead bait). The float was soon away again, this time kiting to the right and dragging under. The strike met solid resistance and my first largemouth bass was soon brought to the boat. It was a decent fish, at around four pounds and would have been a prize catch in some northern states, but here in the deep south we were chasing fish twice this size. Jay was confident we’d get one.
Shortly afterwards the second float was under – “down like Charlie Brown” in Jay’s words – and I struck into something bigger. It stayed deep and tried to muscle its way under the boat and around the anchor rope. Sinking the rod tip, I bullied it back out into open water and after a couple more runs brought it to hand by the boat. This one was much bigger, somewhere between six and seven pounds – a true specimen.
The bass is a perfect predator with big eyes and a huge gaping mouth that can devour anything from small fish to ducklings and frogs. Interestingly, the Americans choose not to land these fish with a net, as we would in the UK, preferring simply to grip the fish by the lower jaw and lift it out of the water. As the fish were coming thick and fast, there were plenty of opportunities to practise this technique and I was soon hauling the fish aboard like a pro.
It was fantastic sport. Several times we witnessed huge explosions on the surface as the bass harried our shiners up from the weed bed before engulfing the baits. We must have landed well over ten fish and I missed at least as many on the strike, before the live baits ran out and Jay called a change of location and tactics. As we pulled up the anchor, we were privileged to see an osprey diving and striking at baitfish.
After a brisk ride further along Lake Toho, we turned left and headed directly into a huge field of lily pads. We travelled along a narrow lane that had been carved through the pads by bass fishers’ boats. As the sun rises, the bass tend to seek the shade of the pads and we were hopeful of some exciting ‘jungle’ fishing with artificial lures. Upon entering the boat lane, we cut the engine and used the wind to drift us along, casting ahead of the boat and retrieving our lures along the edge of the pads. I was using a soft plastic shad. Jay opted to try out a new surface lure that someone had given him to trial. We drifted the full length of the boat lane and despite it looking very promising, the only action was a small bass that briefly grabbed hold of my shad and something else that snaffled my lure, but bit straight through my line (it was likely a pickerel – a small relative of the European pike that inhabits Lake Toho and has sharp teeth).
We moved on to another of Jay’s hot spots – a shallow reed fringed bay and once more changed our approach. Still on the artificial lures, this time we were using 10-inch rubber worms. Jay explained the technique as it was one I had not tried before. He instructed me to cast the worm as far as I could and allow it to sink to the bottom. Then, slowly raise the rod and, by doing so, draw the lure back, before allowing it to sink again and repeating the process all the way back to the boat. Takes would be a twitch on the line or a knock on the rod tip, and if I saw or felt either of those, I was told to drop the rod tip to give the fish a bit of line before setting the hook.
I must admit to being rather sceptical about this method. Firstly, the worm was very light and I found it hard to keep in proper contact with the lure during the retrieve. Consequently, I was unsure if I would see or feel any take. Secondly, allowing a fish to run with an artificial bait seemed instinctively wrong as surely it would spit the bait as soon as it realised it was a fake? Despite my reservations, Jay was adamant this was ‘the’ method for this bay and who was I to argue. To prove the point, he soon hooked up and swung a sprightly two pounder to hand. I fished on, but despite hooking one small fish whilst trailing the worm behind the boat as Jay was repositioning, I drew a blank in the bay.
After a further 30 minutes with no more action and only an hour of my trip remaining Jay plumped for one more roll of the dice and took me to another spot. We went even deeper through the lily beds and emerged into another bay that was very intriguing and screamed fish. There was every kind of feature you could imagine – lily pads, weed mats, reed beds, sunken bushes and logs. Jay changed back to the surface lure while I persisted with the worm. We slowly cruised along the perimeter of the bay just a few rod lengths out from the pads and mats that surrounded it. Fishing at closer range than in the previous spot I felt in much better contact with the worm and suddenly a lot more confident. Flicking the worm within inches of the snags, then allowing the worm to slowly sink in front of any predator lying in ambush beneath, before long I felt my first proper knock on the rod tip. Out of shock I struck immediately and missed. Jay reminded me to allow the fish to turn with the worm if I felt a take.
When the next opportunity came, I made no mistake. Casting the worm under some overhanging branches, I felt two tugs and immediately dropped the rod tip. I watched the line where it cut the water move back towards the branches as the bass, having snaffled the lure, retreated to its lair. A firm strike hooked the fish and, whilst not the biggest of the day, it was great to put a bass in the boat on a new method.
Two further fish followed on the worm. Neither particularly big – two or three pounds – but it was great fun. Jay added two others on the surface lure – both fish taking with a very audible slurp as their huge mouths closed on the bait as it spluttered across the top. Jay’s were bigger than mine, with the second, in particular, pushing five pounds and providing a great end to the session.
My six hours were over all too soon and we sped back to Big Toho Marina. On the way, Jay drew my attention to some distant grunting which was apparently an alligator! It really had been a fantastic morning – great sport, new methods, good conversation, and amazing scenery and wildlife. I certainly could see why bass fishing is such a popular branch of the sport in the US, and I couldn’t recommend booking a session with Jay highly enough.
Post script – well and truly bitten by the bass bug, I managed to sneak out for a quick evening session the following day and will be blogging about that adventure on here soon!