If you want to catch a big walleye, fall is the time to do so. There are lots of bodies of water across walleye territory that are home to true trophies. If the walleye-of-a-lifetime is your goal, center your efforts on the bodies of water that have a history of producing big walleyes.
Often the best trophy walleye producers will be large, deep lakes that are home to baitfish that make the walleyes fat. Some types of forage fish make walleyes grow big, so we want to concentrate on lakes that have those types of baitfish: Cisco, tullibee, and the like. One reason that the night bite can be good for walleyes is that these baitfish live in clear water lakes, and walleyes can often be easier to catch at night in clear water lakes.
But there’s another reason why the walleyes go on a night-bite in the fall.
Those baitfish that make the walleyes grow big are fall spawners. They’re in the shallows laying their eggs at a time of year when the walleyes are interested in adding some fat to their bodies to get them through the winter months. Those baitfish are very susceptible to hungry walleyes when they’re in those shallow areas.
To take advantage of this night-time opportunity, you need to do a couple of things. First, you need to identify a potential hot-spot. The fall-spawning baitfish will usually spawn in shallow water that is close to deep water. Shorelines or off-shore shallow sand or rock areas will be good starting points.In lakes that don’t have fall spawning baitfish, a night-bite can still occur. Look for areas with current. Go out during the day to current areas and see if baitfish are present. If they are, walleyes will visit at night.
If you’ll be fishing from a boat, take along only essential equipment and have it in a specific place so you know where it is.If you’ll be wading, check out the area for rocks or logs under the water that you could trip on.Get to your spot before the sun goes down and get set up. Keep quiet. When fish are shallow, they’re oftentimes spooky.
Jigs and plastic will catch walleyes at night, but night in and night out, many of the best night-time walleye catchers are throwing hard minnow-imitating baits. For deeper water go with a Lucky Shad: They run down 6 or 8 feet and that’s usually deep enough. If you want to get deeper, tie on a KVD 300 Deep Jerkbait. It runs to about 11 feet. Experiment with color. Try baits that look like the local baitfish, and try baits that look like nothing the walleyes have ever seen.
When fishing shallow we’ll usually be casting. Go with a KVD 300 Jerkbait. Try a straight retrieve, but also work it with sweeps of the rod. I like a Lew’s Custom Speed Stick in the Walleye Special action because it casts these lighter baits well. I also like 15 pound test XTCB Braid 8 line. This line is super-sensitive and super-strong for its diameter.
I have many fond memories of catching walleyes at night from mid-fall until it was too cold to enjoy being out there. I prefer full moon nights, and I also like some wind. The best nights seem to be when the wind is blowing into the area that you’re fishing. Find out for yourself in the next few weeks how productive night-fishing for walleyes can be.Outstanding night-time walleye baits include the shorter Lucky Shad and the longer, thinner KVD Jerkbaits.
To see new and old episodes of Fishing the Midwest television, fishing articles and fishing video tips, go to fishingthemidwest.com
Last Sunday seven members of the Flint River Bass Club fished our November tournament at Lake Lanier. We landed 18 14-inch keepers weighing about 34 pounds total. There was one five-fish limit and no one zeroed. There was only one largemouth weighed in.
I won with five at 8.42 pounds, Chuck Croft placed second with four weighing 7.73 pounds and Don Gober was third with three weighing 6.77 pounds, including a chunky 3.09 pounds for big fish. Niles Murray placed fourth with three weighing 5.37 pounds.
Niles fished with me and our day started wrong. After driving 70 miles per hour on I-75, I-675, I-285, I-85 and I-985 with no problems just getting to the ramp, I started backing down the ramp. A guy walking in the parking lot yelled that I was losing a tire on my trailer.
When I got out and looked one of my trailer tires was leaning at an angle. I told Niles to continue backing up and before the trailer got to the water the tire fell off. The bearings were completely gone, even though there was no warning and I check them often.
I threw the tire in the truck and we go the boat launched. Thank goodness for dual axle trailers! But I knew I could not get home with all the weight on that side on one tire. I tried to forget it and fish.
The first place we stopped after taking off, a rocky point, Niles quickly caught a keeper spot on a cramkbait. A few minutes later I landed one on a jig and pig then Niles caught his second fish. We worked that area hard, thinking there should be more feeding fish, but didn’t get another bite.
At the next place we tried, an old roadbed that runs out on a point, I caught my second keeper ona crankbait. We had four in the boat the first hour of the tournament, so I felt pretty good, but then it got slow.
We tried another rocky point and I got my third keeper on the jig and pig. By now the sun was up and it was bright, so we tried some deep brush and some more deep rock points. I caught three short bass on a shaky head worm but no keepers.
At about 11:00 we decided to try a different pattern and ran up Flat Creek to more shallow water. As we worked a series of rocky points, I caught my fourth keeper on the jig and pig, then got my fifth one on a shaky head on another point.
Niles had a good keeper pull off his worm hook near the boat down about six feet deep. We could see it fighting in the clear water and I had the net ready, but it just came unhooked. He then got his third keeper on another nearby point.
We came in and weighed the fish, then I called the toll-free number for BoatsUS. Membership costs $36 a year and that level includes free towing up to 100 miles. I called them at 3:30 and they started looking for a tow service that could handle my boat.
About 15 minutes later the dispatcher called me back and said no one wanted to tow my boat on Sunday afternoon but one local service would pick it up, store it in their secure lot overnight and bring it to Griffin Monday morning. I told them that was fine.
At 4:00 the flatbed wrecker arrived. By 4:15 my boat was loaded and I headed home, glad I didn’t have to fight the ridiculous traffic with boat in tow, much less one missing a tire.
Monday morning a little before noon they delivered my boat to Jack and, luckily, he still had an old spindle from the last axle I broke. By 2:00 my boat was home in my garage, ready for my next trip. All my worries were pointless.
BoatsUS is well worth the price of membership just for the towing service. They also offer on-the-water freshwater towing for $85 a year. I have used the road towing twice and on water towing once. Since I did not have the higher membership, water towing cost me $300! But it was well worth it at the time.
Hobie Celebrates More Than Two Decades of Pedal-Driven Fishing and On-the-Water Fun from The Fishing Wire
The popularity of kayak fishing – and recreational kayaking in general – is at an all-time high. These versatile, economical and portable watercraft unlock access to beautiful places and experiences. Overall advances in design, technology and manufacturing have combined to fuel this expanding popularity, but the most revolutionary advancement – the birth and continued evolution of leg propulsion – has probably done more to expand kayaking’s reach than any other innovation.
While various kayak manufacturers now offer some version of leg-propulsion technology to consumers, the very first pedal-drive system originated more than 20 years ago, when engineers at iconic watercraft brand, Hobie, introduced a leg-powered technological solution. In 1997, Hobie permanently revolutionized kayaking with the invention of the original MirageDrive, which replaced the paddle with the sheer efficiency of this patented, pedal-driven system. With the largest human muscle group now in play – the legs – kayaking became less tiring, easier, and more fun than ever. And because it also freed the hands to fish, it’s easy to point to the Hobie MirageDrive as the single, most significant advancement that has driven kayak-fishing’s exponential growth over the past two decades.
The birth of the MirageDrive is a fascinating story that stems from the seminal research and design work of Hobie engineers Greg Ketterman and Jim Czarnowski, along with an extensive team of contributing technical staff. From 1997 through 2019 there have been many milestones worth noting – changes to the original MirageDrive that have resulted in greater mobility and increased ease-of-use for kayak anglers across the globe.
Greg Ketterman, an engineer with an extensive background in working on innovative sailboats, was the primary designer of the first MirageDrive. With this strong background in sailing technologies – much of which was derived from his experience with the world’s pinnacle sailboat racing series, The America’s Cup – Ketterman’s approach to the MirageDrive was as a device with underwater “sails” versus a propeller.
“Imagine the sails on a sailboat working underwater. That’s how he saw the fins of the MirageDrive,” says Hobie Vice President of Engineering, Jim Czarnowski. “In essence, the MirageDrive had a mast and sail, but rather than the sail moving in the air and the air moving past the sail, the sail would be driven through the water and produce lift just like a sail would work above the water.”
Roughly the same time that the original MirageDrive was invented and patented, a young Jim Czarnowski was researching a similar submersible watercraft propulsion technology while studying engineering at M.I.T. in Boston.“I was at M.I.T. working on something similar called the ‘Penguin Boat’ that had a MirageDrive-type propulsion system on the back – a boat that was propelled by flippers,” says Czarnowski.
“The work I did received a lot of publicity, and Hobie cited the work in their MirageDrive patent process. The Boston Globe ran a story on my Penguin Boat and one of the owners who lives in Boston sent that article to the Hobie headquarters in Oceanside, California. That was my first introduction to a partnership with Hobie. I’ve been with them since 2002, working on various craft and continuous advancements to the MirageDrive.”
The MirageDrive existed in its original form for nine years, from 1997 to 2006. During those years the first fishing-specific Hobie watercraft with MirageDrive was introduced, the Mirage Outback, in 2001. The Mirage Outback featured a much wider platform and more stability than other previous MirageDrive watercraft, boats that were designed, built and marketed specifically for pure kayaking, not fishing. Response to the Mirage Outback was tremendous, and kayak anglers quickly took note of the advantages afforded by leg propulsion – for starters, more time casting and less time maneuvering with the paddle.
Four years later, in 2006, the MirageDrive’s fins went through a major redesign in terms of shape, the result being the Turbo Fin. One of the Turbo Fin’s major new features was a square tip that produced more thrust with less effort. This increase in thrust was due to the way it twisted when it interacted with the water, creating more productive lift surfaces out near the tips of the fins.
Around the same time, there were major innovations happening in the designs of new watercraft that could be efficiently propelled by the MirageDrive, like trimaran sailboats. The first of these, the Hobie Adventure Island, was introduced in 2006. “There’s something that happens when you mix sailing and the MirageDrive; you’re able to essentially motor-sail in a light wind so you can pedal and achieve more speed, which is more wind for the sail. It’s a positive feedback scenario where you’re getting more power to the boat so you can push the boat much faster with the MirageDrive. It’s different than, say, using a propeller on a sailboat. When you stop pedaling the drive doesn’t really have any resistance, because the fins become straight again and actually provide some lateral resistance. It makes for an amazing sailing boat,” says Czarnowski.
Two versions of this sailboat have become tremendously popular over the years, and they’re Czarnowski’s personal favorites amongst the entire MirageDrive fleet. The Hobie Adventure Island trimaran was introduced in 2006 and the Tandem Island trimaran in 2009.“In addition to the changes to the drive that were occurring, we were also working with lots of new and different craft to put the drive on. Originally, the MirageDrive was used in the basic kayak, but we found we could ignore many of the rules of what a kayak really needs to look like. Traditionally, it had to be narrow enough to paddle, but the MirageDrive allowed us to start making much wider and more stable kayaks designed specifically for anglers. Again, our first fishing kayak with a MirageDrive was the Mirage Outback in 2001.
The next major step was the Pro Angler 14 in 2009. Those were different versions of what a pedal fishing kayak could be thanks to MirageDrive propulsion. And we also introduced the first pedal-driven inflatable kayak in 2007,” says Czarnowski.Fast-forward to 2014 and Hobie made another significant design modification to the MirageDrive. By putting bearings on all movable surfaces of the drive, Hobie was able to increase efficiency by another 10%. The end result was called Glide Technology.Yet another milestone in MirageDrive development occurred in 2016, when Hobie introduced the first stand-up paddleboard with MirageDrive called the Hobie Eclipse. “This was a new version of the drive. The pedals were oriented horizontally so the user could be standing on the board and pressing down on the pedals. We had to develop new fins that would provide a lot more resistance to accommodate and balance the weight of the user. That resulted in essentially a new drive using the same technology as the previous drive, but with a new way for the fins to move back and forth from an upright pedaling position. That product became the Hobie Mirage Eclipse in the spring of 2016,” comments Czarnowski.
The summer of 2016 marked a significant milestone in the history of the MirageDrive, as engineers unveiled the patented MirageDrive 180, which was similar to the previous MirageDrive but allowed users to pull a lever on the drive that would flip the fins around 180 degrees to produce instant thrust in reverse. Prior to this, users had to employ a paddle if they wanted to back up the kayak, or remove the drive and rotate it manually 180 degrees. MirageDrive 180 offered a quick, efficient and extremely valuable solution to both forward and reverse mobility. Driven by consumer demand, MirageDrive 180 quickly became standard equipment on a host of Hobie products, including fishing kayaks, and the response was outstanding. MirageDrive 180 became a must-have feature with kayak-fishing anglers across the globe.
Earlier this year, Hobie engineers designed and brought to market an even more amazing drive, aptly dubbed MirageDrive 360. Now, with Hobie MirageDrive 360, the boat can not only be moved in forward or reverse, but also sideways, diagonally, and even spun on its own axis. Available on the next generation of Hobie Pro Angler 12 and 14 models, MirageDrive 360 features an extra steering handle on the boat that quickly aims the drive in any direction. “If you turn that handle, it turns the bottom unit of the MirageDrive 360. The pedals stay in the same place, but the part producing the thrust underneath can be pointed in any direction providing true 360-degree maneuverability,” says Czarnowski.
The International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades’ (ICAST) New Product Showcase Awards recognize the best new fishing products in multiple categories each year. Voted on by attending product buyers and members of the sportfishing media, these “Best of Category” awards represent the pinnacle of achievement in the sport fishing industry and are intensely competitive. The Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14 with 360 Drive Technology was awarded “Best in Show: Boats and Watercraft” – no small feat considering the wealth of competition within this crowded segment.Upping the ante with all-new Kick-Up Fins, which automatically retract upon impact, the new MirageDrive 360 delivers precision boat control and close-quarter maneuverability that’s unrivaled by any other human-powered watercraft.
“One of the limitations of all previous pedal-powered drives was potentially damaging the drive by running into a submerged object. With Hobie’s Kick-Up Fins, if the fins encounter any kind of obstruction they’ll retract and re-deploy once the obstacle has passed,” says Czarnowski. “They’re now a standard feature in the MirageDrive 360, MirageDrive 180, and standard MirageDrive craft, and allow kayakers to go where there want and fish how they want with total control and complete confidence.”From the inception of the first pedal-driven kayak through this year’s release of MirageDrive 360 and Kick-Up Fins, Hobie’s ongoing innovation in engineering and design have consistently resulted in more enjoyment, more capability and less worry for all kayakers.
Today’s Hobie 360 Pro Angler 12 and 14 represent the pinnacle of Hobie innovation and performance. Both are currently shipping to dealers, and Kick-Up fins will be standard equipment on all new 2020 Hobie Mirage kayaks with exception of Passport models.
Learn more at: www.hobie.com.About HobieSince 1950, Hobie has been in the business of shaping a unique lifestyle based around fun, water and quality products. From their headquarters in Oceanside, California, Hobie Cat Company manufactures, distributes and markets an impressive collection of watercraft worldwide. These include an ever-expanding line of recreation and racing sailboats, pedal-driven and paddle sit-on-top recreation and fishing kayaks, inflatable kayaks and fishing boats, plus a complementary array of parts and accessories.
Lanier Winter Ditch Bite
with Jim Farmer, Jimmy “LJ” Harmon and Jim “Jimbo” Mathley
You have heard about the good winter ditch bite at Lake Lanier for spotted bass. But exactly what is it, how do you find good ditches and how do you catch fish out of them?
Three local expert fishermen on Lanier, Jim Farmer, Jimmy “Lanier Jim” Harmon and Jim “Jimbo” Mathley share their tips and methods for the ditch bite. All three “Jims” guide on Lanier, know the lake well and keep up with the patterns the fish are following. And they are friendly competitors, sharing information and helping each other, and all of us, with their skills in catching Lanier bass.
Jim Farmer lives on the lake, paints custom baits and making planner boards that are very popular, at www.castawaybaits.com/. He fishes Lanier year-round and follows the bass as they move in annual patterns. In December 2016 he won the UGA Fishing Team fund raiser North Georgia Fall Classic on Lanier with 19.6 pounds and had big fish with a five-pound, twelve-ounce spot from ditches.
“A good winter pattern that usually starts in November, hits its peak in late December early January and last through February is the ditch bite” Jim said. He defines a ditch as a submerged valley between two hills. A defined gulley does not have to be present, but any small drop created by a point running out from the sides, creating some contour change, makes it better.
To find the bass, Jim starts at the mouth of the valley in 50 to 60 feet of water and slowly idles up the middle toward the shallows in the back, watching his electronics for baitfish. Baitfish are the key. Bass are following them and are unlikely to be present if no bait is visible.
Bass will show up under or near the bait, either shad or blueback herring, at some point in the ditch. Side and down scan helps you find them since they cover a wider area of the ditch.
First thing in the morning bass will often be in the back of the ditch feeding on bait that has moved to the shallow end during the night. Start in the back if you see bait idling in. Jim catches them on a jerkbait, keeping his boat in water deep enough that he is covering water 10 to 15 feet deep with his Lucky Craft Pointer 100.
Jim always keeps a jigging spoon and underspin ready while throwing his jerkbait. If he spots bait or bass under the boat as he cast a jerkbait, he will quickly drop the spoon straight down to them and bounce it along in small hops through them.
When the bass are showing up at a certain depth, he will cast a one quarter to three-eights ounce underspin, let it sink to the depth the fish are feeding, and slowly move it along the bottom at that contour. He cautions that it takes a while for the lighter bait to fall to the bottom, but the fish seem to hit it better.
“Fish the underspin as slowly as you can, then slow it down even more,” Jim said. Crawl your underspin, being careful to keep it right on the bottom. And he will even “deadstick” it, letting it lie on the bottom in one place for several seconds to get a bite. The deeper the water the harder it is to do this, but slow is the key to catching fish on an underspin.
As the sun gets above the trees the bait and bass move even deeper, often out to 50 to 60 feet of water. At that depth the spoon is Jim’s goto bait since it can get to the bottom quickly and catch the fish. They may hold on a slick bottom or around brush or standing timber. Hop your spoon at the depth they are holding.
Jimmy “LJ” Harmon lives on the lake, guides, installs electronics and fine tunes them for you on the lake and sells his “Fruity Worms” and other baits at www.lanierbaits.com.
LJ says the ditch bite last most of the winter, depending on how fast it gets cold in the fall and how fast it warms in the early spring. This year it started early in November and, if we have a cold winter, will last into March when the fish start moving shallow in the pre-spawn. Not all will move at one time so check out the ditches for concentrations of fish rather than scattered pre-spawners. And the spots will follow ditches to the spawning flats, so it is a good pattern to start.
“A good ditch can be very short, just a hundred feet long,” LJ says. And it can be wide or narrow. The key is that it drops into water 50 feet deep or deeper. Standing timber out in it helps hold bass as do brush piles in the ditch. But bait must be present, or the bass will not be there. Bass will be on many different ditches on the lower end of the lake, you just have to search until you find the ones holding bait and bass that day.
“Look for loons in the mouths of ditches,” LJ says. Loons push bait into the ditches where bass wait to ambush them. The birds and bass work together to herd the bait up and feed, so finding loons is always a good indication it is a place to stop and look.
LJ agrees that bait and bass will often be in the backs of the ditches early in the morning, so he starts there if he sees bait in a ditch, but throws a crankbait to start. Work around the back of the cove but don’t spend much time in one place unless you see the bait, both bait and bass move a lot this time of year.
When you find the bait and bass you can follow them as they move up and down the ditch feeding. A good school of fish may produce four or five bites and stop hitting, but you can often come back to them later catch more.
“You have to find the baitfish to find the bass,” LJ says. Good electronics are critical, and they need to be fine-tuned to see the bait from 20 to 60 feet deep. A good GPS map will let you focus on the depth they are holding. As the sun rises higher, he expects the fish to move out to 40 to 50 feet deep. He sets his Lakemaster Map Chip to highlight 15 to 40 feet in green then follows that path with his Humminbird Side and Down Imaging scan to locate them.
Bass like to hold on drops and even a quick one-foot change in depth on a clean bottom will hold them. They will suspend around brush piles and at the base of it, and in standing timber from the bottom to the top. To catch them you have to get your bait right in front of them.
A Georgia Blade Spoon will catch them, and he likes the way they fall when jigging them. He tries different sizes, from half to one ounce, to see what the fish want that day but also depending on water depth. Spoons can be fished on wood cover since they shake off when hung up fairly easily if you don’t set the hook too hard.
LJ’s favorite bait is a drop shot worm. He can control it at the depth the fish are holding and fish it right in front of them. And he says most days he catches bigger fish on them.
You can watch your bait fall on your sonar and stop it right in front of the fish. That is easy when you see them right on the bottom or see bait so thick on the bottom they hide the bass. Drop your weight to the bottom and keep your line tight, keeping your worm six to ten inches off the bottom.
If the fish are on brush or timber, watch your bait fall until it is right in front of them and stop it there. LJ loves to watch as the bass comes over to hit his bait. Sometimes they will come up and meet it when they are aggressive.
In timber, the fish may be suspended anywhere. He says he may be fishing in timber where the bottom is 50 to 60 feet deep, but the bass are only 20 feet below the surface in the timber, way off the bottom. That is an ideal time to drop a Fruity Worm to them since you can keep it at any depth you need and keep it there.
Jim “Jimbo” Mathley lives in Cumming and has been guiding on Lanier full time for about eight years at Jimbo’s Lake Lanier Spotted Bass Guide Service www.jimboonlanier.com . He, like the other two Jims, are great at helping fishermen learn to catch spots on his trips and seminars.
“Ditches are the highways spots follow in Lanier,” Jimbo said. They seem to make a morning commute to the shallows for breakfast then follow the baitfish buffet back to deeper water where they hold and spend the day eating them. You can catch them all day long if you find and follow the schools as they move.
Jimbo agrees the ditch bite last from November to the spawn in March each winter. During this time both bait and bass move a lot and you have to find them to catch them. He sticks to the lower lake, mostly below Browns Bridge, since that’s where the bigger spots live and the ditch pattern is more consistent.
“The ditch bite is gold for a guide,” Jimbo says. It is consistent for several months, easy to pattern and follow day to day. But you must be flexible since the schools of bait and bass move so much.
A good ditch today may not hold fish tomorrow, but in three or four days it may be good again. Don’t get stuck fishing places where you caught fish in the past, look for them every day with electronics to catch fish consistently.
A ditch to Jimbo is a creek arm or some kind of channel going from deep water to shallow. Standing timber in the ditch makes it better. Any drop or irregularity in the ditch is a key spot for them to feed, so he concentrates on tight contour changes in the ditch if it holds bait.
He also likes to start in the back of the ditches throwing a Spro McStick jerkbait and goes straight to the back first thing in the morning. If he does not catch fish quickly, he moves to another ditch since this bite does not last long.
As the day proceeds and the bait and bass move deeper, he follows them out, looking for timber, brush and even docks in 40 to 50 feet of water where the bass hold. If he sees bait in an area, he will cast a Super Spin underspin with a Keitech three-inch swimbait on it, let it sink to the contour line or wood cover and fish it very slowly along the bottom.
When the bait and bass are set up later in the morning on timber or brush 40 to 50 feet deep, he gets on top of them and fishes straight down with a spoon or drop shot. A chrome or white spoon works well for this and he rigs his drop shot on a one quarter sinker about 18 inches below a shad or dark color Fruity Worm.
The bass are eating both threadfin shad and blueback herring on the ditch bite, so sometimes a small bait is better than a bigger one. Flexibility is the key both in finding fish and catching them, so be willing to change places as well as baits often.
When you find fish on deep timber or brush, drop your spoon or drop shot to them, watching your sonar to keep it in front of them. The bass may be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet deep under bait and can be around wood cover or contour lines. But they will be under bait.
All three Jims agree on the ways to find and catch ditch fish right now. Be flexible, check a lot of places, find the bait and catch bass on jerkbait, crankbait, drop shot or spoon. You must be willing to move around a lot to find the fish each day but when you do you will catch good spotted bass from the ditches.
The ditch bite is wide open right now. Use these tips and tactics to learn how to catch big spots for the next two months.
Even though its been cold the weather has helped the fishing; it’s added some consistency to the fish, feeding and chasing were more the norm. the water temperature has dropped into the mid 50’s and the bass are feeding up before the winter cold drops the water temp much further. If you look and observe the conditions, there is gulls feeding all over the lake along with bass making the fish easy to find by just looking for feeding going on around you.
This week we went back to SPRO Aruka Shad rattle bait, SPRO Little John square bills, Picasso Umbrella rigs and Missile bait swim baits and Tight-line swim jigs. These combinations of baits all produced at some point the past week allowing us to average good numbers and decent size all week long. You had to consistently move until you found the right location but when you did it was worth it.
Come fish with me I have guides and days available to fish with you; no one will treat you better or work harder to see you have a great time fishing. Weather can be tough but its generally worth it. If you haven’t booked your preferred dates for 2020 its time to do so! We fish with great sponsor products, Lowrance Electronics, Ranger Boats, Boat Logix mounts, Mercury Motors, Vicious Fishing, Duckett Fishing, Navionics mapping, Power Pole and more.
Flying with fishing rods is universally recognized as a painful experience. If you put your beloved one-piece in a tube and hand it over to the airlines, the results are iffy at best. It may get lost or stolen—the former more common than the latter but still inconvenient. And it may get broken—luggage compartments and conveyers are made to hold big, heavy, rectangular suitcases, not long, skinny rod tubes. If that tube is not made out of heavy-gauge nobreakinium, they may find a way to return that stick back to you in splinters, and if you’re going where buying another rod on-site is difficult or impossible, you risk ruining your trip.
A better solution is what is generally known as a “travel rod”, a multi-piece rod that breaks down into sections small enough to fit your carry on. If it never leaves your sight, it won’t get broken. Not only that, but once you get to your destination, it’s very easy to tuck into the rental car, the jeep or the float plane—and then into a backpack if you’re going to a really remote location.
Travel rods used to be awful little things, including some that telescope into the handle—suitable for catching bluegills and perch or chasing a possum off the back porch, maybe, but not much more. That’s no longer the case—you can now find some really nice travel rods sized from ultra-light, the sort you’d slip in a backpack and follow a brook trout stream up past the 10,000 foot mark, to medium-heavy actions suitable for hauling a snook out of the Florida mangroves. Fly, spin and baitcaster versions are available.
They also stay together a whole lot better than early versions of these rods used to—the ferrule fit is critical on a rod that may have four to six sections, tight enough that it doesn’t come loose during casting or fighting a fish but loose enough so that you can get it to come apart when the fishing is over and you’re on the road again. Ferrules are THE critical part of a travel rod, of course, because they create hard spots in the blank and affect the bending, which can take away the smooth feel in casting. An imperfect ferrule can also lead to breakage under the stress of fighting a fish.
The quality of graphite is a factor in the action as well, and a few companies like St. Croix build their travel rods to the same standards as their premium-grade one-piece models. The best are noticeably lighter than the competition, longer-casting and with more consistent actions.Good guides are also a plus, even though your travel rod won’t get the day-after-day wear of a duty rod you use for your regular trips at home. Graduated in the right sizes, the guides or “hardware” is the most expensive part of a good rod, and one that some builders try to scrimp on. The best don’t, and that’s why they’re more expensive. Smooth wraps and quality guides with durable inserts are the mark of a quality rod, whether it comes in one piece or six.
The guide inserts have to be tough, especially in this age of braided line, which can cut like a sharp knife under pressure. Highly-polished silicon carbide (SiC) inserts are the favorite of most top-shelf makers, in part because it can be polished glass-smooth, but also because this material is extremely durable. SiC is a man-made ceramic that’s so durable it’s often used as the plating in bullet-proof vests. Fuji, among others, uses this material extensively in their guides.
A quality cork handle is also a plus—the tendency for a few years was to use black synthetic grips, which are cheap and durable, but just don’t have the same feel as a smooth premium cork grip. They don’t look as good, either, for those who enjoy the aesthetic of a nice rod.Pretty rod wraps are not necessary to fish well, but again they’re something many anglers appreciate. More important is that they’re covered in multiple coats of epoxy to keep the thread from wear after a few seasons. A deep gloss with no thread pattern showing through on the outside is the mark of a better quality wrap. (Not so much on the blank itself, though—too much can actually affect the action.)
Airlines have varying rules on what you can hand-carry aboard, but all will allow a rod tube up to 22” long as a “personal item”, and some will allow longer. Be safe and stick to the 22” rule and you’ll never run into problems.A 6’ four-piece rod breaks down into sections 19 to 20 inches long (more than the expected 72 inches because the ferrules overlap), which are just right to fit into most carry on suitcases—check the fit, though, because some carry-on’s have a bit less length inside than others even though they are nominally the same. A 7-foot four-piece model is going to be in sections at least 22” long, which is close to as long as you can actually fit inside your carry-on bag, though you can likely carry it in a tube on most airlines. Longer rods, including most fly rods, will be in more sections to keep them manageable, typically five or six, some up to 8. In general, fewer ferrules mean a better casting rod and also fewer problems with the rod coming apart in use.
Most travel rods come in a cloth sleeve that keeps them together but provides little protection. A tube to protect the rod will go a long way toward keeping it whole. One source is painting supply shops—the PVC tubes used to hold rolled up canvas work really well for this. They’re light in weight, have removable end caps, and can be cut to length with a hacksaw to fit into your carry-on. A 26-incher is about $10 plus shipping from Blick and other sources: https://www.dickblick.com/cart/
Multiple ferrules have to fit smoothly but tightly in a travel rod to assure it stays together when casting and fighting fish, but comes apart easily for packing. (Photo Credit St. Croix Rods)One travel rod I’ve had personal experience with is the St. Croix Triumph, available in both spinning and baitcasting models from ultra-light to medium-heavy. I’ve caught everything from brookies, rainbows and browns to largemouths, bluegills and sea trout, along with one accidental whopper catfish, on the 6’ spinning model, and found it functions pretty much indistinguishably from my best one-piece sticks.
The St. Croix Triumph series rods in spinning and baitcasting models cover the spectrum from ultra-light suitable for chasing brook trout to heavy-action models suitable for catching big bass, redfish and snook. (Photo Credit St. Croix Rods)The 6-footer weighs a scant 3.5 ounces and comes in what St. Croix designates as “light” action, suitable for casting 1/16 to 3/16 ounce lures. That’s pretty much the sweet spot for cold water trout, and also allows me to throw a wide variety of quarter-ounce jigs and jerkbaits for sea trout and largemouths.
I use a 1000-size Shimano Stradic reel on this rod, loaded with 6-pound-test mono for high country trout, or 8-pound-test braid for bass and inshore saltwater fish. A heavier, longer model would allow larger lures and longer casts, but would not be able to handle the cold water trout lures I like including the 5/32- ounce Rebel TracDown Minnow or the smallest Rapala’s. See details at https://stcroixrods.com/products/triumph-travel-spinning.
Shimano’s S.T.C. spinning series provides fast action rods ready to take on heavyweights in fresh and salt water.
Shimano also makes a good series of heavier-action travel rods, mostly marketed in Europe but now available on the Internet—see them here:Neither St. Croix nor Shimano make fly rods—L.L. Bean, Orvis and Cabela’s, among others, carry good multi-piece models for fly-fishers.
Colorado offers lots of beautiful trout streams, but getting there with a rod intact can sometimes be a challenge. (Photo Credit Trout Unlimited)
Two trips to similar lakes in the past week produced different results. I fished Lake Lanier in Georgia and Smith Lake in Alabama doing “research” for my monthly Map of the Month articles.
Both lakes are deep and clear, with a lot of underwater standing timber. Both are full of spotted bass and blueback herring baitfish. But the herring at Lanier seem to be expanding and making the spots grow big and fast, while at Smith the herring have declined, and the spotted bass are mostly feeding on threadfin shad.
The spots we caught at Lanier looked like footballs the were so fat. And many were over the 14-inch size limit. At Smith, we caught more fish, but most were 12 to 14 inches long and not nearly as fat.
Guide Brent Crow took me out on Smith. He has fished the lake for many years and said the spots were feeding on herring up to two years ago, following a predictable pattern just like Lanier. But now he is seeing few herring and the bass are acting different.
We had to go to tiny baits to catch the fish. We saw several half-inch long shad the fish we hooked spit up. But at Lanier we used big herring size baits, swimbaits five or six inches long and big topwater baits.
Lakes change with time. Brent had no idea what caused the change at Smith. Hopefully Lanier will continue to produce big, fat spots but herring are not native to either lake and any time non native species are introduced, the results are unpredictable.
The trip to Smith will be a costly one for me. I have a lot of electronics on my boat that were top of the line in 2016, but the technology is outdated now. I love my Humminbird 360 scan that shows a radar like picture of things under the water, but the new one coming out this month is far superior to mine, giving a clearer picture of brush, rocks and fish.
I have been looking at the Garmin Panoptix unit. This unit, called “Live Scan,” shows a picture of what it is pointed at, much like looking under water with a spotlight. And it shows fish as they move, the depth they are holding and exactly how far from the boat they are, and the direction from the boat.
We caught about 25 bass at Smith and probably would not have caught them without the Garmin unit. Brent would stop on a point and scan around it looking for suspended fish. We would then cast directly to them rather than blindly fan casting a point. Brent said he never made a cast unless he saw the fish.
It was amazing watching the bait moved through the water and the fish react to it. Many followed it but turned away, but we could see the ones that grabbed it and watch as they fought back to the boat.
I learned more about bass behavior in a few hours than I have in many years. But it was frustrating, watching a bass follow the bait but not hit it.
I seldom fish for suspended fish, usually working a jig or shaky head along the bottom on rocks and brush. And the Garmin showed brush and rocks, but the picture was very different than what I am used to seeing. It would take a lot of study to learn exactly what I was looking at with the Garmin.
The good thing was we could see the fish as they moved in the brush and around the rocks. We never got any of them to hit on that kind of structure though.
I am almost convinced to replace my old 360 scan with the Garmin. Maybe I can figure out how to keep both!
I am like most kayak fishing folks reading this. I started kayak fishing to get out on the water more often and to access water that was difficult to fish from a big boat. In 2011 I had a truck that got horrible gas mileage and a big bass boat that was not much better. Whenever I went to the lake, I always knew I would spend at least $100 between the truck and the boat due to gas prices.
This caused me to not fish as much as I wanted to. I started thinking about options to get on some of the smaller lakes closer to my house — ways I could easily throw and go.
After looking at several options, I settled on a kayak. My first kayak was nothing special — a 12-foot Perception Pescador 12 purchased at a discount at Academy due to some shipping damage.The boat was a great start, and by the next year I was ready to upgrade. (Over time I’ve learned that this would become a trend, but that’s another story altogether–including lots of YakGear equipment to get each new ‘yak just the way I liked it.)
I got involved with my local kayak scene and found a tournament trail. When I started hanging around with some of those guys and checking out the events (I am a competitive person by nature) I felt it was a good way to still have a competitive sport in my life and matched what I enjoyed doing in my free time. That club eventually dissolved and a group of us started a new trail, which quickly grew. We went from a good turnout being 15 to 20 people to where, if we had fewer than 60, the anglers were disappointed with the turnout.
After years of involvement, my fishing revolved around tournaments. I no longer went to those cool places I liked to explore, as I was always focused on pre-fishing and trying to pattern the fish.Last year I knew a change was coming. My wife and I already had a 3-year-old little girl, and now had twins due in November. I tried hard to finish well in Angler of the Year standings and felt good with my finish just outside of the top 10 — out of well over 100 anglers.
The main issue was that I was pretty burned out. I had already decided to step away from the tournament board to focus on the family and twins, but when the new season came around, I had no desire to compete. Lack of sleep from the boys may have contributed to some of that. I attempted to pre-fish for the first tournament of the year, but the excitement just wasn’t there. I could also tell me being gone all day put a lot of extra stress on my family. So, I decided I wasn’t going to fish tournaments either.
This year I got back to where kayak fishing began for me, back to what made me fall in love with this sport. My fishing has been focused on short trips, just enjoying the chance to get on the water like I did in 2011. The times where I could fish for longer periods of time or have an entire day, I went to places I loved, but which I hadn’t fished in years. I have fished more rivers than I have in the last three years combined. Just a couple weeks ago I got to take my daughter out and let her catch her first smallmouth in a small scenic river.
That was an amazing thing to experience. I got to have more trips with my friends and just go out and enjoy the peace that being on the water brings. It has been an amazing reset.I can tell as the season has progressed that my desire to get back out and compete is growing again. I think that, like everything in life, it is about balance. I look forward to seeing what next year holds and getting back out on the water with friends I have made with the Natural State Kayak Anglers group. And I look forward to grabbing my YakGear Fish Stik measurement board and setting out to fish some of the tournaments again.
If you are starting to feel burned out, I recommend stepping back and thinking about what got you into the sport. Take a break and go do those things, whether that means fishing with friends or fishing a body of water you haven’t had the time for.
About the Author YakGear Brand Ambassador Tim Hotchkin is an Arkansas resident who has been fishing his entire life, thanks to his grandfather and uncle. He started out wading creeks and fishing ponds to catch bass, and later found that kayaking gave him the ability to easily travel from one favorite spot to another. He enjoys kayak fishing because it allows him to really get close to nature. You will often find him fishing in tournaments through Natural State Kayak Anglers.
May Bass at Seminole with Jim Merritt and Brian
May is a magical month at Lake Seminole. The
grass beds are thick enough that you can see them and fish the edges easily.
The weather has stabilized so you can fish the big water. And the big bass have moved into their summer
pattern, stacking up in places where you can find and catch them.
and Jim Merritt live in Bainbridge and fish team tournaments together. They
have had great success on Seminole and May starts their favorite time to fish
there. Their patterns and places pay off year after year in tournaments and
will work for you.
to Bainbridge in 1979 and started fishing Seminole. He guided there for several
years and learned the lake’s secrets.
Brian lived near him and they got to know each other. Fishing with the
Bainbridge Bass Club, they paired up for a 24 hour tournament and found out
they compliment each other well in tournaments, so they started fishing team
Keith fish the R & R Team Trail as well as the Wingate Open and other team
tournaments in the area like the Wingate Summer trail. In 1999 they had a string of 3 wins in a row
in R & R and other tournaments like the Wingate Open and the Memorial Day
tournament, and did it again in 2001. After winning three in a row two years
ago they had a poor tournament, then won a fourth that year at Seminole.
are the patterns Jim and Brian fish consistent, they produce big bass. Jim has been in on three catches of 10 bass
weighing over 50 pounds in tournaments. In 1990 he brought in 10 weighing 55
lbs. 13ozs. and he and Brian had ten fish weighing 57-3 in 1999 and 55 pounds
even in a two day tournament in 2001.
Their best one day catch of 5 bass in a tournament weighed 37 pounds and
they have won the big fish pot in Wingate’s tournaments three times.
in May there are two basic patterns Jim and Brian fish to win tournaments. Their
primary target is grass beds on the river ledges, and they fish them a couple
of different ways. They will also fish
the standing timber in Spring Creek if the ledges just don’t produce, something
that seldom happens.
grass beds are the ones that come to a point or have cuts in them and grow
right on the ledge, dropping into 20 plus feet of water. Current running across the grass and ledge
helps. Jim says you can be sitting on a
ledge near the dam and hear the siren go off, warning of water release, and
within a few minutes the bass will start biting.
sunrise Brian and Jim hit grass points with spinnerbaits and top water. Jim
tells a story of how he discovered his favorite spinnerbait. About 15 years ago
some guide clients brought some spinnerbaits with big #7 willowleaf blades and
he thought they were “tourist” spinnerbaits. When the sun came over the trees
the clients had 7 bass to his 2. The next
day he was loaded up with spinnerbaits with #7 blades.
Jim like to get near the grass ledges and keep the boat out in 20 feet of
water. They cast the spinnerbaits up over the grass and bring it back to the
edge. Bass usually hold right on the edge of the grass. A 1/2 ounce white
spinnerbait with a big #7 silver blade and a smaller Colorado blade in either
silver or copper is their choice.
is working a spinnerbait the other might throw a Baby Torpedo top water plug.
If the bass are not real active, they might try a Texas rigged worm with a 3/16
ounce sinker, worked down the edge of the grass. But Jim and Brian and looking
for active fish and expect to “get rich” as Brian says, on a ledge with feeding
sun gets up they switch to their bread and butter tactic of catching bass. Both will throw a Carolina rigged Hummer Hawg
trick style worm in green pumpkin or a lizard in the same color. Hummer Hawg
makes lizards and trick style worms using suggestions Brian and Jim have made
so they really like their worms.
Carolina rig has a long leader, five or six feet, but the key is the lead. Brian and Jim make a special 1 1/4 ounce lead
that is long and has a pointed end. This lead comes through the grass better
and they can pop it free, a technique that seems to turn on the big bass. They
fish this rig from 6 inches of water to as deep as it gets.
Brian use a long 7 foot rod and would like one 8 feet long for more
leverage. They found the perfect
Carolina rig rod when Davy Hite showed them a Pflueger Trion 7 foot rod while
they were fishing together. The rod has plenty of backbone but a light enough
tip for the action they want. And best of all, I was able to order one from
Berry’s Sporting Goods in Griffin for $44.95 retail. You should be able to get one at a similar
to team it up with a Pflueger Solar reel and Brian favors the PFLSOLARALP. It has served him well in many tournaments
and is affordable. That combination
works well for him.
Carolina rig Jim and Brian throw the bait up into the grass and drag it to the
edge, then pop it free and let it fall. They make long cast and work the bait
to edge of the grass, then reel it in for another cast when they don’t fee the
and Jim warn to be careful when pulling through the grass. Fish, especially big
bass, will grab the bait and hold on without moving. All too often you will
pull your lead away from the grass only to realize you pulled your worm away
from a fish. Be careful when you feel weight and make sure it is grass, not a
bass, before pulling it free.
fall-back pattern is to go to standing timber and fish it with a Texas rigged
worm. They both like a 3/16s ounce
sinker and use smoking blue, green pumpkin or grape with red fleck worms. They drop a worm beside every piece of wood
and let it fall until a fish hits. The
key to fishing the timber is to keep your boat in 20 feet of water and fish the
used to grow in the timber in Spring Creek and you could follow the edge of it.
Now, you just fish all the timber since bass might be anywhere. There are no spots marked on the map for
fishing timber, if you get into Spring Creek you can’t help but find it, it is
everywhere. And all of it can hold
bass, you just have to fish a lot of it.
following 8 holes are all good, and the lake is full of more just like them.
Jim and Brian say they found these spots by getting out there and fishing. You
can find more by getting on a ledge and following it, fishing all the grass you
find until you find hotspots of your own.
Note – the
following number channel markers are numbered on the Atlantic Mapping Lake
Seminole Map, but not all channel markers have numbers on them on the lake.
1. N 30 47.118 W 84 44.142 – One of Brian and
Jim’s “get rich quick” spots is the bend of the river above Wingates near the
island on the left side going upstream.
Head up the Flint to the island just downstream of the entrance to Ten
Mile Still landing. Just off black
channel marker 10.2 you will see the end
of a log sticking out of the water. Jim and Brian call this “leaning log hole”
from that log.
the grassbed in this spot where it comes out to the river ledge and ends. You will be sitting in 20 feet of water in
the channel and throwing up on top of the grass. If you are here before sunrise
start with topwater and spinnerbaits. Run the spinnerbait out to the edge of
the grass and let it fall if they won’t hit it on a steady retrieve. Cast the
topwater bait to the edge and work it slowly right on the edge of the grass as
long as possible.
2. N 30
46.397 W 84 45.351 – This is the spot where the old ferry used to dock and
there is riprap on the edge of the old river channel. Grass grows right to the
edge so you have rocks, a drop and grass all together. It is an excellent place
to find fish. Look for red channel marker 11.2 and line it up with the little
cut on the bank. That cut is the entrance to the slough upstream of Wingates.
If you work from the channel marker toward the
mouth of the slough you will go right over the old riprap.
Sit in the
river channel and work your spinnerbait and topwater along the grass. Follow up
with a Carolina rig, but if the current is strong you will get hung in the
rocks a lot. You can work a lighter
Texas rig along the rocks in the current by casting downstream and working it
upstream along them.
3. N 30
45.893 W 84 46.636 – Head down the Flint past Wingates to the green channel
marker across from red channel marker 8.8.
The green buoy does not have a number on it. If you are heading downstream there is a grass point on the right of
that channel marker a little upstream of it where there is an old wash out in
the river ledge. You can see it on a map. The edge of that washout has a grass
point on it that holds bass.
If the sun
is up, use your Carolina rig. If there is current running down the Flint bass
will stack up here on the upstream side of the grass point, holding on the edge
of it waiting on the current to bring baitfish to them.
boat out in the channel and cast up into the grass. Let the heavy sinker go to
the bottom, falling through the grass fast.
It will pull the worm down and then the worm will fall slower after the
lead hits bottom. Move the lead along,
popping it through the grass when it hangs up. When the lead breaks free of the
grass stop and let the worm follow it down right on the grass edge. That is where you are mostly likely to get
4. N 30
45.954 W 84 49.496 – Going downstream,
cut behind the line of standing timber near channel marker 7.3 and stay toward
the bank to your right. As you pass the
islands and can see through to Spring Creek, stop and look for the grass line
on your right. You will see a big snag
on your left with a osprey nest on it about six feet above the water when you
are in the right area.
really a triple shot hole. There are three excellent grass points on this grass
bed within 1/4 mile. The osprey nest is
about even with the middle one. The first is back toward the big island
upstream and the last one is downstream near the small island.
of these grass points with spinnerbait and topwater early, then switch to your
Carolina rig. The long leader is important in the grass since you will be
throwing up into fairly shallow water.
The long leader lets the worm work better further away from the lead.
The heavy lead will also stir up mud on the bottom and move grass, attracting
5. N 30
44.250 W 84 53.133 – Run down to the main lake and go across to the Florida
side to the entrance to Sneads Landing.
Near the green channel marker just upstream of the first two sets of
poles going into Sneads, there is a good grass point on the river ledge on the
Georgia side of the channel.
be about 150 yards from the poles toward the island on the Georgia side. You
can see the shallow river ledge on the map, and grass grows on it to the
drop. Fish it early with fast moving
baits but slow down after the sun comes up and use the Carolina rig.
6 N 30 44.024 W 84 53.121 – About 100 yards
below the poles near the first green marker going downstream, look for a
blowout on the river ledge on the Florida side of the channel. If you look
upstream, you can make a triangle with the red and green markers and your boat
– you want to be sitting at the peak of the triangle downstream of the two
markers. The grass will form two points, one on each side of the drop where the
current cut away the old ledges. Both
points hold bass.
points on the grass bed, sitting in the channel and casting up onto the ledge.
Current here running down the Chattahoochee River will make the bass feed, so
listen for the siren at the dam and sick around if you hear it.
7. N 30
43.504 W 84 51.694 – Run down to near the dam on the Georgia side, just
downstream of the Chattahoochee Park swimming area. There is a long sand ridge
running parallel to the river and bank, about 150 yards off the bank. There are
two cuts through this ridge where the bass stack up.
one is out from the second dock on the bank.
If you get straight out from this dock and ease along, you will see a
dip in the sand ridge where a little channel cuts through it. There are grass points on both sides of the
cut, and bass hold on both of them. Fish
them just like the other grass beds.
8. N 30 43.079 W 84 51.591 – Ease down the ridge
toward the Coast Guard station. Watch the radio tower behind the station and
line it up with the first building if you are going toward the dam. On this line is a hole that is a borrow pit
made when they were building the dam. It is right on the sand ridge and grass
grows on both sides of it, too.
see the bottom drop from 12 feet on top of the ridge to 22 feet in the pit.
Fish the grass on both ends of the ridge where it drops off. Here as in other
places look for something a little different in the grass that the bass key on.
A small point, a cut or a sudden drop in the grass will hold the fish and you
should concentrate your casts to that spot.
outside of the pit toward the channel there is an old road used in construction
leading out of the pit. It forms a ridge on the channel side, and will have
grass on it, too. Fish it as well as the points of grass on the bank side.
holes are just a few of the spots on the river and creek ledges that hold bass
in May at Seminole. And if you get tired of running the ridges, go to the
timber in Spring creek for a different kind
of fishing. All of the timber and ridges may harbor a 10 bass, 50 plus
pound catch for you like it does for Jim and Brian. Use their methods on spots
you find for a fantastic catch of May bass at Seminole.
Brian sell their Carolina rig 1 1/4 ounce sinkers for 25 cents each plus
shipping. Call them at 229-246-6046 or 229-254-3884 to order some.
A subtle, V-shaped wake appeared on a sun-drenched flat near Big Pine Key. As it approached the skiff, poled by Dr. Ross Boucek, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s Florida Keys Initiative Manager, its source was revealed: a pair of bonefish foraging on crustaceans hiding in the sand and seagrass. When the ghostly silhouettes came within range, I cast a couple feet ahead of them.
One of the fish tracked the spawning shrimp fly and suddenly pounced. I set the hook and the gray blur tore across the flat, peeling line from my reel as it headed for deeper water. Within seconds, I was down to my backing. The pressure to land the bonefish was much greater than usual; a pulled hook would mean losing not only a prized catch, but the opportunity for Dr. Boucek to tag the fish and collect important tracking data.Anglers from around the world have pursued bonefish in the Florida Keys, the birthplace of saltwater fly-fishing, since the 1940s and ‘50s, when legends like Joe Brooks and Ted Williams pioneered the sport in the now hallowed waters of Islamorada and Florida Bay.
In the sport’s early years and through its glory days of the 1960s to the mid-1980s, the Keys’ bonefish population seemed as boundless as the pristine flats and mangrove shorelines the fish inhabited. But in the late ‘80s, the population began to decline, prompting a group of concerned anglers to found Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), a science-based nonprofit organization, in 1998. Not only did BTT seek to determine the causes of the decline, it endeavored to fill in critical knowledge gaps; at that time, only a handful of research studies on bonefish existed, leaving many basic questions to be answered.
Since its founding, BTT has directed research on the life cycle of bonefish, their habitat use, movement patterns, and spawning behavior, and worked with the state of Florida to protect the species under catch-and-release regulations. BTT has also uncovered a number of causes of the decline, including: reduced water quality throughout the Everglades, Florida Bay, and the Florida Keys; habitat destruction (the number of Keys flats classified as “severely degraded” due to propeller scarring has increased 90% in the last 20 years); poor fish handling practices; and diminished numbers of bonefish larvae coming from spawning at “upstream” locations, such as Belize, Mexico, and southwest Cuba. Reduced spawning and reproduction within the severely reduced Keys’ bonefish population has also played a major role in the decline, and the record cold snap in January 2010 likely killed a substantial number of fish.
Dr. Boucek and Nick in search of bonefish in the Lower Keys.Yet there is good reason to be hopeful. Over the past few years, the population has begun to rebound, with guides and anglers reporting increasing numbers of sightings and catches.”There are a lot of bonefish around in three different sizes, all born a year apart from one another,” said Dr. Boucek. “Starting in 2014, a new wave of babies came in, followed by two more new generations in 2015 and 2016. The size classes are approximately 15 to 18 inches (2016 fish), 18 to 20 inches (2015 fish), and 22 to 25 inches (2014 fish).
”Although these new fish are encouraging, we don’t know where they came from, why they are doing so well after years of decline, or if more new fish will continue to enter the Keys population. So it is still critically important that we understand and address the causes of the historic decline, to ensure that a similar downturn does not occur in the future.“The Keys went about 20 years without a good new generation of bonefish coming into the population,” said Dr. Boucek. “That’s a sign of stress on the habitats and the fishery. When habitat gets degraded, fish reproduction is impacted, juvenile fish struggle to survive, and adults don’t grow as fast. And new generations of fish become fewer and farther between.
”Dr. Ross Boucek poles a flat.Among the most important habitats to protect are bonefish spawning sites. If bonefish cannot reproduce successfully, there will be no fishery. From its work in the Bahamas, BTT knows how bonefish reproduce. During full and new moon cycles from fall through early spring, fish from as far away as 70 miles instinctively gather at nearshore sites, where they prepare to spawn by porpoising at the surface and gulping air to fill their swim bladders. At night, they go offshore and dive hundreds of feet before surging back up to the surface. The sudden change in pressure makes their swim bladders expand, causing them to release their eggs and sperm. After fertilization takes places, the hatched larvae drift in the ocean’s currents for over a month before settling in shallow sand- or mud-bottom bays, where they develop into juvenile bonefish.With the help of guides and partners, BTT has identified spawning sites in the Bahamas and along the Belize-Mexico border, yet the locations of the spawning sites in the Florida Keys remain a mystery, one that must be solved if we are to ensure the future health of the Keys’ bonefish fishery and help it reclaim its former glory.“There are a couple possible reasons that might explain the lack of known spawning sites in the Keys,” said Dr. Boucek.
“First, nobody knew what bonefish spawning sites looked like until we discovered one in the Bahamas in 2011. Maybe by then the size of the spawning school in the Keys had shrunk to the point that it wasn’t noticeable to us. Or maybe the size of the Keys population became so small that the fish completely stopped spawning for a period of time. Fish won’t spawn if there aren’t a critical number of spawning fish.”Over the past couple years, several Keys guides have reported seeing schools of bonefish in nearshore waters. Now, Dr. Boucek is counting on the fish he tags to lead him to their spawning sites.As soon as I land the bonefish, Dr. Boucek places it in a submerged inflatable pen. While I hold the fish upside down in the water to keep it calm, he makes an incision in its abdomen. Right away, he notices that the fish is female—ovaries are evident and filled with developing eggs. He inserts a small acoustic transmitter into the abdominal cavity and skillfully stiches the incision closed. The transmitter emits an ultrasonic ping with a unique ID code every couple of minutes. Whenever this tagged bonefish swims past one of the several thousand acoustic receivers, belonging to BTT and other research groups, moored to the ocean floor throughout the Keys, the receiver records the date and time of the transmitter’s ping.
The tracking data will allow Dr. Boucek to chart the fish’s habitat use and, hopefully, locate its spawning site this winter.With the Nick’s assistance, Dr. Boucek (right) tags a bonefish with an acoustic transmitter.An acoustic transmitter.I release the bonefish and we watch as it glides away across the flat and vanishes into the glare.Dr. Boucek (left) and Nick celebrate the successful tagging of a Florida Keys bonefish.
Nick Roberts is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (www.BTT.org) and the editor of the Bonefish & Tarpon Journal.