Question from Don: What kind of baits would you use in Florida lakes? I am going to Lake Okeechobee in May with my friend who is driving up from Tennessee.
Great question Don!
Okeechobee is my favorite lake, and I still consider it my home lake since I spent so much time there.
First off, May should be a great time- the spawn will be pretty much completely finished by then, but the fish really start to munch because it's the beginning of summer and those Florida bass start getting excited about the warmer weather.
As good as Okeechobee can be it can also be overwhelming because of its immense size and vast grass flats, but I use a system that I have developed for Okeechobee in mind to find fish quickly and then start fine tuning my approach to an area.
Step 1- Kickin' Grass
Since there is so much grass your number one concern is to eliminate all the unproductive areas. To do this I use one type of bait that helps me cover water fast, but also helps me get at least a few bites to clue me in on a population of bass- and a swim bait that is designed to go through grass gets the call. Baits, like the Zman Grass KickerZ, are specially designed to be fished through thick vegetation while having enough action to entice reaction strikes from bass.
Essentially, I use the Grass KickerZ to make large fan casts while keeping the trolling motor on high. Your first instinct is going to be to want to start fishing slow because everything looks good, but on Okeechobee you could go hours with that strategy since it all looks good. With the Grass KickerZ you are able to keep moving, but once you start to get a couple quality bites, then you can slow down and start using other baits. In fact, much of the time the Grass KickerZ will actually be your primary bait, since it is so effective. Just use a straight retrieve, varying speeds, and pulling it through both the thickest and thinest cover. If the fish seem to be in the open holes in the grass, you can let it flutter down into those holes to catch them sometimes. The key is to move fast. You wouldn't believe how fast those Florida fish want it sometimes.
As far as the tackle, I first start with either a Houdini or California Craw colored Grass KickerZ. These two colors pretty much handle everything. Next, I pair the Grass KickerZ with a 5/0 TK125 hook since it has a plastic bait keeper that is perfect for the ElaZtech material. To weight down the nose of the bait, as well as give you more casting distance, I will peg a 3/16oz tungsten bullet weight to the nose of the bait. As far as line, rod and reel go- go big or go home! Use only braid for this technique- 50lb Vicious Braid is my line of choice, and I sling that around on a lighter action 7'6" Flippin Stick and a high speed low-profile bait caster, and I crank down the drag. You're in the jungle now, fish like it!
Step 2- Slow Down
Once you find a few fish with the Grass KickerZ in a specific area you are sure to find many more. Now is the time to get creative, but I also tend to keep it simple.
If you can't catch them with the Grass KickerZ, then I start slowing down in that area by flipping the heaviest cover present, as well as casting a slower falling bait into the areas that have the least amount of grass.
The baits I like to use for flipping include a jig and a punching rig. I actually designed a jig for Okeechobee called the 2X-HD jig which is for ultra-heavy cover. If the cover I am fishing is Kissimmee Grass lines, or patches of reeds, that is the jig that I go for. If the cover is more of a hodgepodge of floating vegetation forming mats, then I go to a punching rig with either a Punch CrawZ or a Turbo CrawZ, rigged with a 1-2oz pegged tungsten weight, and a 4/0 TK130 flipping hook. For both the jig and the punching rig, I like to use 65lb Vicious Braid and a big ole' flipping stick. As far as color goes, keep it simple and stick with either June Bug or Black and Blue. The darker colors seem to always product on the Big O.
If the fish seem to be in the more open water, then the bait that I like to use is a ZinkerZ, which is a stick bait that can be very effective for catching fish in the open holes in the grass. Im really not going to be working this back to the boat, but rather making precise casts to open holes or isolated pieces of cover, that I think a fish is waiting. Since you will be casting to areas that have less cover, I like to use 100% Vicious Fluorocarbon in 17lb-test. I like to use the same 4/0 or 5/0 TK125 I used for the Grass KickerZ, but I don't use any weight- the trick is to allow the ZinkerZ to sink on its own and create the subtle wobble it was designed to make. Pair this rig with a 7' MH fast-action baitcasting rod, and another high-speed (7.1:1) reel, and you've got a deadly combo for this fish that aren't relating to the super thick stuff.
All together, this system for finding fish, and then capitalizing on bites in an area has worked time and time again for me on the Big O, and I know it will for you.
Hope this helps!
For more on some of these, and other related techniques, check out these episodes of Sweetwater: