Combing canals for largemouth bass
Crisscrossing throughout the southern half of Florida are over 2,000 miles of freshwater canals that flow in most directions except north. A few originate in Central Florida and their prevalence increases further south throughout Okeechobee County and the everglades until reaching the Keys. While canals serve to connect navigational waterbodies in most lakes Florida canals primary function is to provide drainage by diverting large volumes of rain water in an effort to prevent flooding within developed areas. While these narrow channelized waterbodies may appear as an endless analogous challenge for locating largemouth bass, the good news is that with its minimal variance in bottom topography identifying zones that will produce fish isn’t as difficult as one may think.
West Palm Canal System
Known as the land of exotics, the balmy tropical canals of south Florida offer a wealth of peacock bass and clown knife action year round. But what isn’t well known is that within these channelized conveyances are some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the state.
The Palm Beach County Chain of Lakes beginning in West Palm and running south through Lake’s Clarke, Osborne, Eden and Lake Ida near Delray Beach the 30 mile stretch of nutrient rich water produces plenty of lunker sized largemouth in spite of its diverse population of exotics. Bisected with hundreds of residential canals with miles of Water Management District maintained inflows, the Chain’s lake bottom contains a deep linear trough called the West Palm Beach Canal that spans north and south throughout. Spoil deposits left from the waterway’s construction have formed bottom undulations attracting largemouth during late summer and fall when baitfish populations are high. “The largemouth in the main lake system generally prefer grass lines, mud bottoms, deep holes, and heavily vegetated areas,” explained Captain Ed Zyak of DOA Lures, while casting his brand’s purple and black 7 inch worm along the high bank of a connecting canal to the chain. “But during times when the locks and spillways from Lake Okeechobee are open, there can be a lot of water movement in these canals and fish will be concentrated close to where the flow converges with the main lake channel.” The network of south Florida canals found throughout St. Lucie, Martin, West Palm and Broward counties encompass hundreds of linear miles and are designed for drainage and flood control with near vertical sidewalls. Inorganic manmade structure like rip rap, galvanized culvert crossings and shore-stabilizing structure are the first points to look for when cruising canals either by boat or on foot. Utilizing a fishfinder with a high quality sidescan display like the Humminbird Helix 12 exposed rip rap comprised of rocks and boulders placed along shorelines to prevent erosion can reveal concentrated fish hangouts near submerged points especially around discharge pipe locations. With time the large rocks and material placed along the canal slide down the side slope and spread around the base at the bottom of the canal. Shakey head jigs, Ned rigs and drop shotting are almost a guarantee for structure oriented bass hanging in these areas as vegetative growth is usually limited.
Other prime locations for attracting forage and predators alike are where a mix of current, overhangs, culverts, docks and inflows occur. Washout areas where a confluence of incoming water from summer storm discharges mix with canals create slightly deeper pockets of cooler water that generally contain a higher DO (dissolved oxygen) level in contrast to the sometimes stagnant water within many channels not moving large volumes. Texas rigged worms and subsurface twitch baits will produce especially near stands of vegetation are present with flowing water. These zones can sometimes be minimal in size but once located contribute to slightly higher levels of DO. Any natural cover found in a canal whether littoral zone grasses such as maiden cane or bulrush or floating plants like hyacinths and topped out hydrilla will often produce fish especially when discovered between miles of bare bank channels.
Harris Chain of Lakes Tavares
One of the biggest secrets about canal fishing is how many early season professional bass tournaments have been won by targeting these areas. Touring Pros Shaw Grigsby, Harris Chain native John Cox and Rich Howes have all shared in the success of targeting canals especially during the early part of the year. “On the Harris chain during winter and early spring bass move off the main lake body and up into the canals to spawn,” said Howes. In the tropical climate of south Florida the largemouth spawn begins as early as December where within the subtropical conditions of central Florida it starts closer to sometime in January. During the prespawn egg heavy females and males alike migrate into the protected canals and coves away from the windblown points of the main lake to begin fanning nests in preparation to spawn. “These fish will bed all along the shallow edge of the canals but you’ll find a higher concentration of beds anywhere there is access to deeper water,” explained Howes. The Haines Creek canal connecting Lake Eustis to Lake Griffin is were Grigsby found success winning the Bassmaster Elite Series Sunshine Showdown back in 2011 by connecting with a few heavy prespawn females. Just to the north of this canal on the northwest side of Lake Eustis are several more residential canals hydrologically connected to the Lake’s famous Gator Hole that’s produced the majority of its giant bass for over the last decade. The 200 foot deep sink hole located within a natural canal is surrounded by an expansive grass flat that’s inundated in stump fields holds a very high density of bass. Mastering the seasonal patterns and technique for canal fishing can pay dividends within the Harris Chain particular due to the large amount of navigational waterways connecting each of the seven lakes. The established largemouth pattern that begins with the spawn cycle in the canals during the prespawn phase usually begins around the first full moon in January depending on the year after which the fish moving out to the main lake bodies.
Key spots to target are the Ninth Street canals in the Dead River on Big Lake Harris and the long clear channel of the Apopka Beauclair Canal system located near the southwestern shore of Lake Beauclair where for the last five years large scale water restoration efforts have been underway resulting in cleaner clear water that during the winter months offers spectacular sight fishing for bedding bass.