ICAST 2014: Going Old School for Florida's Big Bass
Florida fishing guide Rick Gibbs attempts to boat a Winter Haven bass caught by Lynn Burkhead. (Photo credit Jeff Phillips)
The buzz in Central Florida this week is all about being out with the old and in with the new. As in the newest, the latest and the greatest stuff in the world of fishing, all of which is on display this week at the 2014 ICAST/IFTD show that opens in Orlando on Wednesday morning.
Which is exactly why on Tuesday morning, OutdoorChannel.com editor Jeff Phillips and yours truly found ourselves in town a day early and on board the Big O bass boat of Rick Gibbs, a bass fishing guide in the land of Mickey Mouse.
Gibbs promised to show the two of us the ropes of trying to catch a big Florida strain largemouth bass. Nothing new there since Phillips and I have chased bass in several different places over the 10-plus years that we have known each other and worked together.
Except for the fact that this time, we would be tossing live golden shiners at bass swimming in the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes to the southwest of Orlando.
“Some days, artificial lures are the best way to catch these bass,” said Gibbs, a former tournament guru who has now been guiding customers for 35 years and counting.
“I’ll fish with artificial lures many days because that’s what will catch fish,” he added. “But the bass are going to eat live-bait on some days before they will eat anything else because that’s what’s natural.
“And in my mind, fishing is about having fun and feeling that big pull at the other end of the line. And on some days in Florida, you’ve simply got to feed these bass what they want, especially the bigger ones.”
Bigger ones meaning the 10-pound-plus mossback bass that Florida is famous for and the kind of fish that I had hoped to meet up with before my visit to the state was complete. The only hiccup to this was the fact that I’ve been something of a lure snob down through the years, politely saying no to the idea of tossing live bait at bass.
Since live bait fishing is somewhat frowned upon in the circles I fish in back home in Texas, I’d never intentionally targeted bass with something that resembled what you’d find at the local sushi shop.
If it wasn’t made out of plastic, titanium or tungsten – and it didn’t have a big flipping hook or a set of treble hooks – I wasn’t interested. But this is Florida, home to the sometimes ultra finicky Florida-strain bass that can be a bit moody.
It’s also a place where old Florida – the kind of sleepy state that you can still find on backwoods highways that pass through quaint old towns and fishing villages lined with cypress trees and Spanish moss – often outshines and outpaces the new Florida.
You know, the glitzy and glamorous side of the state where untold millions flock to every year to sample Florida’s beaches and theme parks while looking for some new school resort, gadget or marketing promise that will make them smile and laugh.
But sometimes, old school is better no matter what the brochures, commercials and dot.com videos might say. And since shiner fishing is something of a time-honored practice here in Florida, I decided to give it a try.
Especially since Gibbs had an answer to my only other objection to the idea, a question as to whether the bass take the hook too deeply when caught on live bait.
“So many people are opposed to shiner fishing because they think that you damage the fish,” said Gibbs, a conscientious angler and guide that carefully handles each fish and ONLY practices catch-and-release onboard his boat.
“They think that the shiners will only hook them deep and that’s not the case.”
Gibbs promised that even if one was hooked deep, he had a technique that would allow us to get the hook removed, admire the fish briefly, and then return the bass back to the water no worse for wear.
He also promised me that despite its reputation as a simple-man’s way to bass fishing riches, the nuances of the technique would provide more than enough challenge to my fish catching skills.
“There are many, many techniques to successful shiner fishing,” said Gibbs.
“These techniques vary depending on the lake that you’re fishing, the type of grass you’re finding there, the depth of water that the fish are feeding in and the light line set-ups that I use,” he added. “It’s the same as fishing with artificial lures, you have to be adaptable and change with the conditions.
“It’s just not quite as easy as putting a bait on a hook and throwing it out. You have to change as the weather tells you to change and the fish tell you to change.”
Yesterday morning, over a long stretch from the deck of Gibbs boat, I found that to be true. Early in the day, the bites were somewhat tough to come by as the after-effects of a huge complex of thunderstorms the evening before were felt by the fish.
Add in the funk that a July super full moon had put the fish in and Gibbs was constantly searching for the day’s pattern and nuances that would bring us more bass into the boat.
That even included our use of a few topwater lures including a glitzy Zara Spook and an old Bagley balsa wood prop-style chugger.
For a while, the bass were having nothing of either method, live or artificial.
But Gibbs, one of the most knowledgeable and likable guides I’ve ever fished with, kept searching for the combination to Scrooge McDuck’s vault, a safe containing the days treasured secret to what would make the bass bite.
After a short stretch of listening to the wind blow, Phillips’ slip-bobber started dancing on top of the slight chop as the shiner got nervous down below. When Gibbs gave the green-light, Phillips was tight to the day’s first bass, a chunky three-pound specimen that gave a good account of itself all the way to the boat.
That wasn’t the last one that we would catch either.
A few moments later, I was fast to a bass, this one another chunky three-pound largemouth that fought hard, was landed, admired and quickly returned to the water to swim away with a splashy slap of its tail.
Throughout the morning, Gibbs would keep the pace of our fish catching steady, making adjustments in location, the depth that we were fishing, and frequently changing out baits that weren’t lively enough despite the fact that shiners – especially the ones that are cured the way that he wants them to be – cost more than $20 per dozen.
Most of the fish that we caught – by morning’s end, we had landed more than two-dozen largemouths and missed a few more when we weren’t quick enough on the strike – were in the two- to four-pound variety.
I had even lost one at the boat that was pushing five to six pounds. Fun, yes, but still not what this big fish junkie from Texas was looking for. Gibbs smiled when I mentioned that latter term to him.
“I had a man fishing with me on Sunday that lost a really big fish at the boat while we were fishing shiners – that fish was probably pushing 10 pounds,” said Gibbs. “And another long-time customer was fishing with me a few days ago and he landed his best fish ever, a 12-pounder.”
Gibbs has his own personal and familial experiences when it comes to catching big bucketmouths. That includes a couple of big catches by one of his grandsons, Brandon Folsom of Anderson, Ind., a couple of years back in early June.
“He was 16 years old at the time and had never really done much bass fishing,” said Gibbs. “We were there five minutes and he caught one on a shiner that weighed 11.2 pounds. Later that morning, he caught another one that was over 10-pounds.”
“The biggest one that I’ve ever personally landed on a shiner was 14.1,” Gibbs added. “But there’s no telling how big one was that I lost while fishing on Kissimmee years ago. It was huge.”
Just the kind of fish I was hoping to be introduced to.
Not too long afterwards, as the wind and sunshine lulled me to the brink of a nap, the line jumped, the clicker on the Garcia Ambassadeur reel started clacking, and I picked up the rod.
As the fish began to move off with the line in tow, I turned the crank a few times, came tight to the fish, and hammered the hook home. Instantly, I knew that this fish was different, a potential behemoth that would easily be the best fish of the day.
The battle was long, hard and memorable, giving me plenty of time to think about how I would pose for my grip-and-grin photo as I hoisted up this potential double-digit fish of a lifetime.
The biggest problem was trying to keep the determined bass out of the grass where it desperately wanted to bury up.
But that was followed by an even bigger problem of properly managing the pressure I felt at the end of the rod while trying to protect the 12-pound-test monofilament tippet at the end of my swivel-equipped line.
For a couple of minutes, I was winning the fight; bowing to the queen below as she lurched, lunged and swam towards line-breaking safety.
After a while, the fish began to tire and I tried to start working her towards the surface where we could catch our first glimpse of the sowbelly causing all of this fuss. But then the bass got a second wind, made a quick lunge I wasn’t expecting, and dove into the top of the grass.
As I tried in vain to react properly, the line suddenly reached its breaking strength, snapped somewhere down below, and let the fish retreat towards the shadows found in the clear, sandy and vegetation-laced bottom.
After a few moments of silence on board the boat as we all wondered how big the fish might have been, I finally cleared my throat and weakly smiled.
“That was the fish I came to Florida hoping to catch,” said yours truly. “A real sowbelly, an old grandma kind of bass.”
Gibbs smiled and responded to my disappointment.
“This lake is full of those big bass,” he said. “And I’ve still got plenty of grandma-sized baits left.”
And with that, I smiled a bigger smile.
Because after a year of health difficulties that have kept me sidelined for far too long, I was back on the water, back in the game, and feeling the “tug that is the drug,” the big pull of a mossback bass at the end of my line.
And what’s not to like about that, even if it is a little bit old school deep in the heart of Florida.
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