The high points of drawdowns

As a biologist, Florida's Mike Hulon understands the ecological benefits to fisheries that a drawdown provides. As an avid bass angler, he knows from personal experience the extraordinary fishing that arises during that low water period.

In fact, an angling adventure during the 1996 drawdown of Lake Kissimmee was so phenomenal that Hulon is reluctant to talk about it, fearful that some will think him a liar and others will call him a braggart.

"It was one of the best days of my life," he begins, "and I had a witness with me who can tell you that this really happened.

"Starting about 5:30 p.m., I caught (and released) so many bass from one spot that I stopped counting at 50. I had five over 8 pounds, and the biggest was 11 ½."

Hulon and another employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first spotted the bass in a bluegill bed. "I was wade fishing, using a fly rod and a No. 4 green popping bug," he remembers. "And those bass were tailing just like reds (redfish). We could see those big ol' tails because the bass had their heads down, looking at bluegill."

With the lake just starting to refill, and fish concentrated in what water remained, Hulon theorizes that small bluegill and other baitfish moved in to feed on the fry and eggs of the spawning bluegill, and the bass followed.

Wade fishing, says Hulon, is one of the best ways to fish a shallow, natural lake during a drawdown, as well as afterward, when organic debris has been removed and shorelines once again feature a sand bottom, instead of muck.

In fact, wade fishing was a popular way to catch bass and other species in the Sunshine State in the years before water levels were stabilized for shoreline development, and the natural flushing and cleansing of lake bottoms was eliminated for most of Florida's lakes.

"There are still a few guys who get out there and wade fish after we draw down a lake," Hulon says.

For those who prefer to stay in boats, angling also can be awesome when a fishery is at its lowest level during a drawdown, whether it is a natural lake or man-made reservoir.

"At first, bass are chasing bait and you can catch them with crankbaits," says Florida guide Pete Matson, 800-707-5463. "Once they've eaten it all up, they'll hit anything."

Florida pro Shaw Grigsby adds, "It's totally incredible to go fishing then because all of these fish are concentrated. I remember fishing Rodman one spring, and I was killing them in the old river channel. I'd hook a 6-pounder, and there would be 2- and 3-pounders trying to take the crankbait away from it."

As with natural lakes, man-made Rodman is periodically lowered for bottom renewal, but sometimes reservoirs are dropped for other reasons. South Carolina's Lake Murray, for example, recently was lowered to allow for construction of a backup dam.

For reservoirs, frequently the best places to find fish are river and creek channels, as Grigsby discovered at Rodman. Otherwise, for both impoundments and lakes, all anglers have to do is focus on remaining deep holes, especially in and around submergent vegetation.

Bass are generally predictable when water is on the decline for a drawdown and when it starts to rise, but that doesn't mean that anglers can catch them.

"Down here (Florida), fish can get finicky from November to January, when the water is falling," Hulon says. "The drawdown sometimes seems to turn them off.

"But bass will relate to the outside edge of grass, staying there as long as they can, looking for bait. Worms and soft jerkbaits are good, along with Rat-L-Traps."

Flipping outside edges with plastic craws and worms often will catch bass, as will throwing spinnerbaits into cuts, adds Mark Detweiler, tournament angler, guide, and owner of Big Toho Marina, 407-846-2124.

"The fish first will move to the outside of Kissimmee grass and bulrushes, and then out to deeper hydrilla, man-made cover and, eventually, into the deeper holes," he adds.

For both falling and low water, the marina owner says, the No. 1 bait for many anglers is the Rat-L-Trap, both in ¼- and ½-ounce sizes. Preferred colors are chrome/blue, chrome/black, and chrome/green.

"We might sell 20 or 30 a month, normally," Detweiler says. "But during a drawdown, we'll sell hundreds."

Traps are thrown mostly along the edges of grass, but guide Matson says that's not the only place to find bass during falling water.

"Try creeks, canals — anywhere the water is running out," he says. "The fish will be concentrated in really small areas, like behind a hump, so they can get out of the current. You'll catch them by casting to the same place time after time.

"Sometimes my clients will get bored and want to leave," he adds. "But I tell them to wait, that the fish have moved away to feed and that they will move back in behind the humps, and sure enough, they do."

Matson likes to throw deep diving crankbaits, hard jerkbaits, and Carolina rigged French fries or Flukes to these moving-water bass. "I retrieve with the current," he says, adding that the bigger fish seem to come in the middle of canals.

The guide believes that sometimes a touch of bright color, such as an orange belly on a jerkbait, will trigger bites from these bass that aren't actively feeding. "Sometimes I'll put chartreuse (dye) on half the bait for a Carolina rig," he says.

When the water starts to rise, Matson also likes to fish moving water, this time incoming. "I like to throw Rapalas, floating stuff, spinnerbaits," he says. "My theory is that the water is new and fresh and the fish are up in it."

He also recommends worms with a 1/8-ounce weight, or a weightless stickworm. "They'll hit it on the drop," he says. "Eventually, though, the water will get high enough, the bass will scatter, and the fishing will be tough for a while."

Detweiler adds that bass will follow the water back up, similar to how fish move up with the tide in a coastal river. "They will peck on the shoreline," he says. "First the shad, and then the bass."

He particularly recommends fishing shorelines where the muck has been removed.

"Now you want to fish inside the lines of Kissimmee grass," Detweiler says. "Flip it with crawdads or throw a small spinnerbait up on the bank and drag it in."

He also suggests checking out backwater pockets of deeper water that might not have been accessible when the lake was lower.

"Those fish probably were untouched during the drawdown," he says. "And the inflow of fresh water should turn them on.

"But still, some people think that fishing a drawdown is as easy as shooting pigs in a barrel, and it's not always that way. On Lake Toho, for example, we'll be drawing an 18,800-acre lake down to 10,000 acres. That's still bigger than many lakes."

And scattered in many places among the best and deepest holes will be dozens of navigational hazards.

"A lake is so different with water down and 40 percent of the shoreline exposed," Hulon says. "High spots will create low berms out in the middle of the lake. Sandbars at the mouths of creeks and canals will create hazards."

Reservoirs such as Rodman often are filled with stumps and broken timber, Grigsby adds. "Just pay attention and you can tell where the channel is."

Detweiler says, "Access also is limited. You won't be able to use some ramps. On Toho, when the lake is down, we'll have one or two dirt ramps.

But the fishing will be phenomenal, if you can get to them."

If you do decide to explore a lake during a drawdown, you should take along a camera and GPS unit, as well as your fishing gear, the marina owner adds. That way, after the water rises, you still will be able to find all those sandbars and brushpiles.

Keeping in mind that the vulnerability of the fishery is a final important consideration, you won't be the only one hammering on those isolated concentrations of bass. Handle those big fish gently, and return them to the water to fight again.

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