A look at pay lakes

Imagine a lake where you can catch 40 to 50 bass a day, with a good chance of tangling with a bragging-sized fish — and not see another boat the entire day. Sound too good to be true? The stuff of fiction? Before you break out the smelling salts, consider that such experiences still exist, probably at a location near you.

 In this day of crowded lakes and waterways where the resident bass population gets hounded on a daily basis, there is an escape, a sanctuary for both bass and bass fishermen. All it takes is a credit card.

 Commercial sportfishing operations, where anglers pay to play, have sprung up all over the country in recent years. It is not difficult to find a private fishery in nearly every state where you can practically be assured of a quality fishing experience.

Taking a page from hunting operations, which long have offered quail, turkey and deer hunting opportunities, entrepreneurs have discovered that by owning private lakes and managing the habitat of their finny occupants, they can attract plenty of paying customers.

 If you build it, they will come — and fish.

 Says Shaw Grigsby, a well traveled Bassmaster pro and TV show host who has visited his share of pay lakes: "I think it's a trend you're going to see a lot more of in the future, as many of the public waterways are getting pounded.

 "On one of these private lakes, you can go out and catch a lot of fish and really enjoy the experience of fishing. Let's say you're a typical businessman, working all the time, and you finally get a day to go fishing. It may only be one day a month or two days a month. You'd rather spend it some place where you can really have some fun rather than getting out on public water and having to work at it."

 "And this kind of fishing is more affordable than you might think. You can bring your own boat if you like, or go with the lodge's guide and skip the trouble and expense of bringing a boat. It's a pretty good deal, and you know you're going to catch a lot of fish."

 Texas' Lakes of Danbury set the standard for such private fishing opportunities when it was established in 1985.

 "We've got more fish per acre than any public waters," boasts Danbury manager Jim Thompson, who has been associated with the operation for 14 years. "That makes a whole lot of difference in your chances of getting a bite and catching true trophy fish.

 "We give any angler a better chance to catch fish and learn to fish. A guy who wants to take up bass fishing with his family might buy a $30,000 boat, then go out on one of the bigger lakes in Texas without really having a clue where to fish. He goes fishing four or five times and gets so discouraged, he wishes he had never bought the boat. And after his kids spend a day or two without putting a fish in the boat, they're not going to want to go with him anymore.

 "They can come to a place like ours, where there are walk-around lakes full of bass, hybrids and bluegill. The kids can actually learn to fish, and they won't be worrying Dad to death and casting up into trees."

 A recent trend in this kind of customer service involves established hunting preserves that have begun offering quality fishing as an additional service, or as an off- season source of income. But as with the fishing-only venues, they have gone to considerable expense and effort revitalizing old lakes or building new ones, and then managing those waters.

 "I think this is the future of quality fishing," says Wayne Barber, manager of the impressive hunting and fishing operation at Little River Plantation in Ashburn, Ga. "When you go to bigger impoundments that are open to the public, you are limited in what you can catch because of the pressure on the fish, not to mention the boaters and jet-skiers.

 "Pressure is not a factor here. Our lakes aren't crowded. In fact, we let some of our lakes rest for months if we need to. And, really, this type of fishing is affordable. On a daily basis, it's comparable to, or less than the cost of hiring a guide."

Across the country, these pay-to-play fishing operations come in a wide variety of forms and price packages. Most offer a combination of annual memberships and day trips. Many offer lodging and dining options that can be a major part of the attraction involved in such ventures.

 Almost all have strict catch-and-release rules for bass, but allow the taking of panfish and catfish.

 Following is an incomplete but representative sample of opportunities awaiting anglers who are willing to pay for a quality fishing experience.

 Leavellwood Lodge (205-372-2323, www.leavellwood.com) — In the last few years, Leavellwood Lodge, situated near the Alabama-Mississippi border, has developed a well-deserved reputation for its quantity and quality of bass fishing. The hunting and fishing resort consists of 1,400 acres and six lakes designed to become a bass angler's paradise.

 The lakes, which range in size from 6 to 35 acres, were built with an abundance of bass cover, including pea gravel, concrete rubble, wood and even old cars. Threadfin shad, tilapia and bluegill provide the forage, allowing bass to grow as much as 2 ½ pounds per year, according to owner Trey Montgomery.

 Annual bass stockings since 1989 have created a fishery that has spit out bass weighing 11 and 12 pounds. "You could have 80- or 100-fish days there," Shaw Grigsby says.

 And it looks like a great fishing operation is about to get even better. Slated to open in the spring of this year is 50-acre Sleepy Hollow Lake, a meticulously designed bass haven created by expanding a pond dam over two existing lakes, complete with flooded timberland, ditches and a roadbed. And Sleepy Hollow Lake has been heavily stocked with Florida-strain largemouth.

 Old Spring Hill Plantation (334-688-5050) — It is easy to get caught up in the antebellum aura of Old Spring Hill Plantation, a beautiful and historic Southern plantation featuring a mansion built in 1842. A short drive from legendary Lake Eufaula, Ala., Old Spring Hill offers trophy deer hunting on about 3,000 acres of prime Black Belt land. Old-style quail hunting aboard mule-drawn wagons is the main attraction for clientele, but the bass fishing is superb in its 110 acres of lakes. The 55-acre main lake has been restored in recent years through a drawdown and manipulation of cover and structure. Owners Clyde and Donna Earnest have carefully constructed other lakes to provide optimum fishing for both numbers and trophies.

 During a visit last December, BASS pro Mark Davis caught more than a dozen bass on consecutive casts, while other guests landed bass weighing 8 to 10 pounds during the same week.

 Staying overnight at the lodge and three restored cabins will give you a taste of plantation living and Southern hospitality at its finest.

 White Oak Plantation (334-727-9258, www.whiteoakplantation.com) — Few Southern hunting operations can match the reputation of White Oak Plantation in Tuskegee, Ala., which has been serving sportsmen for 20 years (deer, turkey and quail hunting, and sporting clays). But bass enthusiasts may not realize that White Oak is also home to an excellent fishery that quietly exists on these 16,000 acres of rolling piney hills and hardwood forests.

 White Oak has worked with Auburn University's respected fisheries scientists to stock and manage its 10 walk-around ponds (some as large as 18 acres) for both quantity and quality. Automatic fish feeders provide year-round nutrition. As a result, the action is consistent, and the chances of hooking into a 5- to 11-pound largemouth are good (the current record bass is 11-9). Along with first-rate accommodations and Southern cuisine, anglers can view owner Robert Pittman's impressive collection of antique Florida-made lures — including one of the nation's largest collections of Pfeffer brand baits.

 Nine of the 10 ponds are seasonal — open April 30 to Oct. 15 — while the other is open year-round. Yearly memberships are available, as are day-trip rates.

 P-Arrow Plantation (800-949-7990 or 205-652-7990, www.parrow.net) — Located in Livingston, Ala., near the Mississippi border,

 P-Arrow Plantation's 3,000 acres include 100 acres of lakes that have produced 100-bass days and 8- to 10-pound trophies. The lakes, which contain both Florida-strain and northern largemouth, have been carefully managed for quality fishing.

 Owner Drayton Pruitt's bass jewel is Coyote Lake, which features a 30-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep trench running the length of the lake. Other contour features include an island, stair-step ledges, rockpiles and planted cypress trees. The introduction of numerous 7- to 10-pound bass helped create a fishery that yields a 4-pound average, according to Pruitt.

 Wildlife Farms (www.wildlifefarms.com) — Owners Daniel and Sally Barnett have created a 1,750-acre oasis of hospitality, fine duck hunting and terrific bass fishing east of Stuttgart, Ark. That's the primary reason ESPN and BASS officials chose Wildlife Farms to host the inaugural BASS Cup International tournament in 2002.

 Wildlife Farms' bass grow largely unmolested in five White River oxbow lakes and three man-made bodies of water (as well as 5 1/2 miles of river frontage). The bass are so abundant that customers are required to keep all fish less than 12 inches long. The Barnetts credit that culling requirement with helping them cultivate "so many trophy-sized bass in our lakes."

 In its natural, unspoiled setting sits 17,000 square feet of beautiful lodging and meeting accommodations, where guests receive incomparable hospitality.

 Bienville Plantation (800-655-6661 or 386-397-1989, www.bienville.com) — Situated on 16,000 acres of some of the most unique acreage remaining in Florida, Bienville Plantation may be the best known of the country's private bass operations. Although Bienville offers fine quail, duck and deer hunting, it is most renowned for its high-quality bass action.

 Bienville is home to about 4,000 watery acres that include 14 phosphate pit lakes that range from 20 to 1,400 acres. Florida's phosphate pits are famous for plentiful, fast growing bass, and these waters — located adjacent to a bend in the Suwannee River about 60 miles west of Jacksonville — are no exception.

 Opened in 1994, Bienville offers guided and unguided daily trips, as well as annual membership lease lakes. Although bass weighing as much as 14 pounds have been documented, trophy bass are not its primary attraction.

 "Right now, we have more of a numbers fishery," says Scott Thomas, Bienville's chief operating officer. "It seems to us that people want to catch numbers of fish rather than just one good-quality bass.

 "We have enough lakes to really manage things. We shut down lakes that have been getting too much pressure. We transplant fish from one lake to another."

 Bienville's accommodations include five luxurious five-bedroom cottages and outstanding dining.

 Xanadu Fisheries (904-669-1520) — On the outskirts of St. Augustine in north Florida lies Xanadu Fisheries, a complex of eight 50-year-old coquina pits that are both private and productive. These lakes have surrendered several 10- to 14-pound bass, according to manager Hamilton Franz. Yearly memberships are available at different rates for fly fishermen and tackle anglers.

 Dream Lakes of Florida (863-640-7783; www.dreamlakesofflorida.com) — After retiring from the mining business, Jon Ackerly and three partners purchased a series of bass-rich phosphate pits and created Dream Lakes of Florida Inc. Today, those lakes provide some of the best private fishing in the Sunshine State.

 Built in the early 1970s, the seven reclaimed lakes total 175 acres and are as deep as 30 feet in places, with about 12 miles of shoreline. The lakes are managed by a professional fisheries biologist, and the results are impressive. Located near the central Florida city of Fort Meade, the phosphate lakes are loaded with bass up to 14 pounds. And the fishing occurs in a wonderful setting without airboats, jet-skiers or water-skiers.

 Little River Plantation (229-567-0394, www.littleriverga.com) — Opened to anglers and deer and quail hunters in 2001, Little River Plantation is a rare find these days. Unlike most Southern plantations, which have been divided among heirs, its 23,000 acres have remained intact and largely uncultivated since before the turn of the century. As a result, it is a sportsman's oasis.

 Located near Albany, Ga., Little River is home to undisturbed woodlands dotted with 21 lakes and ponds ranging from 2 to 70 acres. It has a nice mixture of old established lakes and 14 newer lakes that were built with fishing in mind. All the lakes have received stockings of both fingerling and adult largemouth over a two- to eight-year period.

 Those stockings, along with intensive management (a fisheries biologist is on staff), have led to excellent fishing. Customers routinely catch 60 to 70 bass a day, according to Wayne Barber, manager, and one pond has produced three bass in the 12-pound range. (Several Bassmaster writers visited the plantation last May and enjoyed some tremendous action, including 100-fish days.)

 Little River's 7,000-foot lodge accommodates up to 16 guests. Just as impressive as the fishing is the delicious home cooking served there.

 Ashbrook Plantation (229-446-1326, www.ashbrookequailpreserve.com) — Located in Albany, Ga., the "Quail Capital of the World," Ashbrook Plantation is one of many commercial hunting operations that have expanded into the fishing arena. Although its quail hunting (under the direction of Hall of Fame dog trainer John Rex Gates) is the main attraction, Ashbrook's lakes — especially 8-acre Errin's Pond — harbor good bass and bluegill fishing.

 An added attraction is the plantation's hands-on owners/hosts: former baseball star Ray Knight and golfing great Nancy Lopez Knight.

 Callaway Gardens (800-225-5292) — It is difficult to imagine a lovelier setting for catching bass than the lakes scattered throughout Callaway Gardens, an award-winning 14,000-acre gardens, resort and preserve nestled in the southernmost foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Pine Mountain, Ga.

 Whether it involves its scenic 175-acre main body of water or any of a dozen smaller ponds on the property, the personnel at Callaway grow bass big and plentiful. Fifty-bass days are not uncommon, and more than 25 bass over 9 pounds were caught and released last year. One visiting angler boated three 10-pounders July 5, 2002.

 Some of the lakes harbor trophy bluegill and trout (rainbow, brown and brook) as well. Combined with the bass fishing, fly casters usually enjoy plenty of action at Callaway. Guided and unguided trips are available, along with rental tackle and boats.

 Woods-N-Water Inc. (478-864-9108, www.woodsnwaterinc.com) — Blaine Burley's company serves as a booking service for Little River and several other trophy fishing and hunting hot spots in Georgia. At last count, Woods-N-Water had access to more than 30 private ponds and lakes, including some that produced bass as heavy as 14 pounds, says Burley.

 Flint Oak (620-658-4401, www.flintoak.com) — Established in 1979 in Fall River, Kan., Flint Oak is best known for its field hunts for upland gamebirds, European-style pheasant shoots, and deer and turkey hunting. But a visit there last year had Grigsby bragging about its bass fishing.

 "When I was there, they were enhancing the lakes by building a big, new lake — 120 acres or so," he relates. "The lakes they have already are really good, but this new lake should be dynamite. They are really doing a lot of fish management. They consulted with Ray Scott on putting the correct structure and cover in the lake, and they're putting in some megabass that are supposed to grow quickly. A couple of years from now, it should be stunning."

 Upland Wings (573-732-3146, www.uplandwings.com) — Don't be confused by the name: Upland Wings' operation also includes plenty of fishing. On the 7,000-acre property — located on the northern extreme of the Ozark Mountain range an hour from St. Louis — are remnants of an old mining company that includes a 70-acre lake created by what is said to be the deepest iron ore mine in North America. That lake has produced 10-pound bass, according to the company's Jim Kennedy.

 In addition, Upland Wings offers guided smallmouth trips on its private 1/4-mile stretch of the Meramec River.

 Daddy Joe's Outdoors (877-668-8586 or 910-653-2155, www.daddyjoe.com) — This is a delightful little operation located in rural southeastern North Carolina that is absolutely perfect for family vacations and visits.

 Tucked away on a quiet farm is a family attraction in Tabor City with fishing as its centerpiece. Just minutes from Wilmington and South Carolina's Grand Strand area, Daddy Joe's is a great destination for rest, relaxation and fishing. Included are several stocked and managed bass lakes that provide consistently good fishing, along with a re-created (and stocked) trout stream and small ponds full of panfish and catfish, exclusively for kids.

 Although day trips are offered, the best way to experience Daddy Joe's is to stay overnight. In addition to camping and RV sites, guests can stay in comfortable yurts — permanent tent structures with air conditioning and heat.

 The bass lakes, which are large enough to handle bass boats, are home to plentiful largemouth populations.

 Mad River Outfitters (614-451-0363 or 888-451-0363, www.madriveroutfitters.com) — The Wilds is a 10,000-acre tract of reclaimed, surface-mined land in Ohio that is owned by American Electric Power. Some of the acreage is used to house a variety of wild animals from Asia, Africa and North America.

 It is also home to more than 100 quarry lakes of various sizes that have seldom been fished over the last 20 years. Mad River Outfitters offers guided trips that include bass boats, float tubes and camping in yurt-style tents. It is a remote, wilderness excursion involving ignorant bass that rarely see a lure — what more could you ask for?

 VIP Adventures (843-821-1157 or 843-708-5473, www.vipadventures.net) — The sandpit lakes outside Summerville, S.C. (20 miles northwest of Charleston), are loaded with big and plentiful bass, but you have to know someone to gain access to them. That someone is Marc Deschenes, who guides fishermen on the three lakes, which total 200 acres. Thirty to 50 bass is an average day for a visitor. And they grow big here — up to 13 pounds, 7 ounces.

 Lakes of Danbury (979-922-8610, www.lakesofdanbury.com) — Located about 40 miles south of Houston, Texas, Lakes of Danbury includes 800 acres and about 75 lakes. Sixty-three of those lakes are dedicated to its commercial fish hatchery, where they raise bluegill, minnows, shad and tilapia to feed their fishing lakes.

 Fishermen have access to six lakes that range in size from 20 to 120 acres, and six bass boats. There are also four smaller "walk-around lakes" loaded with bass, hybrids, bluegill and catfish.

 The bass lakes, which are intensively managed, contain a mixture of native, Florida- and Cuban-strain largemouth, and surrendered nine bass that topped the 10-pound mark in 2002 (along with nine 9-pounders), according to Thompson. The Danbury record fish weighed 16 pounds, 3 ounces.

 "I've got two lakes that I've made truly hot-action lakes by putting numbers of 1- to 4-pound bass in them," he adds. "On a good morning on our hot-action lakes, 20 to 50 fish is real common. Anybody that's catching that many fish — bass that average 2 to 3 pounds — is catching a pretty solid grade of fish. And that comes with a chance of catching a 10-pound-plus fish out of any of our lakes."

 Cutbirth Cattle Co. (915-646-3356 or 915-646-0019, www.cutbirthcattle.com) — This central Texas lake near Brownwood has been in the Cutbirth family for more than 75 years, and today caters to hunters and fishermen. The bass action takes place in six stocked lakes (called "tanks" in Texas) that range from 2 to 10 acres in size. Florida-strain largemouth grow largely unmolested on the ranch.

 Join a club

 While most pay-to-fish lakes charge daily fees for access, fishing clubs that charge annual dues are becoming increasingly popular. For fees ranging from several hundred to a couple thousand dollars, you can enjoy unlimited access to fish-filled lakes.

 Families are the focus at Wylie Rosa Fish & Feather Club at Hardaway, Ala. (www.wylierosa.com, 334-485-3550), which features four well-stocked ponds loaded with bass (the club record is 10 pounds) and big bluegill. In the winter, owner Wylie Johnson stocks one of his lakes with rainbow trout, providing sport for his fly fishing members. A family membership is only $550 a year.

 Those who sign up for a combination hunting and fishing membership also can participate in organized hunts for doves, ducks, quail, pheasant and deer. Members can camp beside the lakes, or enjoy overnight stays in the Wylie Rosa's lodge or cabin.

 An intriguing option for Texas bass fishermen is the Great Texas Bass Club (888-303-4822 or 214-871-0044, www.gtbc.com). The Dallas-based group has leased fishing rights to dozens of private waters throughout the state. Members pay a surprisingly affordable annual fee to get their pick of more than 30 managed lakes and ponds.