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Withlacoochee: Episode One

   During mid-February 2007, a couple buddies and I braved the elements and the Withlacoochee River in an effort to catch a few bass. We spent three days on the river and hope you enjoy reading about them.    

The Best Fisherman on the Withlacoochee: 18 February, 2007

    ThunkWhackWhackWhackWhackWhackBOOOM!! The whole episode occurred in about three seconds. We were about to launch our kayaks in the lower end of the Rainbow River when we heard what sounded like an artillery barrage from the large gravel parking area. A car had veered off the road, nailed a road sign, and come to a halt with a loud smack into the driver's side of my truck, which happened to be the only vehicle in the entire parking area.

    Me and my fishing buddies Will and Todd scrambled up from the river bank in time for the driver to look right at us before peeling out and heading back up the road at a high rate of speed. I was stunned, but Will thought quickly and used a variation of the old "Wash Me" trick, leaving the perpetrator's tag number imprinted in the dust on the side of my truck.

   "This is no way to start a fishing trip", one of us mused a couple hours later once we finally launched our kayaks on the crystal clear waters of the Rainbow River. As is customary whenever I have a long weekend of fishing planned, Mother Nature responded by sending a nasty cold front down to central Florida. The previous night had seen lows in the upper 20's, which is about as cold as it gets in these parts. As we paddled and fished our way down the Rainbow to it's confluence with the Withlacoochee, I could only marvel at how rotten our luck had been thus far.

    The Rainbow River didn't help matters a whole lot. Like many spring runs throughout Florida, the Rainbow is like a swimming pool with fish in it. At any point along the river one can look down into the water and see fish everywhere, including some really impressive bass. This is really, really exciting to the uninitiated because fish are just everywhere and they don't appear too concerned about boats with fishermen in them.

    The fish weren't overly concerned with eating on this day either, and we only managed a small chain pickerel and a dollar sunfish before the Rainbow joined up with the Withlacoochee. The waters of the Withlacoochee are very clear, but contain a light tea-colored tannic stain. The fish seemed to be a little more cooperative on the Withlacoochee once the water gained a bit of color. When the summer rainy season hits, the "With" gets a little dirtier and that makes fooling fish a little bit easier. Todd caught three small bass, the biggest weighing a little over a pound, on a small olive-colored jig-and-craw combination just downstream of the confluence.

The 2nd Best Fisherman on the Withlacoochee: 18 February, 2007

    Along with the really clear water, unseasonably cool weather, and uncooperative fish, our biggest nemesis was the incessant wind howling in our faces. Once the brisk Rainbow fed the sluggish Withlacoochee the wind did it's best to send us back upstream. Crawling a small lure along the bottom of a river is tricky at best whilst traveling backwards at a high rate of speed.

    Eventually, we wizened up and decided to turn the kayaks around and let the wind take us back up the Withlacoochee as we fished along the way. Todd, Will, and I all picked up a few more small bass on the jig-and-craw and spinnerbaits fished slowly. None of the big females that inhabit this area of the river cooperated however, and the highlight of the day came as Will and I watched a hawk swoop down and snatch a small bream right beside our kayaks.

The Worst Fisherman on the Withlacoochee: 18 February, 2007

    It is plainly obvious why the fifteen miles or so of the With above Lake Rousseau has such a fantastic reputation for producing huge bass. There is a good amount of deep water, including numerous deep phosphate pits that connect with the river. The cover is also outstanding, with huge fields of lily pads and other aquatic vegetation that shield the bass from lure-chuckers like ourselves. This helps explain why the biggest bass that come from the With every year (I'm talking over twelve pounds here) are taken on live shiners fished along the weed edges.

    I'll admit to feeling a tad defeated as we loaded up our kayaks at the end of the day. Of course, I always tend to learn a little more from failure than success, and today turned out to be no different. At the takeout, I approached a couple guys who were attending to some tackle in their trailered bass boat. I wanted to know if they had fared any better than we had, but I was shocked to find out that here at dark, they were about to start fishing. They were just as shocked to learn that we had wasted our time bass fishing the river during daylight.

    "I can't believe you guys caught as many as you did", one of the guys said. "We haven't fished this part of the river during the day for twenty years or so. You'll do better upstream where the water is darker. You won't catch any big bass, but there are some seven pounders up there."

    I can't help but be impressed by a place where seven pound bass aren't considered big. Other locals weren't quite as adamant in their insistence that the With's trophies couldn't be caught during the day on artificial lures, but everyone we spoke to acknowledged the fact that shiner fishing was the preferred trophy bass tactic on the Withlacoochee. The next day, we would attempt to solve the Withlacoochee's puzzle on a different section of river, and hopefully Lady Luck would be on our side this time.

    Of course, she hadn't completely abandoned us today. As it turns out, the kid who crashed into my truck earlier in the day ran off the road again less than a mile up the road. Unhurt, he fled the scene on foot but someone called in the accident and the police picked him up. Luckily for me, he had auto insurance! I doubt he has it any more though.

Unquestionably the biggest fish of the day

    That night, we tried our hand at catfishing the Withlacoochee following a dinner of grilled bratwurst. Bundled up like duck hunters, we discussed our fishing strategy for the next day. We were somewhat optimistic because the temperature was only in the low 40's, much warmer than the previous night. Maybe the elements would favor us tomorrow.

    Then the wind started to blow.