You Can't Hide From the Best Guide

In fish-rich Florida, a fishing guide can be an invaluable tool for fishing enthusiasts, skilled and amateur alike.

It didn't take long: Less than a half hour on Lake Kissimmee and the reel was spinning, rod tip high in the air, and we were kickin' bass.

Well, OK, not kickin' maybe, but certainly catching. And if you're fishing in Kissimmee, then reeling in lunker after lunker, aided by the best guide, is pretty much the order of the day.

Doing battle on this day provided a handful of bass, including a six-pounder that offered the most fight before being wrestled to the boat. Guide Rob Murchie stood alongside throughout in his 20-foot light tackle bass boat, sharing tips on not allowing slack in the line following the strike.

As Murchie held up a largemouth before releasing it back into the water, he said, "You can fudge a lot of things but you need a good hook set to keep the rod bent and put pressure on the fish."

The Anatomy of a Lake

Lakes like Kissimmee, Cypress, Tohopekaliga (known as Toho) and Hatch are just a canal ride away if you are into a day of sampling the waterways. That's just one advantage, Murchie explains as he navigates his 20-foot light tackle bass boat on Lake Kissimmee.

"Within 12 miles, you can hop from one to another," he says. "It gives you an option without losing most of your day."

As he spoke, cattle grazed near the shore of the lake, the third largest in the state at more than 30,000 acres. Murchie's attention, however, was focused on the passing undulating beds of hydrilla, needle and alligator grass. 

"The water is clear and we have a chance to get into bigger groups of fish," he explains. "They should be staging up in the grass."

Although bass aren't spawning this summer, other guides, like Terry Segraves, stress the importance of allowing the grass to guide you. Looking at specific patches of green and breaking a lake down is his advice. Seek out the lily pads or hydrilla grass and a fish may be nearby.

Segraves has been a competitive bass fisherman for some time now, but his greatest memory from his guiding days remains fresh: A pair of newlyweds who kicked off their life together with the new wife hauling in an 11-pound lunker.

It's those memories - as well as the chance to catch plenty of fish - that drive Segraves when he considers the bounty to be snared in Kissimmee area lakes. And although trophy fish may be difficult to reel in, expect more action. "Summer is the best time of year down here," said Segraves. "It's a good time to catch a lot of fish."

Bass & Blue Gill in Lake Toho

Even in the summer, however, the main draw for these lakes remains bass. So a bit later that afternoon, guide Skip Campbell met me at the Big Toho Marina for some pre-sunset casting.

Campbell has been guiding for more than 20 years and specializes in families and children. With just two of us in the boat, however, he's particularly attuned to finding that one spot that will produce fish. The time of day we head out has a major bearing on our success. As he quickly points out, fish will bite all day in the spring, but early mornings and late afternoon are the best bets in the summer heat.

"It's a summer pattern that always happens," Campbell says. "You have to go early or go late. The water is real shallow and heats up real fast."

Our late afternoon foray in his 20-foot bass boat produces some nice fish. A seven-pounder is brought to within a foot of the boat before spitting the hook. As we meander from grass flat to grass flat, I pull in a four-pounder and a 1.5-pound buck bass.

Another Lake Toho guide, Chucky Pittman, has been guiding for three years and leads folks from all over to prime spots. Along with fishermen from Florida and across the country, anglers from South Africa and Japan visit often. "This lake is really famous in Japan," says Pittman, who figures he gets 80 percent of his business from the Internet. "When they come here and do the Disney thing and realize they're just 15 miles away, they have to come here."

Here or any of the other chain of lakes that connect as part of the Kissimmee waterways. Anywhere along the chain, shallow water and grass or tree limbs can be giveaways that a reel is about to start spinning.

On the shores of Lake Toho, Richardson's Fish Camp has seven cabins and docks under the watchful eye of operator Tom Morris. The popular fish camp is adjacent to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission field office.

At the FWCC, fisheries biologist Marty Mann explains that spots like Brinson Park Pier, where fish feeders fire food pellets into the water, lure pan fish and shiners. Bass are usually hot on their tail.

He says the recent "drawdown" of Lake Toho - scraping 3,500 acres of the 18,810-acre lake - was successful in firming the lake bottom while increasing water oxygenation.

The result is more fish - and a lot more than bass. Sunfish, blue gill and shell cracker are among the lake's inhabitants.

"They'll form clusters or bed, what they call honeycombs," Mann said. "Kissimmee is an excellent pan fishery. People forget blue gill fishing is a lot of fun."

The Best Bait for Bass

A guide's greatest service can be performed even before casting: selecting the best bait. This time of year, live bait like shiners doesn't produce the results of a plastic worm. A 7.5-inch Culprit Ribbon Tail worm, June Bug or Red Shad are a few of Terry Seagrave's picks. Then there's the Horny Toad Frog, a plastic frog with a hook that is dragged across the water. In heavy vegetation? Try the ribbon tail worm, whose screwed-on weights make it particularly effective.

Chucky Pittman recommends a Texas-rigged plastic worm, crank baits or top-water plugs. Choosing the right bait and being led to a grassy area where biting is good beats the heck out of a boardroom gathering, says Pittman. "A lot of guys will get together, get two or three guides and skip out on their meetings," he says. "Every inch of this lake will have fish on it."

Bringing them to the surface can take baits even more inventive than the Horny Toad. Many new baits, with names like Sweet Beaver, Flirt and Booyah's Swim 'n Jig, are on display at Big Toho Marina, owned by local angler Mark Detweiler. The bait display is across from a sign that lists the water's inhabitants: "Bass, blue gill, mudfish, pickerel and gar: Best days yesterday and tomorrow."

Casting at Disney

Finding bait that a customer is happiest with is the focus of Disney BASS Fishing Excursions, even it's not guaranteed to lure the biggest fish.

"We're still using a lot of live baits because that's what a lot of people want," says David Osani, who has been a Disney guide for 10 years. "We'd do better on artificial, but a lot of people want to sit there and hold a shiner."

And if at day's end they want to hold a big bass, Osani can help too. He says Disney averages nine bass per trip, with the largest at eight pounds on the four lakes served by Disney BASS Fishing Excursions.

This time of year, his 21-foot pontoon boat on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon holds eager young fishermen and proud parents. "Our dynamic during the summer months is mostly families on vacation, mom, dad and three kids," he says. "It's usually the families we cater to out here."

Guides Get Hungry, Too

After a day of spirited battle with the bass and other types of fish, a good meal is in order. Two popular places to swap fish tales with other anglers and local guides are at The Catfish Place, a St. Cloud landmark that has been serving up some mean alligator nuggets since 1973, and the Big Toho Marina, which, some say, serves the best cheeseburger in Central Florida.

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