Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lake Manatee rarely disappoints intrepid anglers

The author shows off a sight-fished channel cat that hit a fly in 12 inches of water in Lake Manatee. (Photo by John Weimer)
On the way out to Lake Manatee, John Weimer and I were discussing the lack of sunshine bass in the popular Manatee County body of water.

"The state used to stock them in Lake Manatee, but I don't know if they do anymore?" I said. "I caught a small sunshine bass three years ago, but none since."

John Weimer holds his first sunshine bass.
Sunshine bass are hybrid fish. They're a cross between a white bass and a striped bass. They grow fast, are strong and put up a great fight on appropriate tackle.

On this outing, we launched at Lake Manatee State Park off State Road 64. We normally launch the kayaks a couple of miles up the lake at Lake Manatee Fish Camp. But Weimer suggested we try the ramp at the park so that we could fish some new water.

Sounded like a good idea. And since I have an annual state park entrance pass, we could launch any time we wanted. State parks don't open until 8 a.m., which is a little late to get started when you're an angler.
Weimer battles a channel catfish on fly rod.

With an annual entrance pass, park officials give you the gate code so that you can enter the park after hours.

We launched at 6:15 and paddles directly across the lake. We had no idea where to fish, but the some striking fish made the decision very easy.

I got a hit on my first cast, but missed the fish. I connected with a feisty bluegill on my second cast.
The third cast resulted in a small sunshine bass, my first from Lake Manatee in several years. Weimer connected with a sunshine bass a few casts last. It was the first he'd ever caught.

Weimer shows off his channel catfish.
The scenario changed shortly thereafter. I caught a pair of decent bass, but the highlight of the day was channel catfish. They were cruising the shallows and actually tailing.

I caught four on No. 8 popping bugs. We then beached our NuCanoe kayaks and began walking along the shoreline, looking for tailers. It was a productive afternoon.

Using a bead-head Squirmy Worm on a No. 12 scud hook, I added 12 more cats to my tally. Weimer connected with three more. The cats ranged from two to six pounds.

For the uninformed, channel cats are highly sought throughout this country's fresh waters. They're strong, speedy fish that can take you deep into your backing. They readily take flies and will make you wonder if you should be using a heavier fly rod.

A sold catfish takes the author into the backing on his fly reel.
I've caught them over the year from Lake Manatee, but usually on Myakka Minnows or bead-head nymphs under a strike indicator cast blindly along the lake's vegetated shoreline. I have never encountered them tailing nor sight-fishing for them in shallow water.

I have been fishing Lake Manatee for more than 30 years. I think it's one of the best lakes in the state for bluegill, speckled perch and channel catfish. It's a pretty good bass fishery, but I rarely target them. My bass are largely bycatch when targeting panfish.

This past spring was great for speckled perch (black crappie). They run larger than average in Lake Manatee, often exceeding two pounds.  They hit nymphs greedily and put up a good battle on light fly rods.

This sunshine bass fell for a popping bug.
For nymph fishing, I use a 2-weight TFO Finesse fly rod, floating line and 7 1/2-foot leader. I usually about 18 inches of 8-pound fluorocarbon tippet. I believe the key to success when nymphing lakes is to not be too aggressive. I'll twitch the nymph slightly, then let it sit. Many of the hits take place when the nymph is just sitting there.

It's not a bad idea to start the day with a small popping bug. I prefer chartreuse, but I'm sure other colors with work. I like poppers with a distinct cupped face. I cast them out, let them sit and then give them a significant "pop." That's about all I do. Most of the hits take place with the popper just sitting on the surface.

My Myakka Minnow also works well on Lake Minnow. Again, the key is to not be too aggressive with it. A slow, deliberate retrieve works best.

Lake Manatee isn't the easiest lake to fish. I've put in more hours than I care to admit over the years. And that effort has paid off nicely.

I like to fish the lake in October through May. I'll fish in the summer if the water level is decent.
Lake Manatee is located in Manatee County nine miles east of Interstate 75 off State Road 64. It's not heavily fished, and you'll likely have much of the lake to yourself on any given day. Outboard engines are allowed, but maximum horsepower is 20.

I've had many memorable days on Lake Manatee, but my latest outing may be atop the list. 

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