On any cast, anglers might land a 10-pound largemouth bass anywhere on the Harris Chain of Lakes in central Florida!
The lakes produce quite a few bass in the 2- to 7-pound range, too, with some exceeding 13 pounds! Several 10-pounders show up every year. Occasionally, one tops 11- or 12 pounds. Commonly, five-fish stringers in tournaments weigh more than 25 pounds.
“The Harris Chain is one of the hardest chains to fish in Florida, but once someone learns how to fish it, it can produce a lot of big fish,” advised Steve Niemoeller of CFL Fishing Charter Service in Deland, Fla. “The lakes produce a lot of 8- to 9.5-pound bass and some bigger ones. In a bass tournament, the normal big bass usually weighs in the 8- to 9-pound range.”
Several canals and waterways link nine natural lakes spreading across 76,000 acres northwest of Orlando. Lake Harris, also called Big Lake Harris, anchors the system. It covers 15,500 acres near Leesburg, including Little Lake Harris, it’s really just a cove off the main lake. While most lakes average 6- to 7 feet deep, some holes in Lake Harris drop to about 20 feet deep. Created by a clay mining operation decades ago, a deep ditch runs along the southern shoreline of Big Lake Harris. The ditch averages about 15 to 17 feet deep, a good place to look for bass during times of temperature extremes.
“All the lakes are about equal for fishing,” Niemoeller advised. “The bank around the Airplane Cut on Big Lake Harris near Leesburg can produce a lot of big bass. That’s a good area to run a spinnerbait or crank bait. The mouth of Little Lake Harris under the Highway 19 bridge and the canal mouths can provide really good fishing. On Big Lake Harris, the area around Ninth Street is another good area.”
At its northeastern edge, Lake Harris connects to Lake Eustis through the Lake Harris Dead River, a misnomer for this fertile, one-mile-long natural pass. Lake Eustis covers 7,806 acres and connects to Lake Dora through the Dora Canal at Mount Dora. At times, water flowing through the Dora Canal or Haines Creek creates current that agitates baitfish, sparking a feeding frenzy.
Haines Creek joins Lake Eustis with Lake Griffin through a long, winding channel partitioned by locks. More isolated, Lake Griffin typically receives less pressure. North of Lake Eustis, Lake Yale covers 4,042 acres, but remains landlocked during low-water periods. The Gator Hole, a deep sinkhole at the end of a canal off Lake Eustis, can produce big bass all year long. Fish it with Carolina rigs, jigs, spinnerbaits, or crank baits.
At the eastern end of the chain, Lake Dora flows into Lake Beauclair through a pass on the eastern shoreline. A cut opens between Lake Beauclair and Lake Carlton. Together, Lakes Dora, Beauclair and Carlton cover 4,475 acres. The Apopka-Beauclair Canal branches off from Lake Beauclair and flows into Lake Apopka.
In the fertile lakes, bass grow fat on abundant shad and don’t need to work hard to grab a meal. Many anglers tickle fish’s noses with temptations to make them bite. To do this, they flip Kissimmee grass blanketing most shorelines. Anglers also find patches of aquatic grasses, cattails, maiden cane, and lily pads along woody shorelines.
“The key to flipping is watching the line as the bait falls,” explained Alton Jones, a former Bassmaster Classic champion. “The action a bait makes from the time it hits the surface to when it hits the bottom is what triggers a strike. When it falls, a tube glides from side to side and spirals down very much like a wounded shad.”
For the biggest bass, many anglers go natural. Native river shiners can measure 12 inches long and create prime natural forage for monster bass throughout Florida. Anglers fish 5- to 10-inch wild shiners on free lines or under floats next to grass or other cover.
“We catch many 9- to 11-pound bass on shiners,” Niemoeller recommended. “When fishing shiners, I usually use a cork about 24- to 30 inches above a 3/0 to 5/0 hook and normally hook shiners in the tail.”
Just about any stop in the Harris Chain looks like it should hold a bucketmouth bass and often does. Any cast can produce the largemouth of a lifetime. Anglers might need to look for that bass, but when they do, they run through some of the most scenic territory in central Florida.
Top Photo: Capt. Steve Niemoeller is happy with two bass he caught while fishing with golden shiners.
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