Outdoors / Sports

Legend of phosphate pits true: huge bass there for the taking

MIAMI -- Back in the day, if you wanted to fish for large and stupid black bass in one of Central Florida's private phosphate pits, you had to be: 1) the president; 2) a bass fishing celebrity; or 3) a muckety-muck with the phosphate mining company.

Anglers such as TV fishing host Bill Dance and former President Jimmy Carter were among those who enjoyed this rare privilege.

But, just recently, some of those secluded, legendary bass holes rumored to yield 10-pounders like politicians spit platitudes have been thrown open to anyone with the coin for a guided fishing trip.

Maybe 60 anglers have plied these secret waters with rod and reel in the past two months, and now it's your turn.

One of the world's largest suppliers of phosphate and one of Florida's largest landowners, the Mosaic Company recently opened the 16,000-acre Streamsong Resort near Bowling Green in rural Polk County.

Developed on reclaimed phosphate pits, Streamsong has 36 holes of golf; a 216-room lodge; spa; pro shop; restaurants; bars; convention hall; swimming pool; sporting clays; and 21 lakes -- only three of which have been fished by the four guides on staff.

One of those guides, Eric Prinz, recently weighed a 10-pounder using a grape-colored worm with a curly tail. Last week, I caught and released a bass over 7 pounds, and our party of four scored nearly 50 releases in a half-day -- including two over five pounds by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Eric Johnson.

No one caught anything under a pound; even the sole crappie released was bigger than that.

"We don't catch too many small ones," Streamsong guide Bill Read of Lakeland, Fla., said.

This bass bastion didn't happen by accident. For more than 30 years, Mosaic employee Barry Johnson supervised the company's multitude of lakes -- stocking them, planting vegetation and decreeing who could fish where and when. Under a strict policy of catch-and-release, a prohibition against the use of live bait, and with long intervals of never seeing a plastic worm or buzzbait, bass grew fat and unsuspicious. Their watery homes are mineral-laden as a result of the phosphate digging process, accelerating their growth. They've had nothing better to do than lounge around, gain weight, dodge a few gators and snap at the artificial concoctions that a handful of fishermen have thrown at them over the past few decades.

During our four-hour trip, we had success using an eight-inch Zoom Magnum Grape lizard, a Tru Tungsten 3/8-ounce jig with a Gambler crayfish skirt; and several colors and styles of plastic worms. The fish were caught around lily pads lining the lake shore and on a steep ledge about 20 feet out from the bank.

Phosphate pits do not fish like typical Florida natural lakes.

Natural lakes tend to be shallow and bowl-shaped with gradual slopes. The reclaimed pits have steep, high banks, are usually deeper and sprinkled with invisible humps and ledges in the center created by drag lines digging up the minerals.

"A lot of people struggle fishing phosphate lakes," Johnson said. "They don't know how to fish them."

But the chances of success are high at Streamsong, where a two-hour guided trip on board a Mako flats boat costs $200 per angler, including bait and tackle. Longer excursions can be arranged at additional cost.

For those with smaller wallets, a good alternative is to fish the nearby Mosaic Fish Management Area near Fort Meade. Owned by the mining company but managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, this network of about 1,000 acres of land and lakes is free and open to the public. Open Fridays through Mondays, 6 a.m. EDT to 2 p.m., these reclaimed phosphate pits yield bass, bluegill, crappie, catfish and sunshine bass. The current hot spot of the complex is Coulter Lake, where Johnson says he has electro-fished bass up to 9 pounds.

"Crankbaits are a good locator bait," Johnson said. "Cover ground till you start catching fish and then figure out what the secret is."

Whether you ply the waters of world leaders or Joe Six-pack, it's still bass fishing -- not necessarily bass catching.

And that's what keeps nearly every freshwater angler coming back for more.

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IF YOU GO

To learn more about Streamsong Resort, go to www.streamsongresort.com.

For more information on free, public fishing in the region, call 863-648-3200 or visit myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecast/black-bass/, then scroll down and click on "Mosaic Fish Management Area".

(c)2014 The Miami Herald

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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