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Slab O specks.

For a mess of wintertime crappie, Lake Harney on the St. Johns River in East Central Florida is as good as they come.

This 6,000-acre lake straddles the Volusia-Seminole County line north of State Road 46 between the little towns of Mims and Geneva. It has the reputation for consistently yielding "slabs" of 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.

Several years ago state biologists running population surveys with an electro-shocking boat on Lake Harney scooped up a 4-pound black crappie that had been stunned to the surface. Had it been taken on hook-and-line gear it would have set a state record. The fish was revived and released.

Dan Bales of Titusville says he hasn't been able to find a lake with bigger crappie, so he keeps going back to Harney and there are few trips when he doesn't take home 15 or 20 of the premium panfish. Nothing goes into Bales' cooler unless it weighs a pound. But none have been bigger than the 3-pounder that Bales claimed in 2005.

"Harney has very big specks," Bales emphasized. "I'm sure there's a reason they grow as big as they do and whatever it is I hope it doesn't stop."

Bales said he got bored when he first drifted with minnows on Harney, so he started trolling and he has devised a rather novel--and surely productive--technique.

He trolls six or seven lines on spinning reels mounted on 9 1/2-foot fly rods. He says the softer tips of the fly rods ensure a more forgiving action when a soft-mouthed crappie strikes one of his jigs.

He uses light jelly-body grubs in several colors and at varying depths and distances behind the boat. Combinations of red and yellow, white and blue, and yellow and chartreuse are first choices.

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"Two of the lines are on tiny downriggers, and I'll put them right on the thermo-cline," said Bales, adding that he locates the thermocline with a depth recorder. He uses miniature planers as downriggers.

The other lines run at varying depths with splitshot used for the deeper runners. "You have to experiment with depths," he said. "Usually the deeper you go the bigger the specks, and the downriggers pick up the suspended fish."

He watches the depth recorder for depressions and dropoffs, expecting strikes by larger females in those spots.

In advance of new-and full-moon periods, Bales moves closer to the grassy shorelines, usually along the west shoreline north of Gator Point, where the egg-bearing females gather before moving into the grass. Water temperature is a critical factor in the spawning ritual, with preferred readings above 65 degrees.

Development is minimal along the shorelines of the 5 - by 2 1/2-mile-long lake. There are thousands of acres of clean grasses in the littoral zone, which in turn produces exceptional winter spawns. The only measurable development on Harney is a group of home sites south of Gopher Swamp along the east shore.

It's not unusual to see 75 to 100 boats on Harney on a good day during the height of crappie season. Many parties launch at the Seminole County C.S. Lee Park ramp immediately west of the S.R. 46 Bridge, while others motor their way from launch sites and the many residences downstream between the lake and Mullet Lake Park between Harney and Lake Jessup.

It's just under a mile to the lake from the Lee Park ramp, so it gets heavy use, with late-arriving anglers having to jockey for a spot to park. There are days, even during the week, when vehicles and trailers stretch down the access road all the way to the SR 46 turnoff. It's a good double-lane ramp that can get you in and out quickly when everyone cooperates.

Now is the time when we should be seeing the first American shad on this same stretch of St. Johns, around Lake Harney, but this saltwater migrant has experienced serious recruitment problems in recent years, compounded by fewer and fewer of the fish moving out of the ocean and up the river to spawn.

January and February can be peak months for pompano along the surf. When water readings drop into the 60s, and the water is clean, the pompano start popping. Deep surf zones like those from Melbourne Beach to Sebastian Inlet and at Playalinda Beach east of Titusville become the choice spots.

Some southern flounder should remain inside Sebastian Inlet through the end of January, along with a few ocean-going trout in the 7-to 8-pound range.

RELATED ARTICLE: Best Bet: EAST CENTRAL

If we get some wind-blown cold fronts, water readings will drop and that will send savvy anglers in Mosquito Lagoon and the north end of the Indian River looking for redfish and seatrout in shallow zones during the afternoon hours. As a rule the better feeding activity takes place from midafternoon until dark.

Severe cold, including a couple nights of sub-freezing temperatures, pushes bigger seatrout and reds into dredge holes and canals, but a surprising number of larger trout return to those shallow sand holes during the afternoon periods. The couple degrees that are added by the radiating sunlight are the key.

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Smart anglers look for a dredge hole near a grassy or sandy flat. The fish spend their nights and coldest periods snuggled in the muddy bottom of the hole before moving to the adjoining shallows to feed during the daytime warmup. Look for areas holding small baitfish, crabs and shrimp.

Some of the better winter catches of large seatrout take place in the No Motor Zone on the Banana River north of State Road 528 (Beachline). This manatee sanctuary stretches along eight miles of river where most anglers use kayaks or canoes to paddle their way because of the non-motorized rule.
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Title Annotation:EAST CENTRAL; crappie at Lake Harney, Florida
Author:Sargent, Bill
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:963
Previous Article:Suwannee trout hideouts.
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