Bass Fishing, Bass Lures, Bass Boats, Russ Bassdozer

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Florida Sticks, Stumps, Marshes, Chugs, Bugs & Senkos

By Russ Bassdozer

This April, I worked Florida's fabled Stick Marsh four days with friends George and Scott Welcome, father and son. Many say the Stick Marsh is America's best trophy bass water. I'm certain George and Scott are the best guides on the Stick Marsh, having operated Imagination Bassin Guide Services there for 9 years, fishing 300 days apiece on the Stick Marsh each year. During four days, we released 240 bass to 7.5 lbs on Storm Chug Bugs and weightless Senkos. On the fifth day, friend TJ Fagan, owner of On Target Bassin Guide Services and I released 70 more on a nearby private marsh where leading bass pros film national TV shows. I'm telling you exactly how to do it Florida Style if you follow me to...

Florida's longest river, the St. John's begins its 310 mile northerly journey to the sea from its headwaters, a 2,000 square mile basin of marshy wetlands west of Vero Beach, Florida. That's where I found myself earlier this week after a 3 1/2 day drive from the dry high desert wastelands of Arizona to be with Captains TJ Fagan, George Welcome and Scott Welcome, bass fishing guides to the St. John's headwaters. Large numbers of the world's best and biggest trophy black bass are caught and released here by TJ, George, Scott and their clients, to live and die of old age in the thick hydrilla expanses, floating hyacinth islands and translucent copper-colored waters of the Stick Marsh/Farm 13 and a secretive place I can name only as the Private Marsh.

This area contains a mosaic of wetlands and citrus groves irrigated by zigzag canals connecting the reservoirs, lakes, hardwood swamps, stunning palm tree berms, cypress stands and flatwater marshes.

Wetland-dependent species of wildlife abound here including great blue herons, white ibis, snowy egrets, limpkins, night herons and ever-present alligators. Wood storks, ospreys, bald eagles, pelicans, sandhill cranes, caracara, turkey, deer, rabbits, tortoise, turtles and wild hogs are populous. But it was not always so.

In the early 1900's, ditches and dikes were constructed in the St. John's River headwaters to serve agricultural pursuits. The marshes were drained to expose rich soils to grow citrus, row crops and to raise beef cattle. But channeling the St. John's headwaters for groves, farms and ranches eliminated hundreds of thousands of acres of marshes, upset the fragile wetlands ecology that was the foraging, nesting and nursery habitat for wildlife, and made the area susceptible to damage from floods from hurricanes. In 1988, the Saint John's River Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project to restore drained marshes, construct reservoirs, levees, canals, spillways and water control structures to provide flood protection to the area, allowing water to "sheet flow" unimpeded somewhat as it originally did naturally through the river's marshes, improving water quality and restoring fish and wildlife habitat in the process. The project also created or reclaimed some fantastic trophy bass fisheries, notably the Stick Marsh/Farm 13, Garcia Reservoir, and the area contains private waters leased for fishing to clubs that own membership privileges to the marshes. These waters are still vital to and used by the surrounding citrus groves, farms and cattle ranches, but also managed for public and private fishing, for flood control, and for wildlife and wetland conservation. Since 1988, more than 150,000 acres of marshes are being restored and enhanced in the Upper St. John's River headwaters reclamation project, which will be completed in 2004.

The Upper St. John's River Basin Project is a success story, as is my story of five days fishing these waters with Captains TJ, George and Scott.

I arrived the evening before our first day at Captain George Welcome's camp where he moored a "fifth wheeler" in an RV park, which was to be our base of operations. Legends and masters do exist in bass fishing. Ones who are everyday men in every way but when they are on the water with a basscasting rod in hand they transform and transcend their ordinary existence. In two minutes of meeting, I knew George was one. Without forewarning, he launched a social behavior theory of bass, one I also hold true, but have not spoken of to anyone in many years, except those I fished with long ago.

"Black bass schools move in a line," expelled George abruptly, "They are not like we see with prey in a shad ball or clustered mass. They'll be one-by-one, or maybe two or three shoulders across or a vee wing arc here or there down the line, but more or less nose-to-tail and somehow they keep the distance to always be within some type of communication range with their cohorts immediately up and down the line from them, like links in a living chain. The bass schools on the Stick Marsh/Farm 13, they're constantly traveling and feeding in lines along the ditches and dikes now underwater, and the dense hydrilla walls that grow along them. Before flooding and filling it, the Stick Marsh was a citrus grove that the growers let go fallow, and Farm 13 was a radish farm, with numerous intersecting ditches and dikes to irrigate the rows of citrus or radishes, now lined with hydrilla. The bass won't necessarily go through the hydrilla walls, but move up and down their edges. They don't go into the dense weeds because they'll lose contact, but there are individuals ahead, hyperactive racers that do veer off into the thick weed walls, to back-track down the living line to flush hiding prey out from the weeds, driving them out of cover towards where the main line is moving and feeding along the open edges. Then the racers emerge out of the weeds to re-join the line further down. If the racers detect plenty of forage in the weeds, this may incite them to leapfrog back up the line quickly to repeat the food-flushing process, keeping the main line lingering in the good areas for a longer time than just passing through it. Effectively they're strung out, prospecting for potentially-good foraging grounds, filing past the meager areas, but ultimately slowing down and circling back to graze repeatedly through the good forage areas. Over a period of days or weeks, as with a herd of cows, if they chew down all the good fodder in one pasture so to speak, the bass will eventually line out of one large bay or section of the marsh to another. Since my son Scott and I are on the Stick Marsh everyday, we can ride herd on them everyday. Scott and I did 457 Stick Marsh trips with clients last year, and over 600 days total on the water. That's six days a week apiece. We know where they are. If you're not out there everyday, you don't know. As we intersect a line of bass somewhere by catching a fish, we'll superimpose a wagon wheel diagram over where that first fish was caught and cast out all the spokes until we find the specific spokes where the chain is strung out up and down from that first fish. Then we'll superimpose the wagon wheel over those subsequent fish, and cast out the spokes again until we find where the chain of bass is strung out further up and down the line. Now we're ready to fish the line. As the wind blows us off the line, we'll motor upwind, then set up the drift to bring us right back down the line again. All the time, the line is moving past on its own course also. So although we are re-drifting the same part of the feeding lane over and over again, there are new fish moving up that lane going past us all the time. Think of it as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade going past a New York street corner. There could be hours or a whole day's worth of bass lined up or circling back on the line, one marching band after another filing past that one corner we are angling over and over again."

It was hard for me to sleep after that, as I imagined what was in store for us the next day, a day that turned out to exceed even my own restless expectations. It would prove to be an outstanding day and gave me the chance to see just how good a wide-open topwater bite can be on the Stick Marsh!


As black of night faded to gray morning, George's son, Captain Scott Welcome knocked on the door with lunch in hand, the boat hooked up, and Scott's ready to go.  Scott proved to be our "meal ticket" for the next four days as George and I would have starved if Scott did not bring us lunch each day. After launching, we ran on plane five minutes to the south end of Farm 13. Far out, we shut down to 5 MPH idle to slide through, slither up and over emergent weed-covered stumps and mounds of hurricane-felled trees, smothered in weeds, a minefield of tussocks that make the Stick Marsh a treacherous place. The only reason to subject a boat hull and lower unit to this treachery is the allure of giant black bass! Because of that, there are no pleasure boats, no air boats, no jet skis, no water skiers or no other recreational boaters dare put in here. Even many bass anglers won't fish it. I would put my boat on it, it's definitely my kind of place.

The Stick Marsh is strict catch-release only. You are not even allowed to put a bass in a livewell. Catch-release. Period. There are really no tournaments on the Stick Marsh, except a couple of "paper tournaments" held by small local clubs.

In the fuzziness of half-dawn, the first bass splashed back at a Chug Bug that splashed at him first. For the next ten hours, the topwater bite never slowed down. One hundred black bass were released by day's end, plus countless others blasted the Bugs without getting stung on them. It was my first time on the Marsh, so my enthusiasm and adrenaline were running high. I watched George and Scott carefully out of the corner of my eye. After nine years on the Stick Marsh, fishing daily, boating countless bass, many hundreds over that magic ten pound mark for themselves and their clients, George and Scott's enthusiasm was no less than mine. I would fish with these guys anywhere anytime. They're definitely my kind of anglers.

The fish were hitting with that exciting top water explosion we all love to see. At times, you'd pull the trigger too soon and the force would fire the Chug Bug 20-30 feet across the surface, where the same bass would run and jump right on it like a dog chasing a Frisbee. "Once the topwater bite starts here you can pretty much count on it all day," said George, "You just can't beat the excitement of seeing them wale away on the Bugs on the surface."

Given a choice of my favorite bite I would certainly have to put this at the top of the list.

"Topwater fishing is the most exciting way, but it is not a high percentage hook-up," said Scott, "Still, I don't know anyone who doesn't say topwater action is the best of all ways to catch bass. Our clients usually do very good with the Chug Bugs. There's really not a wrong way to fish the Bugs, or a wrong color. These fish just go ape on the Bugs. There's really not a wrong place to cast to either. George or I make sure of that. The important point is to handle the boat so the entire party can cast over fish. Since we are drifting down the edges of large expanses of hydrilla, with endless fields of wood clumps and open holes between the clumps, everybody on board can be hooking up all around the boat. "

Scott's personal all-time favorite Chug Bug is blue/chrome. This particular week, he decimated them on a blue back with orange belly. Yet over the course of four days, color didn't matter except for personal confidence whether it was black or blue backs with chrome, white or orange bellies. They all worked simultaneously as did any number of retrieves ranging from a monotonously slow chug-p-a--u---s----e to a wrist-breaking non-stop zigzag traveling well above Florida's legal traffic speed limit, and all retrieval modes and speeds in between these two extremes. We knotted the Chug Bugs directly to the main line, not using split rings, loops or snaps.

We were seeing the topwater bite go on and off during the day, and each guy would go through hot and cold spells. How it worked was one guy would get hot with a certain color or retrieve for a while. This would shake the other two fellows (who probably happened to be holding their mouths wrong at the time), but this hot stick phenomena would travel around the boat visiting each of us so by the end of the day, catch results would even out, regardless of personal color choice or retrieval tactic. It was a matter of confidence and sticking with it.

An important point for confidence was the iridescent flash tail that comes on the Chug Bug. On retrieve, the surface commotion would easily obscure the main body of the Chug Bug. You could really only ever see two parts of the Chug Bug:

  1. The bright red mouth, which faces right at you. You really cannot rely on seeing the back or body, so use the bright red mouth like it is one of those red laser beam pointers to target all your attention to track and control the action of the Chug Bug.
  2. The iridescent flash tail, which is creamy pale blue-green translucence and clearly visible flashing behind the Bug even though its hard body is obscured in the surface commotion.

A feather tail is also quite common to enhance topwater attractiveness, but would not be useful on the Stick Marsh or anywhere for that matter where you may be constantly pulling hydrilla off the trebles. The feather would be plucked off in a few pulls. However the Storm Flash Tail stays put when yanking weeds off the hooks, and I do feel the iridescent alluring come-hither is a most significant attraction to bass, or at least to my confidence.

Out of the package, I noticed two different factory-installed hook configurations on my Bugs. One Bug had one size smaller hooks than the other Bug. The bigger hook set caused that Bug's tail to sit lower in the water, and was the Bug I used in wind-driven choppy conditions. The other Bug with the size smaller set of hooks sat more horizontal and skated zigzaggedly across the surface better than it dug under and chugged, so I used this Bug during the windless calm periods of the trip. Did the different size hook sets really matter? Who knows. I had confidence and felt I'd have good luck by making that different usage between the two different hook configurations.


Day two was great fishing with sixty more bass, many up to 5.5 lbs. The catch was split. Chug Bugs on top and weightless Senkos bumping noses through the hydrilla-covered wood clumps.

"The Yamamoto Senko has made a major difference to my guide business. I can now have my clients use one soft bait, the five-inch Senko. Period. As a guide I was always concerned with what lure, which color, how-to methods to find for my clients to use on a particular day? I'd always be experimenting for the upcoming trip, switching back and forth between colors, lures, looking for one gizmo to make the difference between a good trip versus the great one. Plus the clients would arrive anxious to use a wide diversity of their own trusted lures, their colors, their methods that worked for them on other waters."

Nowadays, the bass here respond fully to the excellent appeal that the Senko presents," says George Welcome. I tell clients, "Just bring Senkos." As long as you have a Senko that is dark in color, you're fine. Plus Joe and Jeanne at Middleton's Stick Marsh Bait and Tackle carry the Chug Bugs and Senkos, so there's really no chance of getting stranded without the right stuff.

Trip Checklist ~ WHAT WE USED
1 Topwater Rod ~ 17-20 lb test baitcasting (or spinning minimum 15 lb. test)
Storm Rattlin' Chug Bugs ~ Model #CB08 3 1/2 inches, 3/8 oz.

340 Black/Chrome
344 Blue/Chrome
346 Silver Shad
348 Texas Shad
351 Tennessee Shad

1 Worm Rod ~ 17-20 lb test baitcasting (or spinning minimum 15 lb. test)
9-Series Senkos ~ 7X-Series Cut Tails

213 June bug (purple w/green)
234 Purple pearl w/blue
324 Seminole green w/green (w/chartreuse tail dip)
908 Watermelon/bubblegum laminate
912 Watermelon/green pumpkin laminate (w/chartreuse tail dip)
913 Coreshots (green pumpkin w/chartreuse glow tail)
914 Coreshots (watermelon amber w/black tail)
916 7X field test (translucent watermelon w/purple & copper)

Terminal Tackle

4/0 Gamakatsu series 50 offset worm hooks
1/16 - 1/8 oz Florida Rig screw-in sinkers
1/4 - 3/8 oz Carolina Rig bullet sinkers
Swivels & 20 lb leader line

"Weightless Texas rig? Wacky rig? Carolina rig? Florida rig? The answer's simply Senko. I think its secret is its so incredibly easy for them to eat," grins Scott. "You see them miss topwaters sometimes by several feet. It can be hard for them to zero in on the erratic topwater action  - or maybe they're wary or reluctant to commit to it, who knows? On the other hand, Senkos are so easy for them to eat, they don't miss them. It's like they have an unconditional commitment to biting it."

"By the way," adds Scott, "when they consistently short-strike on top, we'll size down to the smaller, what we call the baby Bug. The concept is the smaller Bug forces them to focus and concentrate more carefully on what they are striking, so the hook-up ratio gets better."


After an early morning topwater flurry, bass came steadily throughout the day on weightless Senkos cast into open holes in the hydrilla mats from which we pulled thirty-five bass, several over 5 lbs.

"For Senkos, we use 4/0 50-series Gamakatsu hook and 20 lb monofilament. After long experience with knotting the weightless Senko directly to the main line, we are now sold on using a swivel with an 18-inch leader," says Scott. "The weight of the swivel helps the Senko get down a little better in the hydrilla. This slight change-up has increased our catches."

"We don't feel braided line works well in such a wood-filled environment," adds George. "Braid slices into soggy wood like a bandsaw. As incredibly strong as braid is, when it gets deeply embedded in wood, it can tend to part braid easily."

Over the course of several days, Senko colors we used were dark, starting with a few bags of 234 (purple pearl w/blue) which achieved an immediate cult-following among us -- until bass chewed the last stick of it. We rummaged through some basic greens, and I began to whack 'em on 912 (watermelon/green pumpkin laminate) and 324 (Seminole green) colors, both with hand-dipped chartreuse tails. To counter this end run I was making on the bass with the hand-dips, Scott pulled out the big dogs, several bags of 913 coreshots (green pumpkin w/chartreuse tail), which proved to be magic. If only for the moment, we believed in the 913, gaining confidence with every fish it turned our way.

"You may not know the 913 chartreuse core color is designed to glow," I told Scott. "The tail tip probably lights up in all this coppery water and hydrilla." Scott smiled and nodded. It was good, we were confident.

Besides that, I hid an ace up my sleeve, a few bags of 914 coreshots (watermelon amber w/black tail). I wasn't really letting on so loudly to George or Scott that I was using 914, not wanting to cede any little edge I felt with it.


Day four proved to be the calmest wind and water conditions of the trip. What was not so calm were the hot-headed bass slashing Chug Bugs with a vengeance. Forty-five more bass were skimmed off the surface, several topping 5 lbs.

Every cast has the potential to produce a 10 to 15 pound bass, and we did have huge bass explode on the topwaters every day. We had bass we were unable to budge out of the grass on Senkos. We did have plenty of 4 - 7 pound fish come to the boat over four days, and above all we had a great time. Lots of laughs, lots of good fish, and great camaraderie.

That afternoon we winched the boat on the trailer early, as I was to meet Captain TJ Fagan when he came in from a guide trip, and follow him with my truck to spend the evening at his home, so we may get the earliest start possible for fishing a private trophy bass marsh the next morning.


What was my last but surely not the least day, I fished with TJ on a private marsh where TJ is a member.  We released seventy more bass to 4.5 lbs on Senkos, 7X Cut Tails and Chug Bugs on the private marsh. The morning bite was best, in fact fantastic. Only two days earlier, the afternoon bite excelled said TJ.

The private marsh is owned by citrus growers, and used for irrigation. It's center is an expansive walled-in marsh-like reservoir with a formidable rim canal dug like a castle moat completely around the reservoir. Every mile or so, there's what's called a blow-out where the inner wall of the reservoir is blown out, providing multiple access points for boats (and bass) to get in or out of the reservoir from the outer rim canal. However, there was really no need, since the outer rim canal was a wild zoo house filled to overcapacity with brawling black bass. Both banks of the rim canal are overgrown with aquatic vegetation and marsh woods. One bank tends to be shallow flats, the other side more of a ledge. The ledge and flats sides flip-flop as you go down the canal. From center channel, you can practically fish both sides at once, although staying closer to one side is better for flipping and pitching to the eaves of the emergent aquatic vegetation, cypress and fallen wood on both shores -- a significant strike zone.

Dropping the boat off the ramp, TJ tapped his toe on the trolling motor. It immediately began raining bass. I made one mistake though, to give TJ my only bag of 7X Cut Tails in field test color 916 (translucent watermelon w/purple & copper). TJ whipped 10 bass into the boat in 10 casts. I bided my time until TJ ran out of the 916s I had given him. That sidelined him long enough for me to catch up with 914 coreshot Senkos (watermelon amber w/black tail). All day long, June bug (213) 7X Cut Tails proved consistent and furious spurts of action when either of us used 908 (watermelon/bubblegum laminate) Senkos.

On the edges of the overhanging aquatic vegetation eaves extending out from both shores, we fished the Cut Tails and Senkos weightless. On the shallow flats side of the canal, we also fished weightless. But on the ledge side, we fished with 1/16 to 1/8 oz screw-in sinkers depending on the wind, dragging them off the ledge down the slope into center channel. Along the shallow flats side, fish were more evenly distributed, spaced out, but on the ledge side, we found some heavier aggregations where bass after bass were caught by casting back to the same area. Wherever the reservoir wall was blown out allowing passage into the reservoir from the canal, these blow-outs were high percentage spots, and we grinned and giggled as we picked up the topwater rods to enjoy the surface action around the blow-outs.

Three hundred ten black bass graced us over five days. Plenty of 4 - 7 pound fish came to the boat. We didn't break the magic 10 pound weight but that was not because George or TJ didn't put us on these trophy fish. They did. Surface-shattering monsters that showed no mercy as they drowned our Chug Bugs in geysers of copper-colored marshwater at boatside without ever touching the hooks. Glimpses of jet black backs of behemoths that murderously slugged and dragged Senkos down through the underwater catacombs beneath the labyrinth of hurricane-felled palm trunks, citrus and cypress stumps, never to be seen again except in my dreams. These are the ones I will remember most, and shall haunt me until I return to the headwaters of the St. John's in springtime when the white citrus blossoms reek to fish again with friends.

Imagination Bassin Guide Services

Captain George Welcome ~ Tel. 772-370-1606
Captain Scott Welcome ~ Tel. 772-370-1607

On Target Bassin Guide Services

Captain T. J. Fagan ~ Tel. 772-532-2854

Middleton's Stick Marsh Bait & Tackle Shop

Joe & Jeanne Middleton ~ Tel. 772-778-8104

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