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(ran NORTH SUNCOAST edition)

The Nature Coast has many freshwater fishing opportunities. It holds vast lake acreage from Citrus County's sprawling Tsala Apopka chain to the smaller bodies and numerous no-name ponds of Pasco County. Many of Pasco's lakes are private, so inquire before entering.

Major rivers include the Suwannee, Wacasassa, Crystal, Homosassa, WeekiWachee, Pithlachascotee (a

k

a "Cotee") and Anclote. The big boy of the bunch is the Withlacoochee. Running through the east end of Pasco and Hernando counties, the river becomes Citrus County's eastern and northern border before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.

In its Dunellon stretch, the Withlacoochee widens dramatically into an area called Lake Rousseau. A favorite among bass anglers, this dammed region offers plenty of deep holes and shoreline structure.

Saltwater species often enter freshwater creeks and rivers to rid themselves of saline-dependant parasites or to flee harsh weather. During winter's chill, snook are regulars in the Anclote and Cotee rivers, and sheepshead, snapper and tarpon show up in practically any freshwater stream.

The principal freshwater species are largemouth bass, catfish, gar and the panfish clan of bluegill, speckled perch (black crappie) and sunfish (shellcracker, stumpknocker, red belly). Lesser-targeted species include redfin pickerel, chain pickerel and bowfin (mudfish).

Ray Wright of Hernando Lodge on the Tsala Apopka guides in saltwater and freshwater. One of the major differences, he said, is speed.

"In freshwater, the fish like slower-moving lures and baits," Wright said. "Just about all of the saltwater fish chase their food as they feed with the moving tides, whereas a bass will lay and wait. They don't chase anything very far."

Saltwater species, Wright said, usually can tolerate a boat anchored nearby. But freshwater fish spook more easily and are less forgiving, so approach them silently. Also, he said, the inherent confines of freshwater fishing require more precise targeting. In most saltwater scenarios, you can run into a variety of species, but freshwater fish typically inhabit specific areas.

Paul Thomas of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission said depth variances greatly affect freshwater fishing. Bass and panfish _ the most highly targeted species _ are particularly sensitive to temperature. Whether seeking cool water in the summer or warm water in the winter, the fish typically look for deeper spots where temperatures are more stable.

"If you have a pond that's 4 feet deep and you run across a spot on your depth finder that drops down to 6 or 8 feet, that's a good place to look," Thomas said. "It might not be a big difference, but it's what the fish have to work with.'"

Weed beds, Thomas said, are prime warm-season locations. The thick vegetation blocks the sun, which creates a layer of shade. Also, such shelter harbors a bounty of baitfish, aquatic insects, crustaceans and amphibians, on which predators feed.

Seasons also play a big role in finding fish. As fall cools the waters, bass and speckled perch will become more active after being lethargic through the summer. Conversely, bluegill and sunfish, which are more active in the warmer months, taper off when the temperature declines.

When fishing a new area, diversify your gear so you're ready for whatever you encounter. You'd do well with a canepole or light spinning or spincast outfit rigged with a small hook and bobber for dropping crickets or worms to panfish. Use a heavier spinning outfit for soaking chicken livers or frozen shrimp for catfish. For bass duties, a baitcasting or spinning outfit rigged with a plastic bass worm and another rigged for drifting live shiners will do the job.

A few freshwater fishing concerns:

Hazardous chemicals: Be cautious when keeping fish in lakes or ponds known for hydrilla masses. Municipalities often deploy herbicides to kill the lake-choking growth. Hence, it's wise to check out the area's spraying status before eating indigenous fish.

Insect repellent: Most freshwater fishing occurs close enough to the shoreline for mosquitoes to find you, so keep sprays or lotions handy.

Fish stringers: It's best to keep your catch in a cooler or a bucket of water in your boat. Dangling a stringer of fresh fish is too tempting to alligators. Such encounters are rare, and the gator's interest stops at the fish. But don't tempt fate.

A plus for freshwater anglers is the abundance of natural baits often found at a fishing site. For panfish and catfish, the easy sells are earthworms and grubs dug from moist, mucky soil; crickets; and just about any beetle, roach or centipede. Also, the shucked meat of freshwater mussels, found in the soft sand of most lake bottoms, is great shellcracker bait. Bass are more discriminating, but a piece of wadded bread fished on a tiny hook usually attracts chubs or shiners, both high on the largemouth's preference.

For general freshwater information, call the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission at (352) 732-1230 or visit the commission's Internet homepage. Do a search for Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Up next:BAIT SHOPS

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