Fishing report: Will Newnans Lake return to form?

My attachment to Newnan’s Lake goes pretty far back. For as long as I’ve been around, locals have had an affectionate but unflattering nickname for the old 6,000-acre pond: “The Mudhole.” To me, though, the lake has always seemed like home.

My dad, Bill Simpson, was largely responsible for this unusual affection as he took me, his only child, to the lake often. My first fishing memory goes back to an age so early it should be vague and sketchy, since I believe it took place in 1961 when I was 5.

But it is clear. We loaded up one afternoon in a little wooden boat from Johnny McGilvray’s Fish Camp and daddy paddled over next to the nearest large cypress. I remember him hooking a piece of worm and flipping it out, next to a hanging limb.

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My job was to watch the cork. If it went under, I was to pull. And the first time that little cork was pulled down by a tiny warmouth, I was all in for life.

In kindergarten the other kids might have been thinking about cookies and milk or Dick and Jane. My young mind was all around a wooden boat, a Zebco reel and rod, a cork, and the promise of a fish—mysterious and unseen beneath the murky water.

I started work at The Tackle Box …. “In the heart of East Gainesville” in January of 1976, expecting to help out for a short stint. But the unique atmosphere and the wonderful people there would not let me leave the historic hub of area fishing.

Through the years, I came to appreciate Gainesville’s nearest major water body even more deeply. Lots of folks, it turned out, held great love for the lake once called Pithlachocco.

Newnans was in those days a Mecca for fishers, producing giant speckled perch and big numbers of large bass. Nice weekends during the spring season saw tow vehicles with empty trailers lined up along the road far from McGilvray’s Fish Camp after the parking space there had been exhausted.

The launch site (then called Wayside Park) off Highway 20 on the lake’s south end would have likewise been crawling with hopeful fishers. Down the road at The Tackle Box, customers with bait buckets stood in line at the minnow tanks. Anglers came from everywhere and ridiculous numbers of fish were pulled from the old lake.

The Newnans speckled perch (black crappie) fishing has remained generally good through the decades. The bass fishing, not so much. Great bassing lasted well into the 1980s. In March of ‘81, my first year as a member of Bassmasters of Gator Country, I established a club record on Newnans with a heavy eight-bass limit. Proudly, I did it in my plywood boat powered by a 20 HP Mercury and equipped with a large aerated Igloo ice chest as an auxillary live well.

But things never do stay so great forever, and the fabulous Newnans bass fishing fell into decline by the late 1980s. High nutrient levels, low dissolved oxygen, and low, turbid water teamed up to render the great fishing lake comparatively unproductive in the bass department for years on end.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stepped in to help, planting knotgrass, maidencane, and ‘buggy whip’ reeds (bulrush) in the shallows around the lake. Still, while panfish numbers remained generally good, most bass anglers found little reason to spend much time on Newnans.

In the late 2000s FWC began attempts to ‘kick start’ the lake’s bass population in another way, by stocking fish supplied by the FWC Hatchery in Richloam, Florida.

FWC also tried larger “advanced fingerlings” in subsequent stockings—hatchery bass already 6 to 8 inches long. However, these preferred larger bass are not always available. They invited me along for one of these earlier stockings, and afterward, I remember feeling excited that so many more bass were in the lake than had been there that morning.

From 2003 through 2017, eight small-scale stocking events occurred, and there’s considerable evidence that these stockings worked. Recent periodic checks by the agency have shown that about 1/3 of the bass sampled on average originate from the hatchery. This is one of the highest observed hatchery contributions to a bass population they have observed in Florida.

And get this: Since the smaller stocking efforts had been so successful, FWC decided to conduct three high-density stockings in 2019, 2020, and 2021. In total, the agency released almost a million little largemouths in three years.

Last month, FWC crews were using ‘shock boats’ to tag some Newnans crappies. Along with the specks, they brought a few unexpected fish to the surface. Seven trophy size bass heavier than 8 pounds were rolled up, netted, weighed, tagged and released. The largest was a giant weighing 12.5-pounds, but it is not yet known whether these whoppers were of Richloam genetics.

It would seem that there’s good reason to hope the resilience of Mother Nature—along with the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Commission—has good old Newnans Lake on track to be a top bass fishing destination. Just like it was decades ago.

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