Banks Lake Gets Right For January Fishing
According to local fisherman George Roberson, there are plenty of specks to go around and this is a great time.
I have driven by this body of water numerous times and admired its unique beauty from Highway 122, but I was unprepared for the amazing view from the water. Banks Lake is a 4,049-acre National Wildlife Refuge in Lanier County outside of Lakeland, and it is loaded with fish and wildlife. The place is full of moss-covered cypress trees, and those trees sure do hold the fish. But with so many cypress trees, how can a fisherman possibly pinpoint the fish?
Just ask a local, and you will hear names like Milltown Bay, Long Swamp, Fender Swamp, Dark Swamp and Prescott Bay, to mention a few. People who fish this mazework of water have broken it down into areas, simplifying and “shrinking” it in a sense. Some people even know individual fish-holding trees that never fail to produce.
George Roberson is one of these guys. He lives right down the road and has fished this lake for 30 years. It’s his primary fishing spot. I joined him out there on a chilly December morning to get some pointers on winter fishing techniques on this natural pocosin ecosystem. As soon as he began talking, I could tell he knew a thing or two about the lake.
Meeting him by the boat ramp in front of the Banks Lake Outdoors store, I listened as he told me the plan for the morning.
“We are going to fish for speckled perch (crappie) today, but there is no telling what we will catch. Just about anything will bite this bait I’m about to show you,” he said.
He opened his tackle box and grabbed a pack of Berkley 1/16-oz. jig heads with red heads, white eyes and gold hooks. When he remarked that he prefers gold hooks on these jigs, I asked why.
“Because specks are particular,” he said.
Next, he tossed me a package of Panfish Assassin 1.5-inch soft plastic baits in electric-chicken color.
“That little bait right there will catch fish anywhere,” he said.
I knew that was experience talking. Demonstrating for me, he picked up his ultralight spinning reel with 8-lb. test line and tied on a jig head.
“I always use a Palomar knot,” he said. “This knot won’t fail me.”
Then, he hooked the Panfish Assassin bait with the hook protruding from the pink belly side. Two feet up the line, he secured a chartreuse weighted cigar snap-on cork.
Now we were ready to fish. We backed the boat into the water and set out toward the left-hand side of the lake (heading southeast). George opened up the throttle for about a minute’s ride in the open water and then slowed to idle speed.
“This is the stump field,” he said. “Can’t see the stumps, but they are there. Believe me. Never ride out here wide open unless you know for sure what you are doing.”
We idled for a few minutes before he cut the outboard motor and took over with the trolling motor.
“This is our first spot to fish—Milltown Bay,” he said.
I laughed to myself. It all looked the same to me. (Though, if you look at an aerial map, you can see the distinctions.)
“Now, this is important,” he said. “You want to fish right next to these cypress trees. Specks usually hit quickly. I only fish the lure about 10 feet from the tree, then reel it on in.”
He made a cast, landing his cork at the base of a big cypress and proceeded to pop the cork with short quick jerks of his rod. This action creates commotion on the water’s surface to attract fish, and the soft bait dances erratically underneath.
“We are in about 6 feet of water here,” he said. “In fact, that’s about the depth of the entire lake. It’s a very flat bottom out here. The grass under the water is what dictates how deep I fish my cork. And the grass is always changing.”
The 2-foot depth of our lures seemed adequate enough to not get hung in the grass. A short time later, George’s cork shot under, and he set the hook on a nice crappie. He explained to me that crappie usually pull the cork under fast, while warmouth and flier perch take the cork down slowly. He cautioned me that if my cork shoots sideways, then it is probably a jackfish on the line. Their toothy mouths are notorious for cutting lines.
Hearing a splashing commotion behind me, I turned around to see a dozen hard fish strikes out in the open water.
“What kind of fish are those, you think?” I asked.
“Those are yearling bass schooling and ambushing the minnows on top,” George said.
This prompted me to inquire about bass. “What do you usually use to fish for bass here?”
“Usually, I use a Spro Frog Jr. The bass seem to like that smaller junior size compared to the regular size. I fish the lily pads with that, but for bass out there hitting in the open water, I fish a Texas-rigged plastic worm. Remember, that’s not open water under the surface out there; that’s the stump field.”
So, back to the task at hand, I spun around to cast my cork and jig next to a cypress tree. I found it a bit awkward to cast accurately with 2 feet of line below the cork, but George could place it right at the tree bases.
“Keep at it. You will get the hang of it,” he said.
I heard a splash as George fought another crappie to the boat. I could see that much of the success depended on the lure placement next to the trees. Fishing in a southward direction, we entered a dense, shady clump of trees.
“This is Fender Swamp,” George said. “It’s tighter fishing in here. Don’t hesitate to fish right near the boat in these open pockets of water between the lily pads and hyacinths.”
I did as instructed and watched as my cork sped sideways before I set the hook.
“Fish on!” I reported.
My line snapped after a brief fight, and I disappointedly examined my line and saw the roughened, frayed appearance of the end of my line.
“Jackfish,” George said. “You have to sling them in the boat fast.”
As if on cue, George set the hook again and quickly swung an acrobatic jackfish into the boat. The fish hit the bottom of the boat loudly, and I realized that it had sawed the line in two just as it sailed into the boat. George was laughing.
“I told you that you have to be fast with these fish! He cut through my line in under three seconds.”
We fished on, and I sure was glad to be fishing with an expert. George’s rod was bent over far more than mine was, but the scenery was the prize; the fish were a bonus. There are few places in Georgia that look like this, especially non-manmade. George pointed out to me that cypress trees can take root on the dense, floating grassbeds and send long roots down to the bottom of the lake. That explains how all those cypress trees inhabit a natural pond like this without the water ever drying up.
Some words of advice, especially when fishing the warmer months: beware of the wasp nests. Be on the lookout at all times. They sure can put a damper on a good fishing trip. Fortunately for us, we did not encounter a single wasp but did come face to face with a banded water snake poking his head out of a cypress tree to sun.
Working our way farther south, we entered another section of dense cypresses called Prescott Bay. I watched as George pulled more crappie from the dark water, the electric-chicken Panfish Assassin bait doing its job well.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, boy,” he said after unhooking another crappie. “The weather isn’t even right. This fall has been too hot to really get the specks biting. Come back here in another month, and I will show you some real speck fishing. Cold weather is the key.”
“Will we be fishing the same spots like we are today? Same rigs and all?” I asked.
“We won’t change a thing… except more specks in the boat,” he said.
So, adding to George’s recommendations, my best advice on how to fish Banks Lake is to not be scared to cast in the “high risk spots” as I call them, where you may get your hook hung. Watching George, I could see that those hard-to-reach spots yielded the most fish.
When I asked George why he did not mind sharing his secrets about his favorite fishing lake, he replied simply, “Believe me, boy, there are plenty of fish to go around in here. Why not help some people out?”
To that I say thank you, George, for being willing to offer your tips to me and the GON community. I look forward to round two with you!