April, or maybe March, is cruelest month

Submitted Photo
Turtle Creek's Map


Poet T.S. Eliot coined the line “April is the cruelest month” in his complex poem “The Waste Land.” If you’re a local golfer, fisherman, or any kind of outdoor person, you are familiar with Southern Indiana’s fickle spring weather. I always think the first warm days of March signal the start of fishing season. The cold nights keep water temperatures low, making fish sluggish and not inclined to feed. Thus, March to me is the hardest to take. April can be frustrating too, but during this month the sun will open up its warmth and nature starts perking.

Because I’m always eager (an understatement) to get a lure wet after a long winter, the first place I think about for spring fishing is Turtle Creek Reservoir, just south of Sullivan near the small town of Merom. Owned by Hoosier Energy, this coal-driven power plant lake, built in 1980 and opened to fishing in 1982, has fishable water pretty much year-round. I have history on the lake, as my dad and I discovered this place back in the 1990s. It was probably the best bass lake in Indiana for many years until things went awry a few years back, probably due to water quality issues.

I recall one windy summer day back then that I caught seven quality bass in eight casts. I had found a magic stump in about six feet of water. Pictures on my wall are a testimony to the quality angling we had there. Sadly, the largemouth bonanza faded away, turning this 1550-acre lake into a catfish and carp deal with just a few bass and crappie remaining. The lake’s always had a one or two-fish limit. Now it’s one fish 20 inches or larger, so it’s essentially a catch and release deal. But a Department of Natural Resources stocking program has reinvigorated the lake, and the water quality issues have apparently been solved. I’ve been hearing good reports, so in early March a friend and I loaded up my bass boat and headed north up Highway 41 for the 90-minute drive, hoping to find some bass biting. It was a pleasant day with temps in the 60s.

There’s always wind at this flat land lake, and this day a brisk southwest breeze made the water a little choppy but there were no whitecaps, a sure indicator of rough going. Maybe 15 boats were in the parking lot as we entered the sign-in area. That’s a good omen. I figured if that’s how many boats were here on a Monday, how many were hammering the water over the weekend? We paid our $1 senior fee apiece ($5 regular fee) and $5 launch charge, dropped the boat in, and headed north to see if we could find the warmest water. The fellow at the check-in station told us fish could be caught all over the lake, but I wanted to check out the warm water discharge area on the north end to see if the temps up there had drawn some fish. It took maybe 20 minutes at idle speed, which is the requirement. The lake formerly allowed only 10 horse or smaller engines, but the rule changed to accommodate most bass fishermen with larger boats going at idle speed.

The water temps in the south end were around 56 degrees, a good sign. When we arrived at the discharge area, the temps were only a couple of degrees warmer. Was no water being discharged by the plant? Smoke was pouring out of the stack, so we took that to mean power was being generated. We decided the area was too wind-blown to attempt casting, so we made our way to the west bank and looked for protected coves, which we quickly located. One other boat was in a fishy-looking inlet with a couple of guys throwing fast moving lures, probably spinnerbaits. Soon we saw one of them haul in a decent bass, maybe 15 inches or so. That was encouraging. Small shad were flicking here and there, also a good sign. After a bunch of fruitless casts to brushy cover, we gave it up and looked for another spot. We soon realized most of the boats were in the south end, so we headed that direction down the west bank, searching for a cove that Dad and I used to fish. I couldn’t find it. We did locate one nice inlet with wind protection and good-looking bank cover, but nothing doing there either. Time to head down the lake back toward the launch area.

The west side of Turtle Creek is mostly composed of a huge shallow flat. As I neared the south end approaching an area I wanted to fish, my 40-horse Mercury ground to a halt in less than a foot of water. Dang it. This spot had snared me on earlier trips, but on this day, I was too busy looking far down the lake. Ok, the solution for being stuck in the shallows is to use the trolling motor to move to deeper water. I did that, but after firing up the big motor, I realized it wasn’t ejecting water, a real problem that can lead to engine overheating. Sucked up sediment had fouled the cooling system water intake. I tried a couple of maneuvers going forward and backward, but the engine alarm sounded, signaling we needed to call it a day. A problem like that needed the boat on dry land where proper flushing can occur.

A couple of guys were going by in their boat and asked if we needed help. I told them that the launch ramp was close enough that I could troll to it. Had they caught anything? Around 15 bass with a couple of four-pounders was the response. Yes, the lake is back to being productive. I’ll return there some day, attempting to relearn a place I used to enjoy. I just hope it’s not too windy. If winds exceed 20 mph, a warning siren will sound, requiring boats to head to the bank.

No cash is accepted at the check-in office, only credit or debit cards. Phone 812-356-4744 for lake information. The plant will be deactivated in 2023, so the warm water will be gone. Will it remain a good fishery? That’s anybody’s guess, but especially if the stocking continues, it should continue to be a quality lake.

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