Florida has a lot of great bass lakes, but one of the best right now for trophy fish of 8 pounds or better has got to be Istokpoga, just a bit north of Lake Okeechobee and part of the same lake chain.
The 28,000-acre lake was practically an overgrown marsh 15 years ago, but efforts by the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission cleared areas of the bottom and restored firm sand spawning areas as well as enough open water to allow both gamefish and bait species to thrive.
From March through July 2001, the FFWCC drew the lake down and scraped away soft bottom muck on more than 1,300 acres of the lake, including 21 miles of shoreline, according to Fisheries Division spokesman Bob Wattendorf.
To maintain quality habitat, herbicide treatments and mechanical harvesting are used annually, targeting tussocks and exotic plants to improve habitat. This reduces muck buildup and lessens the chance of plant die-offs, which cause fish kills. By 2003, scraped areas had eelgrass, a highly desirable native aquatic plant. By 2009, quality fish habitat covered 33 percent of the lake.
The state also put in place a tightly-controlled harvest program; only bass smaller than 15 inches or larger than 24 inches can be kept, and the bag limit is three daily, including only one over 24 inches.
Not surprisingly, the lake has responded by turning into a trophy factory. According to Wattendorf, the lake has turned out more than 1,000 bass in the last year of 8 pounds or better, a remarkable production for a lake of its size. And, says Wattendorf, nearly all those fish were put back into the lake to grow larger after they had been weighed, measured, photographed and entered into the state's trophy-catch program, which awards merchandise and cash prizes to anglers who release large bass. (For details on the program, which applies to big bass statewide, visit www.FloridaTrophyCatch.com.)
Bass begin seeking spawning beds in January and February this far south, and the new moon Jan. 11 and the full moon Jan. 26 likely will bring fish into the shallows around much of the shoreline unless cold fronts spoil the party.
Local anglers say the north shore, in particular, is a prime spawning area thanks to large fields of bulrushes, which make prime spawning cover. Flippin' plastic worms and "creature" baits on heavy tackle is the prime tactic when using artificials during the spawn. Most anglers use 65-pound test braided line, not because bass are strong enough to break thinner line, but because it's often necessary to dredge up 50 pounds of weeds along with the fish.
The lake also has nice stands of peppergrass in some areas, usually in water 2 to 4 feet deep, and this native plant is an excellent cover for bass — the best way to fish it most of the time is to run a buzzbait or spinnerbait over the surface. Even though you can't see the fish in this vine-like cover, they can see the bait and often come blasting up through it to attack.
Even more certain to produce a trophy, however, is drifting a 6-inch or larger wild shiner minnow under a cork along the grass lines; giant fish seem unable to refuse the big baitfish, which sell for about $1 each at area bait shops. Some of the prime areas for this tactic are in the cuts south of Big Island and Bumble Bee Island, which are in the southern portion of the lake.
Another tactic that works well after heavy rains is to fish the mouth of Josephine Creek; water flow stacks up bait here, and that draws bass — vibrating crankbaits or topwaters do the job.
The spawn continues into mid-March most years, and the post-spawn bite is also very good until about mid-May when the heat drives the fish deep.