While Lake Okeechobee, Lake Jackson, Lake Kissimmee and its chain of lakes draw most of the attention, Lake Istokpoga just might be the Mecca that bass anglers are seeking. Shadowed by her more heralded sisters, Istokpoga churns out hefty Florida-strain largemouth bass faster than a politician can avoid a question.
Located in the south-central part of the state, Lake Istokpoga is a 27,480-acre eutrophic body of water. Its bass fishing is rated superior by the state of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
One reason is that the lake has a 15-to-24-inch slot limit. That means it's virtually a "catch-and-release" lake, since anglers may keep only bass of less than 15 or more than 24 inches in length. Most anglers release all bass they catch at Istokpoga.
At present, the lake, which is located just south of Sebring off U.S. 27, is undergoing a drawdown to expose its bottom to the drying effects of the sun. The drawdown is designed to remove hydrilla, a pesky, fast-growing aquatic weed. That will make way for the planting and expansion of desirable macrophyte throughout the lake.
Biology withstanding, local guides and anglers are having field days as the lake is yielding catches of 40 or more bass per day/per person. Bass of 5 pounds or more are common. Trophies of 10 pounds or more are not rare. The season is year-round.
Check the bulletin board at Cypress Isle RV Park and Marina (863-465-5241) and you'll find numerous photos of hefty bass tipping the scales at 10 pounds or more.
While conventional artificials (plastic worms, spinnerbaits, jerk worms, spoons and topwater plugs) work well, there's little doubt that native golden shiners account for the best catches. Cypress Isle owner, Mike Sobon, works the lake daily, castnetting shiners for his customers. Native golden shiners sell for $12 a dozen or more, depending on size.
But bait cost is really of no concern for anglers taking to the lake for a day of bass fishing.
"Most people don't really mind," said guide David Miller, who runs out of Cypress Isle. "They forget about it pretty quickly when they catch a large bass or two."
Sarasota's Doug Forde and I spent a day with Miller and walked away impressed.
"We're going to fish hydrilla beds in the middle of the lake," Miller said. "That's where most of the bass are holding. The lake's just too shallow in other areas."
The drawdown has forced the bass to leave the shallow areas and hole up in the deeper portions of the lake. The hydrilla beds are perfect. They not only provide cover, but also attract a variety of bait. Bass are drawn to it like lead filings to a magnet.
The drawdown also has played havoc with several fish camps operating on the lake. According to Miller, only two camps have enough water in their canals, leading to the lake, for anglers to launch their boats.
"But it's not as bad as Lake Okeechobee," Miller said of Florida's famous lake to the southeast. "The water is so low there, because of the drought, that many of the guides (on Okeechobee) are coming to Istokpoga to fish."
You might think that would make for some heavy fishing pressure on Istokpoga. Not so. With few places to launch (the public ramps are high and dry), there are relatively few non-guide boats on the lake.
"And we don't get in each other's way at all," said Miller, 37, and a native of Sarasota. "Everybody pretty much cooperates."
There's no reason to horn in on another's spot. The hydrilla beds are vast, giving everyone the opportunity to fish his or her own spot.
Most of the guides will anchor on a likely spot, then put out several shiner-baited rigs. Finding a spot is usually no big deal. Hydrilla beds are dotted with openings and bays, and bass love to use points and edges as ambush points.
Miller will have each client put out four rigs -two bobber and two freelines. The reels are set on freespool so that the bass won't take the rigs overboard.
"Some days, the bobber rigs work best and some days the freelined rigs work best," he said. "I'll just figure out which method is working best and go with it."
Miller prefers a 4- to 5-inch shiner. Most experts advise 10- to 12-inch shiners for trophy bass, but those cut down on the action.
"Sure, you'll catch large bass on large shiners, but I've found my clients prefer lots of action," he said. "And you'll be amazed at the number of large fish you'll take on the smaller shiners."
He employs a 4/0 Kahle hook, and hooks the shiners through the mouth and out the nose. This allows the baitfish to swim naturally. Miller keeps his day's supply of bait in an aerated livewell. Sluggish or dead bait won't draw nearly as much interest. And, at $12 or dozen or more, it's a good idea to keep the bait fresh and lively. Your wallet will thank you, too.
Hooking bass can be a chore, but it's not really that difficult.
"When a bass hits, just let it run with the bait, then take up the slack and set the hook hard," Miller said. "Most missed strikes take place when you don't get the slack out of the line."
For shiner fishing, Miller prefers stout 7-foot rods, Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 C reels and 25-pound test monofilament line. The reels feature a clicker that lets the anglers know when a bass has inhaled the shiner and is taking line.
It's a sweet sound. It's also a sound that's being heard over and over at fertile Lake Istokpoga, Florida's best-kept bass secret.
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