September 07, 2021
With hundreds of publicly-accessible lakes and river fisheries, the Sunshine State offers tremendous opportunities to stretch a line with big largemouth bass. Everyone has their favorite fishin' hole, but to fairly rank a top-5, we sought relevant perspective from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's TrophyCatch program (www.Trophycatchflorida.com).
This citizen-science program rewards anglers for documenting and releasing trophy bass of 8 pounds or larger. Bass weighing 8 – 9.9 pounds earn Lunker Club status, 10-12.9 pounds make the Trophy Club and toads of 13-plus reach the prestigious Hall of Fame Club. Based on data from the past four years, the following lakes made the cut.
1. LAKE KISSIMMEE
The southernmost link in the Kissimmee Chain, Lake Kissimmee is a 34,948-acre lake located 40 miles south of Orlando and 18 miles east of Lake Wales. Bass-friendly habitat includes expansive native grass communities (maidencane and knotgrass), lily pads, bulrush, cattail and hydrilla beds.
To date, Lake Kissimmee has produced 497 TrophyCatch fish — 409 Lunker Clubs, 87 Trophy Clubs, 1 Hall of Famer. Martin Mann has spent 15 of his 25 years as a FWC fisheries Biologist studying the Kissimmee Chain. Noting that he's chosen to live and work in Central Florida largely because of the quality fisheries, Mann said Kissimmee owes its consistency to a handful of distinct elements.
“Lake Kissimmee is a trophy bass factory because it is fertile, but not overly fertile, and that produces a lot of bass,” he said. “Think of a rich, loamy soil and how that grows crops better than say a sandy, well-drained, sterile soil. Lake Kissimmee has good soil.
“Because we have fertile soil, Lake Kissimmee produces a lot of food from zooplankton, insects to forage fish. This allows bass to grow fast and increase survivorship. Also, because we have fertile soil, Lake Kissimmee has excellent habitat that is a diverse mixture of emergent and submerged vegetation that is ideal for fish spawning and fish recruitment.”
Mann also points to the lake's good water quality contributes to a healthy bass population. Furthermore, most anglers release trophy fish so they remain in the system for additional opportunities and reproduction.
“Also, FWC has managed this lake and the rest of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes aggressively over the last 50 years,” Mann said. “We have good food availability, good habitat and good water partly due to mother nature and partly due to FWC management practices that preserve it even though it is under stress from human encroachment.”
How to Fish It: Mann's a big fan of topwater action, particularly a noisy buzzbait fitted with a trailer hook. Frogs, walking bits, poppers, spinnerbaits and vibrating jigs also produce, but day in and day out, you can't go wrong flipping/pitching vegetation with plastic crawfish or beaver style baits.
2. RODMAN RESERVOIR
TrophyCatch Stats: 348 (285 Lunker, 61 Trophy Clubs, 2 Hall of Fames)
Description: Located south of Palatka, this 9,500-acre reservoir was formed in 1968 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built an earthen dam with a four-gate spillway across the Ocklawaha River. This was the first of two planned projects intended to facilitate navigation along the Cross Florida Barge Canal (construction halted in 1971 due to environmental concerns).
Stretching 19 miles, Rodman holds vast areas of flooded timber (some emergent, some submerged), shallow wood cover, hydrilla and milfoil beds, eel grass and large rafts of water lettuce and hyacinth.
How to Fish It: During summer months, most of the bass seek cooler temperatures in the deeper waters of the river channel, although early mornings and late afternoon may find them roaming shallow flats. In the deep water, you'll catch them on big Texas-rigged worms, Carolina-rigged lizards and deep diving crankbaits. Pay particular attention to river channel turns, as these are natural bass magnets. Ditto for deep stumps.
During morning, or any low-light period, Gainesville's Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bernie Schultz likes throwing topwaters like the Rapala X-Rap Prop or SkitterWalk around stumps and grass edges in Rodman's main pool or near breaks in the barge canal.
Weed mats provide another warm-season option, so Schultz punches a heavily-weighted Yamamoto Fat Baby Craw (junebug or black/blue) through the hyacinth or hydrilla. Frogs, vibrating jigs and flipping jigs also produce in and around the mats.
In the fall, when bass gorge on shad, Elite pro and Palatka resident pro Terry Scroggins will throw a shallow diving jerkbait onto main channel flats and work the bait over the edge for fish holding on the break and looking up for food
Local contact: Gary's Tackle Box (352-372-1791)
3. LAKE ISTOKPOGA
TrophyCatch Stats: 329 (262 Lunker Clubs, 67 Trophy Clubs)
Description: Translated, its Seminole name refers to ancestors who died on the lake when fierce winds roiled its vast expanses of relatively shallow waters. Nevertheless, Florida's fifth-largest natural lake, located five miles northeast of Lake Placid, has consistently cranked out quality bass since a major restoration effort in the early 2000's. The FWC and its environmental partners drew down Istokpoga's water level and removed over 1,300 acres of muck to allow native vegetation to germinate and flourish.
Covering 27,692 acres with an average depth of about 6 feet, Istokpoga offers an array of shallow vegetation including hydrilla, spatterdock, bulrush, cattails, pepper grass, eel grass, and Kissimmee grass; along with two islands (Big and Bumblebee), three major creeks (Arbuckle, Josephine, and Istokpoga) and several docks. March and October are prime months for cooler weather and lots of bass, but January through April can be lights-out with fish spawning in bulrush, cattail and other vegetation over sandy bottom.
"If there was one lake that I had to pick to catch a 10-pounder or bigger in the spring time, it would be Lake Istokpoga," said Bassmaster Elite Series pro and Lakeland native Bobby Lane. "You're not just going to get one or two good bites a day; you're going to get 10-15 quality bites a day about any time of the year.”
How to Fish It: Productive tactics include flipping dark-colored soft plastics (red shad, junebug) into patches of emergent vegetation and pockets of submerged vegetation, working topwaters and jerkbaits around the edges of hydrilla beds or pondweed and targeting points and holes in weed mats with weedless frogs. Rattling lures (silver, gold, and Tennessee shad) tempt bass during summer and fall as baitfish school in open water areas along the north end of the lake. And, of course, a live shiner fished under a popping cork is a can't-miss for big bass.
Local contact: Henderson's Fish Camp at (863-465-2101)
4. LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA
TrophyCatch Stats: 234 (195 Lunker Clubs, 39 Trophy Clubs)
Description: Known as “Toho,” this 18,810-acre lake located southeast of Kissimmee is the uppermost of the Kissimmee Chain. Common targets include lily pads, bulrush, cattails weed mats and Kissimmee grass, along with FWC's fish attractors.
When runoff from heavy rains send voluminous flow through the lake, current at the canals and tributaries can spark a hot bass bite. The mouth of Shingle Creek, St. Cloud canal (C-31), Partin's Ditch or near the water control structure (S-61) located at Toho's south end are worth a visit. Lacking current, target gaps, holes and irregularities in the emergent vegetation and dense weed mats.
How to Fish It: Flipping Texas-rigged worms or pitching craws and beavers is hard to beat, but keep a frog, spinnerbait and swim jig on your deck.
Local contact: Big Lake Toho Marina (407-846-2124)
5. LAKE OKEECHOBEE
TrophyCatch Stats: 221 (193 Lunker Clubs, 28 Trophy Clubs)
Description: Covering 730 square miles, the Big O is Florida's largest lake and the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous United States. Well deserving of its Seminole name, which means “big water,” Okeechobee averages only 9 feet deep, but boasts more than 150,000 acres of productive vegetation that includes Kissimmee grass, bulrush, cattails, hydrilla, hyacinth and lily pads. A 100-yard wide rim canal circling the lake, along with several secondary canals and cuts yield hundreds of miles of fishable water.
A reservoir for potable and irrigation water, Okeechobee took a beating during the 2004 hurricane season when three major hurricanes pushed massive amounts of water into the system (briefly as high as 18 feet). This inundation plus severe wind damage decimated emergent vegetation, while turbidity blocked sunlight long enough to kill most of the submerged plants. Fortunately, extreme drought conditions in 2006 and 2007 exposed vast areas of lake bottom and allowed new vegetation to take root. When big rains returned in 2008, the new plant growth exploded.
How to Fish It: Flipping/pitching Texas-rigged plastics or jigs with craw trailers is one of the top techniques on the Big O. When summer finds a lot of fish following offshore bait schools, lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits and big Texas-rigged worms will tempt the ones you want.
Local contact: Fast Break Bait & Tackle 863-763-0973
LAND OF THE GIANTS
Though far out of the top-5 in terms of quantity, Kingsley Lake in North Central Florida easily claims the quality title. This disc-shaped lake six miles east of Starke has yielded the most Hall-of-fame catches with 14 out of the 30 reported in four TrophyCatch seasons. Of that total, the 2,000-acre Kingsley has produced the two heaviest TrophyCatch entries: Seth Chapman's 15-pound, 11-ouncer and Len Andrews' 15-9 — both caught in March 2015. Overall, Kingsley claims 169 TrophyCatches (also including 75 Lunker Clubs and 80 Trophy Clubs).
Generally considered Florida's oldest and highest lake, Kingsley perches on the eastern slope of Trail Ridge, the first part of Florida's peninsula to emerge above sea level in the Pleistocene era. Thought to have formed as a giant sink hole, Kingsley reaches 90 feet deep and its circular shape has earned the nickname “Silver Dollar lake.”