Fishing the Big "O"

By: Terry Tomalin

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At dawn on Lake Okeechobee, the water is flat as glass. An angler stands in the bow of a bass boat and casts toward the cattails on the shoreline. The plug lands with a plop!

The surface ripples as a fish investigates. The fisherman twitches the artificial bait once, twice and then bam! Fsh on! A few minutes later, a greenish-black largemouth bass glistens in the morning sun. It’s a five-pounder, a great catch in anyone’s book. But it will be released to be caught another day.

It is just another day at Florida’s premiere bass fishing spot, the Big “O,” a 730-square-mile lake that has been luring anglers from around the world for more than 100 years.

Florida has more than 7,000 lakes and ponds and more than 12,000 miles of rivers and streams. No matter where you go in freshwater, north or south, you're bound to find largemouth bass.

But no lake in the state has the history of Okeechobee. Fed by a constant supply of fresh water from the Kissimmee River and blessed with ample aquatic vegetation, the lake has always been the standard by which all other Florida lakes have been judged.

Lake Okeechobee always has been known for producing trophy bass. And while a 10-pound largemouth might be every angler's dream, most folks would be satisfied with one or two half that size. Finish the day with one 5-pound bass, or five 1-pound bass for that matter, you should consider yourself lucky.

Many believe that Florida's largemouth bass is a distinct species; others think it merely a subspecies. But the debate is academic. No one disputes that Florida's fish grow bigger and fatter than any other species of bass. One reason is a year-round growing season; warm water and ample vegetation make for big bass.

Micropterus salmoides floridanus were once found only on the Florida peninsula, but they have since been introduced in Texas, California and as far away as Japan. Females live longer than males and are more likely to reach trophy size. Most conservation-minded anglers release large, breeding fish.  

But you don’t have to be a professional bass fisherman to catch trophy-sized fish. With a little advice, anglers can swing by their nearest sporting goods store, stock up on some artificial lures and learn to fish like a veteran of the professional tournament trail.

Spring is the best time to fish for the legendary Florida bucketmouth. The live bait of choice for most anglers is the golden shiner, fished under a cork. When it comes to artificial lures, the weedless, or Texas-rigged, plastic worm is the most popular. Jerk worms, spinner baits, crank baits and topwater plugs will also work under a variety of conditions.

A simple spinning outfit rigged with 12- to 15-pound test will work in most Florida lakes. Bass typically hang around structures such as grass beds or submerged logs, so you will need a sturdy outfit to keep from losing fish.

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