While waiting outside the tackle store at Clewiston's Roland Martin Marina recently, I couldn't help but overhear the conversations between members of a local bass club who were participating in a club tournament that Saturday.
"Saw Jim put 50 gallons of fuel in his boat. Man's gonna make a run to the north!"
"I see nothing but flippin' sticks on your bow, Phil. You're gonna punch those mats all day, huh?"
And so on it went, friendly, competitive banter that revealed hunches about how and where to approach a giant like Lake Okeechobee and carry the day.
I thought about a polar opposite experience I'd had the night before. I met some folks at the ramp in South Bay who were in town for a long freshwater fishing winter vacation. It was their first time on the Big O, and they looked slightly relieved to have made it back in from that massive and complex lake to the ramp before pitch dark.
They asked how we'd done, and recognizing their midwestern accents I showed them on the map exactly where we'd found some hungry largemouths, and gave them a handful of the jigs that they fell for. Least I could do for some friendly fellow anglers, and I'm sure they'd have done the same for me if I'd come in miffed from some Nebraska lake.
But the experience got me to thinking about just how a visiting angler even begins to crack the code on Florida's freshwater fishing opportunities, when there are three million acres of lakes and more than 12,000 miles of rivers and canals that hold strong populations of bass. So many folks come here to catch the lunker of a lifetime, and even the pros who come to compete pick the brains of resident experts for help.
First, you can narrow your search with this list of top bass lakes offered by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
Second, you can hire a guide to show you around the area a few times before you venture out on your own. If you're planning on staying a while, or moving to the area, be up front with him/her about that. Having been a guide, it's really annoying when you find a former client staked out in "your" honey hole in exactly the conditions that it fishes best. You'll learn more from a broader overview than from scoring a couple good GPS numbers. After all, lake levels change, and fish move depending upon the weather and many other factors.
Third, join a bass club, as did one the guys waiting in the dark for the tackle store to open. Here's a list of bass-fishing clubs to get you started. Most club members are always looking to split the cost of fuel with a new fishing buddy. Many are retired and are always looking for a partner during the work week. And some are pros looking for a talented "co-angler" to practice with for tournaments and serve as a competitive wingman for those two-man events that require one amateur to fish.
Joining a club is a great way to learn new water and make new friends. Most of the clubs have a really family friendly vibe and plenty of social events.