Lake Istokpoga: Trophy Fish, Photos & Gators in Lake Placid
By Vanessa Caceres
The word “Istokpoga” means “people have died here” in an old Seminole language. It’s been said that in the early 1800s, the surprisingly shallow Lake Istokpoga (it averages only four to six feet) claimed many Native Americans who were crossing the lake and fell victim to whirlpools or alligators.
Lake Istokpoga in the town of Lake Placid is no longer known for claiming lives. Instead, the lake attracts locals and tourists for some great fishing, boating, and nature photography.
Lake Istokpoga (pronounced “is-ta-po-ga”) may not be as well-known as other Florida lakes, but it still deserves its props. It’s 11 miles wide and is the fifth-largest bass lake in the Sunshine State.
And, this body of water is currently the state leader in the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission’s TrophyCatch Program, says Bill Dwinell, a Lake Placid resident and member The Friends of Istokpoga Lake Association. The program recognizes bass that are eight pounds or more that are caught around the state.
The lake also boasts the largest number of boat ramps and fishing camps in Highlands County, Dwinell says. In addition to bass, anglers fish for speck, bream, crappie, and cane pickerel, says Dave Sampson, a professional angler on the pro staff with Bass Pro Shops and owner of a home on Lake Istokpoga. “I fish on the lake 200 days out of the year,” Sampson says.
Boating, including airboat rides, is another Lake Istokpoga favorite. When you start an airboat ride with Jon Scott of Airboat Wildlife Adventures, he’ll let you know you don’t have to pay until you return to dry land -- just in case you fall in.
While riding on the boat, scenic views of ever-changing trees, kayakers, boaters, birds, and grass pass by; when Scott goes fast, you’ll feel as if you’re floating on air.
Lake Istokpoga is a great destination for shutterbugs, too. Photographers can capture plenty of scenic vistas and wildlife including all those gators, plus turtles, frogs, fish flying out of the water, and birds including egrets, owls, herons, turkeys, ducks, bald eagles, osprey, and buzzards, to name a few.
If you look closely on the shoreline, you may spot anything from squirrels to wild hogs.
But Scott, who leads airboat rides and alligator hunts on Lake Istokpoga, says alligators are definitely celebrities on the lake. When it’s cold they tend to hide in the water, but you’ll usually see one or more during an airboat ride.
He’s led tourist groups from Japan that just couldn’t return home without seeing the famous creatures. He took the group to some small islands on the lake where there are usually several bunched together, lounging in the sun.
“On a good day, the gators are everywhere,” he said.