Permitted use provided by: MajorLeagueFishing.com
Read the angling magazines and it's easy to believe that Florida's freshwater fishing world revolves around a few basic fisheries - the St. John's River system, the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, including Lake Toho, legendary Lake Okeechobee, Lake Seminole along the Georgia/Florida state line, and the Florida Everglades.
But fly over the state of Florida - or better yet, drive through the state with a bass rig behind you - and you'll discover that there is far more to freshwater fishing in the Sunshine State than first meets the eye.
In fact, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are more than 7,800 named reservoirs, natural lakes and ponds that total a staggering three million acres along with more than 12,000 miles of fishable canals, streams and rivers.
With the great preponderance of that acreage harboring the state's official freshwater fish, the Florida largemouth bass, it would seem to be virtually impossible for anyone to adequately sample all of those waters in a single lifetime.
But you can sure try. And one place that you'd definitely want to have on that Florida bass fishing bucket list is 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga, a lesser known but stunningly beautiful and highly productive big bass factory lying just northeast of the Old Florida hamlet of Lake Placid.
The sight of the Jack Link’s Major League Fishing 2013 Geico Challenge Cup, Istokpoga promises to be a vastly different challenge for the 24 MLF pros than the previous two venues - Amistad and Chautauqua - were.
That's because the lake is a vast expanse of relatively shallow water - it's the fifth largest natural lake in Florida - that averages four to eight feet in depth. In fact, the maximum depth of Istokpoga is only about 10 feet on the eastern side of the lake.
Because of this shallow nature, the lake can become quite rough on very windy days. So much so that legend says the lake received its name - which means "our people died there" - from the Seminoles after some of the Native Americans attempted to cross the lake and died in "whirlpools."
With two islands (Big and Bumblebee); three major creek systems feeding in (Arbuckle, Josephine, and Istokpoga); a nice smattering of dock lined canals; and an abundance of vegetation including hydrilla, yellow water-lilies, bulrush, cattails, pepper grass, eel grass, and Kissimmee grass, it's easy to see why this Highlands County shallow water gem is home to one of Florida's most prolific bass populations.
In fact, a 2012 FWC survey at the lake indicated an 0.82 fish per hour angler success rate on largemouth bass. That figure is one of the highest documented since a lake drawdown and habitat restoration work a decade ago helped Istokpoga's fishery enjoy a tremendous resurgence.
How good is the big bass action at Lake Istokpoga?
Just a few days before the Challenge Cup began, angler
Steve Cochran boated this huge 12.2-pound largemouth.
With quality bass protected by a 15- to 24-inch slot limit, Istokpoga also is home to some of the state's best big bass fishing along with its good catch rates.
With a population boasting high-end numbers of five- to eight-pound fish along with more substantial size trophies (recent FWC estimates indicate that more than 1,000 eight-pound or better bass were landed at Istokpoga in less than a year's time), the MLF leader board should be jumping.
Is all of this Chamber of Commerce hyperbole?
Not at all says Bobby Lane, a Florida resident and the MLF pro with perhaps the largest amount of experience on Istokpoga.
"When you want to catch a great big fish, you come to Lake Istokpoga," said Lane.
The MLF pro isn't kidding - the lake record is a 16-pound bass caught in the late 1990s.
"Hopefully we can get to see the potential that this lake has," Lane added.
Local angler Steve Cochran displayed some of that Istokpoga sowbelly potential just a few days before the Geico Challenge Cup began when he boated a 12.2-pound largemouth. And this spring, at least one other fish in the 13-pound range has been caught along with several others landed in the same neighborhood.
What causes Istokpoga's bucketmouth bass to grow to such great girth? It's because of the lake's proliferation of forage species, which include minnows, shad, shiners, sunfish and frogs.
That should mean plenty of spinnerbait, swim jig, swimbaits, creature bait flipping and even some topwater action for the MLF pros. Jigs around the vegetation, lipless cranks over grass and frogs near the pads and docks could also come into play.
Combine that with the region's superb beauty - Spanish moss hanging out of trees, alligators sunning themselves in shallow water, bald eagles and ospreys flying around looking for food, and flocks of migrating ducks - and this should be a great tournament for the Outdoor Channel television cameras to record.
It should be a can't miss outdoors television series - tune in and find out!