The 450,000-acre Lake Okeechobee is the second largest lake in the United States, stretching some 30 miles long by 25 miles wide with a skinny depth of only 12 feet. The shallow waters support thousands of acres of scattered aquatic vegetation and the sheer size of the lake combines to offer a largemouth bass fishery that has few peers.
Like most lakes however, the “Big O”, as it is often called, does go through phases due to several environmental and man-made factors. However, rest assured, that even in a downturn the lake is still one of the best fisheries in the state.
Expectations are high for the legendary bass fishery so ecological concerns of environmentalist throughout the southern half of the peninsula and a slight downturn in the number of giant bass caught can result in the belief that the lake should be in intensive care. While the past few years have produced fewer giant bass, that has changed, and the fishery’s revitalization is well underway. Some local anglers in fact are now calling the bass fishing there the best they have seen in several years, thanks to Mother Nature.
Weather Impacts On The Lake
Unpredictable weather can and has often impacted the lake’s habitat, ecology and fishery. In 1981 for example, the most severe drought on record lowered lake levels and concentrated the bass population into deeper areas away from the shoreline and vegetated shallows. Many areas of the fish factory were dry. Water had receded several miles from the normal shoreline, leaving much of the vegetated lake bottom baking in the sun. Rains finally came, and the lake started to refill. Vegetation blossomed, and the low pH rose to optimal levels causing the forage populations to explode and the bass fishing to improve greatly.
While predictions of Okeechobee’s impending death have been touted off and on for years, somehow the lake survives and seldom disappoints visiting anglers. Strong hurricanes, like those in 2004 and 2005, can and did affect the bass fishery and Hurricane Irma which moved through the area on September 11, 2017 did more damage to the lake habitat than most. The lake received 16 ½ inches of rainfall in two days and had maximum wind gusts of 70 mph.
“When the hurricane hit, the water came up a lot and the wind up-rooted a lot of the bulrushes,” says professional angler and long-time Lake Okeechobee guide Steve Daniel. “The Harney Pond Canal dike was covered with ripped up vegetation and the county had to bring in heavy equipment to clear it all off and open up the canal. The airboat trail on the east side of the canal was completely clogged up and had to be cleared. Then the water level got up really high, to 16 feet above sea level.”
The Corps then had to release the excess water which they normally keep at a level around 13 ½ feet above sea level through the spring, according to Daniel. With an all-time record high rainfall in May of 2018 however, it got up to around 15 feet again. The lake can really change with the high water and low water scenarios that may last from a few months to several years. That fluctuation though usually benefits the lake and keeps it healthy and productive.
Habitat Difference in Prime Areas
“What is dramatically different over the past few years is the habitat,” Daniel notes. “Just a couple of years ago, the Harney Pond and Monkey Box areas were completely full of pretty lily pads. Then the following year, they had all but disappeared from the two areas and hydrilla had really taken over. The hydrilla beds offered a denser cover than the pads and the bass would hang around its outer edges and potholes within.”
“The hydrilla remained in the shallow flats there all summer long and fishing was very good,” he explains. “Then Hurricane Irma came along and ripped up and blew away most of it. The Monkey Box area has about 5 times more fishable water now than it ever has since much of the vegetation including the various grasses, coontail, hydrilla and even bulrushes was pulled up and blown out the area.”
Even in the area behind Dyeson’s Ditch around Harney Pond Canal, the vegetation that had grown thick over the years making it impossible to access was cleaned out, according to Daniel. Now, he and his guide parties are fishing relatively open, 6-foot deep areas back in those shallows that they have never fished before because it had been so overgrown for years. That place had always been one of Daniel’s favorite areas since it is always changing and there are always places where you can find clear water to fish.
The eel grass on the west side of Okeechobee is trying to come back strong but in areas having stained waters, the sunlight can’t penetrate deep to help the eel grass grow. As the water drops and clears up with the help of the new vegetation, the eel grass will be back though, Daniel believes. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission sprayers have impacted much of the floating vegetation on the lake though. The FWC sprays the aquatic plants, primarily the water lettuce and water hyacinth (plus hydrilla if blocking navigation) in Lake Okeechobee but thankfully Mother Nature seems to have a big helping hand in management, according to Daniel.
“It never gets out of control,” he says. “In the winter we get a migration of coots that come down and devour as much of it as they can. Those ducks can fly down and work on the biggest patches of hydrilla in the lake and really knock it down. I think if we could just let the lake and Mother Nature do their thing, we would be better off.”
“The outside grass back in behind the outer bulrushes around Whiddens Pass just southeast of the Monkey Box area used to be solid,” he continues. “Now they have been pretty much cleaned out by the hurricane, and we have a lot more open water way inside the rushes. Okeechobee today looks more like it did 25 years ago!”
Productive, Protected Places to Locate Bass
Daniel has fished the bass pro circuit tournament trails over the years and has won several events. Two of his major FLW tournament wins in fact came on Lake Okeechobee. Daniel has fished and guided on the Big O for 30 years and offers sage advice on where to fish when visiting there.
Moonshine Bay on the lake’s west side and Cochrans Pass just to the east of it are top spots for largemouth. A ridge of rocks running parallel to the reed line about 100 yards out in the lake off Cochrans Pass can be productive. The depth there is about a foot shallower than the surrounding water and it often is a good summer crankbaiting place if the vegetation is minimal on it and you can find it.
“We had a few low-water years where the grass started growing further out into the lake and I hadn’t been to the ridge for a couple of years, so I went over to check it out and initially couldn’t locate it, even with my depth finder. My clients were fishing live shiners so I pulled into a small area back in the grass and lowered my Power Poles to fix the boat’s location as we readied our baits. We heard the poles ‘clank’ as they drove into the rock outcropping. The grass had grown out beyond the rock ridge which was now inside the reed line.”
The Most Effective Techniques and Baits Now
The best lures to fish in the lake habitat that exists today are those that best suit the water you are trying to fish. Daniels believes that Lake Okeechobee is as good today as it has ever been thanks to the changing habitat as Irma brought dingier water.
“With clear waters over a long period, the lake’s bass get accustomed to sight-feeding where they can easily see the prey,” he says. “In dingy waters, we now use similar types of baits that are more noticeable such as those that make noise or have a larger profile. Lures like chatter baits or those sporting brighter colors such as chartreuse are now more effective in the sparser vegetation.”
Big swimbaits are often effective now in much of the existing cover. Daniels has had many days with a tally of over 100 bass on the baits. On one recent day, the bass in the Monkey Box area were so active that Daniel’s and his partner had double hook ups six different times. When you find a school of bass roaming that part of the lake, you can catch 20 or 30 in a few minutes on a big swimbait without moving the boat.
Daniel’s largest personal best on the lake was a 10-pound 5-ounce bass that he caught flippin’ hydrilla. Daniel’s has guided several clients to 10-pound plus fish in the past year. In March of 2018, a client caught two bass, one weighing 9-pounds 10-ounces and another 10-pounds 7-ounces, on the same day in the Harney Pond area.
To contact Daniel call (239)560-2704 or at email@example.com.Lake Okeechobee map (Shutterstock)
Natural Lake to Impoundment
Lake Okeechobee started life as a “natural” lake in every sense of the word. The 730-square-mile lake was surrounded by wetlands that stretched from Central Florida (the present-day Orlando area) to the Florida Bay, south of the Everglades. The watershed filled from rains during the wet season and then allowed the water to slowly flow south into the Everglades during the dry season. Waters flowed down the meandering Kissimmee River and its small tributaries and entered the big lake along its northeast shore. They then flowed through small creeks, ditches and runoffs southward through the vast “river of grass” on the west, south and southeastern sides of Okeechobee.
The lake water levels and size naturally fluctuated seasonally with the rainfall. Sometimes, the lake level would rise to over 20 feet above sea level and spread out into the surrounding wetlands and swamps. In 1900, much of the southern low lands just south of the lake were drained and converted into agriculture use. Today, that natural lake system no longer exists. Developers created communities along Florida’s east coast and attempted to drain parts of the Everglades through ditches and other means. They eventually dried up much of the northern Everglades.
To protect the lands at the south end of Okeechobee, they built a small dam, but hurricane-related floods in the early and mid-1900s caused the lake to periodically overflow the levee and drown many Floridians while devastating some communities and agriculture land. In the mid-1900s, a more substantial dike flood control system was constructed around the lake by the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1961, the Herbert Hoover Dike completely surrounded Lake Okeechobee, except for the Fisheating Creek watershed which flows into the lake’s west side near Lakeport.
Additionally, several drainage canals on the south end of the lake, and a large canal and series of locks on the east side leading to the St. Lucie River and on the west side connecting the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico were also constructed. Much of the Kissimmee River between Lake Kissimmee and Lake Okeechobee was “straightened out” by dredging a 30-foot deep straightaway. In the early 1990s, that was deemed an ecological mistake, and more 44 miles of the Kissimmee River and flood plane ecosystem was restored by re-connecting a lot of the natural twisting channels.
Today, Lake Okeechobee serves as the main water supply for south Florida and functions more like a reservoir than a natural lake. Thus, the amount of water stored in the lake and how it is released impacts the ecology of the lake, as well as the state’s east and west coasts.