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Okeechobee: Florida's bass haven

Guide Jesse Allen pulls a largemouth out of the grass
on Lake Okeechobee. 

The first thing you notice is that no one is here. Compared to the congestion on my home waters in western Washington, the parking lots and boat ramps on Lake Okeechobee in south Florida are nearly empty.

For starters, the four hurricanes that slammed into the state over the summer of 2004 put the kibosh on the vacation plans for a lot of northern anglers, leaving a tourism vacancy that may last for months.

But for another, even Florida has seasons, and the high, dreadfully hot summer season was over when I visited recently in November, while the biggie snowbird season that kicks off in late December and January hadn't yet started.

But another factor for the uncrowded conditions is that Lake Okeechobee is the largest inland freshwater lake in the United States, at a boggling 735 square miles.

It takes a heckuva lot of fishermen, even during the busiest times of the year, to make this place look crowded.

Why a trip to Okeechobee?

It's a long way from most of the rest of the country, lying 89 miles northwest of Miami near the southern tip of Florida, a couple of hours from Fort Lauderdale to the east, and a couple of hours from Fort Myers and Naples to the west.

But Okeechobee is like no other lake you've ever seen, and more than worth a pilgrimage from any self-respecting fan of warmwater fishing.

The fishing can be spectacular — that goes without saying — but it's the setting and the lake itself that so dominate your experience when you visit it.

Fish first, of course

Okeechobee is a feast for the fishing senses, first and foremost.

It's a frequent stop on several different national and regional bass tours, and indeed the largemouth bass fishing here can be world class.

This is the lake where shiner fishing under bobbers in heavy sawgrass got started, and it's still practiced (shiners are $24 a dozen, by the way, so bring cash).

And while its surface area covers 735 square miles, the lake's deepest part is only about 12 feet, with the majority of that in the 5 to 7-foot range.

This is a heavy-vegetation, lots-of-cover, wood-in-the-water, sawgrass, eelgrass, alligator infested, brackish, tons of bass fishing fun type of lake.

If you like to topwater fish, this is your bell ringing. Okeechobee is also one of the best places to throw weightless plastics, like big 7 to 9-inch Senkos.

It's also a marvelous place to fish gargantuan Texas-rigged plastic worms, the 10-inch variety.

If you like to toss spinnerbaits, this is the place too.

Even shallow-running crankbaits will work, especially in the open patches of water. Okeechobee is not a finesse lake.

Bring your biggest, loudest, bawdiest bass baits, your toughest braided lines, and your stoutest bass rods.

For example, we caught more than 50 very stout largemouth in one morning, on topwater chug baits and on 8-inch ribbon tail worms, tequila sunrise color, rigged Texas-style with a three-sisteenths ounce screw-in cone weight, fished on 35-pound PowerPro braided line.

In addition to the largemouth, there are also copious numbers of crappie.

The crappie fishing, as they say down south, "don't git good 'til wintuh," which means when they start spawning in January and February.

There's also bluegill, and just about every kind of weird warmwater fish you can think of too, like alligator gar.

Bass fishing is good year-round, but the best bass fishing, like the crappie fishing, is in the winter months when the bass are staging to spawn.

Beds are all over the lake, and sight fishing is the method du jour.

Things get hopping in late January, with February and March considered the best times for provoking propagating black bass.

Back in the day

Okeechobee used to produce some real monster bass. But local guide Jesse Allen (863-983-6057) said the biggest he's caught during more than 30 years of guiding on Okeechobee was a 14.2-pound fish.

"I once had a client who wanted to hire me to help him find a 15-pound trophy fish. I turned him down. I don't think it can be done," he said.

But there are plenty of fish in the 3-pound range — tons of them — and lots that will push the 4 to 5-pound mark.

Occasionally there are bigger fish caught, particularly by shiner fishing, but it's become more rare than it used to be.

"In the old days," said Allen, "you either caught a huge fish, a really huge fish, or you caught a bunch of dinky ones. Now they're all a little more in the middle."

But no matter, this is still the kind of bass fishing where you can expect to catch a lot of bass, like 50 to 60 on a good day, with the best fishing for lunker hens brimming with eggs in that period between mid-February and early March.

When we fished in November, we found bass kegged up in little clear patches of water interspersed throughout the heavy, higher-than-your-boat sawgrass.

It's exciting, fun, and very, very productive bass fishing.

If you like to fly fish, Okeechobee is just about perfect for that.

Not too many locals indulge in this method, so you won't find much in the way of flies at the local tackle shop.

So, bring your own Deer Hair poppers, mice, Bunny Leeches, Double Bunny Leeches, Mercer's Lemming, Wool-head Sculpin, Zoo Cougar and Conehead Leech, and 9-foot bass tippets (10 to 14 pound test).

Bring 7-weight and/or 8-weight rods.

It sounds like a lot, but these bass are exceptionally strong and aggressive, with the nasty habit of taking you into thick vegetation, leaving you with no choice but to horse them out.

And the setting

Okeechobee is situated on the edge of the Everglades. It sports the kind of bird life you typically only see on television documentaries.

And of course, there are lots of alligators and snakes (and mosquitoes, which can be bad at dusk and at night).

The hurricanes did some damage around the lake, and when we fished here the water was still high and stained, so finding clear water was the key to finding lots of bass.

The small town of Clewiston tends to be bass fishing headquarters for the lake, home to Angler's Marina (863-983-2128) and the famous Roland Martin Marina and Resort (863-983-3151).

Here you'll find guides, tackle, advice, boat slips, condos, boat ramps, marine services and repairs (specializing in bass boats, of course), and just about everything else you'll need to fish and vacation here.

Okeechobee is a reservoir, diked by the Corps of Engineers.

It's rimmed by a canal aptly named the Rim Canal and getting onto the main lake from some parts of the canal requires locking through any number of dam locks ringing the lake, which is always an interesting experience.

The prevailing agriculture in this part of the state is sugar cane and much of the lake is surrounded by sugar cane fields (owned by the U.S. Sugar Corporation).

Fields are harvested by burning them, so at any given time you'll see great plumes of black smoke spiraling up on the far horizon.

But you'll also see incredible bird life, fish and wildlife, and some of the prettiest lake water you'll ever fish on.

The lake itself simply takes your breath away.

Eating well, too

This area is heavily influenced, as is the rest of south Florida by the resident Cuban population.

Clewiston offers two outstanding Cuban restaurants, where you can dine cheap on fried plantain, yellow beans and rice, and main dishes like fried red snapper done Cuban-style.

This is also the Deep South, of course, which means some of the best food in the world, including fried frog legs, hush puppies, catfish, barbecue, sweet tea and key lime pie.

Fresh seafood is also part of the lifestyle here, with wonderful shrimp, oysters and crab available.

In the winter (using that term loosely because this is, after all, south Florida), it gets coolish at night and into the mid-80s in the day.

Bring a jacket for early morning bass boat runs, but the rest of the time you'll be comfortable in shorts, short-sleeve shirts and sandals.

Bring sun block, polarized sunglasses and a wide-brim hat.

Logistics

The closest main airport is West Palm Beach, about an hour away. If you fly in and rent a car, do not speed on these roads.

Clewiston's proximity to Miami and the infamous "Drug Alley" highway means lots of cops, and there are speed traps just about everywhere.

Excellent saltwater fishing is available on the coasts, particularly due west in Naples, where shallow water anglers can cast for tarpon, snook, speckled sea trout and fish offshore for cobia and shark.

Key West is approximately a 3 to 4-hour drive due south.

But the Florida coast and the Keys are devilishly expensive, while a small, inland town like Clewiston can be had for a lot less money.

Guide rates on Okeechobee, however, are a bit high, averaging $215 for a half-day and up to $350 for a full day for a worthy bass guide.

Material from Fishing & Hunting News
published 24 times a year.

Visit them at www.fishingandhuntingnews.com.