CLEWISTON -- Florida’s new TrophyCatch bass incentive program has been under way for about 2 1/2 weeks, with prizes being upped and added by the day.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its industry partners are rewarding anglers for catching, documenting and releasing big largemouth bass so that others may repeat that enjoyable process. The aim is to gather information on the sizes and distribution of “hawgs” in the Sunshine State’s lakes, ponds, canals and rivers so they can be managed effectively. Anglers can register for free at TrophyCatchFlorida.com, but they must have a valid Florida freshwater fishing license.
TrophyCatch targets bass heavier than 8 pounds. Fish weighing from 8 to 9.9 pounds are eligible for the Lunker Club. Fish from 10 to 12.9 pounds are entered in the Trophy Club. The angler simply catches the fish, shoots a photo with the fish on a scale and another with a tape measure, lets it go and reports it online. Bass heavier than 13 pounds caught between now and April 30 must be kept alive and certified in-person by an FWC staffer. The angler would be eligible for the Hall of Fame Club.
Prizes include gift cards, fishing gear and replica mounts. Phoenix Boats will award a boat and trailer to an angler randomly selected from the registration list, whether or not he or she catches a fish. The year’s biggest bass will earn a Super Bowl-style ring. If it is caught in Osceola County, the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau will pay the angler $10,000 and reward the fishing guide (if there is one) with $2,500. Other prizes might be added as private sponsors come on board.
Surprisingly, as of last week, no one had entered a fish from Lake Okeechobee, which, despite a high-water level of more than 15 feet and rising, is yielding plenty of bass 8 pounds and up.
“We don’t catch 13-pounders down here, but we catch a lot of 8-to-10-pounders — probably more than any place in the country,” said veteran Lake O bass guide and tournament pro Steve Daniel of Clewiston.
Daniel recently completed shooting separate TV fishing shows with B.A.S.S. Elite Series pros Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville (Sportsman’s Channel) and Byron Velvick of South Texas (Outdoor Channel). Grigsby caught two 7-pounders flipping lures near Clewiston and South Bay. Velvick caught nearly 70 bass, including an 8-pounder, using spinnerbaits amid rainy weather near Lakeport.
“The fishing was incredible,” Daniel said.
Water levels in the big lake have risen dramatically from August’s drenching Tropical Storm Isaac, followed by more recent heavy rains. Daniel said the bass responded accordingly.
“As soon as the water started coming up, the fish started migrating toward the grass,” he said. “People think the water’s getting higher and higher and the fish will keep migrating further in where it’s shallow. But the fish are all within 150 yards of the outside edge because there’s a good food source for them.”
Daniel said bass are eating shiners, gizzard shad and small bluegill.
Because the lake is so large at more than 700 square miles, the bass do not all spawn at the same time, he said. However, some are expected to spawn with the first full moon of November, he said, and they likely will move inshore. But there will always be some fish in a pre-spawn or post-spawn mode to catch.
Although Daniel said he empathizes with anglers in the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River, which are on the receiving ends of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to lower lake levels, the high water does have an up side.
“The lake being a little higher gives better access to places,” he said. “Our visitors can run anywhere they want to run without tearing their boats up.”
Daniel, who has been guiding anglers on the lake since the 1980s, said water levels are bound to come down as South Florida gets further into the dry season. He believes the bass fishing will be even better than last winter, which was epic.
“It’s hard to call it work when you take people fishing on the best bass lake in the world,” he said. “And it’ll be better this year.”