Lake Istokpoga gaining notoriety as a trophy catch locale

Some call it the “Rodney Dangerfield” of Florida bass lakes, getting little respect compared to its larger neighbors, fish-rich Okeechobee and Kissimmee. But 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga has caught a lot of anglers’ attention recently with some outstanding catches.


• The Outdoor Channel’s Major League Fishing, tournament fishing’s version of Survivor featuring 24 of the top pros in the nation, taped a show here in the middle of Hurricane Sandy’s onslaught last October. Although no one’s talking about exact weights pending the show’s airing in April, rumor has it someone released a 9.2, and there were plenty more quality bass caught that week, despite the howling winds.

• Nine Trophy Club entries – bass weighing 10 to 12.9 pounds – have been verified on the lake since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched its Trophy Catch program last October. According to FWC figures, another 17 have been verified from 8 to 9.9 pounds. The top entry was Charles Beatty’s 12.4-pounder caught Dec. 6 on an artificial lure.

• At the Bass Champions Senior Tour in early January, the winning five-bass total was 34.43 pounds, anchored by a 10.4-pounder. The Okeechobee-Istokpoga Team tournament Jan. 27 had a winning bag of 37.13 pounds, with the largest fish weighing 9.3.

• Electro-fishing the lake in late February, FWC biologists saw good numbers of 25-plus-inch fish – usually over 8 pounds – and more in the 3- to 5-pound range, according to biologist Steve Gornak. Scientists use an electric cattle-prod-like device to stun fish temporarily so they can be sampled and then released.

FWC officials say this central Florida “lunker locker” is no fluke. They credit a 2001 restoration program that drew down water levels and scraped away muck on the lake bottom, followed by regular herbicide treatments to thin out hydrilla, and mechanical removal of floating tussocks. Regulations, they say, are aimed at nurturing a trophy fishery: a three-fish daily bag limit with a 15-24-inch slot and an allowance for one fish over 24 inches.

Anthony Hunt, a member of the pro staff at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina on Lake Okeechobee in Clewiston, heard plenty of buzz about Istokpoga and checked it out late last month.

“I heard there were fish that could eat people in here,” Hunt said. “I had to come see.”

On his first visit to the Highlands County lake, Hunt and a companion caught and released about 20 bass up to 4 ½ pounds using artificial baits. They found nearly all of their fish on the west side near Lake Istokpoga Marina around mixed vegetation with lots of little fry swimming around.

The 36-year-old Tamarac pro said the bass seemed to be in all phases: pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn.

“I am impressed with how healthy the lake is,” Hunt said. “You can tell by how healthy the bass look.”

But not everyone is singing Istokpoga’s praises.

Joe Crowley, who bought Istokpoga Marina in 2002, says the FWC is over-treating with herbicides.

“If they keep treating hydrilla, they’ll destroy our lake,” Crowley said, adding that the lake used to have a good population of frogs, considered a bellwether of environmental health, but now he hardly sees any.

And bass guide/fishing columnist Dave Douglass of Avon Park wrote an article in the Highlands Today newspaper disputing FWC assertions that the number of bass larger than 8 pounds is on the rise.

Douglass cited FWC angler survey figures showing lower numbers of lunker bass reported in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons than during the 2009-10 period when 1,142 bass over 24 inches were reported by 3,014 anglers. He predicts less than 1,000 will be caught in the 2012-13 season.

But Gornak says it’s typical of bass fisheries to fluctuate from year to year, and he says the overall long-term trend is up. His boss, southwest regional fisheries administrator Bill Pouder, agrees.

“We see more trophy fish in our creel than we do with most other lakes in the state,” Pouder said. “I am cautiously optimistic that it’s going to be over 1,000 when we finish creel surveying in June.”

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