CLEWISTON -- A vexing South Florida paradox: Coral Springs angler Tim Feller celebrating his $9,800 tournament win with 10 bass totaling 41 pounds in two days on Lake Okeechobee at the same time angry residents of downstream Stuart are protesting fish kills and algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon.
With water levels in the Big O at around 16 feet above sea level — more than a foot higher than average for this time of year — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing millions of gallons per day into the St. Lucie River estuary to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west to ease pressure on the aging dike surrounding the lake.
Residents on the receiving end of the muddy, brown deluge are so upset they’ve held public demonstrations and urged President Barack Obama to come see the devastation firsthand.
In sharp contrast to the plight of coastal residents, anglers on the Big O are enjoying bountiful bass fishing and a healthy ecosystem.
“I promise you: Okeechobee is the best lake in the U.S.,” said 30-year veteran bass fishing guide and tournament pro Chet Douthit of Clewiston. “High water is not bad on the fish; it’s hard on us.”
When lake levels are high, Douthit explained, bass, crappie and other fish have more territory available to find food and shelter.
“They move way back in toward the banks or out on the flats where it’s so thick you can’t go,” he said. “The lower the lake is, the more to the outside of the grass lines the fish have to stay and they’re easier to catch.”
For example, Feller’s victory in the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League Gator division super tournament Sept. 22 stemmed from flipping a green pumpkin/chartreuse Gambler tube with a one-ounce weight into the outside edge of a thin fringe of hydrilla. Two of his winning fish weighed 10 and eight pounds.
Douthit said he would prefer lower lake levels — not just for ease of catching, but to ensure healthy habitat. Prolonged high water can drown peppergrass, bulrush and other vegetation that gamefish and their prey need in order to thrive.
But regardless of the fishery, he said, the Corps has no choice about whether to release water from the lake because of the flood risk.
“This is just Mother Nature,” he said. “You got to get rid of the water. We just can’t keep holding it. When you get 10 inches of rain in two days, it’s got to go to the ocean. We have to let it go. It’s just a year we’ve got to deal with.”
That assessment is echoed by Don Fox, a 31-year veteran biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Okeechobee.
“The Army Corps doesn’t have any options,” Fox said. “I can’t throw rocks at ’em on this one. They’re doing what they can when they can.”
Fox said the big lake has been “relatively healthy” the past few years, with growing bass and crappie populations and no loss of vegetation.
Like just about everybody around the lake and downstream on both coasts, the biologist is keeping his fingers crossed that the remaining two months of the Atlantic hurricane season give Florida a break. The last thing anyone around the lake or downstream needs right now is more heavy rain.
“You’re not out of the woods in October,” Fox said. “We get a storm, we’re in trouble.”