Although it’s almost summer, bass are still spawning in Lake Okeechobee, which is making for some thrilling fishing.
After all, you’d realistically hope to catch fish weighing 8 or more pounds on the Big O from December to March, which is the peak of the spawning season. Having a giant largemouth swim off with your soft-plastic jerkbait or smash your topwater plug on days when the temperatures are in the mid-80s is unexpected, but it’s been happening more often than not.
During the recent Glades County Sportswriters Invitational, two 8-plus-pounders were caught, weighed and released fishing out of the Harney Pond Canal boat ramps, along with a number of 4- and 5-pounders, in an area known as the Monkey Box on the west side of the lake. The weekend before, the winning stringer in a 100-boat tournament was five bass weighing 38 pounds, which is a 7.6-pound average. Four other anglers had stringers weighing 30 or more pounds.
No one knows if the great bass fishing is due to the effects of Hurricane Irma last September, which had the lake’s water level at 17.2 feet on Oct. 14, 2017, or the lack of certain types of vegetation such as Kissimmee grass and peppergrass, but anglers don’t really care. They’re too busy catching fish.
“Usually this time of year we’re dealing with the shad spawn in the Kissimmee grass,” said Capt. Scott Kerslake of Okeechobee Just 4 Bass Guide Service, referring to the small baitfish that bass love to eat. “High water and Kissimmee grass don’t necessarily mix. To get the Kissimmee grass and hydrilla to grow back, the lake level needs to be 11 feet. [The level was 14.08 feet on Thursday.]
“The shad spawn has been delayed. The grass will eventually grow back, it’ll just grow back slower. The spraying of herbicides [to rid the lake of vegetation such as water hyacinths] doesn’t help.”
Until then, Kerslake will continue to do the bulk of his fishing in the Monkey Box, which is a brief boat ride from the mouth of the Harney Pond Canal and has had some of the clearest water in the lake. Kerslake said bass have been spawning in the shallow area, which has lily pads, slender reeds known as buggy whips and scattered hydrilla and Kissimmee grass.
Kerslake’s most productive lures the past month and a half have been a Spro popping frog, a Heddon Zara Spook topwater plug, a Zoom Fluke soft-plastic jerkbait and a Yamamoto Senko plastic stick worm. When he fishes tournaments — Kerslake said he caught 28 pounds in that recent event to barely make the top 10 — he flips around the reeds and in the thicker vegetation with a 1-ounce Gambler Jigzilla with a plastic creature bait on the jig’s hook.
“This lake makes me look good,” Kerslake said. “There’s a load of fish in here.”
Capt. Ralph Allen and I met up with Kerslake after some hot coffee and freshly made egg sandwiches for breakfast at Beck’s Food Store, which is a few hundred yards from the boat ramp. Less than 10 minutes after Allen, an old friend who runs the King Fisher Fleet in Punta Gorda, which does sightseeing and fishing trips in Charlotte Harbor, and I got into Kerslake’s 20-foot Ranger bass boat, we were fishing on a flat in the Monkey Box.
Allen was throwing a black Spro frog on a baitcasting outfit with 50-pound braided line. Kerslake set me up with a Fluke on a baitcaster spooled with 20-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon line, which is invisible in the water.
“You get all these trolling motors on this flat,” Kerslake said, looking at the boats moving around us with their electric motors, “and you’ll catch more fish with fluorocarbon. The trolling motor stirs up the water.”
He rigged the Fluke with a 16th-ounce worm sinker 12-16 inches above the jerkbait. The weight was kept in place by two rubber bobber stops. It was kind of like a split shot or Carolina rig, with the Fluke floating above the sinker on the bottom.
Kerslake said the slower you can fish the rig, the better.
“If you think you’re fishing it slowly,” he said, “slow it down some more.”
I fished it slowly enough to catch four bass, ranging from 1-1.6 pounds, before landing an egg-laden 5.38-pounder.
Allen caught a bass on a Senko, then went back to the frog, which, after dozens of casts, produced a fish over 4 pounds. Later, hoping to catch some bluegills, Allen switched to his 4-pound ultralight spinning outfit and a 16th-ounce Johnson Beetle Spin and caught three bass, each around 1 pound.
Meanwhile, Kerslake threw a Zara Spook all day and finally caught and released several chunky bass in the afternoon.
“You don’t get a lot of bites on a Spook, but you usually catch bigger fish,” said Kerslake, who grew up fishing in Gainesville — both of his parents were Fine Arts professors at the University of Florida — and became a Lake Okeechobee fishing guide 10 years ago after serving for 30 years in the United States Marine Corps.
“I’ll incorporate a lot more flipping from June through September. Usually we’re dealing with a strong shad spawn until 7:30 in the morning and I’ll use a half-ounce swim jig with a white trailer. Then I’ll flip the buggy whips and cattails … wherever you can get the bite.”
If you go
Here are places to launch your boat, stay and eat when fishing Lake Okeechobee:
▪ Moore Haven has a beautiful and relatively new boat ramp just off U.S. Highway 27, with no launch fees and free parking. Cold drinks, snacks and tackle are available at the ramp from Robert Power of Power Guide Service (863-677-4996).
▪ The Harney Pond Canal boat ramps off Highway 78 in Lakeport also are free to use with free parking. Beck’s Food Store (863-946-1622) is close buy and, besides breakfast and lunch, has drinks, snacks and fishing tackle.
▪ The Lakeport Lodge (863-946-2020) is on the other side of Beck’s Food Store. Popular with anglers and duck hunters, it has low rates and not many amenities. An upgraded lodging option is Northlake Estates (863-946-0700), about 2 miles south of Harney Pond Canal on Highway 78.
▪ Dining options include Josiah, a full-service restaurant that features great steaks at the Seminole Casino in Brighton. What began as a hardware store and beauty salon on the Brighton Reservation was transitioned into a bingo hall in 1980 by tribal member and rodeo cowboy Josiah Johns, whom the restaurant is named for. The current casino opened in 2000. As Johns’ granddaughter McKenzie Bowers said, “We’re the smallest Seminole property, but we have the biggest growth year after year. … We helped build the Hard Rock [in Hollywood].”
▪ Café Twenty Seven in Moore Haven serves lunch six days a week plus dinner on Thursdays and Fridays and has delicious chicken fingers.