Clouds covered the normally blue Florida sky, and the wind had kicked up a chop that would have kept most sensible folks at home.
But Steve Jarrett and his buddies in the North Tampa Bass Club had driven all the way to Lake Kissimmee for their regular, monthly tournament and, by golly, they was going to catch a fish.
"We really look forward to these events," Jarrett said. "A little competition makes fishing all that much more fun."
Like many freshwater anglers, the 54-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran from Valrico had watched his share of fishing shows and read every bass fishing magazine he could find. He knew that he was good, but how good? Now that was the question.
"So I went on the Internet and googled Tampa Bay area bass clubs," he said. "I found these guys and have been fishing with them ever since."
That was six years ago. Today, Jarrett is the club president. But that doesn't mean his fellow anglers give him any slack, especially on tournament day. The competition is fierce, especially on a lake such as Kissimmee, which consistently ranks as one of the state's best.
'Tis the season
Florida has nearly 2 million anglers and more world records than any other state or country. But while the saltwater fishing has become one of the mainstays of the state's tourism industry, it was Florida's 7,700 lakes that first put it on the world sportfishing map.
The state's first serious anglers, wealthy sportsmen from the Northeast and Midwest, came for Florida's fabled largemouth bass that grow bigger and fatter than any other species of bass, primarily because of the state's year-round growing season.
This much-lauded bucketmouth, Micropterus salmoides floridanus, was originally found only on the Florida peninsula, but in recent decades, this species has been introduced in Texas, California and as far away as Japan.
Females live longer than males and are more likely to reach trophy size, which is generally considered to be 10 pounds or larger. The state record is 17 pounds, 4 ounces, and though heavier bass have been documented, they were not certified, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
March is usually peak time for bass fishing in Central Florida, but an unusually mild winter has triggered an early spawn.
"We started seeing bass on the beds in January," Jarrett said. "We are right in the middle of the breeding season."
Jarrett and his bass club picked Lake Kissimmee, just east of Lake Wales, for a reason. The catch rate (fish per hour) is usually better here than on most Florida lakes.
This Central Florida hotspot is actually the largest section of five distinct bodies of water on the legendary Kissimmee River. The lake covers more than 35,000 acres, so an angler can spend years fishing this body of water and never get bored.
Another popular destination for bass club members and other tournament anglers is Lake Tohopekaliga, or Lake Toho for short, which is just south of Orlando in Kissimmee. It is a frequent stop for the pro bass tours.
In 2001, this lake made international news when tournament pro Dean Rojas set a Bass Anglers Sportsman Society record by weighing and releasing 108 pounds, 12 ounces of bass during one tournament. During the four days of fishing, anglers caught and released 21 bass that weighed 10 pounds or more.
But one of the best bass lakes in Florida is located right here: Palm Harbor's 2,500-acre Lake Tarpon has consistently ranked among the state's best despite its suburban setting.
Catch of a lifetime
When Jarrett saw the weather report last Saturday, he didn't think he'd be fishing, let alone catching.
"It was really stormy," he said.
Still, he hit the water before dawn, and at first light he started working his buzz bait over a patch of hydrilla in 4 feet of water. At 7:15 a.m., he felt a bump, then the distinctive strike of a big largemouth bass.
The fish weighed in at 8 pounds, 12 ounces, helping him to victory in the tournament. It was also a new entry in Jarrett's own record book.
"It was my personal best … the largest bass I ever caught," he said. "I'll remember that fish as long as I live."