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Florida: Land of the lunkers

Florida has roughly 2 million anglers. About another 1 million out-of-state anglers also fish here every year. With more than 700 world records to its credit — more than any other state or country — Florida can honestly claim the title of "Fishing Capital of the World."

But while saltwater fishing may get most of the attention, it was Florida's trademark species that first put the state on the international sportfishing map. March is peak time for bass fishing in Florida, and the odds of catching a "trophy" — a fish 10 pounds or larger — are good.

Largemouth bass

Many believe that Florida's largemouth bass is a distinct species; others think it merely a subspecies. But the debate is academic. No one disputes that Florida's fish grow bigger and fatter than any other species of bass. One reason is a year-round growing season; warm water and ample vegetation make for big bass.

Micropterus salmoides floridanus were once found only on the Florida peninsula, but they have since been introduced in Texas, California and as far away as Japan. Females live longer than males and are more likely to reach trophy size. Most conservation-minded anglers release large, breeding fish.

Regulations may vary from lake to lake. For a complete list of current rules, go to MyFWC.com.

With more than 7,700 named lakes, Florida has no shortage of places to catch the state's freshwater fish, largemouth bass. Here are some of the spots to consider putting on your bass fishing list:

Lake Tarpon

One of the best bass fishing lakes in Florida is located right in the middle of a major metropolitan area and is easily accessible. While Lake Tarpon may be in state's most densely populated county, it has miles of wild shoreline brimming with bass. The 2,500-acre lake, located in Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, has consistently ranked among the state's best despite its suburban setting.

Lake Tohopekaliga

Located just south of Orlando in Kissimmee, Lake Tohopekaliga, or Lake Toho for short, is a frequent stop on the professional bass fishing tours. In 2001, this lake made international news when angler Dean Rojas set a Bass Anglers Sportsman Society record by weighing and releasing 108 pounds of bass in during a tournament. During the four days of fishing, anglers caught and released 21 bass that weighed 10 pounds or more.

Lake George

Central Florida definitely has its share of good bass fishing lakes, but few have more history than this 46,000-acre body of water, north of Orlando between DeLand and Ocala, one of several great bass lakes on the St. Johns River. In the 1800s, steamboats carrying passengers up "The River of Lakes" first introduced bass fishing to international sportsmen.

Lake Kissimmee

Another Central Florida hotspot with a worldwide reputation is Lake Kissimmee near Lake Wales, the largest section of five distinct bodies of water on the legendary Kissimmee River. Lake Kissimmee covers 35,000 acres, so an angler can spend decades fishing this lake and never see the whole thing. The catch rate (fish per hour) is usually better here than most Florida lakes. Large stands of vegetation make Kissimmee a favorite lake for "flippin' " plastic worms.

Lake Istokpoga

A large — 28,000 acres — yet relatively shallow lake — an average of just 6 feet deep — Istokpoga, just outside of Lake Placid, is another "big number" bass lake in the Kissimmee Chain. Several years ago, a late-spring fishing trip to Istokpoga went down in my personal record book after every cast seemed to result in a strike. The lake has two large islands — Big Island and Bumblebee — which make this a particularly scenic and productive spot.

Stick Marsh

The 16,500 acres of flooded farmland near Fellsmere in southeast Florida has thousands of submerged tree stumps and ample vegetation, which give fish plenty of places to hide. So this makes "the hunt" all the more enjoyable for bass aficionados. The Stick Marsh/Farm 13 complex regularly makes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's "Top 10 Florida Lakes" list. Stick Marsh is strictly catch-and-release, another reason the fishing is so good

Lake Weohyakapka

A small yet popular lake east of Lake Wales, Weohyakapka, also known as "Lake Walk-In-Water," covers just 7,500 acres but has a reputation for producing amazing catches. It is not unheard of for an angler to catch 25 fish in one day.

Suwannee River

If you are looking for a change of pace, consider the Suwannee, the tea-colored river that starts in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp. While Florida may be known for its largemouth, the state has other species of black bass, the most famous being the Suwannee bass. This thick-bodied fish doesn't get much larger than 12 inches, but pound-for-pound, it packs a punch equal to or greater than the largemouth.

Rodman Reservoir

This legendary spot is near Palatka, and since its construction in 1968, it has consistently been one of Florida's top trophy bass lakes. Like Stick Marsh, Rodman's submerged tree stumps provide "cover" for bass during their life cycle.

FAST FACTS

If you go

Timing: The largemouth bass has a reputation as a "tackle buster." Florida's fabled "bucketmouth" will attack just about anything — minnows, frogs, even baby ducks. If you are planning a trip, spring is the best time to hunt trophy bass. The season starts earlier in South Florida. March and April are peak months in Central Florida. As summer approaches, the fishing improves in North Florida.

Bait: Most anglers go with either the golden shiner or the wild shiner, a thick-bodied baitfish found in most Florida lakes. When it comes to artificial lures, the plastic worm is probably the most widely used bait. The color is a matter of choice, but a general rule is the darker the better.

Licenses: The first 3,000 anglers to purchase a five-year freshwater fishing license after March 1 will automatically receive a free bonus package in the mail containing lures, coupons and other goodies. Instant licenses are available at MyFWC.com or toll-free at 1-888-347-4356. Visit www.myfwc.com/fishing for "Fish Busters" columns and tips.

Terry Tomalin,

Times Outdoors Editor

Florida: Land of the lunkers 03/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 8:52pm]

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