LAKE PANASOFFKEE — Evan Merritt is an optimist. The Sumter County native was confident he'd find at least one bright spot among the grass beds of this 5,000-acre lake before the storm clouds cut our recent fishing trip short.
"It would be a lot easier if the sun was out," the lifelong angler said. "These shellcrackers can be a little hard to find."
About a dozen boats were anchored along a quarter-mile stretch of shoreline, each one near a patch of exposed lake bottom.
"That's where they nest," Merritt said of the bream. "The shinier the bottom, the more active the nest."
In its heyday, Lake Panasoffkee was one of Florida's top bass fishing lakes. But over the decades, nutrients from agricultural runoff and leaking septic tanks choked the lake with weeds.
But a $30 million restoration project by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and local governments helped bring back much of the lake's former glory. That's why Saturday the lake community is hosting the General Sumter Panfish Challenge, a one-day tournament that showcases Panasoffkee's stellar bluegill and shellcracker fishing.
Florida has more than 7,000 named lakes and ponds, and many are brimming with "bream," which is the common term used throughout the South to describe the various types of sunfish.
The most common species are the bluegill, redear sunfish (also called shellcrackers) and the redbreast sunfish (sometimes called stumpknockers). Technically, the black bass is a member of the sunfish family, but it is never referred to as a "bream."
Panasoffkee has its share of big bass as well. Just stop by Jim Veal's Pana Vista Lodge to learn about the whoppers that have been taken out of the lake over the years.
And starting this weekend, there will be one big, fat and expensive bass swimming around Lake Panasoffkee. An 11-pound largemouth named General Sumter, tagged by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has been set loose in the lake. If an angler catches this trophy bass between Saturday and April 30, 2014, that person will win $10,000.
But "The General" isn't the only fish worth something. The FWC has tagged more than 150 fish that have been released into the lake, each worth different prize values. Nine of these fish, in addition to General Sumter, have specific names: Lieutenant Pan, Admiral Amos, Sergeant Shellcracker, Colonel Crappie and Captain Coleman.
If you're planning to fish for bream this weekend, the bite has been consistent since April, when the fish moved onto their beds to spawn. The redear sunfish prefer hard bottom and are usually found in deeper water than bluegill. Redear sunfish like snails and freshwater clams, and they tend to grow larger than bluegill, with fish weighing more than 1 pound not uncommon.
In case you're wondering, the state record is 4.86 pounds, but if you catch one 12 inches long and weighing 2 1/4 pounds you could qualify for the state's "Big Catch" program.