LAKE PLACID - A state program that rewards anglers for catching, documenting and releasing largemouth bass heavier than 8 pounds had the largest number of entries from a "public resource" from Lake Istokpoga.
Forty-six bass caught on the lake near Lake Placid were entered into the TrophyCatch program during the past year, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission says. Fifteen Istokpoga bass also were entered into the BigCatch program, "further evidence of Lake Istokpoga's ability to produce trophy bass," FWC adds.
As the second season of TrophyCatch, which started Oct. 1, gets underway, the FWC is expecting a record year for entries in the incentive program and a "really good year" for bass fishing in general.
"Largemouth bass - Florida bucket-mouths - are showing up in abundance this winter, with an outstanding year projected by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists," the release states.
Fishing guide John Woods' clients have managed to haul in between 4 to 10 pound bass from Lake Istokpoga within the last couple of weeks.
"The average size of the bass (in Lake Istokpoga) is 3 to 6 pounds but there is a bunch that are 8 to 9 to 10 to 11 pounds," he added.
More than 1,000 bass over 8 pounds have been caught in less than a year's time on the lake, past angler surveys show, FWC says.
Avid fisherman Dan Echols, who caught a 10-pound-9-ounce bass in December, said the 27,692-acre lake is well known for its big bass.
"If you want to catch a really big bass, Lake Istokpoga is the place to go," he said.
Bill Pouder, FWC's South West Region Freshwater Fisheries Administrator, called last year "phenomenal" for bass fishing on the lake.
"It was one of those years you drool over as a fish biologist and an angler," he said.
Both Woods and Dan Echols believe the state's slot limits for the lake have been crucial in the prevalence of big bass.
While Istokpoga has one of the highest largemouth bass catch rates in the state, those between 15 and 24 inches have to be immediately released back.
The daily bag limit is three fish per day, and only one of the three fish can be greater than 24 inches.
"This means you may keep three bass less than 15 inches, or two bass less than 15 inches and one bass greater than 24 inches," the FWC explains.
FWC introduced the special regulations for largemouth bass on the lake in response to anglers' request who wanted a "quality fishery" on Istokpoga, Pouder said.
In place since 2000, the regulation allows anglers to keep the smaller, more abundant, primarily male largemouth bass, while protecting most adult female bass, which typically outgrow the males in size.
This increases the availability of quality and trophy bass for anglers and allows them to keep the male bass, which they prefer to eat, Pouder said.
While Pouder described the slot limits as a success, anglers also have been voluntarily catching and releasing fish over the last decade.
"People have been self-regulating themselves," he said.
That, coupled with restoration work that improved fish habitat has helped, he said.
"It's also a natural lake. It has a well-toned eco-system and good grass bed," Woods added.
While Woods has seen the size of the bass grow, the quantity of the catch has not kept up, he said.
Many years ago he could catch 60 to 100 bass a day. Now, it's more like 30 to 40.
Woods believes the lake is not getting over-fished but as "long as people do what they are supposed to do, it won't get over-fished."
Pouder does not believe that slot limit violations is a problem on Istokpoga although it may happen occasionally.
He thinks the fish are now more dispersed because they have more places to feed.
When the lake was drawn-down in 2001, officials scraped out the muck around much of the shoreline and planted aquatic vegetation to improve the fish habitat.
About 20 years ago, the bass had fewer spots to congregate, and anglers who knew what those were could haul in a big catch, he said.
"The fish are still there; they are still healthy; they are just more spread out," Pouder said.