Lake Okeechobee Bass and Crappie Fisheries Explode

Youth angler holding a Lake Okeechobee trophy bass

Anglers of all ages are enjoying the resurgence in Okeechobee bass and crappie.

Among the objectives set by the Black Bass Management Plan in 2011 was the need to work cooperatively with other agencies to prioritize the importance of recreational fisheries. An example of where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has pursued this philosophy is on Lake Okeechobee. The second largest lake entirely in the U.S. (470,000 acres), the “Big O,” is experiencing a tremendous recovery from habitat loss that resulted in a major fishery decline in the mid 2000’s. At that time the combination of sustained high waters followed by several hurricanes reduced the vegetation community and increased turbidity.

According to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the coverage of submerged aquatic vegetation in northern and western marshes reached a low of less than 5,000 acres in 2006. This valuable fisheries habitat has since rebounded to 30,000 to 50,000 acres (depending on water level). This recovery was accomplished through cooperative efforts of local citizens groups, SFWMD, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the FWC. The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule was changed to benefit the ecology of the lake. The current regulation schedule should continue to provide abundant native vegetation, both submerged and emergent and sustain excellent sport fish habitat. The FWC continues to work with partners to develop and implement projects to enhance native vegetation to maintain high quality bass and crappie populations.

The most recent angler survey showed continued high levels of success for largemouth bass and black crappie. Largemouth bass catch rates over the past two years were some of the highest since the survey began on the “Big O” in 1977. Angler effort to catch largemouth bass increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2012 and was the highest since 2000. Catch rates for crappie, 2.14 fish per hour, were the highest since 2005 and were comparable to the Lake Okeechobee’s peak performance years of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This year, an estimated 135,519 crappie over 10 inches were harvested from the surveyed portion of the lake.

From July 2011 through June 2012, 119 bass over 8 pounds were caught in tournaments on Lake Okeechobee. Bassmaster Elite Series Power-Pole Slam and the FLW Lake Okeechobee Open both reported anglers with winning weights topping the 100-pound mark for their four–day live-release tournaments, each has a five-bass per day limit. During the first Bassmaster Elite Series event ever on Lake Okeechobee, the Power-Pole Slam winner brought in 108 pounds, 5 ounces.  For the second consecutive year, the FLW Lake Okeechobee Open topped 100 pounds after setting the tour’s tournament record last year with a four-day weight of 106 pounds, 10 ounces. These tournaments not only provide enjoyment to anglers and spectators, but also have a significant positive economic impact on local communities. Positive publicity from tournaments such as these that are widely televised and reported is important to tourism for years to come.

Through cooperative efforts of Lake Okeechobee stakeholders, the recovery of the aquatic habitat and prey base communities has stimulated a tremendous response in the bass and crappie fisheries. By continuing these cooperative partnerships, the “Big O” should continue to provide high quality angling experiences for anglers for several years.

For more information, contact biologist Corey Lee, 863-462-5190; Corey.Lee@MyFWC.com.



FWC Facts:
Scientists can determine the age of a fish by counting growth rings, similar to growth rings of a tree, on otoliths, the “inner ear bones” of fish.

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