Palm Beach, Martin, Glades, Okeechobee, and Hendry counties
Lake Okeechobee is Florida's largest lake and the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous United States. The word Okeechobee comes from the Seminole Indian language "Oki" (water) and "Chubi" (big) and means "big water." These early Floridians chose the name well. Vast surface area (730 square miles), shallowness (averaging only nine feet deep) and enormous habitat diversity makes the ecosystem unique on the North American continent. The lake is a multiple-use resource, which supports valuable commercial and sport fisheries, provides flood control, and acts as a reservoir for potable and irrigation water for much of south Florida.
Lake Okeechobee is located on the south-central portion of the Florida peninsula at latitudes 27o 12'N to 26o 40'N and longitudes 81o 07'W to 80o 37'W. Major natural tributaries to the lake are Fisheating Creek, Taylor Creek and the Kissimmee River. Sheet outflow occurred historically across the entire southern rim into the Everglades. Prior to the 1900's, water quality was characterized as clear and alkaline, and bottom sediments were described as "clean sand." Levee and canal construction during the first half of the century confined the lake to a smaller area, eliminated overflow along the south shore, and facilitated back-pumping of excess water from the Everglades agricultural area into the lake. During the past 30 years, rising nutrient levels and periodic increases in the lake stage regulatory schedules have decreased habitat quality and pushed the system nearer a hyper-eutrophic and ecologically undesirable state.
Primary sources of lake water include rainfall (30%) and major tributaries, canals and runoff (70%). Evaporation accounts for 70% of water loss, with the remainder exiting through engineered outflows. High water levels are maintained from October through March (dry season), while low water levels are maintained from June through August. Shallow depth, long fetch and moderate winds combine to preclude thermal stratification. Regular mixing by wind and wave action ensures dissolved oxygen levels adequate for biological processes throughout the water column. Water temperatures average between 59o F (14o C) in January to 86o F (30o C) in August.
Lake Okeechobee is nationally recognized as supporting high quality largemouth bass and black crappie fisheries. The lake also supports a commercial fishery dominated by catfish species. However, the commercial fishery is also nationally unique in that a limited entry fishery (ten nets) exists for haul seine gear which is permitted to legally harvest and sell bluegill and redear sunfish. Freshwater fishing retail sales in the five counties surrounding Lake Okeechobee were estimated at more than $117 million during 2000. Biologically, Lake Okeechobee can successively support recreational and commercial fishery interests. Fishery management concerns on Lake Okeechobee not only require allocating available fishery resources between recreational and commercial interests, but must also be concerned with resolution of socio-political issues that result from user conflicts.
Aquatic plant communities benefit fish by providing spawning habitat, serving as refuge areas from the environment and predators, and support an intricate food web by providing nutrients for invertebrates and herbivorous fishes, which serve as forage. Despite ecological advantages provided by aquatic plants to fishes and wildlife on Lake Okeechobee, controversy over management of vegetation continues among federal and state agencies with regulatory authority for aquatic plant management, water quality and supply, flood control, and fish and wildlife management.
Changes in water level and differences in plant community structural complexity and water quality within vegetation communities exert the greatest effect on fish distribution in the littoral zone of Lake Okeechobee. Historically, bulrush has yielded the highest average numbers for total fish and game fish in block net sampling conducted on Lake Okeechobee. Importance of bulrush as habitat for adult game fishes has long been recognized by fisheries biologists, and bulrush is frequently planted during lake restoration and habitat enhancement projects.
Submersed vegetation types provide important habitat for forage fish, such as minnows shiners, and small bream. A positive relationship between hydrilla and production of juvenile game fish and forage fish has been documented by fisheries biologists. Dominant fish species abundance estimates for hydrilla, eelgrass, and Illinois pondweed (peppergrass) were similar, which indicates equivalent habitat value for these vegetation types.
The hurricanes on Lake Okeechobee during 2004 (particularly Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne) caused brief high water level surges to over 18 feet and, together with high winds, had a devastating effect on many plant communities. From the constant beating of high wind and waves, thousands of acres of plants such as bulrush, peppergrass, eelgrass and hydrilla were uprooted or broken off. Plants near the bottom or in protected areas were subjected to die-off from little or no sunlight reaching them as a result of highly turbid water over a long period of time.
The drought starting in 2006 that struck much of the state of Florida, lowered the lake level to an all-time record of 8.82 ft. msl (July 2007). Periods of drought have occurred on Lake Okeechobee about every ten years. The drought actually helped by allowing most of the emergent vegetation that was lost to be replaced by new plants. After Tropical Storm Fay (August 2008), when water levels rose quickly (luckily not too fast to damage new vegetation), thousands of acres of new bulrush, spikerush and other desirable emergent plants covered old established areas as well as many new areas where vegetation had not been in recent memory. Submerged vegetation such as peppergrass, eelgrass and hydrilla also returned. With the return of vegetation, many aquatic insect populations also increased, providing a food source for bait fish (such as minnows and shad). With this renewed food source and resurgence in vegetative habitat, many fish have had large spawns since Tropical Storm Fay, causing fisherman to see an increase of many game species. Future years should continue to see an increase in size and numbers of fish populations provided the habitat and food base also continues to improve.
Bass less than 18 inches must be released; however you may only keep one fish over 22 inches. The bag limit remains the same, at five.
Black crappie (Speck) under 10 inches must be released. The bag limit is the same, at 25.
Links for more fishing info:
Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters 800-284-BIGO (2446) or www.fishokeechobee.com
Garrard Tackle Shop 800-600-3474 (FISH).
For Crappie, Bluegill, and Shellcracker fishing contact: Marshall Shockley at 863-763-0466
A recreational guide in PDF format is available courtesy of the South Florida Water Management District . Also see Real-time water level info from the USGS gage at Buckhead Lock.
Fishhound also offers a fishing forecast for Lake Okeechobee .
Lake Okeechobee water levels will continue to rise through fall and winter after having a hotter and drier than normal summer season. By the end of August and into September, remnants of Tropical systems Erika and Grace brought plenty of rain to the area which drove lake levels up. Predicted El Niño conditions will result in above average rainfall and warmer temperatures during the typically dry winter months. The current water level on Lake Okeechobee as of September 15, 2015 is 13.88 ft. NGVD, which is just over half a foot lower than last year. The lake level has increased almost a foot and a half within the last month.
Fishermen are reporting excellent catch rates and sizes for largemouth bass. These catch rates should remain steady as more habitat is made available with rising waters. Continue to look for edge habitats, such as when vegetation ends or changes types. Bass inhabit these areas as a way to better ambush prey while hiding in the shadows. Try topwater plugs, crank baits, and spinner baits in the grass flats, and plastic worms, senkos, flukes, and flipping jigs in the heavier cover. Golden shiners are the best live bait for largemouth bass.
Don’t forget to register your eight pound and larger bass with TrophyCatch! We are in the third year of our TrophyCatch program and it is growing quickly. Register your Okeechobee trophy bass so you can say “My trophy swims in Florida,” and earn gift cards and other prizes.
Black crappie (speck) fishing will begin to pick up closer to the months of November and December. Fishing in the Kissimmee River will be best during times the river is flowing, especially after cold fronts. Angling effort should be concentrated near the edges of vegetation stands. The best angling will occur early and late in the day. Use the usual fishing techniques for crappie throughout this time. Minnows should be suspended at various depths to locate schools. Jig fishing is most productive, as you can cover a great deal more area. The secret to successful crappie fishing is to move often, until you locate a school.
Bluegill and redear fishing has been particularly good, with many fishermen catching their limits for the day. Many of these fish wrapped up the spawning season earlier this summer, but you can still find them in the marsh vegetation. You can find many bluegill and redear together in areas such as this. Beetle-spins, grass shrimp, red worms, and crickets are the preferred baits for bluegill.