At one time, Florida was unquestionably the bass fishing capital of the world. Today, such claims are debatable as California, Texas, Alabama and others make a strong case for the title, both in size and numbers of bass swimming within their borders.
For decades, Florida has fought enemies on all fronts. Over-harvest of bass was a terrible culprit in the 1970s and ’80s, leading to the collapse of many small, pristine fisheries. Invasive species – most notably vegetation – have wreaked havoc on others, forcing managers to wage war against the menacing plants. Even more, the fastest human population growth since the days of the California Gold Rush isn’t helping. With more people comes a greater demand on a decreasing water supply, and more nutrients and pollutants going into those fragile sources.
As many of you know, I’m a self-admitted Florida bass geek; my fires likely started by my father and his closest friend toting me to the remote waters of the Oklawaha River at a very young age. Throughout my adulthood, I kept tabs on the best big bass lakes: Rodman, Orange, Stick Marsh and others. More recently, I had the opportunity to finally visit another leader of the pack: Istokpoga.
What a tragic letdown.
Many of you have likely been to Istokpoga, a few might have caught your largest bass there. At one time, perhaps no fishery in the state was cranking out more big fish; locals tell tales of daily 10-pounders.
But Istokpoga has changed. The water is brown. The grass is gone. No longer do schools of wild shiners skirt the edge of the maidencane, only to be swallowed in a monster surface explosion just out of reach.
No, like many Florida waters, Istokpoga is becoming a victim. Local bass fishermen blame the spray boats. Campgrounds and bait shops are going out of business.
While visiting, I received a press release announcing the state’s intention to replace native vegetation at Istokpoga through plantings of jointed spike rush and other reed-like plants. The release included the name of the area biologist in charge of talking to people like me. With the agony of local anglers fresh in my mind, I called to get an explanation.
Carly Althoff is a biological scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and she’s got a pretty tough job. The tendency of fishermen in love with a dying lake is to blame area managers, because that’s who those fishermen see out on the water, spraying plants and eliminating habitat. But, as Althoff was quick to point out, the problem at Istokpoga is more than meets the eye.
As is the case with most of Florida’s problem areas, water at Istokpoga has been harnessed by a dam, allowing levels to remain relatively constant. Doing so appeases two groups: lakefront owners and businesses interested in keeping water under their docks, and area farmers interested in keeping water on their fields. Here, in this part of Florida, those farmers drive really fancy trucks, a result of supplying the state’s 13 million tons of sugar annually, and fueling our sugar-charged society.
Back before man’s manipulation, lakes like Istokpoga and many others in Florida were allowed to fluctuate naturally. Wintertime droughts reduced levels and allowed drying of once-flooded areas, those then naturally burned free of vegetation, and sprouted again. Once refilled by summer’s rains, the lakes would recharge themselves and provide ideal fish habitat.
But all of that is gone now. Levels are constant, and the waters overloaded with nutrients. As fishermen continue to find other things to blame, I couldn’t help but notice the farm fields just a few hundred feet from the lake’s edge.
Althoff explained the chronological order of Istokpoga’s woes. Water control structures were first installed in 1962, tying the lake to a fluctuation of about 2 feet – half of what it was historically. In 1989, stakeholders around the lake met, and further hemmed in any level change to around a foot. Without natural ups and downs, muck – the result of vegetation die-offs – began to accumulate rapidly in shallow waters.
In 2001, a muck-scraping project was performed to help restore the lake. The project was grossly expensive, but results were encouraging. Following the scrape, an increase in native vegetation was noted, along with reportedly better bass fishing.
Throughout the following decade, vegetation, both wanted and unwanted, thrived in Istokpoga. Controls were in place to spray floating plants like hyacinth and particularly pesky species like water primrose, but a large variety of other cover was in place throughout the lake and offered good fishing. Hydrilla, however, began to bog things down in a few areas, most notably those in prominent boating locales.
According to Althoff, again area stakeholders (I’m taking this to mean property owners) put a plan in place that better agreed with their uses. In 2015, a hydrilla treatment was done in the north section of the lake. However, something went wrong.
Regardless of the small reported treatment area, all of Istokpoga’s hydrilla was wiped out. Althoff admits that managers have no explanation for the occurrence. I bet I could take a stab at it, but that’s not the point.
The Florida FWC hoped to see a resurgence in native vegetation after wiping out the exotic hydrilla, but that isn’t occurring as rapidly as they’d like. The plan now is to plant those grasses and hope they take.
In addition, a program is in place to again hold meetings with stakeholders to discuss the best management plan for Istokpoga’s future. Hopefully, the topic of water-level fluctuation will finally get its day in court.
After hanging up with Althoff, I contemplated her apparent love affair with this lake. In all the pointed interviews I’ve given to people of her profession, I doubt I’ve ever met anyone so convincingly passionate.
Saying goodbye to Istokpoga, I dreamt of a day when it would be returned to its natural beauty, its clear blue waters luring fishermen from around the world. Turning off the lakeside road, I passed another entrance to a monstrous U.S. Sugar facility. I rolled down my window and flipped ‘em the bird.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)