Here’s what happened when a major state wildlife agency celebrated a milestone anniversary on April Fools’ Day: the wildlife itself played its own April Fools joke. And it was a great one. …
Great Speck-ulation on Lake Okeechobee
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
[Lakeport, FL.–] It won’t be too long before scores of pontoon boats lit up like the Fourth of July and festooned with a porcupine-like array of telescoping fishing rods will crowd northern Lake Okeechobee most nights.
Late fall through early spring is considered the height of the black crappie, or speckled perch season on the Big O. But here’s a news flash to all the snowbirds arriving on the first cold fronts aiming to catch a limit of specks: the fish have been here for months now. A couple savvy locals have been catching their limit of 25 less than a mile from the boat ramp at Harney Pond Canal in Lakeport.
“The biggest myth is that you can only catch them in winter,” said captain Steve Daniel, a veteran guide and tournament champion. “This summer, I caught a lot of them on Rat-L-Traps and jerkbaits the same places I caught bass.”
Daniel acknowledges it’s a bit harder to catch specks during warm days than at night, especially if water levels are high. That’s because the fish tend to stick to heavy cover under bright conditions and there are thousands of acres of vegetation — bulrush, Kissimmee grass, hydrilla and lily pads– where they hide.
At night, however, crappie can be lured away from their hideouts into open water by anglers lighting up their vessels and drawing hordes of minnows that the fish love to eat. With enough rods hanging off the boat, a pair of fishermen can bag a limit of 50 in just a couple of hours in hot spots such as the mouth of the Kissimmee River, Harney Pond Canal, the Rim Canal, and Fisheating Bay–especially near an area dubbed the “Monkey Box”.
A nighttime fiesta requires a bucket full of Missouri minnows, available at just about any bait and tackle shop around the lake. Anglers thread them onto a small jig head of 1/8- to 1/16- ounces or on a light wire #4 hook weighted with a split shot. They arrange their 15-foot rods or cane poles in holders in the gunwales so that the tips are low to the surface. When the rod tip dips into the water, they know they have a bite. The rods don’t have reels; fish are simply lifted into the boat.
“It’s not rocket science,” Daniel chuckled.
Day-specking with artificial lures requires a bit more finesse. Like black bass, crappie tend to follow a pattern, Daniel said, which means they’ll stick to a particular kind of cover and a certain depth, rarely hugging the bottom. Anglers need to cover a lot of ground with their electric trolling motors, prospecting in holes in various stands of vegetation with long limber rods. It’s a lot like flipping for bass, except there’s no reel. A length of 20-to-30-pound monofilament matched to the water depth is simply tied to the eye catch of the rod and threaded through the guides.
For lures, Daniel recommends jigs– small bucktails, tube jigs or twister tails. For clear water, he favors white; in dingy water, he chooses yellow, chartreuse, or even black (because it creates a shadow).
The reward will be a cooler full of tasty, but not very big fish. Daniel said two-pounders are not very common on the Big O; the state record for the species is three pounds, 13 1/4 ounces caught in Lake Talquin near Tallahassee in 1992.
But the good news from biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is that Lake O specks are getting bigger. The species took a big hit from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, but catch rates have been on the rise for the past eight years or so. Sampling conducted by biologists has shown larger, older fish each year. With last year’s bountiful shad spawn, numbers and size could continue to increase.
Back to the most important part: eating. Most anglers fillet and fry their specks; the health-conscious use olive oil. Or you could just take them to Tin Fish in Okeechobee to have them cooked for you with a couple of sides. Fresh and delicious no matter what.
` Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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