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Archive for Sunday, December 18, 2005

Fishermen bemoan brown, murky state of Lake Okeechobee

December 18, 2005

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— Mike Surman was disgusted. The Boca Raton bass pro and TV fishing show host lowered his glimmering spinnerbait an inch below the brown, murky surface of Lake Okeechobee, and the lure became invisible.

"This is the dirtiest, nastiest water you've ever seen," Surman said. "I've been fishing this lake 25 years, and I've never seen it this bad. Never."

Surman was on his first Big O fishing trip since Hurricane Wilma, on Nov. 27.

Launching his boat at a battered ramp in Clewiston, Surman bypassed the entire south end of the lake and sped 30 minutes to the north shore before finding clear water and schooling bass.

In four hours, he caught and released 15 bass of about four pounds.

But he worried that the murky waters - exacerbated by this winter's brisk northerly winds - might send organizers of high-dollar bass tournaments looking for a different venue next year.

"Without clear water, it's very hard to catch fish," he said. "In the middle of the winter with the cold fronts coming through, it's really going to be bad. I'm worried the tournament organizers won't come back here because it's so messed up."

Surman is not alone in believing the 730-square-mile lake - second-largest in the contiguous U.S. - might be in its worst-ever shape.

Since a drought coupled with a manmade drawdown in 2000-01 allowed drowned aquatic vegetation to regrow, lake levels have risen steadily, undoing the benefits of the newly created habitat.

In summer 2004, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne drove sloshing waves up to nine feet high across the lake, uprooting water plants.

Continued high water, including damage from Hurricane Wilma, destroyed the remaining vegetation, leaving bass, bluegill and crappie (speckled perch) with few places to hide, reproduce and feed.

Don Fox, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Okeechobee, said crappie catches are at their lowest level since 1973 when the species was commercially harvested.

Largemouth bass, he said, are doing better - but not much.

"We've got two to three years before there's a noticeable decline in the bass fishery," he said.

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