Drought pays impressive benefits for Lake Okeechobee anglers

The sleek, brown otter slid off the grassy bank of Lake Okeechobee, dived briefly underwater and quickly emerged with a struggling fish in its jaws. An alligator lurked nearby, watching the otter eat its prey, but did nothing - probably because it already was full.

When the otter had finished its meal, it went down again and soon came up with another fish to eat.

That's about how easy it is for people to catch largemouth bass on the Big O these days, with water levels near all-time lows. Although weeds are growing in marina slips, boat ramps drop off into shallow mud puddles and anglers need GPS, depth-finder and paper charts to go fishing, there might be no better time to hook the hawg of your dreams.

"It's been really good," said Harlan Griggs, a tournament fisherman and sales and service manager for Roland Martin Marine Center. "Lake Okeechobee is getting a bad rap because the water's low. Navigation is tough, but if you hire a guide, they are coming in every day and somebody's got one 6, 7, 8 pounds."

Now at about nine feet above sea level, the big lake is a bit higher than last month's all-time low of 8.88 feet. Boat ramps are open at Clewiston, Moore Haven and the city of Okeechobee, but anglers must use extreme caution when launching and recovering. Navigation is tricky because shell islands and rock reefs that were submerged now stick far above the surface.

Anglers not intimately familiar with the lake are sticking to the rim canals, which are getting a lot of fishing pressure because they still hold plenty of water. But Griggs said if you pay attention to what's going on around you, you can find plenty of fish on the main lake.

"Look for deeper water," he said. "If you get a deep channel, you've probably got current. If you get current, you get bait. The fish are going to follow the bait that runs back and forth across the sand flats in a foot and a half of water."

As if to demonstrate, Griggs used his bass boat's trolling motor to head to the edge of the ship channel outside the Clewiston locks. Casting a lipless green shiner crankbait up onto the flat, he hooked and lost a bass around 4 pounds.

Despite the mid-morning heat, shad splashed and jumped all around Griggs' boat. Several times, his lure became snagged on the rocky bottom.

When casts of crank- and spinnerbaits did not produce more fish, he switched to a 10-inch, junebug-colored Wave Worm. A 2-pound bass gobbled the bait, and he reeled it in.

"It's snaking along real slow," he said of the worm's action. "The bass aren't real aggressive; they're just not chasing bait. The worm, as slow as it is, stays in front of them longer, and they can swim over to it and pick it up."

Griggs said Florida's long-standing drought "hurts the businesses, but it helps the lake."

Large green meadows of Kissimmee grass and bulrush line both sides of the channel near where Griggs was fishing.

As the drought lessens and the lake refills, the new vegetation will provide food and shelter for bass, bluegill and other fish. Another plus from the drought, Griggs said, is that commercial bluegill fishermen can no longer ply their nets, leaving more forage for bass.

The South Florida Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are taking advantage of the dry conditions to remove nearly two million cubic yards of phosphorus-laden muck from the lake bottom.

Scraping the muck away exposes sand-and-gravel bottom where fish build spawning beds. Native vegetation - such as tape grass, bulrush, and spike rush - are expected to grow along the newly revealed sandy shoreline.

Workers have planted 1,000 native pond apple and cypress trees on the rim canal and spoil islands near Clewiston. Another 1,725 trees were planted near Moore Haven.

Don Fox, the FWC's longtime biological administrator in Okeechobee, is keeping his fingers crossed that the restorative benefits of the drought will not be reversed by hurricane deluges or human intervention.

Going into this dry period, Fox said, gamefish populations were at or near all-time lows.

Species such as bass and crappie, or speckled perch, had begun to rebound from habitat restoration during the last drought in 2001. But then the lake filled up too quickly, he said, drowning the vegetation and scattering fish.

Prolonged high water levels of between 15 and 18 feet combined with the hurricanes of 2004-05, made a bad situation worse.

"What we don't need is sustained high water we had in the late 1990s," Fox said. "If we get up in the 13s in October, the lake will be good. The vegetation comes back. But if a hurricane comes and rips everything up, then all bets are off."