On the Road in Bass Paradise

The story of one week, 700 miles, scores of largemouths, and a few margaritas that never tasted so sweet.

It was an idea born in a January snowstorm. Fed up with shoveling snow, I went inside, logged on to the Internet, and started checking out the perfect antidote to a severe Northern winter: a Southern bass fishing trip. The digital photos of big largemouths from Texas and Southern California that scrolled up my screen were all Florida-strain monsters. And that decided it for me. After all, what better place to catch a Florida largemouth than in Florida, where it all began?

I'd fished here and there in the state over the years, mostly along the coasts where the inshore fishing was as good as the coastal development was ugly. The main routes have been strip-malled and condo-ed into a kind of homogeneous oblivion. Not only does everything look more or less the same, but it also looks like Mountain Home, Arkansas, and Burlington, Vermont, and every other American town where any sense of place has been buried under acres of asphalt and look-alike chain stores.

Florida has about 7,800 lakes, most in its interior and most with bass. That's more than any other state south of Wisconsin. The interior, too, is home to the timber industry, the huge citrus growers, and vegetable farms and cattle ranches. There'd be some space there, I reasoned, some room where I could both fish for bass and breathe deep of the country. The fishing would be more about eyeballing a wild alligator near the boat or marveling at the grace of an egret, or so I hoped, than it would be about fighting traffic. I wanted, somehow, to get to the soul of the thing.

So I called a fishing friend, Don Lewis of Jacksonville, Florida, to suggest a bass fishing tour of Florida's heartland. Yes, he had a week off at the end of March, he said, and we worked out the lakes and the routes and the schedules amid the trials of earning our respective livings. We'd have six days on the road, hitting five major lakes in as many days. This is what we found.

Stick Marsh-Farm 13: The Wild Side After a long haul down Interstate 95 from the Jacksonville airport, Lewis and I finally pull in to a Best Western Motel west of Vero Beach on a Saturday night. I am not happy.

"I know this isn't the real' Florida you had in mind," Lewis says as he eases the boat trailer back into a spot fronting our rooms. "But it's what there is. Stick Marsh-Farm 13 is pretty remote, and there's no place closer to sleep. But don't worry. It gets better." I am exhausted from a long day's travel, and sleep the sleep of all anglers on the night before, restless and dreaming of fish.

Stick Marsh-Farm 13 has been one of the country's hottest bass lakes almost since its creation in 1987. Enclosed by levees and water-flow gates and controlled by one of Florida's several water-management districts, it covers about 6,500 acres. The Stick Marsh portion contains standing timber with numerous tree stubs just below the surface; the adjoining Farm 13 area is a flooded vegetable farm. It's all prime bass habitat, managed as catch-and-release only, and famous for double-digit largemouths.

The next morning is cool, clear, and sunny-a great day for fishing but not so great for catching. Grayer and warmer would be better. We gas up the truck and boat at yet another convenience store, grab sandwiches and bottled water for the cooler, and head west. The roads and towns both get smaller as we travel inland. Eventually we crawl over 61/2 miles of rough dirt road heading north and west through a vast expanse of fascinating nothingness. Birds suddenly abound, from the flashy white of cattle egrets to the anonymity of sparrows, and the plants and trees expand to an infinite variety. This is more like the Florida I'd hoped to see.

Finally there's water, and a boat ramp, and we're fishing. Back in a corner of the Farm 13 section, a bass nails my topwater prop bait twitched in an open alley among the hydrilla beds, and I unhook a 2-pound while keeping an eye on the alligators that dot the shoreline. Lewis scores quickly, too, with a similar-size fish on a pumpkin Zoom Trick Worm, Texas-rigged and lightly weighted.

"So, what do we got going on this?" he asks, releasing the fish with a splash.

It takes me a minute. Then I remember that Lewis is very active in local and regional bass club tournaments. "Look," I say, "I don't fish tournaments. I don't even bet. I just like to fish."

He frowns. "We've gotta have something."

"Okay, let's do this," I propose. "One drink after fishing each day. For size, not for numbers. Loser buys the round." It's his water, after all, and there's no way I'll beat him on numbers. With dumb luck, though, I might get the day's big fish.

"You're on." He laughs but starts casting harder. "C'mon, baby," he says to his plastic worm. "Get me a margarita fish."

The action in the bright sun is slow: a fish here on a worm, another there on a Rat-L-Trap, none of them very large. At last, I drop an unweighted 5-inch Senko in a hydrilla pocket, watch the line make a sharp twitch, and set the hook in what turns out to be a 41/2-pounder. I give Lewis a good look before releasing it.

Our new-lake-every-day schedule doesn't leave time for much. By nightfall, we've hauled the boat south and west to the north shore of Lake Okeechobee and checked in to another motel. Soon I'm wrapping myself around a very good steak at the Brahma Restaurant in downtown Okeechobee. The margaritas, meanwhile, cost Lewis 10 bucks, and I apologize profusely through several toasts for catching the larger fish.

Okeechobee: A Sense of Space At about 730 square miles, Lake Okeechobee is probably the world's biggest bass pond. It's very shallow-15 feet deep at most-and surrounded by marshland and weedy edges that are home to tens of thousands of bass.

This morning is clear and cool, and we've run out of the Kissimmee River mouth past an army of crappie anglers and into the main lake. Wind here can be a huge problem. With its long, open reach, it can seriously kick up the big water. Today it's blowing out of the northwest. Our 20-foot Ranger can handle the chop, but it's obvious that we'd get the crap beat out of us if we tried running to any distant hotspot. So we take a quick cut into the nearest lee shore, which happens to be Eagle Bay and Grassy Island in the northwest corner. In this huge area, there's only one other boat in sight-not bad for one of the world's best bass lakes.

One of the reasons I've buddied up with Lewis, aside from his being a good guy, is that he's a professional forester who for 17 years was the director of the forest technology program at Lake City Community College west of Jacksonville. I figured that anybody who ran a forest-ranger school for that long could tell me a lot about regional ecology. And so I learn this morning that those clumps of tall, slim reeds in the water are bulrushes (known as buggywhips) and the low, dense clumps of plants that look like lily pads stuck in the air are spatterdock. And yes, that's eelgrass under the surface in the more open water. There are some bass amid the buggywhips and eelgrass. But there are more back in the narrow channels amid the spatterdock.

Then I get a fishing lesson. One of Lewis' pet lures is a Rat-L-Trap, and he's tossing a 1/4-ounce version down the open alleys. He keeps it moving fast and shallow with a high-rod retrieve, snapping the rod sharply when he feels the lure hitting the tops of emergent hydrilla below the surface. That keeps it from clogging with weeds and simultaneously pops it into a new section of open water. He is nailing bass with this technique almost faster than I can count them. They are mostly small but bass nonetheless.

"I could switch to a bigger 1/2-ounce version," he explains, "and maybe pull a larger fish. But I'd get hung up a lot more often, and I don't know if that's worth it." He zips another cast up another small channel and nails another bass. I sit and eat a sandwich. There's a mature bald eagle soaring far off, its white head and tail distinct against a sky growing gray. Out in the main lake, a big gator cruises slowly and deliberately at the surface, heading with the wind toward some distant shore.

We still have miles to go this day, wanting to make Henderson's Fish Camp on Lake Istokpoga before dark. So, all too soon we're pulling the boat, then bumping our way north through the countless traffic lights on Florida Route 27 toward Sebring. Lewis had the margarita fish today, of which he reminds me several times as we finally pull up at Woody's BBQ in Lake Wales, which is close to home for the night. Okay, okay; I'll pay up. Ah ha! Drinks on special: 99 cents. My pay-off bar tab comes to $2.12. Lewis feels grossly gypped, but I'm all smiles.