On the Road in Bass Paradise (continued)

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

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Istokpoga: In Love With Mabel Florida’s bass fishing tradition extends as far back as naturalist William Bartram’s narratives of exploration here in the 1700s. In modern form, though, the sport didn’t take off until the growth of rail travel years after the Civil War. By the early 1900s, Florida was the bass fishing playground of such notables as James Heddon, generally credited with being the inventor of the wooden bass plug. Heddon’s first lure catalog appeared in 1902 (along with his ads in FIELD & STREAM) and featured a photograph of his son Will with a stringer of huge Florida bass.

Today the last vestiges of that history are found in the old-time fish camps common to many larger Florida lakes. I wanted to stay in just such a place on Istokpoga and had picked Henderson’s Fish Camp (863-465-2101) near Sebring at random on the Internet.

At the end of a late-day haul up from Okeechobee, we finally pull to a stop in a grove of live oaks at Istokpoga’s edge. Long fronds of Spanish moss wave gently from the tree limbs, shading several small, white cabins. A few boats are sitting on the grassy bank nearby. The whole thing looks like a movie set from the 1950s. One small building has a sign that says OFFICE, and I enter it.

A young girl sits astride a wooden stool on one side of a low wooden counter at one end of the room, and as I watch, she carefully picks out two candy bars. Opposite her, an older man with a grizzled chin and twinkling eyes totes up the purchase with all due care and deliberation. It’s a serious moment and not to be interrupted. So I look around at the few mounts of monstrous bass on display, the bits and odds of tackle for sale, the faded pictures of fish gone by, the cooler and the coffee pot. I’m very quickly right at home.

The kid finally flounces out the door the way young girls do. I say hello and give my name and yes, we have a reservation, and yes, I understand it’s cash. Terry Trimble scratches out a simple receipt in pencil. No key. Don’t need one, he says, but you can lock it if you want. Our particular cabin is an older two-bedroom trailer-clean and everything works-with a screened porch and a rocking chair. Seventy-five bucks a night for two guys: perfect.

Mabel Henderson, whom I meet an hour later, runs this bit of heaven. She’s a slight, friendly woman who could be anybody’s favorite grandmother. There is, I’m sure, a spine of steel behind her sweet smile. It is not easy running a fish camp, and she’s been managing this one since 1975. She’d been a hairdresser in Indiana, she tells me, coming here on vacations with her husband, when they finally convinced the former owners to sell. Her husband died a few years back, and now she and Dennis Rutledge, her son-in-law, keep the place going. She likes to fish, bass sometimes but mostly specks (black crappies), which Istokpoga has in great abundance. She offers laughter and the promise of coffee at 6:30 a.m.

Lewis doesn’t know this lake well, and he’s called on one of his buddies-Gerald Batten, who happens to be vice president of the Florida Bass Federation-to drive over from Naples to show us around. I’ve just gotten my morning cup when Batten rolls in, and we launch our boats on Henderson’s paved ramp. The early fog is thick at first, and we idle carefully out the channel to the 28,000-acre main lake. Wading blue herons are everywhere, popping eerily in and out of the mist and croaking their displeasure as we pass.

The fog is starting to break, and we can run on plane. We stop at a large island surrounded by acres and acres of buggywhips in the water. Today’s drill, Batten tells us, is flipping the whips. So we Texas-rig straight-tailed plastic worms with light weights at the nose, because ones with curled or ribbon tails would tangle and grab too much in the heavy cover. Green pumpkin, watermelon red, and black are hot colors as we slowly cruise the edges, tossing e worms into the thick stuff and gently twitching them back between the upright plant stems. The bass are hitting fairly well but are running only 1 or 2 pounds.

I’d gotten a hot tip on the quiet from one of my new buddies back at Henderson’s, and Batten graciously agrees to follow my advice. We run the boats across the big lake to a particular landmark (sorry-secret) and start fishing by the same method. Batten, who has by now worked his way far back into the buggywhip thickets, shouts, and we hear a loud splashing. Then a long silence. “She was a real horse,” Batten says, groaning. “I hooked her and she started going straight up a tight clump of whips. Twisted the hook out.”

Inspired, I rig one of the same Senkos that scored a bigger fish at Farm 13 two days before, and drop it into a small opening among the whips. The line gives a telltale quiver, and I set the hook on 41/2 pounds of bass, which makes me very happy. I kick back with a honey bun and some water. Lewis keeps casting but takes only a couple more small fish. I softly sing a few lines from “Margaritaville.”

We have another lake to make, and so it’s another short day. Once again we are bumping our way in the late afternoon up Route 27, headed for the northern end of Lake Kissimmee about 40 miles from Orlando. As it turns out, my big fish today is partly for naught because the restaurant we eat at tonight has no bar. Lewis owes me one.

Kissimmee: The Best-Laid Plans I am about as grumpy this morning as I ever get. Last night we checked into another fish camp-also one I chose online-near the north end of Kissimmee. The place is truly a dump, as depressing as Henderson’s was cheerful. The icing on this moldy cake is in the shower stall, where the water-control knob is missing. In its place is an old pair of rusty pliers with which to work the stub of a shower control. By the rust stains on the bathtub, the pliers have been a fixture for a long time. All for $100 a night, with an additional $10 cash for a key deposit, and $5 more for every boat to be launched on their ramp-this is money grubbing at its worst.

“Well,” Lewis says and smiles. “You wanted a funky old fish camp. This is it.” The moral: Always check any kind of no-name lodging as carefully as you can ahead of time.

Kissimmee is a drop-dead gorgeous lake that helps to shake off my ill humor. At 40,000 acres, it’s also a good example of Florida’s newly enlightened trends in bass-lake management. Because big lakes here are fertile and shallow, they accumulate lots of dead and dying plant material on the bottom over time. New crops of water plants grow rapidly, too, sometimes choking off portions of a lake, which harms spawning success. In 1996, Kissimmee was drawn down to partly dry out and kill some of the overly dense shallow-water plants. At the same time, some areas were scraped and scooped with heavy equipment to remove accumulated muck and thereby create both better spawning habitat and easier shoreline access when the lake level was again raised. This sort of treatment, in addition to aggressive catch, size, and/or slot limits on some lakes, is the kind of management that’s now producing a dramatic resurgence in the quality of Florida’s bass fishing.

Not that you could prove it by our luck on this particular morning. We are fishing perfect bass cover that stretches nearly out of sight: big patches of spatterdock interspersed with narrow alleys of open water, a few stands of buggywhips, and cattails here and there. Fish are breaking occasionally in the early light. But we can’t buy a bass, which is pretty pathetic for a couple of hotshots.

We manage to hit just a few over the next couple of hours-some on topwaters in the alleys but mostly by flipping the whips as we’d done on previous days. Our results are nothing spectacular but respectable. Near dark, we’re back at the shack. Today’s margarita fish belongs to Lewis, but again, the only restaurant around doesn’t serve. Our running bet becomes-temporarily-a wash. The next morning we’ll head north at 5 a.m. for a day of shiner fishing on Rodman Reservoir south of Jacksonville.

Rodman: The Art of Anticipation Rodman Reservoir is a 9,500-acre minefield of submerged trees, standing timber, floating stumps, and thick vegetation that’s primarily navigable only by an old barge channel running more or less down its middle. The lake has had a huge national reputation for big bass almost since it was built in 1968 as part of a now defunct boondoggle called the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. It’s still controversial. Various environmental groups are fighting to get the dam removed and restore the Ocklawaha River as a free-flowing tributary to the St. Johns. Fishermen, including bass anglers nationwide, are fighting to keep the dam and the spectacular fishing that Rodman provides. In recent years, it’s become a political stalemate. The state Legislature has refused to appropriate money for dam removal. But the governor recently vetoed a bill that would have preserved it. Rodman’s future is uncertain. If you want to fish it, don’t wait too long.

Two more of Lewis’ bass buddies, George Deckman and Larry Maurer, meet us at the boat ramp and stock our live well with big golden shiners. We follow them gingerly through a narrow path threading the submerged timber into a more open sort of back bay near shore. Here we each slow-troll a live shiner about 3 feet under a bobber. The boat moves into the wind on its trolling motor, at an unhurried crawl that keeps the shiner moving naturally. The water explodes under Lewis’ bait and a 4-pounder goes airborne. He releases the fish and baits up again.

Shiners are the best way to move really big fish, and I track my bobber with years of anticipation riding on that hunk of foam. There’s a huge, shocking splash right behind my bobber. I yell and start to set the hook in the mother of all bass. Then in horror I see the flapping wings of an osprey rising from the foam, and it flies skyward with my shiner in its talons.

The bird drops my bait. Lewis is doubled over laughing. Behind us I see three more ospreys circling low, eyeballing all the shiner sets. For the next hour, we have osprey wars: birds diving on the baits, fishermen yanking them away. We finally discover that when an osprey stoops and dives on a particular bait, jerking and splashing the bobber makes the bird flare off.

We give up eventually, and the birds do, too. Instead we still-fish, anchored in a pocket of timber. By luck or good grace we’ve managed to set up on a pod of hot fish, and the action is nonstop. At first, the bobber is nearly motionless as the shiner I’ve rigged swims quietly. Then I can feel it getting excited as the baitfish and bass spot each other. Stalki belongs to Lewis, but again, the only restaurant around doesn’t serve. Our running bet becomes-temporarily-a wash. The next morning we’ll head north at 5 a.m. for a day of shiner fishing on Rodman Reservoir south of Jacksonville.

Rodman: The Art of Anticipation Rodman Reservoir is a 9,500-acre minefield of submerged trees, standing timber, floating stumps, and thick vegetation that’s primarily navigable only by an old barge channel running more or less down its middle. The lake has had a huge national reputation for big bass almost since it was built in 1968 as part of a now defunct boondoggle called the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. It’s still controversial. Various environmental groups are fighting to get the dam removed and restore the Ocklawaha River as a free-flowing tributary to the St. Johns. Fishermen, including bass anglers nationwide, are fighting to keep the dam and the spectacular fishing that Rodman provides. In recent years, it’s become a political stalemate. The state Legislature has refused to appropriate money for dam removal. But the governor recently vetoed a bill that would have preserved it. Rodman’s future is uncertain. If you want to fish it, don’t wait too long.

Two more of Lewis’ bass buddies, George Deckman and Larry Maurer, meet us at the boat ramp and stock our live well with big golden shiners. We follow them gingerly through a narrow path threading the submerged timber into a more open sort of back bay near shore. Here we each slow-troll a live shiner about 3 feet under a bobber. The boat moves into the wind on its trolling motor, at an unhurried crawl that keeps the shiner moving naturally. The water explodes under Lewis’ bait and a 4-pounder goes airborne. He releases the fish and baits up again.

Shiners are the best way to move really big fish, and I track my bobber with years of anticipation riding on that hunk of foam. There’s a huge, shocking splash right behind my bobber. I yell and start to set the hook in the mother of all bass. Then in horror I see the flapping wings of an osprey rising from the foam, and it flies skyward with my shiner in its talons.

The bird drops my bait. Lewis is doubled over laughing. Behind us I see three more ospreys circling low, eyeballing all the shiner sets. For the next hour, we have osprey wars: birds diving on the baits, fishermen yanking them away. We finally discover that when an osprey stoops and dives on a particular bait, jerking and splashing the bobber makes the bird flare off.

We give up eventually, and the birds do, too. Instead we still-fish, anchored in a pocket of timber. By luck or good grace we’ve managed to set up on a pod of hot fish, and the action is nonstop. At first, the bobber is nearly motionless as the shiner I’ve rigged swims quietly. Then I can feel it getting excited as the baitfish and bass spot each other. Stalking bass create big swirls near the surface; at other times, the bobber jiggles wildly and then goes down, deep and fast. Hard, swift strikes avoid gut-hooking the bass, and one such sweep of the rod puts a 7-pounder in the net for me. It’s not the biggest we might have caught, to be sure, but still our record for the week, and I give it a war dance on the front deck.

That night back in Jacksonville, I get another margarita courtesy of Lewis. It represents my third winning bass in five days of fishing, and I’m secretly quite proud of myself. For a gnarly old Yankee in Bubba-land, I haven’t done half bad.

Lewis and I part at the airport the next morning. I pronounce him an all-around great guy and fisherman. He pronouces me an honorary redneck. It is, ironically, the second of April, the date in 1513 that Spanish exlorer Ponce de Leon discovered Florida and vainly searched for a fountain of youth. It’s too bad he didn’t discover Florida’s bass fishing instead, a true source of everlasting wonder.