The Big O Comes Back in a Big Way

After hurricanes, droughts and development, Lake Okeechobee rises again

Article by Steve Wright

Photo of Pro Aggler Ish Monroe holding up two bass
Ish Monroe pulls out two fish that helped him win an Elite series event
and showed Okeechobee is back. (James Overstreet photo)

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Lake Okeechobee is America's "mystery lake." Though it was formed 6,000 years ago, European explorers in the 1700s believed it to be a myth. For many early Americans, the big lake didn't become a fact until U.S. Army colonel Zachary Taylor fought the Seminoles in the Battle of Okeechobee on Christmas Day, 1837.

It's hard to imagine this 730-square-mile lake being a secret, but that was long ago. In the last century, Lake Okeechobee has continued to hold mythical status among American anglers; they've long heard stories too good to believe. If you've made a "bucket list" of places to fish before you die, Okeechobee is undoubtedly on it.

The 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series Power-Pole Slam here in March signaled that the fishing at Lake Okeechobee now might be as good as it has ever been. If you know about the often troubled times at Okeechobee, that also may be difficult to believe. But the weigh-in scales tell no lies.

The name Okeechobee reportedly comes from two words in the Seminole language — oki (water) and chubi (big) —thus "big water." It's a fitting name for a lake that serves as the headwaters of the Everglades and holds a trillion gallons at its average depth of nine feet. Yes, only nine feet.

The big lake became known to the world in 1928 when the Okeechobee Hurricane caused a massive sheet of water to spill from the lake. The original death count was 1,836. But the exact total remains a mystery; many migrant farm workers' bodies were washed into the swamps and never recovered. In 2003, the National Weather Service raised the death count to "at least 2,500."

Following the disaster, the Herbert Hoover Dike was built around Okeechobee. Earth removed from inside the dike formed a rim canal that remains the safest way to navigate this shallow lake – go around or risk running aground.

Like an ocean, Okeechobee is large enough for you to understand the curvature of Earth: When you boat to the middle of it, a scan of the horizon in every direction reveals no dry land — only water, and the greenery growing from it. Lake Michigan is the only one larger within the lower 48 states.

Other than its size, that lack of depth separates Lake Okeechobee from everything else. Combined with acres of aquatic vegetation and the subtropical temperatures of south-central Florida, Lake Okeechobee provides near-perfect habitat for growing fish. It has been called "The Panfish Capital of the World." Okeechobee is noted for growing large crappie and lots of them. When the bream, both redear (shellcrackers) and bluegill, go to their spawning beds for the first time each spring, many devoted bass anglers shift gear.

"I do enjoy that," said Bill Rose, who moved here in 1978 from Peoria, Ill. "Even though I fish for bass most of the time, I take a break when that first wave of shellcrackers comes in to spawn. I've caught a lot that weigh 2 ½ pounds. They average about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds."

A 2 ½-pound bream is a myth to me, but I'm anxious to be convinced.

Photo of Chris Lane 2012 Bassmaster Classic Champion catching a bass

The freshwaters of Florida are best known for largemouth bass. When Bassmaster magazine recently published a list of the 100 best bass fishing lakes in the U.S., seven Florida waters were included, second only to Texas' eight. And Lake Okeechobee was listed No. 2 overall, runner-up to Falcon Lake, located on the Texas-Mexico border.

Topping off the excellent fishing, Okeechobee simply provides a unique experience. From the prehistoric-size alligators peering from its surface to the endangered snail kites swooping above it, there's always something that catches your eyes.

"Every time I come back here, it looks different," said Steve Kennedy, a Bassmaster Elite Series veteran from Auburn, Ala., who has been fishing Okeechobee for 10 years. "It's unlike any other place we've ever fished."

Over the past 30 years, Okeechobee has seen more bad times than good. Phosphorous and nitrogen contained in rainfall runoff caused massive algal blooms that covered 40 percent of the lake during the 1980s and '90s. Algal blooms suck dissolved oxygen from the water. The effects start at the bottom of the food chain, killing the macro-invertebrates, which support fish, waterfowl and every other predator.

The 21st century has marked a series of highs and lows for Okeechobee in terms of its water level. The highs were caused by hurricanes and tropical storms that muddied Okeechobee and stunted the growth of aquatic vegetation. For bulrush, eelgrass and hydrilla to thrive, they need the sunlight that penetrates clear water.

Two hurricanes in 2004 (Frances and Jeanne) were particularly tough, as the combination of high water and strong winds ripped out the plant life and clouded the water.

"It wiped out all the vegetation," said Florida native Chris Lane, the 2012 Bassmaster Classic champion. "It turned the water to where it was pretty much puke brown for years."

The lows came in the form of droughts, one of which dropped the lake to record low of 8.82 feet above sea level in July 2007. The target level set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is 12.5 to 15.5 feet.

It was during the drought in '07 that truckloads of toxic mud were removed from the lake's basin – thousands of truckloads. It was an attempt to restore the hard, sandy bottom of Okeechobee and its water clarity.

Apparently, the plan succeeded. The Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, held March 22-25, produced some extraordinary results.

"The first time I fished Lake Okeechobee was in the mid- to late-'70s," said 56-year-old Shaw Grigsby from Gainesville, Fla. "It's real different now. This is as good as I've seen Okeechobee. It's real, real healthy. That year-class of five-, six-, seven- and eight-pounders is just crazy. It's absolutely crazy."

Grigsby's words came after weighing a five-bass daily limit totaling 30 pounds, 7 ounces on March 24. But he was hardly the only Elite Series angler proclaiming the present-day wonders of bass fishing at "The Big O."

On that same Saturday, Kevin VanDam caught an 8-pound, 14-ounce largemouth, which was the biggest bass caught in the four-day event. That's a big bass no matter where you fish. VanDam, 44, speaks with some authority on bass fishing, as the seven-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year and four-time Bassmaster Classic champion.

"There are so many big ones out there on this lake that, if you get in the right areas when they move up, it's just crazy," VanDam said. "It's about as incredible a lake as you're going to see down here (in Florida) right now.

"I've probably fished four or five tournaments here. I've seen it go through a lot of changes. It's totally different from the last time I was here. It's the best I've ever seen it. Every bank on the lake now that has reeds on it is spawning habitat. They've kept the lake at perfect levels the last few years during the spawn. So there's just a tremendous class of bass between five and eight pounds."

Serving as further proof, Ish Monroe of Hughson, Calif., had an opening day bag of 34 pounds, 5 ounces – almost a seven-pound average – on the way to winning the tournament with a 20-bass total of 108 pounds, 5 ounces.

However, one cast made by Randy Howell might have made the biggest statement about the present state of Lake Okeechobee bass fishing. The Springville, Ala., resident knew there was a chance to catch surface-feeding bass at first light. So Howell tossed out a big topwater lure first thing one morning.

"It's called 'The One.' It's like a big Pencil Popper with three treble hooks on it," Howell said.

After a school of bass attacked the lure, Howell reeled in one attached to each hook. They weighed 4, 3 ½ and 3 pounds. In other words, Howell caught 10 ½ pounds of bass on one cast.

"I've never seen that happen before," said Howell, who had his limit in the livewell with two more casts – five bass on three casts.

It has been a long road back to health for Lake Okeechobee. But will it remain healthy? You can't imagine how much depends upon that answer.

Lake Okeechobee is the literal heart of Florida. A limestone trough lies at the bed of the state's freshwater life-blood. It stretches north from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, south through Lake Okeechobee, into the Everglades and finally into Florida Bay – a vast stream that supplies drinking water, irrigates crops, recharges acquifers and provides habitat for much of the state's wildlife.

Canals and ditches were being carved into Florida shortly after it became a state in 1845. When Hamilton Disston purchased four million acres here in 1881, his ultimate goal was to drain Okeechobee. That's about the only thing he didn't achieve in earning his nickname, the "Drainage King."

For most of the 20th century that effort to drain the swamps for farmlands and housing accelerated. But it has finally slowed as Floridians have come to realize the importance of their waters and wetlands. Now there's a focus on the long-term health of this area. It would take an article much longer than this to mention the agencies and projects that are intertwined in this massive effort.

Photo of a snail kite at Lake Okeechobee

More so than largemouth bass, snail kites may be the ultimate sign of Okeechobee's health. These little-known birds are considered the most threatened prey species in the U.S., and Florida is the only state they inhabit. Snail kites are thriving in the other parts of their native range – Central and South America. But they are an "indicator species" for Florida's wetlands, in other words, canaries in the coal mine. If they vanish, everything else better be nervous.

The snail kite is a medium-sized hawk. Males are mostly gray; females are mostly brown; both have distinctive white patches at the base of their tails; and both have a sharp hook at the end of their beaks. That hook permits them to remove an apple snail from its golf ball-sized shell; other than the occasional crawfish, it's the only thing snail kites eat. (Apple snails, fittingly for Okeechobee, are sometimes called "mystery snails.")

Photo of apple snails from Lake Okeechobee

The snail kites appeared plentiful during the Bassmaster tournament in March. Once you knew what to look for, it took little effort to find one gliding low, occasionally with an apple snail clutched in its talons. But the snail kite population has crashed from 3,000 a decade ago to 900 now. The good news is that's 200 more than were counted a year ago.

Apple snails feed on aquatic vegetation. So more aquatic plants leads to more apple snails and therefore more snail kites, right? And apparently, that means more bass, too.

But nothing is quite that simple, especially where mankind confronts Mother Nature like it does in Florida. This is the state where a gift from Japan at the 1884 New Orleans World Fair – water hyacinths ¬– spread so fast that waterways were choked with the invasive species a decade later. The water hyacinths have since been controlled, but not eradicated.

In Florida, if it's not one environmental crisis, it's another: A new species of apple snails is now spreading through its waters. Native to South America, this species probably arrived through the aquarium trade. It grows to the size of a baseball. While it is considered one reason for the recent increase in snail kites, it may prove too big for juveniles to effectively consume, and it may overcrowd the native apple snails.

Where will all this lead? That's a mystery, just like Lake Okeechobee has always been.

Photo of two men on an airboat on Lake Okeechobee