FWC Gives Okeechobee Angling Outlook

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FWC Gives Okeechobee Angling Outlook

Lake Okeechobee is Florida’s largest lake and the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous United States. The word Okeechobee comes from the Seminole Indian language “Oki” (water) and “Chubi” (big) and means “big water.” These early Floridians chose the name well. Vast surface area (730 square miles), shallowness (averaging only nine feet deep) and enormous habitat diversity makes the ecosystem unique on the North American continent. The lake is a multiple-use resource, which supports valuable commercial and sport fisheries, provides flood control and acts as a reservoir for potable and irrigation water for much of south Florida.

Lake Okeechobee is located on the south-central portion of the Florida peninsula about an hour and a half south of Orlando. Major natural tributaries to the lake are Fisheating Creek, Taylor Creek and the Kissimmee River. Sheet outflow occurred historically across the entire southern rim into the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee is now connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lucie Canal as well as the Gulf of Mexico through the Caloosahatchee River.

The lake’s aquatic plant communities provide crucial areas where fish spawn, forage, and hide from predators. Historically, the bulrush community has yielded a high abundance of sportfish such as Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, as well as important forage species like Golden shiner. Submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) such as eelgrass, hydrilla, and Illinois pondweed (commonly known as peppergrass) also yield high abundance of fish, and have been strongly linked to the recruitment and survival of young sportfish like Largemouth Bass. These plant communities and others provide great fishing in Lake Okeechobee, especially when they create a mosaic of habitat.

Fishing: Bass fishing is good year-round in Okeechobee, but is the best during the months of December through April when they are typically spawning. Crappie fishing is also best during their spawning season between January and March. The bluegill and redear sunfish usually begin spawning in late March and will continue through the beginning of June.

Creel surveys on Okeechobee have shown recent improvements in bass and crappie catch rates this past fall and winter. Big bass have remained abundant, with many anglers catching fish over eight pounds, and winning tournament weights have commonly reached or exceeded 30 pounds. Anglers targeting crappie have had good success harvesting their bag limit of 25 fish.

Outlook: Likely due in part to submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) recovery since Hurricane Irma, last year’s fall electrofishing showed a strong class of new “young-of-year” bass for the first time since 2016. A strong year class like this can help sustain a fishery for years to come. Anglers will likely start catching this cohort during the next year, and with Lake Okeechobee’s fast growth rate, we can expect to start seeing these fish in TrophyCatch by just six years old.

A similarly strong year class of crappie was born in 2018. Crappie need around three years or more to grow to the minimum size of 10 inches on Okeechobee, and these fish made their way into the fishery this past season, helping drive the successful harvest rates. We expect these fish to continue sustaining the fishery over the next few years, as the age of crappie harvested from Lake Okeechobee often peaks between four to five years old.

Management Plan: Beginning in early 2020, the FWC began the development of a Lake Management Plan for Okeechobee. The FWC’s Lake Management Plans are meant to be comprehensive, covering management activities within the FWC’s jurisdiction, such as a system’s fish, wildlife and habitats, while also providing recommendations to partner agencies on items outside of that jurisdiction, such as water levels and water quality.

The first phase of planning included the gathering of initial thoughts and suggestions through public meetings, stakeholder interviews, and stakeholder workshops. We then used this information to draft a survey over the winter of 2020-2021 to learn more about specific areas of interest, and drafted goals and objectives with the target of achieving both ecological health and stakeholder support. At the time of this writing, the Lake Okeechobee goals and objectives have been organized into four focal areas of Fish and Wildlife Management, Plant and Habitat Management, and Communication and Interagency Coordination. Encompassing the diversity of the lake’s resources and the feedback heard, the goals and objectives range from metrics supporting fishing and hunting opportunities to how we manage habitat, invasive plants, and work across lines with our partner agencies. You can view the full list of goals and objectives, or visit our management plan web page.