Never mind trying to pronounce Lake Istokpoga – mumble anything even resembling it and everyone around Sebring, Florida, will know exactly what you mean.
Wife Kelly and I visited a couple of weeks ago to test the legend of Istokpoga’s bass bounty and to see what this area of South Central Florida offers the outdoors-minded. Turns out that we experienced a surprising variety of things to do and see, but more on that in upcoming installments.
Istokpoga means “our people died there” in Seminole language, referring to an unfortunate incident generations ago when a group of Indians sank deep into the lake’s muck and drowned. Considering these waters average a little over four feet in depth despite being a good-sized five miles wide and 10 miles long suggests it would be well advised to go with a pro. That’s exactly what we did, jumping aboard the sleek bass boat of Capt. Don Hatcher.
Kelly and I drove to Istokpoga Park’s boat ramp on the northern portion of the lake off State Road 98. A congenial sort, Hatcher steered his 21-foot Triton to several hot spots he’s located over the years. The distances seem short considering the 250-hp Mercury outboard pushing us along at mach speed.
“In water conditions like this when it’s a tad cool, it’s especially effective to use live shiners for bait,” Hatcher said. He favors 7 ½-foot All Star rods with Pflueger reels and 30-pound Trilene Big Game fishing line. The business end represents 4/0 or 5/0 weedless hooks rigged through the shiners’ lips.
“The trick is to toss it close to thick cover like bulrushes where bass lay in wait to ambush prey,” said Hatcher. “When you get a hit, put your left hand ahead of the reel, anchor the rod butt in your belly, keep the rod tip low and when the slack is gone strike him hard.”
His advice worked like a charm. In just a few hours of fishing we caught and released 10 bass, with one in the four-pound class and the other a really huge bucket-mouth going about eight pounds. We were impressed. Capt. Hatcher said he’s led plenty of anglers to catches of even 10-pound-plus bass.
Other species frequently targeted in Lake Istokpoga include crappie, catfish, shellcracker and bluegill.
I actually fished here about 10 years ago and did well then too. It’s sure nice to come back to a lake renowned for big bass and find that it’s still producing great catches. Maybe it’s the prevailing catch-and-release mentality that has a lot to do with it, but the value of local knowledge by a veteran fishing guide like Don Hatcher is no small advantage.
If you fancy a tango with slob-size bass amid this remarkable freshwater frontier in sunny Florida, Lake Istokpoga won’t disappoint.