Lake Istokpoga, a 28,000-acre lake eight miles southeast of Sebring off U.S. 98, is becoming one of Florida’s stellar bass lakes for good reason.
In 2001, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) conducted a full-scale drawdown in an effort to rid the lake of a muck-laden bottom that had built up after years of water-level stabilization that eliminated natural water fluctuations during droughts and rainy periods.
During the drawdown, more than half of the lake’s bottom was exposed to the elements for five months. During that time, a massive mechanical muck removal project scraped 21 miles of lake bottom totaling more than 1,300 acres.
By 2003, the scraped areas were producing eelgrass, a desirable native aquatic plant. And by 2009, quality fish habitat covered 33 percent of the lake, which exceeded the FWC’s expectations.
As a result of the new habitat and aquatic plant life, there was an explosion of the forage base, including grass shrimp, shiners and baitfish. And once again, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and shellcracker had a desirable sand bottom for spawning.
The end result has been repeated successful year classes of bass and panfish supplemented with high growth rates because of the extensive forage.
Istokpoga now offers high yields of bass, among them trophy fish in the 8- to 10-pound range. This winter, a couple of 12-pounders were reported caught and released.
The FWC is using special regulations to create a trophy bass fishery. A 15- to 24-inch slot limit for bass and a three-fish daily bag limit, of which only one bass may be 24 inches or longer, have been successful.
Surveys conducted last year documented the highest largemouth bass catch rate of 0.82 fish per hour since the drawdown.
Much of the success at Istokpoga is attributed to bass clubs and other stakeholders that became actively engaged. In 1997, Lake Istokpoga became a fish management area, and the Lake Istokpoga Management Committee was formed at the request of the Highlands County Commission.
The committee, which provides management suggestions and input to the FWC, includes anglers, guides, fishing camp owners, homeowners associations and conservation groups such as Audubon. Friends of Istokpoga, a nonprofit group, also discusses management programs quarterly, including hydrilla treatment and additional habitat restoration plans.
Similar management practices by the FWC have resulted in success stories for other lakes around the state. Istokpoga is just one example.