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By Jim Porter

Lake Istokpoga, located in Highlands County, is Florida's fifth largest lake with a surface area of 27,692 acres. Two major tributaries enter the lake; Josephine Creek from the west and Arbuckle Creek from the north. Water is discharged from the lake through two outlets; Istokpoga Canal that flows to the Kissimmee River, and S-68 Canal that flows through a series of canals to Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. Presently, the lake is surrounded by citrus groves, caladium farms, improved pastures, cypress swamp, and residential and commercial (fish camps) development. Typical of many Florida lakes, residential development continues to encroach on flood prone areas around the lake.

Historically, Lake Istokpoga has been known for black crappie, red ear sunfish and bluegill fishing. More recently, an excellent largemouth bass fishery has developed due to hydrilla expansion. Creel information gathered in 1991-92 estimated fishing effort for bass at 82,871 hours. The catch rate was high (0.41 bass per hour) compared to most Florida lakes. Angler catch rates for bream species (red ear sunfish and bluegill) continues to be good at 1.97 fish per hour. The crappie fishery was also good with almost 36,000 fish caught for a success of 1.69 crappie per hour.

Although Lake Istokpoga presently supports an excellent bream and largemouth bass fishery, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (F&WCC) identified four major ecological problems and presented solutions that must be addressed to ensure long-term health of the lake's aquatic habitat.

First, the natural fluctuation regime of Lake Istokpoga should be reestablished to prevent further degradation of littoral habitat caused by expansion of floating, vegetative tussock communities. This will require raising the current regulated high pool elevation to the average recorded historic level. By increasing the high pool stage on Lake Istokpoga, a primary fishery management technique will be established, ensuring the ability to maintain quality aquatic habitat.

Second, a restoration program that includes a gravity draw down and mechanical removal of floating tussocks and organic sediments in littoral areas should be implemented. Floating tussocks and associated organic sediments formed through decades of water level stabilization and poor management of exotic aquatic vegetation have resulted in severely degraded littoral habitat for fish and wildlife communities and reduced public access.

Removal will restore optimal habitat conditions for fish and wildlife communities and improve public access on Lake Istokpoga.

Third, non-point sources of pollution from residential development and agricultural areas should be routed through either artificially created or natural wetlands to minimize nutrient enrichment impacts to Lake Istokpoga.

Finally, a long-term comprehensive management plan, including aggressive hydrilla management and periodic extreme lake draw downs, should be developed and implemented on Lake Istokpoga.

The restoration effort for Lake Istokpoga is well underway. As a F&WCC priority, a draft of the lake restoration plan was developed and adopted, setting the stage for addressing the lake's major problem areas. However, to complete Lake Istokpoga's restoration plan, additional information is required. The F&WCC is in the process of completing a Recreational Use and Wildlife Assessment Study that will provide valuable economic and wildlife information, which will allow us to document the benefits of the program. Commission personnel are currently developing an experimental program to evaluate the use of mechanical harvesters for tussock removal in areas that are inaccessible by conventional means during a lake draw down. In addition, the F&WCC is working closely with the South Florida Water Management District on a program to evaluate required structural changes, land acquisition, and their costs to raise the regulated lake level by two feet. Finally, the F&WCC, the Florida Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Highlands County initiated a long-term hydrilla management plan using chemical and biological controls.

Approximately $2.3 million worth of herbicides were used by DNR over a four-year period, which still left approximately 10,000 acres of hydrilla in Lake Istokpoga. Since herbicides alone were ineffective, and costly, an integrated hydrilla management plan utilizing aquatic herbicides and triploid grass carp was developed for Lake Istokpoga. The plan, developed by the F&WCC, DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Highlands County, calls for an initial large herbicide treatment to reduce hydrilla biomass, followed by stocking 125,000 triploid grass carp to control regrowth. This strategy should control regrowth for three or more years and reduce the annual cost of hydrilla management. Monitoring hydrilla coverage, sport fish populations, water quality and fishermen success rates will continue until hydrilla coverage exceeds 7,000 acres. The criteria of 7,000 acres (25 percent of the lake's surface area) was selected to determine whether this approach was successful. That is, did the combined use of herbicides and triploid grass carp save money compared to earlier treatments, and were there any detrimental impacts on the resource? The outcome of the study will determine future plans for aquatic plant management in Lake Istokpoga and play an important role in developing management strategies for aquatic plant control in other large, open systems.

The F&WCC and other agencies recognize the importance and value of Lake Istokpoga to citizens and visitors of Florida. By working together to correct past environmental mistakes and looking to the future with innovative, long-term management techniques, the health of Lake Istokpoga will be guaranteed for future generations.


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