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Knatz.com / Personal / Stories / Themes / Fishing /
@ K. 2005 07 24
I adore fishing guru Paul Quinnett’s concept of home waters. As I’ve written to Dr. Quinnett, my home waters is Lake Istokpoga. Home waters aren’t necessarily the waters near where you were born, nor where you live; they are the waters where the fisherman feels at home: no matter the age at which they are discovered by said fisherman.
Florida’s Lake Okeechobee is visible from space. Even the most rudimentary map will show it. Lake Okeechobee marks the north side of the Everglades. The lake is very shallow, but looks like water; the Everglades are mostly water, but may look like land. (And sure enough: you can walk around on some of it.) Just north of Lake Okeechobee is Lake Istokpoga. Lake Istokpoga is also very large: and mostly very shallow. I’ve heard that it was named for a tribe that tried to escape the colonists’ soldiers by wading across the lake, then fell into a hole, all drowning: the name meaning “lake of death.” If you have time to watch your step, you can wade much of the lake. Just watch out for the few places where it drops to twenty feet!
Today I had the best bluegill / fly rod session I’ve had in years! It didn’t go the way I’d planned, but sometimes serendipity is best. A couple of days ago I’d managed to push my poor little motor all the way to Lake Istokpoga’s Big Island where the “shore” (two to six feet deep!) is lined with mile after mile of my favorite bluegill habitat: reeds we call the pencil-reeds.
2005 07 24 When I did the public tours at Highlands Hammock I was careful to learn to most generally used and accepted names for the flora and fauna. What I am here calling “pencil-reeds” were not common in the park, so that’s one name I never researched. I have little interest in their Latin name; but I do like to know the most commonly accepted common name. I met some locals yesterday who referred to the spatterdock (also called “lily pads”) as flags. Communication is important; correctness is not. What I call bluegills some people call brim. They’re all sun fish. Black bass — largemouth, smallmouth — are also sunfish. There are dozens of species. Bulrushes: reeds: tall plants emergent from the water with a seed tassel on top.
Yesterday I’d planned to return to Big Island and to photograph the lake with some of its characteristic plant communities. These days the pencil-reeds communities are the healthiest I’ve seen them. The cattails are doing fine and so are the spatterdock: the local “lillies.” Highlands County has spent a lot of money on these lakes. First we messed them up, now we’re trying to “fix” them. For a while a lot of the fixing was lethal. One level of decision makers decides to protect the pencil-reeds. They issue orders to poison the encroaching aliens: hydrilla, water hyacinth, water lettuce. They budget millions. The chemicals are given to hirees: who go out and dump all the poison on the pencil-reeds. Istokpoga never looked worse than when they were “fixing” it. But it seems to have gotten sorted out now.
We interfere with so many things, it’s impossible to find any “nature.” That’s what we do, that’s who we are. We stock new bass so it’s impossible for the public to see that the bass were hurting. Whatever we do, the bluegills seem to be taking it all in stride. And I love no form of fishing better than fly rodding for bluegills, particularly where I’m wading in the water with them.
Actually my primary purpose yesterday was to visit a woman I’d just met. Then I planned to see if I could also get to Big Island. By the time I finished my visit, the thunder was heavy. Then my motor wouldn’t start: a bad time to be thinking of the long haul to Big Island. So I determined to take a few quick snaps of the pencil-reeds that border the lake right by the east shore boat ramp off Lake Boulevard. By the time I got to them the wind was picking up. See the chop on the water? There would be white caps in another moment. It’s astounding how steep waves can get in shallow water.
I’d rowed the boat through the ramp channel to the main lake. I anchored the boat, went overboard so I’d have my feet firmly in the muck, strapped the digital camera to my wrist, took a few pics. This next picture suggests the extent of this particular, not untypical, stand of reeds.
When the bluegills spawn they gather into huge communities. The reeds are a typical gathering place. Thus, in spring time, pencil-reeds are a good place to try a few casts. If you find a school, you’re in luck. They also might gather in spatterdock, or they might build their beds in open water, not too deep. Much of the year, seeking bluegills is largely guess work. Most will be deep: where they’re hard to find: at least for me with my shoreline habits and love of surface lures. Some bluegills will always be shallow. Fishing pencil-reeds, I can catch at least a few bluegills any time of the day or year. And I generally pick up almost as many bass while doing it as I would if I were strictly bass fishing. (And there are some times when the bulrushes will hold those species even more than the pencil-reeds.)
Some days you find them, some days you don’t. Fishing as a pair, one guy may have the bulk of the luck: especially if he takes the bow and controls the trolling motor! I’ve fished pencil-reeds where I have the school: and the guy standing a few feet away doesn’t. I’ve had mediocre luck with the fly rod — and the mobility of a boat, while a couple of guys just dibbling a fly from a cane pole the other side of the channel get right to the heart of the school. The guy casting to my left and getting nothing scored a huge catch yesterday: when I didn’t.
In the first picture I can locate my friend’s house (though out of sight) among the trees on the east shore. In this second pic, notice that the wind is beginning to foam the water. By the time I’d snapped half a dozen pictures, thunder nearly split my skull. Enough lightning to power Los Angeles stuck the shore just by the tree line. The wind came roaring from the north west. Huge rain drops made a din on the lake, hurt the skin, blinded me behind my glasses. There was so much water my eyes stung. (Or was that acid or what-have-you in the rain?)
Back in the boat, the camera stowed under the bow, safe from the rain merely for the next minute or two, I gave up trying to row and went back overboard. I towed the boat back to the ramp by wading across the wind. I dove into the car with the camera. The car must have been well over a hundred degrees and with the doors again shut instantly converted into a steam bath. Still I sheltered in the car till the wind subsided a little. There was no way I could manoeuver the car and trailer back to the ramp. It would be near impossible just to go forward. Without looking I knew that the boat would be rapidly filling up with the rain. No way would my little Dodge Neon be able to haul that dead weight up the steep ramp. The new ramps they put around Istokpoga are steep as ski jumps. I’d have to bail, then haul: once I could see.
Some airboat guys were waiting out the rain under a picnic shelter. As soon as the worst of the wind subsided I fled the steamed car. Sure enough, the boat was one quarter full of rain. I started bailing. Then grabbed my light spinning rod and waded out into the shallows: cypress trees, spatterdock, pickerel weed. Then the rain lightened and the airboat guys started hauling their airboats up onto their trailers. They agreed to hang around till I got my boat out as well.
They motored off: and I realized: the rain is light, the wind is gone … It would be beautiful right back out by those same pencil-reeds.
I left the boat on shore, took my fly rod, and investigated safe paths by foot back out to the main lake. I caught bluegills in the spatterdock en route. I caught bluegills working the reed community shown in the pictures. Four days ago, along that same wall of reeds, my popper connected with the biggest bluegill I’ve caught in years! Yesterday, after the worst of the storm, I was catching bluegills at a rate I hadn’t in years. None were quite as big as that big male the other day, but most were bruisers. Displaying males have bold gold over the brow, females, sometimes almost as big, oten show gorgeous sunfish breasts: orange, yellow …
Notice that the “wall” of reeds is not altogether flat. There are triangular pockets, or “holes,” in the facade. The fish tend to gather IN the reeds. Thus I endeavor to cast so that my popper lands, as gently as possible given the conditions, as far back as possible, in the holes. That’s where the most fish are most likely to see it, study it, or just lunge.
There are days when, wind or no, my skill is sufficient to hurl the popper several reeds beyond the back of the pocket. As long as I retrieve gently, there’s little accidental “hook-setting,” I have good (skill /) luck in not getting caught on a stem. Sometimes, sure; but the more one tries it, the “luckier” one gets. If the fish is properly hooked — practice, one teases him through the reeds more often than not. (Any day’s fishing will see at least one bluegill (or bass) unhook himself on a reed.)
Istokpoga is black water: deeply tannin-stained. Visibility is may be an inch or two. The fish can’t see well either: but they sense things: hear things, feel things. But once, also with the wind behind me, I cast a popper to some pencil-reeds, and saw two bruiser bluegills come streaking from deep among the reeds toward the popper well before it had landed on the water. They bumped each other to get at it. I got the winner: recast, got the loser.
Normally you can’t tell where the fish was when your popper settled down. But I know that typically, they’ll hang under a target, regarding it. So you let the popper settle for a second or two, then begin to strip the line in. Ken Stubbs taught me to strip the line between my fingers in tiny little jerks: pause, and strip some more. If a fish doesn’t grab the popper within a yard or two of retrieve, I recast.
The fisherman doesn’t expect to hear the “pops” its movement makes against the water. We don’t expect to hear dog whistles either. But the fish hear it. A loud pop might send the fish, frightened, to deep cover. In any event, the idea is that the bluegill lurking below the popper may be triggered to strike at it if the stripping in of the popper, suggests to the fish that the target is getting away. You’ll catch a few fish if you leave the popper sit. Occasionally you’ll catch a great fish, maybe a big bass, if you leave the popper sit. But if you seek action hot and heavy, you have to learn the right strip technique: both speed and length of jerk. Tiny little “pops” does it best.
Yesterday though I was catching fish deep in the pockets. I was also catching fish just as I was about to pick up and recast. So I started trying longer strips. I caught bluegills in the weed line, at the weed line, several feet from the weed line, and in open water. The bluegills had gathered. They were “everywhere.” And they were in a frenzy.
The wind picked up again. Normally, if I’m not catching much, and the wind picks up, I’ll catch less. Might as well go home. But sometimes, if the bluegills are biting, and the wind picks up, I’ll catch more.
I didn’t set any records yesterday; but I did have far and away the best bluegill session I’ve had in years.
I wasn’t keeping any. I injured perhaps two who’d swallowed the popper deep: hope they’ve recovered (or are recovering). I didn’t count. I doubt that it was fifty. I’m sure it wasn’t my personal record of eighty-five keepers. But it was plenty. Again and again, I thought “That’s enough. Go home.” But I couldn’t stop. I caught bluegills till dark.
Funny thing: I caught not one single bass. I wasn’t looking for bass with the fly rod, but several typically surprise one anyway.
When I get back to the lake in fine weather, camera along, especially to Big Island, I’ll take more pictures: and share them.
2012 10 20 I’ll tell what happened to my camera some other time, and what happened to my boat, why I’ve fished Lake Istokpoga so seldom since the FBI tried to destroy me: 95% succeeding.
Today, restoring this file, it took me a moment to figure what the hell “friend” I was talking about: she never was a friend, I’d just met her, her boy friend, new, firmly steered me away and cooled down her attention to me. I wish her well, him too, but she was never a friend; just a friend candidate. Nice house though, great location: if you like Lake Istokpoga. A previous friend, helper, then deceased, lived next door: that’s how I met this one, looking for the other, and asking a neighbor.
2016 12 30 This post introduces my favorite bass lake. I’ve been telling fishing stories, many of them wading stories on line since the mid-1990s. Yesterday Jan reported to me seeing a half a dozen girls on her Lake Charlotte trapped by winds blowing them and their craft away from their destination, one of the girls on a paddle board rowing her hardest but going backwards. The girls finally landed at a dock on our east side of the lake, far from their origina on the west shore. I hope they’re OK: regardless I’m reminded of a pair of couples I encountered on Lake Istokpoga a couple of decades ago.
I was fishing from my boat along a weed line on the north shore, Grassy Island to my back. I saw two couples wading, the lake’s black water up to their necks. I saw that I could avoid drifting near them but chose not to. I was suffering from my lifetime’s worst case of crotch rot, thanks to my love of wading that black water. I decided that warning these kids that they were inviting trouble trumped leaving them the privacy they’d forsaken by exploring the open water. As I got closer to them to girls got ever more hunched over, keeping the water at their necks. The guys waded upright, the water was at their chests. I presumed the girls were naked, or at least topless. Their nudity was for their own enjoyment, shared with their dates; not for the amusement of some old fart in a row boat, using oars, not a trolling motor, to guide his passage along the weedline. If it was impirtant enough to them they could have disappeared in among the rushes, they remained pinned long the water line though, visibly uncomfortable but not yet panicked. I called to them, told them I had something to warn them of: that I’d warn them, then leave them with that section of this huge lake to themselves. They stayed facing me, the girls hunched, the guys with them, me intruding.
I told them: I wade this water all the time. They didn’t; or I would already know them. That black water was rife with fungus. Fungus went for your toes, and also for your crotch. I asked their forgiveness, but I rolled my bathingwuit leg toward my goin. I kept my balls covered but showed them the red bloom of fungus. “Euew!” went the girls, now nauseous. “Ugh” echoed their guys.
“You won’t get it immediately, but keep wading and you will.”
I saluted them, reeled in my lure, cranked the Johnson, and mooted away from them. Never saw them again. Maybe they took my lesson to heart, maybe they learned to hide in the weeks. Good luck.
I pictured the seven girls helpless on Jan’s lake yesterday, and I remembered the trapped couples on Istokpoga of decades ago.