Bass Times: Storms bring welcome water to South Florida

LAKEPORT, Fla. — By late summer vast areas of Lake Okeechobee were dry or inaccessible because of prolonged drought. Anglers stayed away. Bait shops closed. Local economies suffered.

Then along came a pair of tropical storms named Fay and Hannah. Rain associated with those storms poured not only into Lake Okeechobee but also into the upper watershed far to the north. In just one week, Okeechobee rose more than 2 1/2 feet, the fastest one-week climb on record. In one month — Aug. 8 to Sept. 8 — it rose more than 4 feet, an incredible volume of water even for this massive but shallow fishery, once a natural lake but now regulated as a flood-control reservoir.

Guides and anglers were ecstatic — until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started draining the lake.

The first reason given was to protect the 70-year-old dike system from breach.

"Don't you think the time to repair the dike was during the two years the lake was at an all-time low?" asked Rick Persson, vice president of South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration.

"Hopefully, they will leave enough water in the lake to support a fishing industry that has suffered enough already."

 But then fisheries biologists correctly pointed out that too much water too fast would drown beneficial vegetation that had taken root during the drought. A preferred rate of rise would be about a foot a month.

"That would allow plants to grow, come up, adapt," said Don Fox, a state fisheries biologist.

 "We've got water, but if the habitat goes away, what have we gained?" he continued. "It's not like add water, stir, and you have fish."

Pulse releases by the Corps kept the lake at about 15 feet as October neared, with two months of hurricane season remaining.

"People think we're draining the lake," said Corps spokesman Barry Vorse. "In this situation, we can't drain the lake. All we can do is lower the rate of rise."

That procedure doesn't sit well with those who want to protect coastal estuaries (see related story at right), but it should help Okeechobee once more rebound from drought to become a productive fishery, said Sam Griffin, a lure designer and angler who grew up fishing this lake.

"This is typical of what happens when a drought ends," he explained. "I've seen it happen several times in my lifetime. The key is to keep the water level at 13 to 15 feet, and if the Corps can do that, there shouldn't be a problem."

While a few anglers reported better fishing almost immediately, Griffin added that lake-wide improvement will take more time. Low water pushed bass out into the main lake and now high water is allowing them to scatter.

He reported catching just two fish and having "three more strikes" during a recent day on the water.

But he saw much to be optimistic about, including lots of baitfish in the reflooded shallows. "There's good water in Cochran's Pass now. And acres and acres of water in Turner's Cove, which had been all choked up."

Water clarity near Clewiston, he added, extends to 4 feet, "with grass way out into the lake."

As the weather cools, the fish will start coming in to spawn and that's when they will repopulate the shorelines, Griffin theorized. "That should be within the next 30 to 60 days. And with thousands of acres of new grass, we should have a tremendous spawn."

Unfortunately, more storms and hurricanes could dramatically alter that scenario.

BASS Times will continue to monitor the situation.

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