Crappie and bass primed for Big O comeback on Lake Okeechobee

Published online: Dec 09, 2010 News Susan Cocking - McClatchy Newspapers
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ON LAKE OKEECHOBEE, FLA. Captain Perry Johnson moved around the deck of his 28-foot pontoon boat, baiting 16 long crappie poles with live Missouri minnows and arranging them in rod holders spaced along the gunwales.

A small Honda generator whined softly, providing power to an array of deck lights that lit up the Kissimmee River canal like an airport runway.

Satisfied with his handiwork, Johnson sat down at the helm station and sipped on a soft drink.

"We've done our part - a jerk on one end waiting for a jerk on the other end," he chuckled, repeating an ancient angling cliche.

Johnson and his two companions didn't have to wait long. Within a couple of minutes, one of the fishing lines began bobbing erratically from the limber rod tip.

"There's one," Johnson said, unnecessarily.

Johnson's friend, captain Mike Krause, lifted the rod from its holder and swung a 12-inch crappie, or speckled perch, into the boat to be measured and dropped into a cooler of ice. It was the first of 75 "specks" the trio would catch in 21/2 hours of fishing. They never had to wait more than about 10 minutes between bites.

Johnson, who guides exclusively for crappie on Lake Okeechobee and Kentucky Lake, was elated.

"Last winter, I had 42 fish per trip average," he said. "This year, it's 65. It's back with a vengeance now."

Hearing this, Don Fox - a veteran Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biological administrator in Okeechobee - had to laugh.

"It's nowhere near where it can be," Fox said. "The crappie are doing well, but I know what they can do."

Fox and his colleagues have been conducting fish surveys on Lake Okeechobee and the nearby Kissimmee using otter trawl nets since 1973. The biologists' figures show crappie peaked in the mid 1980s, with 30 fish caught per minute. The last count, conducted last January, showed two fish per minute. Another survey is scheduled for January, and the numbers are likely to rise.

"They are so prolific. They can come around quick," Fox said.

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