SEBRING — At Thursday night’s Lake Istokpoga Management Plan workshop, Joy Hazel asked attendees to raise hands if they fish for bass, crappie, bluegill, gar fish or catfish.
“Are we missing any fish?” she asked. “We are,” several residents replied.
John Benson, a 16-year resident on the lake, said it was one of the top 10 lakes in Florida for fishing. But now, he said, even seasoned competitive bass fishermen can barely pull enough fish out the lake to total six pounds at weigh in.
He and other residents blame herbicide spraying by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which they say has ruined the habitat for fish, especially bass.
The 28,000-acre lake, 10 miles long and five miles wide, is Florida’s fifth largest. Benson said the average depth is 3-4 feet. It’s a top-heavy diamond-shaped lake with a couple of islands and wide-open waters.
Water flows in from two creeks on the north, one of them Arbuckle Creek. Water flows out through two canals to the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee.
Benson said residents have seen five boats a day, for three years, spraying aquatic vegetation. During that time, he said, fishing has diminished.
FWC officials said Thursday that they have focused on water lettuce and water hyacinth, but have left hydrilla alone.
Residents said, however, that the herbicides have taken out hydrilla, which resident Les Swann said the bass use to hide until they are big enough to fend for themselves.
“Hydrilla is the habitat. Without hydrilla, it is a dead sea,” Benson said, “The (fishing) guides on Lake Istokpoga are basically done.”
As anglers go away to different lakes, they take their money normally paid to fish camps; to buy food, drink and gasoline; get lodging, or see other sights in the area.
Bob Walker, who has sold bait out of Performance Marine in Lake Placid, said anglers spend $150 just to fill their boats with gasoline. Then they have to fuel their trucks and get food.
“The fishing industry in Florida is a big, big industry,” Walker said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry for Florida.”
Hazel, with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, was facilitating Thursday to help FWC officials gather input for a management plan.
The O.S. “Sam” Polston Auditorium at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center had well more than 100 in attendance, most residents, anglers and people whose business serves freshwater fishing.
Hazel had them break up into five smaller groups to give direct input to other facilitators. By the end of the session, each group’s written suggestions said FWC should stop spraying now and move to mechanical removal of invasive exotic plants.
Swann said not all exotic plants are bad. In addition to sheltering bass fry, he said hydrilla helps filter impurities out of the water.
“They’re going to have to leave it alone,” Swann said. “That water now is like coffee.”
Hazel later said those suggestions would be incorporated into the plan. However, the plan itself won’t get written until approximately April, and won’t get implemented until the end of the year.
Residents asked if the lake has a year left as a fishery.
Eric Johnson, director of the FWC Division of Freshwater Fisheries, said he believes, based on random fish population surveys, that it does. However, he also gave the caveat that the sampling method — shocking the water with electricity to see how many stunned fish float to the surface — is affected by the temperature of the water, how many weeds are in the water and how many fish are in that one part of the lake.
Mark LeBlanc of Del Ray Beach, an engineer who stays at his house on the lake 30 weekends per year, asked if Johnson has data to show that bass numbers have declined. Johnson said it’s a computer-aided sample, and there’s no way to keep an accurate census of the fish.
“If you can’t say it’s trending up or down, what (good) is your data?” LeBlanc asked.
Johnson said, with “thousands and thousands” of fish in the lake, this is the only efficient way to estimate their numbers.
After the meeting, LeBlanc told the Highlands News-Sun that FWC should ask the anglers as they come to shore how many fish are there — a suggestion many brought up at the meeting.
Remo Beaver, who has spent 47 years of the lake — 37 years as a guide, said the lake was once so abundant, northern visitors would come and fill up freezers by catching their limit several days in a row.
“It wasn’t nothing to go out and catch 20 fish,” Beaver said. “Back then, tournaments would keep and fry the fish.”
One tournament in recent memory, he said, only had two boats catch any fish.
“Almost nobody gets the limit,” Beaver said.
Beth Degnan, Highlands Park Estates resident, said she moved to Lake Istokpoga from the coast for the fishing: bluegill. She used to be able to catch dozens in a day, she said.
Now, most days, she can barely get two.
Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Rolans & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort in Clewiston, said he was told spraying was being used because it was one-tenth the $236 million price tag for mechanical harvesting.
Iglesias said it’s not just that the lake is losing its plants. They die, fall to the bottom and leave build up of herbicide-laced plants.
“It’s the decay that’s upsetting the lake,” Iglesias said.
Friday morning, the Lake Istokpoga Management Committee met, also at the Agricultural Center, and made suggestions of things they could check to see what also might be affecting either the fish or the aquatic plants they need.
Bill Dwinell of the Friends of Istokpoga Lake Association said the proposed management plan does not have information about aquatic weed control, but it should.
Cole Harty, FWC biologist, said he’s seen high numbers of fish with the shock surveys, but said he would pay more attention to the surveys of anglers coming off the lake and those participating in bass tournaments.
Geoff Lokuta, regional biologist for the FWC Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, Invasive Species Management Section, said FWC will focus on the floating plants, not emerging vegetation.
“We try to be as selective as possible,” Lokuta said. “We try to minimize damage.”
If anyone sees something that looks like overspraying, Lokuta asks that they document the time and place, including coordinates, and get a photo, if they can. The more information he has as soon as possible, the more likely he can do something, he said.
He also said people can call his office at 863-578-1122 or email him at Geoffrey.Lokuta@MyFWC.com.
Beacham Furse with FWC Aquatic Habitat Restoration and Enhancement said they have been planting cages of grasses — the cages protect the grasses from fish and turtles until they grow tall enough to survive. The spike rush is doing well, but eel grass is not, he said.
He expects to do a soil investigation in the next month, just to see if there is herbicide in the lake bed.
Bert Galloway, lake resident, said if there is anything in the lake bed, it may have washed in from the uplands by way of Arbuckle Creek.
Furse also said Hurricane Irma may have destroyed most of the bud-like propagules from which hydrilla reproduces.
Lokuta said that may be a reason for a low amount of hydrilla. With no propagules, they won’t have new tubers taking root and growing up to the surface.
Johnson asked for FWC staff to come up with a plan to investigate what may have happened, and to bring it to the committee for vetting.