Professional angler Scott Martin’s record-breaking win on Lake Okeechobee was a bittersweet victory for the Clewiston native. While he reveled in catching the most bass by weight in a 3-day Bassmaster tournament on the big lake Feb. 1-3, the conditions that made the fishing in the lake’s Harney Pond area so spectacular are the same conditions that could destroy the bass fishery.
“The lake is 467,000 acres,” Scott explained. “Right now, our fishable water is probably reduced down to 20,000 acres around the lake. We have zero acres of SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) left. We have cattails and emergent vegetation, but no SAV.”
“There was about a 5-acre area of lake that the water stayed clean,” he explained. “All of these fish are so desperate for clean, clear water they are flooding into these acres. Bass only using a small percentage of the lake. They need clarity in the water for spawning. They seek a bedding spot. They seek certain conditions. Fish need clean, clear water with hard bottom to spawn. They need to get sunlight to the beds so the beds warm. In this whole area there are only five acres that are prime for these fish.”
While conditions make for great fishing in the short term, this is hurting the future of the fishery.
“All we are doing is hurting the bass population,” said Martin. “We are hurting the reproductive cycle. We had 90 boats in a 5-acre spot. We’re not giving the fish in the lake a chance to reproduce.
Lake Okeechobee’s current environmental problems are due to high water and the spraying of chemicals to kill invasive non-native aquatic plants, Martin said. In addition, state and federal agencies in charge of the lake have failed to invest any resources in improving the habitat.
Currently there are only four or five areas around the lake where the fish can spawn, Martin said. “Each year, we lose another one of those areas.”
The lake cannot withstand the high-water levels, he said. “The current path we are on, it can’t withstand it. We’re going to fail.”
Martin said during the three days of the Bassmaster tournament, anglers were crowding into a few small areas.
“We thrive on tourism around this lake,” he continued. People come here to enjoy the vast beauty of the Big O, where they can feel like they are alone with nature.
“Who wants to come to Lake O and sit in a circle of boats, instead of a vast fishery where you were off by yourself? Now you are reduced to fishing in a crowd,” he explained.
Lake Okeechobee deserves the same protection given to the Everglades and to the coastal estuaries, he said.
“We have to get the water level down to an acceptable level,” he said. “Grass cannot grow in 16 feet of water. The water levels at this level prevent any new vegetation from growing. We have to maintain it at a level that allows that grass to reproduce.”
Martin wants the state to earmark millions of dollars for Lake Okeechobee habitat restoration.
“The state is spending billions of dollars east, west, north and south of the lake,” he said. “They are currently not spending any money in Lake Okeechobee. They need to come up with plans. We have to focus on that immediately, not in five years, not next year. We need it now.
“Why can we spend billions of dollars around the lake but zero in the lake? If we’re managing the water level today at 15.5 to 17.25, why don’t we just dump the lake water out and start over and manage it from 13 to 15.5 feet? Get the two feet of the lake whenever you can get it out and start over. It’s the same amount of effort – you just have to get the water out one time.
“If you rebuild the filter in the lake, the lake is filtering its own water, which is the way it should be,” Martin said. “Lake Okeechobee is a natural lake, God made lake not man-made. We’ve put people in charge of managing the lake and they are not managing it right. No one has the right to kill Lake O.”
Martin said the people who live around Lake Okeechobee have the same rights as those who live on the coast, and Lake Okeechobee should have the same rights as the Everglades.
“We have to take care of Lake Okeechobee,” he said. “Doing nothing is going to destroy our resource and at the same time you are not going to solve any of the issues.”
Martin said you no longer see ducks on the lake because their food source is gone. “For the history of mankind, they had food here.”
“What rights do the fish have to spawn and reproduce?” he asked. “What rights do the manatees have that are left to eat sprayed grass?”