Fishing Florida’s Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee, also known as “Big O", is the largest lake in Florida and the eighth largest lake in the United States. Lake Okeechobee is also arguably one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in the country. The lake is nearly 33 miles wide from its northern to southern shores and approximately 30 miles wide between its eastern to western banks, covering roughly 700 square miles in total surface area. The lake is shallow with an average depth of 6-9 feet, varying with rain fall and inflow from the Kissimmee River and other smaller freshwater sources flowing from the north and west. The bottom of the lake is composed mostly of sand, mud, and rock. The north, west and south sides of the lake are typically covered with shallow grasses and aquatic plants, making it prime habitat for birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish.

First-time visitors are sometimes disappointed when attempting to view Lake Okeechobee as it is often obscured behind flood control levees and structures in several places, including a 30 foot earthen dam in one section that runs nearly 143 miles in length. In the past century, Lake Okeechobee has flowed over its manmade dams and retaining walls, resulting in heavy destruction of surrounding areas and loss of life.

After the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, a large system of levees was built around the lake. Following two hurricanes in 1947 further dike expansion was undertaken. The water management project extended into the 1960s and resulted in almost the entire lake enclosed by dikes. Today, numerous locks and pumping stations are located along the dike, providing water managers some control of Okeechobee’s water levels and outflows to the south. The lake is almost totally surrounded by a rim canal created when rock was mined to construct the levee.

“Big O” Weather

Always check local weather conditions before heading out on the water or fishing from shore, particularly on Lake Okeechobee. In winter months, daytime temperatures can on occasion drop into the thirties for short periods of time. Summer months are typically hot and humid, and late afternoon thunderstorms can sometimes spawn sudden tornadoes and water spouts as well as dangerous lightning strikes. Because of the sheer size of Lake Okeechobee and its shallow depth, the lake can become dangerous to inattentive boaters during storms and cold fronts. Before venturing onto Lake Okeechobee by boat, be sure the vessel is well equipped for bad weather and keep a frequent eye on the sky. Maps of the lake are available at local tackle shops and should be kept on-hand.

Fishing Lake Okeechobee

Largemouth bass are often located in and around Lake Okeechobee’s many shallow weed beds, pad fields, flooded willow bushes and stands of small trees. Most weedless or semi-weedless lures that can be fished in this cover can catch bass, including worms, flukes, plastic frogs and buzz baits. Hard, top water lures must be accurately cast alongside grassy cover areas or back in holes to be effective. In the spring, weightless baits are a good choice for bedding fish. Shallow running lipless crankbaits pulled over grass 2-3 feet under the surface are also often used with success. Because Okeechobee cover is shallow and thick, heavier line is frequently used. When fishing the rim canal, diving crank baits pulled over and alongside rocks, riprap and sunken tree limbs can help catch larger fish especially when water is moving.

Local favorite soft plastic bait colors on Lake Okeechobee can vary by season but include black, dark blue, purple and June Bug. Green with red flake and baby-bass colored flukes are also popular. Chartreuse and white spinnerbaits with gold or silver blades are preferred with fire-tiger and bright chartreuse crankbaits working well in the lake’s darker stained waters.

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Bass can be caught nearly anywhere in or around Lake Okeechobee. The large and small canals surrounding the lake contain numerous holes and ledges and are generally under fished. When the wind gusts, water often is moved in and out of the canals creating currents that attract feeding fish. The key to finding good bass fishing in Lake Okeechobee is locating “clean” or clear water, undisturbed by natural sediment and debris. Clean water can often be found by heading further back inside the lake’s many bays, coves and airboat trails.

Fishing Northern and Eastern Shores of Lake Okeechobee

The City of Okeechobee offers anglers the most amenities and points to access the lake on the northern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Many City of Okeechobee hotels cater to fisherman with boat trailer parking as well as battery charging hookups. The Kissimmee River empties into Lake Okeechobee nearby and close to Okee-Tanti Park. Okee-Tanti Park is the main launching area for anglers on the north end of the lake, with numerous club and local bass tournaments held each weekend throughout the year.

North of the lake, the Kissimmee River connects Lake Okeechobee to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes through six manned navigational locks. The river itself is a lesser known but still an excellent bass fishery which can help save a fishing trip when poor conditions are found on the lake. Locking through the river is initiated by pulling the alarm rope attached to each lock’s pier and signaling boater intentions to the lock operator.

Between the mouth of Kissimmee River and the City of Okeechobee is the Eagle Bay area of the lake. The bay includes a large area of flooded grass, pads and cover inside of Little Grassy Island. Top water fishing can be excellent early and late in the day. During the day, different styles of plastic worms can help catch sizeable fish.

Anglers may find that parts of the east side of Lake Okeechobee are more sparsely covered with vegetation and structure than the west side of the lake. Still, there is plenty of good fishing to be found. A large pumping station is located near the east levee which can produce good fishing when water is moving. Traveling farther south from the pumping station is the lock to the J&S Canal, named for the local fish camp with the same name. The J&S canal with its numerous rocks and ledges is known for holding big fish. Large black plastic worms can be productive when fished on the deep cuts in the lake bottom formed when the canals were originally dug.

Fishing Western Shores of Lake Okeechobee

Rounding Horse Island and heading west near the small city of Lakeport takes anglers close to Fisheating Bay and the famous “Monkey Box". The Monkey Box was named for a navigational beacon that was once housed inside a wooden box at the top of an old channel marker pole and that resembled a monkey’s head. Time and weather have since destroyed the marker, but the name lives on. This area contains miles of bullrushes, maiden cane, aquatic plants and good fishable structure. It is fed on the west by Fisheating Creek and the Harney Canal. The rim canal connects Fisheating Bay to the southern end of Lake Okeechobee, creating a safe navigational path in bad weather. In times of high water, nearby Moonshine Bay becomes a major bass spawning area. This area of flooded grass is between Observation Shoal and the old Moore Haven Canal. Plastic frogs, spinner baits and buzz baits can help catch many bass throughout the year.

Numerous small canals and airboat trails crisscross and intersect in the grass behind Observation Shoal. Traveling further south along the shoreline is the entrance to Mayaka Cut, a canal leading from the main lake to Uncle Joe’s Camp on the rim canal near the small City of Moore Haven. The rim canal intersection in this area can also be good for fishing when the wind is moving water.

Offshore between Moore Haven and Clewiston is Rocky Reef. Rocky Reef is a hard offshore bar about seven miles north of the City of Clewiston. Care must be taken when running in this area as the reef is exposed in times of low water.

Fishing Southern Shores of Lake Okeechobee

The popular Clewiston area near the southern end of Lake Okeechobee is the home of numerous fish camps, restaurants, lodges and motels. Roland Martin’s Marina and Resort is located here along with the historic Clewiston Inn. A large public boat ramp is well maintained by the city nearby and with plentiful parking.

Running out the Clewiston Channel along the Spoil Islands leads to East and West Grass Wall, Coot Bay and islands to the south. The far south end of the lake is covered with reeds, bulrushes and aquatic cover, including deep dynamite holes along the rim canal created when rock was mined to construct the levee. Three small Islands, Kramer, Torry and Ritta, are located in this southern lake area as well. Be aware of where the rim canal passes a cut in the bank that is open to the main lake. When wind moves water through these cuts, it often attracts bass looking to catch a quick meal flowing with any resulting current. Working a rigged worm along the bottom with the wind can be a reliable method of catching fish in these sections. The bass fishing far back in Ritta and Grassy Islands can also be particularly good if the water level is high enough.

Nearby, a small, well maintained boat ramp is located at South Bay on the rim canal. Farther north is Slim’s Fish Camp, a popular Okeechobee angling outpost, RV park, tackle shop and boat ramp since the 1930s.

The southeastern shoreline past Grassy Island contains Long Point and Pelican Bay just off Kramer Island. This area of heavy grass has been known to hold a good population of bass. Numerous irrigation canals and airboat trails crisscross this area as well. Kramer Island was once the location of the small religious settlement of Chosen. The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 killed thousands in the area surrounding Belle Glade, destroying their homes and the village. A few building foundations can still be found back in the grass. And Pelican Bay has long been a favorite with bass fishermen who travel far back into the grass to find clean water.

Across Pelican Bay is the City of Pahokee. The small dredged islands nearby and channels adjacent to the local airport are known as good bass holding areas. The rocky east side of the lake up to the Okeechobee Waterway entrance at Canal Point is more sparsely covered and lightly fished.

The Okeechobee Waterway stretches across Florida from Fort Myers on the west coast to Stuart on Florida’s east coast. A system of channels runs through Lake Okeechobee connecting the Caloosahatchee River to the west of the lake and the St. Lucie Canal east of the lake. In times of low water, the channel across the lake can become too shallow for deep draft boats, sometimes forcing them to navigate around the main lake through the southern rim canal.

A Florida Treasure

Lake Okeechobee continues to be one of Florida’s most treasured natural assets. The lake provides a unique natural habitat for alligators, turtles, wading birds and other wildlife. It supplies essential water for people, farms and the environment across much of Florida. The lake also provides flood protection for the region and attracts boating, fishing and recreational visitors from around the world. Whether an angler has many years of experience or is new to the sport, Lake Okeechobee ranks as one of the premier bass fisheries in the country and a trip of a lifetime for many anglers lucky enough to enjoy time on its waters.

Baitstick supports efforts to build the next generation of anglers nationwide, including the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF) and The Outdoor Foundation