Lake Toho

It was a hot June day in Kissimmee, Florida, but several rounds of storms kept water levels high at Lake Toho. When I talked to Bob about fishing the following day, he said there was a good morning bite on shiners, and he was free.

“I found one spot where some big ones bite for a few hours every morning,” Bob said. “We have a good chance of catching a big one there tomorrow,” he said.

He met me the next morning at my hotel. His beat-up truck pulled a borrowed Ranger. His boat was in the shop, he said.

At the ramp, a few other guides were launching their boats. Their boats were customized with advertising and phone numbers, and they were dressed like pros.

Bob, on the other hand, was unshaven, and looked like he had been through some rough years. However, I was reassured by his confidence in his choice of spots and the fact that he got up at 4:00 a.m. to secure the best shiners around. “Without good shiners,” he said, “we would just catch fish around 2-4 pounds like these other guys,” he said, pointing to the other guides who had just pulled out.

When we idled out, it was still dark outside, but once he motored past the buoy, he gunned it to about 60 mph, flying past matted vegetation and other wood hazards without flinching.

The deep orange color of the sunrise started to light up the sky, and a few minutes later, we anchored to the first spot.

He baited up quickly and had me throw out three lines with big, lively shiners. He warned me that we probably would not get bit right away, but we were at the exact spot for a big fish.

He was right. We waited for about 15 minutes, just moving baits around, keeping them away from burying themselves in the cover. After that, we began to catch fish immediately. The first fish pulled the shiner down and away, and I reeled in the slack and set the hook. The big bass did not seem to budge and steered my line out and around the boat to deeper water, away from the thick weed line.

“It looks like a decent fish,” Bob said, right as the fish made a hard run on the 20-pound test line. A few more runs, and I was breathing hard and worried about losing the fish. About then, the fish was at the side of the boat and Bob netted it.

The fish was so black compared to the bass I was used to catching. It’s body frame was so long and big. The heads on these Florida bass were giant. I could never get over that, no matter how many Florida bass I see. I always think they are bigger than they are too.

“Eight pounds?” I asked.

“No, like 6-4, but a good fish nonetheless,” Bob said.

He took a picture of me with the fish, and I threw it back.

We did not even have time to re-bait that rod, and another fish had the cork and shiner under water. I reeled in slack and set the hook, playing the fish hard to keep it away from the weed line where it headed. The fish went for a powerful run toward deeper water. All of a sudden, I could not reel any more. I was panicking. I did not know what was happening. This had to be a record bass. My reel was moving all over, and I could not pull line in.

Bob saw the problem and grabbed my reel and held it while I reeled. The reel had busted loose from the rod somehow. The fight was extremely tiring and strange, making it difficult to gauge how much line I was pulling in and where the fish was.

After what seemed like 15 minutes, we had the fish on the side of the boat, and I held my breath, expecting to see a new state record.

Bob netted the fish and held it up. It looked big to me.

“Six and a half,” he said.

“That’s all?” I asked.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Bob smiled. “These bass are the strongest fish anywhere, with all this Kissimmee grass and these lily pads. They are aggressive and feisty. Have you ever had a fish break the welded parts off your reel?” he asked.

“No, not even in salt water.”

He showed me where the fish had broken the Abu Garcia reel at the weld. The flat piece was still held in the rod. The rest of the reel was severed from the clamp.

We put the fish back without a picture. We were talking too much. We re-baited all three lines and waited for some time.

Maybe 20 minutes later, one cork went down. I watched it as it continue down. It wasn’t a gar; it was a big bass. I reeled up the slack and set the hook. I could tell it was a big fish because I set the hook hard and did not even move the fish.

Bob was yelling at me. “Steer it away from the weeds!”

I tried, but the fish was going that way. I turned the rod and angled it differently, and the fish turned out to deeper water. It worked. The fish ran out in deeper water for a while before it jumped. It was big, not coming out of the water all the way, but still showing its immense size.

After a few incidents at the side of the boat and having to stick my rod in the water at least once, the fish came up, and Bob netted it.

When I saw the size of the fish, I knew it was one of the biggest I have ever caught. It had to be 12.5 pounds.

“Nice fish!” Bob said. “Did I tell you about this spot, or what?”

“Yeah, you were right,” I said.

We took some pictures of the fish. “Do you want to weigh it, Bob?”

“I don’t need to,” Bob said. “It’s exactly 9-8, maybe 9-10.”

“That’s all? How can you tell?”

“I’ve weighed hundreds this size.”

“Really? No way,” I said.

“You don’t believe that? I’ll show you a spot smaller than one acre that has over 100 fish that weigh between 12 and 15 pounds each.

I threw the fish back in the lake. “OK. You’ve got my attention.”

“The spot is hit or miss on the bite. Florida bass do not bite easily. You have to find the right time and place. However, I know this spot has these fish because I have been scuba diving there a few different times,” he said.

We fished for a few more hours, and I landed about 12 additional fish up to 8.5 pounds.

By the time we reeled in the rods and motored to the other spot of legends, it was hot, and the sun was overhead.  I did not mind since I was already on an adrenaline rush from the big fish I had caught earlier.

As Bob used the trolling motor to head into the isolated area, he told me the story. He and a famous fisheries biologist found the spot some years ago. “I have never seen so many big fish in one spot. I am not exaggerating when I say there were 100-150 fish. Also, they were all over 10 pounds. Some were 15 pounds. It was an unusual time when the water had not been churned up for a while and we could actually see some feet in front of us. That is the only way you can know how big those fish were. Sonar would not work here because they scatter so fast. The water is too shallow, and they are spooked easily.”

“Did you fish this spot a lot?” I asked.

“No. We kept the pressure off the fish because the Bassmaster Top 150 was going to be here, and we wanted our friend to get to fish the spot.”

I asked him more about the incident. I had been busy with my own fisheries project and had not been keeping up with Bassmaster and the professional tournaments. Bob claimed that they helped Dean Rojas win the 2001 Bassmaster Top 150 Tournament with this spot. Although I would not be able to verify any of this, I believe Bob’s story. After all, he was not lying about the big bass spots that only he knew about and had reserved for me.

Later I learned the other guides had a tough day since it was so hot and only landed fish to four pounds. On the way back to the hotel, Bob was congratulating me on a 37.75 pound 5-fish stringer.

“How did you know it exactly?” I asked.

“I figured it out in my head. I was thinking about Rojas’ 45 pound one-day stringer and wondered what you caught today. I have been doing this a long time! It’s time I started fishing for marlin or another saltwater species. Bassmaster has about ruined this lake with fishing pressure now. In fact, I would say Bassmaster is the worst and most destructive thing that has ever happened to this sport.”

I asked him to explain, and it did not take him more than a few sentences citing evidence that convinced me what he said was true.

 Video of the 2001 Bassmaster Top 150 Tournament at Lake Toho