Fishing Lines: Bruisers with big mouths

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The Independent Online
THE TOWN of Okechobee in central Florida almost doubles in size at this time of year. Drive through it, and you'll wonder why. It is a sprawling mess of motels, fast food and cheap shops. A brochure about the place claims it is uncrowded, affordable and unspoiled, which may have been true in the 1920s but certainly isn't now.

The same brochure even has a section on Okechobee culture. A bit of creative writing, that, for a town where every bar offers two types of music (country and western), where Richard Johnson appearing live is the weekend highlight and where the showrooms only sell cars that are good for towing.

But Okechobee does have one thing going for it, and I'm not talking about its 3,000 campsites. As all readers fluent in Seminole Indian will know, Okechobee means "great water, cannot see other side". The lake is 748 square miles, the second largest body of fresh water in the US. It is also one of the best places in the country, let alone Florida, to catch largemouth bass.

I'm here in a bid to understand the obsession that Americans have for micropterus salmoides. Bass fishing was once on the same social scale as hunting raccoons. Now it's a vast business. Latest figures show that Florida sold 1.13 million non-resident fishing licences. Most of them wanted to catch bass. There are bass rods, reels and lures. There are bass shops, magazines, boats, guides. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (Bass) sponsors a Nascar racing team.

More than 100,000 people attended the final of last year's Bass Classic week. There's a professional tour circuit and big money for the top dogs. Though the reigning champ Denny Brauer only won $150,000 for his victory (other contests offer more than twice as much), endorsements will bump this up sky-high, with free clothing, boats, cars and enough tackle to open a shop.

So how do you catch bass from an inland sea, a lake so vast it has its own weather? Answer: you hire a guide. This is not difficult because every other shop in Okechobee sells fishing tackle and each shop offers its own guides. A guide is someone who owns his own boat and calls himself "captain", a bit grand for the owner of a 12ft boat, even if it does sport a 200hp outboard. But every guide I found, including one who had been doing the job for six weeks and worked in a bakery at night, sported the title on his business cards.

The first one I fished with was Eddie. He drove his boat so fast I felt my face was changing shape. When he pointed out an alligator sunning itself on the surface, we had already passed it. Eddie had moved down from Ohio when he discovered how much more amenable the weather was. But he knew his stuff. I hooked a bass after a minute's fishing. When my half-day's fishing ($160) was over, I had caught about 20, several of them around 4lb.

In shape, they are vaguely similar to our sea bass, but the freshwater strain is a rich texture of brown, green and silver. They are fierce hunters: bruisers was the word that came to mind as I admired one. They don't seem to grow longer: their mouths just seem to get bigger. My largest fish could easily engulf my clenched fist.

I also captured two fish I had never seen before: a Florida gar, which looks like an alligator with fins, and a bowfin, locally called mudfish. The latter is the lone survivor of a large family now found only as fossils. It has an air bladder connected to the throat and used as a lung, enabling them to live in water unsuitable for other fish. I can't tell you any more about it except that it was brown. Eddie unhooked this and the gar in seconds, dismissing them as "trash fish". In the eyes of guides, bass are top of the tree.

"Ever fish for trout, Eddie?" I asked. "Yeah, I did that. Salmon, too. Then I found out about bass."

Which was more than I did that day, with distractions such as hunting ospreys, alligators and bald eagles. It was only when I met Reno that I started to understand a little of the bass mystique. I'll tell you about that, and the heart-shaped jacuzzi, next week.