With so many outstanding fishing destinations in Central Florida, anglers might overlook even a truly excellent lake. That tends to be the case with Lake Istokpoga, a veritable fish factory frequently overshadowed by nearby Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Chain.
Lake Istokpoga spans 27,692 acres in Highlands County, making it the fifth-largest lake in Florida as well as one of its best fishing destinations.
It’s especially known for great bass fishing. And although there are more likely spots to catch trophy bass in the Sunshine State, Lake Istokpoga offers a fair shot at a 10-pounder along with one of the highest bass catch rates in Florida.
Fishing for black crappie (known as speckled perch or ‘specks’ in these parts) is also excellent, especially during the cooler months.
Istokpoga’s abundant and diverse vegetation is a breeding ground for many types of game fish.
And although the lake spans a large area, it is also quite shallow, like many Florida Lakes. The deepest part of the lake has a depth of just 10 feet, making Lake Istokpoga an excellent spot for anglers who enjoy fishing shallow cover.
Lake Istokpoga supports a healthy and stable largemouth bass population with good numbers of fish in just about every size class. Few lakes in Florida produce more bass per acre.
Most of these fish are in the 2- to 5-pound range, with occasional bass between 8 and 10 pounds. Individuals bigger than that are rare, but anglers bagged a pair of 13-pound largemouths in 2018, so it’s not impossible.
Patterns vary throughout the seasons, but the key to locating bass is almost always vegetation. And this lake has a lot of it. Spadderdock, bulrushes, cattails, eelgrass, hyacinth and pondweed are widespread, and Kissimmee grass provides excellent cover, especially in the southern part of the lake.
Hydrilla might be the one plant that provides the best bass cover. Bass often seek shelter below and between mats of hydrilla, especially in summer. Look for areas where those floating masses of hydrilla on the surface are close to less-mature hydrilla that hasn’t yet reached as high.
Summer can also be the most challenging time to fish. Punching through thick vegetation with soft plastics to get to the bass below can be a frustrating approach, but it’s often the best bet. There can also be an excellent topwater bite when the sun is low.
But as the water cools and rains bring rising water levels in fall, bass become more inclined to leave the shade and hunt in shallow water. As a result, the cooler months provide some of the best bass fishing.
Areas around the mouths of creeks and canals are excellent places to fish in late fall and winter, especially when the canal gates are open, allowing some current that attracts baitfish and bass to these areas.
Arbuckle Creek and Josephine Creek are great spots that feed Lake Istokpoga. In addition, the Istokpoga Canal drains the lake, and the mouth of this canal is also an excellent spot when the water is flowing.
During a warm year, bass might start to spawn as early as January. More often, the spawn gets underway in February, and March is a safe bet to fish for hefty bass as they bed down.
Soft plastic creature baits, lizards and craws are great lures during the spawn. In the early season, look for bedding bass in the smaller residential canals connecting to the lake. One’s ability to sight fish depends on water clarity, but these areas tend to be clearer due to being protected from the wind.
No matter the season, anglers can almost always catch bass around the large, grassy islands in the southern half of Lake Istokpoga. Big Island and Bumblebee Island are perennial bass hangouts.
The ideal lure selection depends on the day, but lipless crankbaits, Zoom Flukes and willow leaf spinnerbaits are all productive options. Soft plastics are often more effective around light cover, and some days you just can’t beat dead-sticking a Senko.
As in many Florida lakes, local fishing guides more often rely on live gold shiners to hook big bass for their clients. Hook a shiner through the lip on an octopus hook, and either fish it beneath a float or let it drift on the windward side of grass and hydrilla beds.
Catch More Bass
Lake Istokpoga made our roster of the best bass fishing spots in Florida. What other lakes and rivers made our list?
Also, if you’re still learning to catch America’s favorite game fish, a good starting point is our easy guide to bass fishing techniques, lures and other insights.
Just as vegetation is the key to finding bass in Lake Istokpoga, veteran anglers say the same for crappies. The best speck fishing in Lake Istokpoga takes place during the cooler months, when they’re most likely to school together.
That starts to happen in the fall. From October through December, the best crappie fishing often is in the lake’s southwest corner, which is also the deepest. Crappies start to school up in the deep area as the water cools.
Drifting and long-line trolling in open water are most anglers’ go-to methods during fall and early winter. There’s a real advantage to covering as much water as possible this time of year. Crappies can be tricky to locate much of the year, but they bite readily once found.
Temperature plays a huge role as winter continues. A string of warm days can draw crappies into the shallowest (i.e. warmest) available water. But, conversely, a cold snap can just as quickly send them back toward deeper territory.
The broad, weedy flats in the lake’s northeast corner also start to pick up as winter rolls on. Locals load up on crappies by drifting fathead minnows—sometimes marketed as Missouri minnows in this area—or grass shrimp over broad sandy flats near the edges of bulrushes and cattails.
Those rushes and cattails will play a key role once spawning begins. The speck spawn takes place just ahead of the bass spawn. Anglers can catch spawning fish in January most years, with excellent shallow fishing continuing well into spring.
Throughout the late winter and early spring period, crappies can be caught in and around shallow vegetation throughout the lake, usually in 4 feet of water or less. Areas around any islands have potential, including the small one known as Grass Island toward the north end.
Live bait still yields heavy catches this time of year, but casting and retrieving Beetle Spins and Roadrunner jigs can also be a lot of fun. And sometimes nothing works quite so well as dipping small jigs into pockets among the lily pads in Henderson’s Cove.
Once the lake starts to really warm up, and the angle of the sunlight becomes harsher in late spring, crappies disperse, and the fishing peters out. Later in the season, fishing right around sunset is the best bet.
Lake Istokpoga could be described as more of a numbers lake than a trophy fishery for crappies, but there are a lot of 14-inch-plus specks here. Most years, anglers start catching smaller fish early in the season, followed by larger ones a little later.
Catch More Crappie
Lake Istokpoga also made our select rundown of the best crappie (speckled perch) fishing lakes in Florida.
Boost your crappie IQ by reading through the lure, bait and tackle suggestions plus tactics in our simple crappie fishing guide.
Other Fish Species
Bluegill & Sunfish
Lake Istokpoga is known for excellent panfish action for bluegill and redear sunfish, often collectively known as bream. Both species are abundant and reach impressive sizes, but the latter, also known as shellcrackers, are especially large here.
Plenty of shellcrackers measuring 12 inches and weighing a pound or more are caught from Lake Istokpoga. The best fishing for them is during the 10 days around a full moon from spring through summer.
Bluegill and redear sunfish spawn prolifically in late spring, with the peak for shellcracker usually happening from April into May. Bluegill often continue to spawn sporadically throughout the summer.
Look for colonies of hollowed-out nests throughout shallow parts of the lake, especially in areas with shell bed bottoms. Bluegill usually spawn in just 2 or 3 feet of water, but shellcracker favor slightly deeper areas.
These panfish bite readily on live red worms and grass shrimp on ultralight tackle. Try using a small float to suspend your bait just off the bottom, or simply fish on the bottom using an Aberdeen hook and a light split-shot sinker.
Catch More Bream
Not many types of fishing are as simply joyful as getting into a bunch of eagerly biting panfish. Be ready for action with our easy guide to catching bluegill and other types of sunfish.
Catfish don’t get a lot of attention from anglers in Lake Istokpoga, but there are plenty of them around. Anglers most frequently target channel catfish, but brown bullheads and white catfish are also available.
Most channel cats in Lake Istokpoga weigh a pound or two, but fishermen occasionally catch fish over 8 pounds. While the best fishing is often after dark, Lake Istokpoga is usually turbid enough to catch them during the day.
The warmer months generally provide the best fishing for channel catfish. They spawn in late spring to early summer when water temperatures are in the 70s to low 80s, and many are caught from the canals adjacent to Lake Istokpoga this time of year.
Just about any smelly, natural bait can tempt catfish. Chicken and beef livers are popular, along with a wide range of stink baits and dough baits. Try to keep your bait a foot or so off the bottom to make it easy for channel catfish to find while warding off bait-snatching bullheads.
Catch More Catfish
While Lake Istokpoga has a very good catfish population, we suggest you check out the rivers and lakes that made our list of Florida’s best catfish fishing.
And no matter where you go catfishing, check out the tips, tricks and baits that will bring more of these fish to your stringer with our catfish fishing guide.
Planning Your Trip
Getting to Lake Istokpoga
Lake Istokpoga is a little over 2 hours south of Orlando via the Florida Turnpike. Depending on traffic conditions and the part of the lake you want to visit, US-27 may be slightly faster or slightly slower.
The lake is also within a 2-hour drive of Tampa, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach, making it a convenient and centrally-located lake for anglers all over South and Central Florida. Lake Placid is one of the larger communities near the lake, offering a wide range of accommodations and amenities.
Bank & Boat Access
One of the most popular access sites on Lake Istokpoga is Lake Istokpoga Park, located at the lake’s northern end just off US-98. The park offers a double-lane boat ramp with parking for up to 45 vehicles and trailers and a boardwalk leading to a fishing pier.
Another excellent launch site is Windy Point Park, located toward the southern end of the lake’s western shore. Launch facilities, parking for 73 vehicles with trailers, and limited bank fishing access are available here.
A less-developed boat launch is available on Cow House Road, and this is also a popular area for shorebound anglers to fish while wading.
The Istokpoga Canal Boat Ramp offers launch facilities, shore fishing and campsites on its namesake canal.
Numerous privately-owned fish camps around Lake Istokpoga offer boat ramps and fishing access for guests, with accommodations ranging from campsites to cabin rentals.