Lake Okeechobee is one of the country’s top spots for catching big largemouth bass, but this time of year, anglers can also catch loads of bluegills and Mayan cichlids.
“Okeechobee is known for its bass fishing, but it’s probably the best bluegill fishing in the country,” Capt. Steve Daniel said.
Bluegills spawn from now through July throughout South Florida. If you’re walking along the bank of a lake or pond or canal and see white patches on the bottom, those are bluegill spawning beds.
“The peak fishing is the week of the full moon and the week of the new moon,” Daniel said, explaining that bluegills spawn around those moons. “Once we get into August, it really slows down because they’re done spawning.”
During an outing last week, Daniel and I got an early start to fish for bass. Recent catches on the Big O have been excellent, with anglers in one tournament catching more than 20 five-bass limits weighing over 30 pounds, which is better than a 6-pound average.
Not long after we arrived at a spot where Daniel knew there were some good bass, he landed one close to that size using a green-and-white Bomber Long A jerkbait that he calls the “green meanie.”
“That’s a chunk,” said Daniel as he lifted the bass into his boat. “When in doubt, tie on an old jerkbait.”
A native of Tennessee, Daniel moved to Clewiston nearly 40 years ago and has consistently guided anglers to big bass on Lake Okeechobee — visit his website at okeechobeeprostevedaniel.com — and he’s also won major professional bass tournaments. Daniel and his wife, Debbie, often interview their old tournament trail friends on their radio show “Hooked Up with Steve & Deb,” which airs from 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on WOKC.com and from 5-6 a.m. Sundays on WAFCFM.com.
Despite all his success fishing for bass, Daniel loves fishing for bluegills this time of year, especially when he can introduce children and their parents to the sport. Having kids catch dozens of the little panfish is a great way to get them hooked. And they can sleep in before heading out.
“There’s no sense in going at daylight,” Daniel said. “Might as well wait until about 9 o’clock if [fishing for bluegills] is all you’re going to do. You can catch them all day long.”
Bluegills will bite live crickets and worms, but a 1/32nd-ounce Beetle-Spin, a small, flashy lure with a blade that spins and a soft-plastic grub on the hook, is just as effective in the hands of an angler who can cast it out and reel it back.
Daniel fishes with light spinning outfits spooled with 10-pound braided fishing line, which is stronger than monofilament line of the same diameter and casts farther.
He moves around in his Big O bass boat until he finds clear water. As he explained, that makes it easier to see the beds and catch bluegills. If the water is dirty, but he believes the fish should be there based on his past experience, he’ll make a bunch of casts in a variety of directions. If he catches one, then he knows that there are likely more in the area.
That’s what we did fishing at the southeastern end of the lake, where much of the water had been dirtied by strong winds. Our first casts with Beetle-Spins caught Mayan cichlids, invasive fish that are native to Central and South America and abundant in the lakes and canals of South Florida. The colorful “jungle fish,” which have seven or eight black vertical bars on their orange bodies, fought hard on Daniel’s spinning rods.
He said the fish, which have no size or bag limit, are great to eat so he put a bunch of them in his livewell. As we continued to fish, we started catching bluegills. We released the females, which have more white on their bodies than the darker males, so they could spawn again. The big male bluegills weren’t as fortunate.
Having the two species in the same areas made for fast-paced, fun fishing, since we never knew what we had hooked until we reeled the fish close to the boat and saw a flash of bright orange or dark olive in the water. Several times we reeled our lures almost to the boat when a fish would swim up and grab it.
One of Daniel’s favorite recipes for both bluegills and Mayans begins with heating some butter and olive oil in a pan. He then sautés onions until they soften and adds some chopped garlic. He coats the fish fillets with seasoned bread crumbs and puts them on top of the onions and garlic. When the bottom sides of the fillets are cooked, he turns them over. When the fish flakes with a fork, it’s ready to be served with the onions and garlic.