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Challenge Cup: A Gale of a Good Time in Florida

By: Lynn Burkhead. MajorLeagueFishing.com

Permitted use provided by: MajorLeagueFishing.com

In a state chock full of great bass fishing waters, Lake Istokpoga might be Florida's aquatic version of Rodney Dangerfield, getting little to no respect at all.

Lying south of the Toho and Kissimmee chain of lakes and to the northwest of giant Lake Okeechobee, lesser known Istokpoga often gets lost in the conversation about hallowed Sunshine State bass waters.

But this shallow fishing gem in Highlands County near the quaint hamlet of Lake Placid is every bit as good as its more famous cousins, giving up good numbers of bass and perhaps the state's best supply of hefty lunkers weighing 10 pounds or better.

Even during the middle of a hurricane.

If there's ever proof of how much amateur anglers can learn from the 24 Jack Link’s Major League Fishing pros, it will be during the airing of the 2013 Geico Challenge Cup at Istokpoga when some of the worst conditions ever experienced during a professional bass event took place.

And yet the Major League Fishing pros still caught good numbers of quality fish despite the fact that historic Hurricane Sandy lashed Florida with tropical storm force winds, rolling waves, and blinding downpours on its destructive journey up the eastern seaboard.

Was the number of fish - and their high quality - a surprise to the pros?

Perhaps, thanks partly to the weather but also partly to the locale.

Because as good as Florida fishing can be, that doesn't mean that it's always an easy angling nut to crack.

"Florida to me has always been a completely different bass fishing environment than the rest of the country," said Alabama's Boyd Duckett, the 2007 Bassmaster Classic champ who co-founded Major League Fishing along with Texan Gary Klein.

"You've got 48 states with bass and then you've got Florida."

For anyone who has ever tangled with the often moody Florida strain largemouth, no further explanation is needed.

Add in the innovative Major League Fishing format of no practice time, no Internet study, no local help, and not even knowing which zone is being fished until the night before, and hitting 28,000-acres of virtually unknown Florida water is a real test.

How does one deal with such a challenge? For Kelly Jordon of Texas, it starts by falling back on what is known.

"On the map, it (looked) like a little Lake Okeechobee," said Jordon, a four-time winner on the B.A.S.S. circuit and a one-time winner on the FLW tournament trail. "And I love Lake Okeechobee. It has lots of big fish, it's grass fishing, it's Florida fishing, and when you get in the right areas, it can be awesome."

Jordon says to pay particular attention to that last statement.

"One thing I've learned about Florida, which is pretty interesting, is that the fish are where they are," he said. "You can fish the most beautiful stuff that you can find and yet there can be no bass there."

Why is that? Because it's Florida.

"They hold a lot of times in areas like big, loose schools that can take up a couple of acres at times," said Jordon. "So if you hit 'em, you're in them and if you don't, you can miss by a mile."

How do you combat such a boom-or-bust tendency?

"Move and move (some more) until you catch them," said Jordon. "And then you can sit down (on that spot) and usually there's a lot of fish around there."

Klein completely agrees.

"(On) other lakes that we fish around the country, normally I can put together a pattern and (then) ride around the lake and pretty much visually tell the area that I'm going to pull in and where the next cast I'm going to make (will be)," said the Texas legend. "But in Florida, it all pretty much runs together."

Meaning an angler had better spend a lot of time on the little motor, not the big one.

"You can go by two hundred yards of water and actually miss the best concentration of fishing down that whole bank," said Klein, a two-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year. "I spend more time on the trolling motor in Florida, searching, trying to let the fish tell me what they are doing."

How do you "listen" to what the fish are saying? Klein says by isolating what is working ... and what isn't.

Along with being willing to leave an angling strength completely behind if necessary.

"Obviously, I hope to get 50 bites a day on the flipping stick," said the 29-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier whose name is virtually synonymous with the technique. "That's what I love to do and Florida really lends itself to that."

But not always.

And that's part of the fun in this piscatorial chess game that is played out between Klein, the fish, and the other competitors, all as the Outdoor Channel television cameras look on.

"(That's) all part of the process (we go through out there)," grinned the likable Texan. "I'll be chunking-and-winding, pitching-and-flipping, and trying to figure out the deal."

Along with the rest of the best of the best, even as a hurricane named Sandy blows right on by.

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