Florida on a Tankful: Tales of bass fishing in Sebring

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, January 19, 2017, 5:54 AM EST

Wintertime in Florida is one of the best times to catch trophy bass. It's this time of year when the females come to the banks of inland lakes to spawn, allowing the fishing to become good in Sebring.  

"So pretty, serene,” said charter boat captain Don Hatcher as he headed out on the water. "This is the real Florida right here."

In Sebring awaits one of best areas in the southeast United States to catch the famed "Trophy Bass," like the ones made popular by the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass in the late 1990s.

"Look at that mouth there!" Hatcher exclaimed when inspecting a dripping wet bass — the live kind, not the battery-operated ones.

The leader of Don Hatcher Guide Service loves coming to work on Lake Istapoga and Arbuckle Creek.

"This is my office," he said. Hatcher began fishing these waters in the early 80s after his father instilled a love of the outdoors.

At more than 26,000 acres, Lake Istapoga is the fifth largest lake in Florida. This part of Highlands County is known for open waterways, birds like limpkins and anhingas, along with the bass under the surface of the water.

"Istapoga right now leads the lakes in the state of Florida in the trophy catch program with fish over 10 pounds," Hatcher said.

With an average depth of only 5 feet, Lake Istapoga is the place to catch bass, crappie and catfish.

"You'll feel that tick, tick," Hatcher said while holding his fishing pole. "And when you feel that, drop your line down, set your sock and set the hook."

Next, the waiting game begins.

"Sort of a silent entry, and then you work it off the bottom," Hatcher said about his lure that looks like a mix of a black crawfish, oversized horse fly and giant false eyelashes.

"Sometimes, it's not about catching fish," he said. "You go out with that attitude, and you just enjoy being there."

To ensure the fish in the Tankful postcard photo above made an appearance during production of this story (and this didn't turn into a fish tale about the one that got away), Hatcher caught some bass earlier on a January morning before the TV cameras arrived.

"Winter time down here is probably your best time, that's when your bass will start to spawn," Hatcher said. "All the big ones are females. This one may have a little roe in her."

Since this mama may be full of eggs, it's back into the water she goes. The catch-and-release program ensures this generation of bass will be able to produce the next generation of fish. Plus, catch-and-release allows other fisherman the chance to catch a big one.

"It's hard to beat this lake here," Hatcher said.

Tankful on Television
You can catch new Florida on a Tankful stories with award-winning storyteller Scott Fais each Thursday through Sunday on News 13 and Bay News 9. New editions of Tankful play at the end of each hour starting at 6 a.m.