Okeechobee Fishing Great but Storm Brews at Lake : Anglers claim commercial netters are ruining things and want them banned. But state officials say infractions are rare.

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Those who cast lures for one largemouth bass at a time and those who cast 1,600-yard haul seines for tons of catfish and bluegills agree on this: The fishing on Lake Okeechobee has never been better.

"I've been on the lake 30 years, and the fishing's as good now as it ever was," says Jim Wells, one of several professional guides who, for about $200 a day, can have even a novice angler reeling in scrappy three- and four-pound bass minutes after dawn.

Jerry F. Rudd is also catching fish. Last year his packing company processed 1.36 million pounds of catfish and bluegills from the lake for grocery store sales around the United States. This year the catch may be even larger. Rudd says that when he adds in the seasonal catch of mullet for roe shipped to Asia and Europe, he will gross about $1 million.

Still, there is a storm brewing over fishing at this gigantic, 730-square-mile lake, and it has nothing to do with the towering thunderheads that roll in on most afternoons. A drive is under way to ban net fishing.

"We have a very big problem, and it's a public relations problem," says Rudd, owner of Rudd's Fish Co., founded by his grandfather in 1911. "It's the only problem we have. But it will probably put us out of business."

Despite state statistics that show anglers are catching more fish, and faster, since commercial fishing resumed on Lake Okeechobee 11 years ago, hard feelings between sport and commercial fishers are escalating. Those who fish for recreation charge that commercial boats routinely violate off-limit zones near shore, and sometimes dump dead trash fish, such as shad, back into the lake because there is little market for them.

Earlier this month, two men working for B&R; Fish Co., one of Rudd's competitors, were cited for setting their nets in a restricted area. Maj. Floyd Buckhalter, a law enforcement commander for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, said they will face charges that could mean the loss of the company's fishing permit.

But infractions are rare, Game Commission officials and commercial operators say.

Donald D. Fox, a Game Commission biologist who monitors the lake. "Really, there is no problem. The bass fishery set a new record last year based on the number of fish caught per hour, per angler. But the fishermen see those guys out there with the nets, and they're jealous."

Water itself is a vital issue in Florida. For the 4.5 million people who live along its rim, nothing is more critical than the well-being of Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of a vast hydraulic system that runs through the center of the state, feeding agriculture, giving life to the Everglades and providing drinking water for South Florida.

The system has been imperiled for years. It has been crippled by poor management decisions and by pollution, especially runoff that has made it so rich in nutrients that plants threaten to crowd out animal life. Many environmentalists think the furiously good fishing in Lake Okeechobee is merely a signal that it is so laden with phosphorous that it is on the verge of collapse.

For years, state and federal officials have been struggling to save the lake and the Everglades by reducing phosphorous runoff from farms and cattle ranches, and negotiating with powerful sugar cane growers to pay for clean-up costs. In a deal announced by the U.S. Interior Department last week, two of the largest sugar cane growers will pay $322 million of the estimated $465 million cost over the next 20 years.

But the battle between sport and commercial fishermen is likely to go on, at least, Rudd fears, until public pressure forces him and his colleagues out of business.

Commercial fishing is heavily regulated. Only 10 nets are licensed to work the lake, nets cannot be deployed on weekends or holidays, and bass, black crappie and pickerel, the principal game fish, must be returned to the lake unharmed.

Still, Rudd acknowledges that the "consensus is 'Ban the nets.' And they don't much care if it's gill nets or some other kind."

Last year Florida Sportsman, a magazine with a monthly circulation of 105,000, launched a petition drive aimed at outlawing gill net fishing. The proposed amendment to the Florida constitution is expected to come before the voters in November, 1994.

Although the proposed gill net ban is designed primarily to deal with depletions of saltwater species, including snapper, sea trout and flounder, Rudd suspects the anti-net sentiment will soon ensnare him too.

Rudd is pessimistic, and not a little bitter.

"The public does not understand that we are not destroying the lake," says Rudd. "You cannot convince them."

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