LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Bob Eddy estimates there are 250 submerged brush piles scattered along the bottom of Lake Kissimmee.
And every one of them, he said, was constructed by bass fishermen to give them an edge on tournament day.
"The ones that Hurricane Charley and the others put in naturally have all rotted down to nothing now," said Eddy, co-owner of Camp Mack River Resort at Lake Kissimmee.
Fishermen transport limbs from dead orange trees, sometimes oak trees and even Christmas trees, into the open water of the 35,000-acre lake. They tie the limbs together and sink them to the bottom with concrete blocks to create bass habitat.
"I've seen boats go out stacked with brush," Eddy said.
During the heat of summer, these underwater networks of tree branches attract bass up to 10 pounds that are looking for the coolest water available with a ready food supply, ambush points, shelter and shade.
Fishermen armed with the GPS coordinates that they locked in on electronic units when they planted brush piles know exactly where to go, even with no tree limbs visible on the surface.
Tournament competitors on Lake Kissimmee who aren't privy to those GPS numbers are crying foul, saying it is unethical to fish planted brush piles. Frustrated by watching the same fishermen win tournaments on a regular basis, anglers who don't think the practice should be legal have leveled accusations of unfair play and even cheating.
"I think some of the fellows are getting tired of donating to a few of the guys who are fishing the brush piles," said Leo Cosce, owner of Camp Lester at Lake Kissimmee. "But some of the boys that are winning have been winning for a long time. They were winning tournaments before there were brush piles. They're good fishermen."
These bass magnets are well-guarded secrets, go-to spots in the middle of the day after fishing slows in the grass and lily pads ringing the shoreline.
"You can run out a tank of gas trying to find those things by yourself," said Mike Woolsey of Lake Wales.
Marking brush piles with GPS coordinates is similar to the now-outdated use of LORAN (Long Range Navigation) numbers in salt water to mark reefs, wrecks and ledges in order to target grouper and snapper offshore.
These man-made fish attractors can produce exceptional stringers — limits of five bass averaging about 7 pounds per fish, or 35 pounds.
The perceived edge in competition on Lake Kissimmee has fueled controversy and hard feelings, almost to the point of confrontation.
The issue has been simmering for the past three years, and it is reaching a boiling point.
"They just go from one (brush pile) to the next to the next all day long," said Woolsey, a tournament fisherman. "I just think there's something wrong with that."
There is no state law prohibiting anglers from fishing brush piles.
However, it is against Florida law to plant brush piles in public lakes without a permit. And with a proper permit, they have to be marked with buoys.
Veteran tournament fisherman Scott Visker of Lakeland, one of many local anglers who think fishing brush piles is perfectly ethical, said there's no justification for labeling anyone as a cheater for simply fishing a brush attractor. He will fish one if he can find it.
"I don't have anything against fishing brush piles," Visker said. "I do have a problem if they are baiting brush piles or grass lines. I think that's cheating."
Visker, as well as Eddy, thinks most of the ill will is not so much over fishing brush piles, but baiting them.
"I think it's because they think they're baiting brush piles and the grass lines. I don't think that's happening, I really don't," said Visker, past tournament director for the Lakeland Bassmasters club.
Numerous anglers and readers have contacted The Ledger to complain about the brush pile issue over the past two years.
"It takes the fun out of it," said Woolsey, one of the few willing to go on the record. "When you go out there and know you're going to get beat before you even leave the ramp ..."
Eddy hears a lot of complaints at tournament weigh-ins at Camp Mack from people who say fishermen are cheating by targeting brush piles.