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Marking brush piles with GPS coordinates is similar to the now-outdated use of LORAN (Long Range Navigation) numbers in salt water to mark reefs, wrecks and ledges in order to target grouper and snapper offshore.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.
"Will they say it openly? No," he said.
Eddy said it has become like a virus - anybody who wins is considered fishing brush piles and cheating.
"It's a mess. It really has hurt all the trails," said Eddy. "A lot of guys have just flat quit."
He said both tournament trails he operates out of the fish camp - the Camp Mack Team Open and the Camp Mack One-Man - have lost about 20 boats from last year.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is alert to the problem on Lake Kissimmee.
"When the public and local businesses are concerned, we like to pay attention and see what we can do to help," said Bob Wattendorf, the FWC's marketing and special projects coordinator in Tallahassee.
Planting brush piles without a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation is against the law in Florida, Wattendorf said.
"Yes, there are laws on the books that make it illegal to dump in state waters. And if you want to actually build a formal fish attractor, there is a process by DEP that you have to follow," Wattendorf said.
Brush piles on an otherwise barren sandy lake bottom are so effective that the FWC builds fish attractors for anglers on some lakes. There are six of them on Lake Walk-in-the-Water, clearly marked by white buoys with the FWC logo for all to fish.
"They don't tend to produce more fish. They just tend to bring fish in from elsewhere," Wattendorf said. "But it does create a little localized community."
Tree limbs begin to attract alga, which brings in zooplankton, which draws baitfish. Then bluegill, speckled perch and bass follow to complete the food chain.
In lakes like Kissimmee, where there is little hydrilla, brush piles are effective for the same reasons patches of the non-native grass congregate bigger bass away from the shoreline.
On sun-blistered days of summer, when there are more bass over 5 pounds in deep water than along the shoreline, heavyweight stringers at tournaments raise eyebrows.
"I've actually seen them out there, one guy driving in a boat at idle watching the depth-finder and the other guy standing up there fishing," Woolsey said. "The playing field's not level any more."
Visker said five-fish stringers over 30 pounds are not compiled on brush piles alone.
"The guys that have been winning have had both grass-line fish and brush-pile fish," Visker said. "It's hard to catch enough quality fish on just brush piles or just grass lines. That happens occasionally, but I think you've got to have a little of both."
He said fishermen start the morning casting and flipping along the grass lines, then move to brush piles in the heat of the day.
Eddy said "brush-pilers" haven't won as often this summer as they did last year, perhaps because abundant rainfall has raised lake levels and provided more cover in the shoreline grass stands.
Just as it is legal to fish brush piles, it is also not against the law to bait brush piles.
"There is nothing specific against baiting or chumming in fresh water," Wattendorf said. "It's kind of a common practice that's used for shiner nets, or homeowners will put a little bait off their pier to attract fish."
Eddy said baiting is the "true issue" concerning brush piles on Lake Kissimmee.
There is suspicion that some fishermen may bait brush piles with hog feed pellets, horse feed or soybean cakes, even dog food, a day or two before tournaments to draw more baitfish and bass. But nobody can offer any proof that this takes place.
"I've never seen anybody actually throwing fish food in a brush pile, and I hope I don't," said Harry Porter, tournament director for the Fishing Misfits club.
But Eddy outlawed baiting in the Camp Mack Team Open - which was the Accent Marine Tournament Trail for about 25 years until Eddy took over this year - and the Camp Mack One-Man, tournaments that are held on Sundays.
"You cannot fish baited fish," Eddy said. "I put it in specifically for this year's two trails."
The controversy has become so divisive that Eddy is planning to have tournament winners undergo lie-detector tests after weigh-ins.
"I decided what I was going to do was periodically pop a polygraph test," he said. "Well, I can't find a polygrapher."
Once he locates a polygrapher to conduct the tests, Eddy said, "I will ask them, 'Did you knowingly fish baited fish?'?" If they fail the test, "They will be banned for life from our trails."
Eddy is hopeful that will help put the issue to rest.
Problems arise because there is money at stake in bass tournaments. In local tournaments, entry fees are normally $75 or less, and winners take home less than $1,000.
Of the two biggest bass clubs in Polk County, one has a rule regarding brush piles and the other doesn't.
The Lakeland Bassmasters, the largest club, enacted a rule against baiting fish last fall.
The Winter Haven Lunker Lovers do not have a policy regarding brush piles.
But the stakes are more serious on the major professional bass tournament tours, with six-figure paydays and sponsorships.
The Bassmaster Elite Series and the FLW Tour, the nation's two premier circuits, have rules that cite local, state and national regulations.
Dave Precht, the vice president with B.A.S.S. Publications & Communications, said the B.A.S.S. rule is as follows: "Competitors wishing to change fish habitat by placing any object in the tournament waters may do so if such action does not violate state or federal regulations."
The FLW Tour doesn't ban planting brush piles, but local regulations take precedence.
"We do not have a rule that prohibits it," FLW Tour Tournament Director Bill Taylor said in an email. "We allow people to put brush in, but that is controlled by the reservoir management, whether that's the TVA, Corps of Engineers or utility company. For the most part, they don't allow any cutting of trees along shorelines, but they allow brush to be put in and be placed in strategic places. Anglers cannot cut brush from TVA, Corps of Engineers or private property, but they do allow people to bring brush in."
While planting brush piles is illegal without a permit, and there is no law against fishing existing brush piles or baiting them, there is one more tactic that isn't prohibited.
Some fishermen have been known to relocate brush piles and claim them for themselves.
"When they find one, they throw the anchor out and drag it 100 yards," Eddy said.