This is where Central Florida's big bass highway begins.

The fishermen come from Missouri and Illinois and Virginia and Miami, rolling along night-black two-lanes with shiny bass boats in tow. They're all thinking the same thing -- 10 pounder, lurking in the weed beds.

Last year Jim Swan by his own count boated 68 largemouth bass of more than 10 pounds in the lakes that make up the Kissimmee chain. Forty-five of those big fish came in the first 90 days of the calendar year, a trophy bass every other day.

Does Swan, a professional bass guide, ever get the notion to try any other Florida hotspot?

He laughs. "If you had one foot in heaven and the other on a banana peel, would you wiggle?"

When snow falls in the Nation's Capital, it's the height of big bass season here. Female largemouths are moving up onto the spawning beds, laden with roe.

They will spawn out in February and March, and an 11-pound bass will go back to a 9 1/2 pounder. In these parts, that doesn't even count.

"I know I should keep track of all those and eights and nines," said Swan, "but I just stopped counting anything under 10."

Lake Toho, as it's known locally, is at the northern end of a chain of bass lakes. Years ago they were connected by the sleepy turns and twists of the Kissimmee River. In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers took the bends out of the Kissimmee, carving barren canals from one lake to the next in a flood and water-control project.

Today those canals are water highways. The fast bass boats can zoom through the locks from Toho to Hatchineha to Cyprus to Lake Kissimmee and clear on down to Okeechobee.

But they rarely make that long trip. Along the way there are too many places where the bass of a lifetime may be waiting to swallow a shiner.

"Yeah," Swan said, "we'll have to fish shiners. There's just too many days in winter when they won't take anything else. It's hard fishing, but if there's one thing a big bass can't refuse, it's a live shiner."

That day Swan had guided two men from Missouri. They fished shiners in one of the small lakes in the Kissimmee chain, Lake Marion in Polk County. It had been a hard morning.

"My partner, Bill Thompson, was really putting it on me," said Swan. "I couldn't buy a bite. Bill was picking up big fish off a little brass bed, too small for both of us to fish."

"I finally found a spot up in some lily pads. There's a little slough that runs through the pads. We threw the shiners up into that slough and worked them back real slow.

"The fish were there. They started smacking the bait every trip through. My party got to calling the slough "The Gauntlet.' If a shiner made it through the narrow part, that shiner was breathing a lot easier."

Some got through but a lot didn't. By day's end, the Missourians had 14 bass. One weighed 10 pounds, another nine, another eight and two were better than seven pounds.

"Are you going out with him tomorrow?" asked one of the hired anglers. "You'd better eat a good breakfast."

The tragedy of bass fishing, even here in the land of the giants, is that some days the fish feed and some days they don't. "If they did every day, we wouldn't call it fishing," said Swan. "We'd call it catching."

Saturday was not a catching day.

The signs were right. There was a modest east wind and overcast sky. The royal palms and live oaks swayed gently along the shore line. Flocks of coots gabbled in the shallows; giant white ibises skulked in the reeds, preying on minnows.

The shiners were frisky and fresh -- at $7 a dozen they ought to be.

Swan anchored the boat off the lily pads and tossed out four rigged baits. We watched the bobber floats as the shiner dragged them into deep cover, looking for hiding places.

"That's it," Swan said. "They're in the gauntlet now."

But they stayed there and nothing happened. There was a brief feeding flurry about 10 a.m. when three or four bobbers went down over a span of about 15 minutes. We hooked two bass, but they were little ones -- three and four pounders.

The fish struck again late in the afternoon, afain only for a few brief minutes. Two more bass were in the boat, but once more they were puny by Florida standards -- three and four pounders.

My partners, fishing alongside us in the boat they dragged for 19 hours straight from Northern Virginia, fared even less well, boating only three small fish for the long day's travail.

Swan, like all anglers a man given to instant overstatement, said it was the worst day he'd ever had.

What is it about largemouth bass that will induce grown people to drive 1,000 miles without sleep, zoom around unfamiliar waters before daybreak and then stare at an orange float among weeds for 12 hours in the hope of catching just one big one?

It's not for food. Largemouth are marginal table fare, at best. It's not fight. A big bass, caught this way, is likely to be forced into the boat in seconds.

Part of it is challenge. Despite what anyone says, bass are almost never easy to catch. They are unpredictable, they are wily and their feeding patterns of a swift mourning dove.

But mostly, it's the ferocity of their attack, when it finally comes. A 10-pound bass lurking in two feet of water under a maze of lily pads doesn't just bite a bait. He smashes it.

"I've seen them come up and blow a shiner three feet out of the water," said Swan. "When that shiner comes down, there isn's a scale left on him. The bass will jump right out of the pad and hit him again when he comes down." t

Whether on bait or lures, the strike of a shallow water bass is something so sudden, so fericious and to utterly lacking in caution that it lives forever in the memory.

It's a glimpse of unmitigated wildness, exercised by the bully of the lily pads.

Only this time there's a bigger bully.