THE OCALA FOREST LAKES
(Thanks to the Florida Wildlife and Fisheries Commission for this article)
Deep in the heart of central Florida, away from the bustle of attractions and congestion of retirement regions, the Ocala NF is a relatively unspoiled area covering over 380,000 acres. Nestled between two rivers, the mighty St. Johns River (flowing north) on the eastern boundary and the Ocklawaha on the west, the Ocala National forest is the southernmost national forest in the continental US east of the Mississippi River. It is also the last major Sand Pine community left in Florida.
There are three first magnitude springs on the forest that are the sources for three crystal clear runs that provide excellent canoeing and boating in this part of the state. Major recreation facilities (camping, canoeing, hiking) are located at most of these springs, with Silver Glen being a day use only area.
The hundreds of forest lakes and grassy ponds provide some of the state's most outstanding bass fishing opportunities with world renowned Rodman Reservoir system forming most of the northern and north western border. The Cross Florida Greenways system also runs through the area, as well as the Florida Trail. Its proximity to the major tourist destinations of St. Augustine and Daytona Beach has made it a favorite vacation spot for northern visitors for years. Major commercial attractions like Silver Springs, Disney World/Orlando Attractions, Busch Gardens, Kennedy Space Center and are within a few hours drive from the OCALA National Forest, contributing to its popularity as a vacation spot.
There are more than 600 lakes within the boundaries of the Ocala National Forest, offering anglers a variety of fishing opportunities. Bank fishing is available at most lakes, and the more adventurous angler can wade or tube fish. Boat ramps provide access to many of the larger lakes. There are also spring-fed streams, such as Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs Run, that are generally accessible by canoe or small Jon boat.
A majority of the Ocala Forest lakes are oligotrophic (low nutrient concentration), slightly acidic, sand-bottomed and clear. However, some lakes are highly colored. Native aquatic plants are well established, regardless of water quality. Maidencane grass and yellow water lily are common in shallow water. Infestations of hydrilla, water hyacinth and water lettuce are surprisingly uncommon. Anglers should be prepared to fish heavy cover since submersed native vegetation can be thick. Plenty of open water is available for those who prefer to use surface plugs and diving lures.
Trophy largemouth bass are produced in many of the Ocala Forest lakes. But, these infertile waters yield bass that are generally less than 15 inches long. While several forage fish species occur, the largest is the lake chubsucker. Since chubsuckers grow rapidly, they provide forage for small bass for only a few months. For largemouth bass that grow large enough to eat adult chubsuckers, their potential to reach trophy size is good, since chubsuckers are plentiful.
Several lakes have a reputation for producing trophy bass. Mill Dam, Kerr and Delancy are some of the better-known trophy lakes. The controversial "ladder fishing" technique (during the spawn to see the beds) was popularized by guides on these lakes.
Many anglers prefer to see their quarry, so they fish lakes with clear water. Lakes Sellers, Grasshopper, and Wildcat are favorites of such anglers. Novice anglers may find they have to use lighter line, cast longer distances, and fish during low-light conditions to be successful in these clear-water lakes.
For those people who like to try their luck in deeply stained water, the Ocala Forest lakes can provide them ample opportunity. Redwater, Charles, Eaton, Lou and Bryant are tannin stained lakes where watercolor can vary from "tea colored" to black. Lake Bryant does not have a publicly owned boat ramp, but a 'fee' ramp is available.
A long-term, extreme drought has created harsh conditions on many Ocala Forest waters. In some cases, lakes have completely dried. In others, water levels have receded to the point that only pools of open water remain. The long-range benefits of natural water level fluctuation are unquestionable. However, the extreme low water conditions have concentrated fish and made them more vulnerable to anglers. Until water levels return to normal, catch and release of bass is recommended, particularly in the small, clear lakes.
When normal water levels return, production of strong year classes of bass is expected, and within two or three years, bass fishing in the Forest should be excellent. Once higher water levels return, harvest of bass can then be better sustained than under current conditions.
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