FLORIDA FRESHWATER FISHING TOUR
LAKES ORANGE AND LOCHLOOSA
by Jim Porter
For as long as anglers have been traveling to Florida waters, the names of Lakes Orange and Lochloosa have been synonymous with great fishing experiences. Considered by many as the best trophy bass locations in the state, these two bodies of water are very similar, yet have their own individual personalities.
Lakes Orange and Lochloosa lie a few miles North of Ocala and southeast of Gainsville. Respectively, they cover some 13,000 and 6000 acres of darkly-stained, vegetation-infested water. The Orange and Lochloosa bodies of water are connected by a narrow neck called Cross Creek, which is usually navigable. (For you literary buffs, this is the same area made immortal by Marjorie Kinnian Rawlings in her legendary books, `The Yearling' and `Cross Creek'.) Low water can sometimes make navigation a problem, as well as the Summer masses of vegetation, particularly at the entrance into Lochloosa.
In researching this article, we contacted W. Horace Carter, a Cross Creek resident and also one of America's premier outdoor writers. Since Horace has caught as many fish from the two lakes as there are lily pads along their shores, we chose him as the `local expert' and our guide. We will tour these two fine bodies of water, beginning with Lake Lochloosa, and discuss their angling potentials.
Where Cross Creek joins Lake Lochloosa, we find a small expanse of water which opens out well and then, because of a point of land on the North side, narrows back down. This open area is locally known as Little Lochloosa and the protruding point is referred to as Allen's Point. It is mostly lily pads, hydrilla, and cypress trees. Numerous trophy bass have been taken from the area on live wild shiners, but artificial lures are often too difficult to fish here. Large beds of spawning bluegills often show up in the shallow back-water areas during June-August.
During our brief visit, the late Summer growth was still thick enough to block Little Lochloosa, just out of the mouth of Cross Creek. While the fish undoubtedly love all the cover, we do know that too much vegetation can finally block out enough sunlight and prevent adequate photosynthesis in the plant life. The result can be a major lack of oxygen production (a by-product of the photosynthesis process) and a fish kill. We trust the appropriate agencies of the State of Florida will insure the vegetation is kept in check on Lochloosa.
Clockwise, up the West shoreline of the main Lochloosa lake, we find a long run of cypress trees and grass. This grass line, and some of the hydrilla beds just off it, provide good bass fishing. Some speckled perch (crappie) also use the grasses for spawning.
In the extreme northwest corner of Lake Lochloosa, a small creek will be found. The area around the creek mouth can provide excellent bass fishing, if recent rains have any water flowing. Horace Carter indicated that we could find a series of sandbars approximately 200 yards to the East of the creek mouth and he indicated this is an excellent spot to take limits of large hot weather bluegills. Horace recommends grass shrimp or other live baits for this fishing. His method is to fish directly on the bottom with a weight about 12 inches above the bait.
The North end of Lake Lochloosa is grass and cypress, with some good fishing expectations. Look for early season bass spawns to occur here, as the waters will warm faster.
The eastern shore is grass, cypress and some pad fields. Local anglers indicated that good success was possible along this entire stretch, particularly for those using wild shiners during the Winter/early Spring months. There are a few fish camps located on this shore, just off Highway 301. These, coupled with the camps on Cross Creek, provide the best access to the lake.
The lower portion of the East shoreline has an unnamed cove at its base. The pads and grasses in this location can be good for spawning speckled perch and bluegills.
As we continue along the South shore, we find a major protrusion called Burnt Island. The thick cover areas around its main body produce good bass catches. If you will watch the larger cypress trees in this end of the lake, you may well see one of the majestic bald eagles that inhabit the region.
The open water areas towards the center of the lake offer good fishing. In fact, Horace Carter prefers to drift the open water with small jigs and spinners for his finer speckled perch catches. The deeper areas often have grass growing a few feet below the surface. Find one of these locations and the bass can be taken on crank plugs and spinner baits.
Due to the density of the vegetation, shoreline fishing often requires the dedicated bass angler to use the flipping technique. We were advised that dark purple worms and large, pegged slip sinkers are required.
Moving back into Cross Creek and passing through towards Orange Lake, we pass under the Highway 235 bridge. There are camping and cabin facilities, a restaurant, and a Jiffy Mart located on both sides of the creek and adjacent to the bridge. Be sure to check your cabin/room accommodations before accepting them, as some are not as good as the others.
Just before we reach Orange Lake, Cross Creek flows by Marjorie Rawlings Park on our left (eastern side). This facility has excellent launch ramps and a huge parking area. In addition, there are picnic tables under the cool shade of towering hardwood trees. Unfortunately, no overnight camping is allow.
Cross Creek enters Orange Lake at approximately the mid- point of the lake's eastern shoreline. From the lake, this entrance can often be difficult to relocate, primarily due to the reeds, pad fields and floating vegetation that the winds move in and out. Therefore, the newcomer is advised to mentally mark the area well, especially for a late return at low light levels.
As we tour Orange Lake, we will continue to move in a clockwise manner as we did on Lochloosa.
Exiting from Cross Creek and moving South down the shoreline, we note an immediate marshy, tree-laden point. If you will look closely, you will also see a line of old power poles, the last of which is complete with a transformer, coming out into the lake fringes. Our history lesson of the day, garnered from Horace Carter, says that a major sinkhole once opened in Orange Lake and the entire body nearly went dry. As Carter told it, the hole was filled with hundreds of junk cars and other solid debris, until the water loss was stopped. The lake level, however, continued to remain low. So, an enterprising businessman constructed a small fish camp in the vicinity of that last pole. Obviously, the water level did not remain low; and, now, you know the REST of the story (apologies to Paul Harvey).
Just past the power pole marker (a good guide back to the vicinity of the Cross Creek entrance), you can see a cattle pasture area behind a thin tree line. This is Cow Hammock. The shoreline area from here down to where the lake turns hard back towards the East is shallow grass and lily pads fields. This area provides very good year-round bass fishing. Flipping, spinner baits and lightly-weighted plastic worms all work fairly well, depending on the density of the vegetation at that time of the year. Bluegills are also excellent during their spawn.
If you move to the West a hundred yards, or so, you should be just outside the last line of standing grasses. Use your depth flasher and try and find a very quick 2-3 foot drop-off, going from 8 into 11 feet. This contour is dividing line at which the lake's mass of hydrilla and milfoil will stop growing. You should find spares clumps of the weeds growing beneath the surface along, and just to the outside of, the drop. Crank plugs and plastic worms work well, especially during Summer and mid-Winter.
A couple of miles down this shoreline, we find a marshy point and Orange Lake turns back to the East. This point is locally referred to as Cane Hammock. The large basin to the east is called Pee Gee Run.
Pee Gee Run is usually so densely covered with vegetation as to be impassable. However, when the water is high or during the Winter period, it may be navigable. Fishing can often be good here, especially for spawning speckled perch. During the early spring, bass will readily chase spinner baits in the stained waters of the boat trails.
Coming out of Pee Gee Run on the South side, there is a small cove called Gator Hole. While it appears to be very shallow, Gator hole actually has 6-7 feet of water in portions of it. Some good strings of tournament bass have come from its waters, as well as trophy bass that had a liking for wild shiners.
Continuing clockwise along the southern perimeter of the lake, we pass Cabbage Cove and come to McCormick Island. Directly West of the island is the Orange Lake Fish Camp.
A lot of grass, reeds and lily pads are found in the area between the island and the camp. There is also a goodly amount of open water, some of which has 11-12 foot depths. The local people often refer to this southwest corner of the lake as the McIntosh Area (a small town by that name is found a bit further up the West shoreline). It is here, during our visit, that we discovered what is often termed a bass fishing `honey hole'. In the deepest sections (which we were told is actually a sink hole, our depth sounder revealed hydrilla growing 3-6 feet off the bottom. This gave us 6-8 feet of open water over the top of the grass and allowed us to work both diving crank plugs and lightly- weighted plastic worms very effectively. In a short time, we boated and released 19 keepers. The plastic worm was the better lure, but there was an adaptability issue related to its use.
We were `tourists' searching for bass and knew virtually nothing about the lake. So, we wanted a lure configuration which would induce strikes and rapidly find a concentration of fish. First, we went to one-sixteenth ounce slip sinkers in order to keep the worms from sinking into the submerged grass. Second, to allow the worm to sink at an acceptable rate and to be able to feel the lightly-weighted lure, we used four-inch worms. Further, we fished this outfit on very light spinning tackle and eight pound line. A good lesson to remember is that no other lure has the potential to catch bass better than a slowly fished four-inch plastic worm.
Continuing around this area and heading back northwards, we note that there are numerous boat trails through the seemingly never-ending lily pads fields. However, if you point your boat bow towards the main lake, all these trails eventually seem to wind up there.
As you come back to the main lake and round Samson Point, you will see a few houses along the West shoreline. As a good reference reminder, the first (southernmost) of these is almost directly across from the Cross Creek entrance. That might be nice to know on a dark night.
This West shoreline has a lot of cover, but was not very highly recommended by the local anglers we talked to.
Half way up the West shoreline, we find a small canal and Mike's Fish Camp. Horace Carter told us that there are some hard bottom areas approximately 100 yards out from the mouth of this canal and that it is a good area to find big schools of bluegills. As he did for the bluegills on Lochloosa, Horace recommends grass shrimp and other live bait.
From this point and on to the North end of Orange Lake, we find numerous grass beds and some lily pads areas. The more significant items of interest to the angler are the smaller hydrilla beds that are scattered throughout the open water. These can be expected to produce bass well and are possibly the most predictable fishing locations in this lake.
In the very North end of the lake is small Prairie Creek. The area around its mouth can be good for bass, bluegills and speckled perch when recent rains have contributed some water flow.
As we start down the East shoreline, we come upon a large stand of palm trees back beyond the marsh line. This landmark is called Twenty Brothers. Approximately one mile further South, there is a small patch of palms called Seven Sisters. This `family relationship' helps us locate a grassy point about halfway between the two stands of Palms. Just off this point, there numerous scattered grass beds, including some which are submerged. A few of those hidden from sight appear to be eel grass and Florida bass anglers certainly know the potential of that type of growth. Needless to say, this is another `honey hole' location. Look the area over well with your depth sounder and watch for a depression that is 12-18 inches deeper than the normal. Fish the grass in the depression. Be careful with using light tackle in this location, as it appears to be a big-bass location.
Just below Seven Sisters, we come back to Cross Creek and the completion of our tour.
Directly out from Cross Creek and lying in the middle of the lake, is an area of deeper water. Generally, this is a long, narrow depression running parallel to the axis of the lake. Speckled perch anglers find their favorite fish in this area year-round, except for a short while during the height of the spawn. Most drift with the wind trolling live minnows and small jigs. The water depth is 10-13 feet. Horace Cater advises running the lures about 6-8 feet. During mid-Summer and mid-Winter, move the lures closer to the bottom until the fish are found.
When the vegetation growth allows, the number one bass lure for both Lakes Orange and Lochloosa is the free-running, vibrating crank plug. The most common and popular example is the Rat-L-Trap. This lure is at its best during the late Winter and early Spring seasons, when the vegetation is reduced.
The second choice for bass is the plastic worm. Fished Texas-style, it is effective year-round. The slip sinker should be light and should be kept pegged to improve the angler's `feel'. In areas of extremely thick cover, such as along the lower East shoreline during the Summer, flipping plastic worms is extremely effective. Peg a very heavy sinker and work every hole in the cover. 95 percent of the strikes always come on the initial drop of the lure, so be very alert. A low-stretch line, such as Fireline, is highly recommended, in that it gives instant response and hook-set power, and provides a degree of immediate control in the heavy cover.
Local information provides the following timetables for the best fishing for individual species:
March-September , with the bedding periods of April-June as the peak months.
Shellcrackers April is the best month, closely followed by September.
Speckled perch (Crappie) Year-round. Peaks with spawning in December-March.
Bass Good year-round, if the angler understand how to fish the cover. Spawning occurs December-March. Wild shiners excellent January-April.
Numerous launch areas are found around both lakes and on the Cross Creek connection. Accommodations are readily available at the numerous fish camps on the lake and in nearby cities. As previously suggested, you should inspect your accommodations before accepting them.
Good guides are Terry Nash (904-466-4273) and Crawford Solomon (904-595-4131)
For general area information, contact the Gainsville Chamber of Commerce, 300 E. University Ave., PO Box 1187, Gainsville, Fl. 32602-1187, 904-372-4305.
Other potential useful numbers are:
Cross Creek Camp - 904-466-3424
Cross Creek Lodge - 904-466-3228
Lochloosa Springs Camp - 904-481-2127
Bill and Dot's Camp - 904-466-3194
Orange Lake Camp - 904-591-1870
Recommended sites by The Fishin' Tipster
A common question that we get: "Is there somewhere close to get bait and tackle?" This is where we get our bait.
Pete and Tina Heinz / 9 South Mulberry St. / Fellsmere, FL 32948 / 772-571-9855
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