By Bob Wattendorf, Drew Dutterer and Bill Pouder
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) works hard to maintain our status as the “Fishing Capital of the World” by actively managing fishery resources to foster the best fishing opportunities possible.
For obvious reasons, the FWC focuses a large amount of effort on big, marquee water bodies, such as the Kissimee Chain of Lakes or Lake Okeechobee, that are widely known and heavily utilized by anglers. But, we don’t overlook smaller water bodies that have great fishing potential, and neither should you. In many instances, smaller lakes may have fisheries that parallel or exceed those of big lakes when it comes to catch rates and size structure of fish. Just check out some of the recent results on TrophyCatchFlorida.com for proof.
Small lakes offer an alternative experience, accomodate smaller boats and are less crowded. Here, we offer a sampling of five smaller, public lakes around the state (one from each FWC management region) that might be flying a bit under the radar but are well worth exploring with rod and reel.
Lake Gibson – Southwest Region
Location: Polk County (just north of Interstate 4 and Lakeland)
Surface area: 480 acres
Lake Gibson touts a productive bass fishery, which has been hot lately for anglers in the Lakeland area. Recent monitoring suggests the bass fishery excels in terms of both the number and size of bass. This has been evident through FWC’s current angler survey; anglers are reporting an average catch of one bass per hour, which is more than double the statewide average. Electrofishing surveys on Lake Gibson paint a similar picture. Sizes of these bass ranged from a few inches (a welcome sign of successful spawning) up to a respectable 9 pounds. Several bass over 8 pounds were tagged in the last year as part of an FWC study evaluating catch of trophy largemouth bass in Florida. A tagged bass (9.5 pounds) has already been caught and released by a local angler. Lake Gibson is also home to quality sunfish and catfish populations, offering an opportunity for a multispecies approach to fishing on smaller waters. Lake Gibson has a single, public boat ramp off Socrum Loop Road and Lake Gibson Drive.
Alligator Lake – North Central Region
Location: Columbia County (east of U.S. Highway 441 – inside city limits of Lake City)
Surface area: 300-800 acres
Fans of Alligator Lake have not had much to be excited about in recent years. As with many lakes in Florida’s North Central region, it has been plagued by low water issues during the last decade. However, now anglers have good reason to be optimistic, as Tropical Storm Debby refilled it last June. The FWC was quick to take advantage of the lake’s restored water levels by stocking redear sunfish and bluegill in September 2012, and a stocking of largemouth bass is planned for this spring. Despite persistent low water conditions, there were a handful of deep areas that held water throughout the drought. These holes likely sustained enough fish to renew the fishery, as fish will grow rapidly due to newly available habitat and resulting forage. In August 2012, Bernard Donnell Jr. provided compelling evidence that at least one bass not only survived but flourished: He caught a 17-pound, 1-ounce trophy bass from Alligator Lake. If rainfall keeps Alligator Lake full, look for this fishery to quickly re-establish itself as a winner.
Lake Baldwin – Northeast Region
Location: Orange County (just north of State Road 50 and the Orlando Executive Airport)
Surface area: 225 acres
Among the hubbub of sprawling Orlando, you’ll find that Orange County is peppered with scores of lakes. Some are more deserving of your attention than others, and Lake Baldwin is one you should try. There, bass anglers have been experiencing some of the highest catch rates in the area. Bass are averaging 2 pounds or less; however, high catch rates are great for developing an interest in bass fishing for younger anglers. FWC staff have planted eelgrass recently, and the city built two fishing piers. There is also bank fishing in Baldwin Park, but the best fishing is done by a boat. A public boat ramp is on the south shore, and boaters with motors greater than 10 horsepower have to abide by a “no wake” restriction.
Lake Osborne – South Region
Location: Palm Beach County (just west of Interstate 95 and Lake Worth)
Surface area: 356 acres
Amid canals and the urban backdrop of south Florida, Lake Osborne provides exceptional opportunities for freshwater fishing. Here, anglers can target a myriad of species (largemouth bass, sunshine bass, black crappie, bluegill, redear sunfish, catfish, and Mayan cichlids). Lake Osborne’s sunshine bass fishery is a favorite among locals and is a blast when the bite is on. Sunshine bass are hybrids (produced and stocked by FWC hatcheries) of striped bass and white bass and handle the warmer waters of Florida much better than their parents. Look for them in open-water portions of the lake or deep, constricted areas such as the 6th Avenue pass that can funnel migrating fish. A large stocking of hybrids last spring should have this fishery primed this spring. FWC installed nine fish attractors throughout the lake, which congregate other species. John Prince Park provides bank access, a fishing pier and a public boat ramp.
Merritt’s Mill Pond – Northwest Region
Location: Jackson County (east of Marianna and U.S. Highway 90)
Surface area: 202 acres
Merritt’s Mill Pond is a spring-filled impoundment characterized by crystal clear water and lots of submerged plants. The pond is known for having produced Florida’s state record (4.86 pounds) redear sunfish in 1986. The redear fishery has subsided somewhat but still produces quality redear, plus bluegill and spotted sunfish. The water clarity that makes Merritt’s Mill Pond a scenic gem makes sport fish exceptionally shy, which can present challenges to anglers and biologists. Despite the challenge, biologists routinely collect quality bass, and sampling over recent years indicates an increasing average weight of bass. With three access points and lots of protection from wind, Merritt’s Mill Pond is a small-craft-friendly lake, and paddlers may have an advantage in catching more and bigger fish.
Let us and others know about your fishing successes, whether they occur on the small or big waters of Florida. Register at TrophyCatchFlorida.com (you’ll be eligible to win a $40,000 Phoenix bass boat and Mercury motor when you do) and report your big catches. Remember to take a camera, scale and tape measure along so that if you catch and release a bass over 8 pounds, you can be rewarded and say, “My Trophy Swims in Florida.”