May 16, 2011
Make your plans for a camping and fishing retreat in Ocala National Forest.
In Florida Mother Nature runs wild with naked abandon like a child who doesn't know better. The Ocala National Forest is one of the rare places she is allowed to go unpunished. Half of it had been public domain land, meaning it belonged to nobody; high, dry, porous sand undesirable for agriculture, we got it. The earliest national forest east of the Mississippi it now comprises 382,000 acres of pine trees, lakes, springs and the freedom to wander amongst them like a natural person. Best to take advantage. Tall pines are mighty nice and airy to camp under.
Clear, spring-fed lakes add a new dimension to bass fishing.
Like happiness a large swath of woods means different things to different people. If a cold front is beating a frosty path to Central Florida, I can call a friend of mine and chances are he'll be beyond the reach of modern communications. For some reason foul weather gets him and his childhood pal loading up their tent and sleeping bags and heading out to experience it somewhere in the forest.
Me, I'd rather watch Oprah than camp in bad weather. But fall through spring, when the atmosphere and bugs are on mostly good behavior, my family might suddenly need an innoculation of pine sap, cicada chatter, lightning bugs and great fishing. In an hour the canoe's on the van and we're on our way out of town.
Florida's springs are reason enough to live on this planet. They pump the clearest water on the surface of the earth; but clear is an inadequate term for these springs. If invisible had a color, you would find it here. They are gorgeous, captivating, liberating. I absolutely can't get enough. Alexander, Salt and Silver Glen springs are my favorites. These are just different ways to spell snorkeling, fishing, swimming and generally feasting on the great outdoors. With their broad sandy shallows and beaches, Alexander and Silver Glen are perfect for putting babies in sparkling water and for anyone to learn the splendors of snorkeling. Surrounded by shallow water, Salt Springs has several beautiful chimneys whose depths can be plumbed by looking or diving down. Schools of giant mullet, actually pretty underwater, are abundant, along with vibrantly colored blue crabs. A boat is necessary to fish downstream of the spring and many people angle for the mullets, using various corn meal and dough concoctions. At the fabulously transparent Silver Glen, a snorkeler can hang out with striped bass and ladyfish.
Anybody who never snorkeled and thinks it's not worth doing would change his opinion while gliding across the blue hole in the earth a hundred feet from the beach where Alexander pumps out 70 million gallons per day of God's mouthwash. We don't have to envy the eagle. Snorkeling is an easy, safe and cheap way for people to fly. Unlike birds that can swim the air, we require water for buoyancy. The sensation is much the same in our absolutely air clear springs. It can even be scary cruising over a dropoff from shallow water, like you'd just run off a cliff and should, by all rights, fall to your death. Instead, you soar.
After a morning of absorbing the underwater delights of Alexander, it's great to head to the bridge on the same road. This is excruciatingly easy access to Alexander Springs Run, a great place to wade out and angle for sunfish, take a swim, snorkel, throw in a canoe or just check out the abundant life. My boys go wild investigating everything; the possibilities are so exciting and the discoveries so amazing compared to the stifling, boring predictability of the city. Ten-year-old Sam can't help looking up at me from his exploring and saying with a goofy grin, “I just love nature.”
You've seen those “FISH NAKED” bumper stickers? Take it from me, that advice is seriously flawed. Before kids Michele and I camped at Halfmoon Lake, on dirt Forest Road 579D with no facilities, just pitch your tent where you want to. In the morning I got up, grabbed my fishing rod and casually waded in about stomach deep tossing artificial worm around the cattails. I got a strike and boy did it hurt. It's amazing how loud a bluegill can make you yell. I've been grateful ever since I wasn't educated by a mudfish or gar.
The day before at Halfmoon a couple guys pulled up in their aluminum boat with a bucketful of thick bluegills and shellcrackers. The hefty panfish had succumbed to crickets, somewhere on the other side.
Some of the lakes have hard sand bottoms, making for good wading.
Since the little campers joined us, we stay in the official campgrounds which give them places to run around and ride their bikes. In fact, Sam learned to ride a two-wheeler at Lake Dorr, a quiet, laid-back site at the edge of the forest near Altoona. For a place to camp where you can enjoy hanging around the campground and see only a handful of people, this is it. Fishing is good right off the dock and there's a beach for swimming with the gators. The whole lake is excellent for bass and there is a boat ramp to get you to them. However, don't eat your catch. The mercury level is high enough to read the temperature off a bass's lateral line.
I learned a valuable lesson fishing Lake Dorr for the first time years ago. As I hammered the promising grasses and cypress coves of the shoreline with popping bug, a friend who had never fished and didn't know any better just dragged an artificial worm behind the johnboat. While I couldn't raise a nibble, she kept ignorantly hauling in bass. Now when fly fishing, I always let an artificial worm follow me around.
Alexander Springs is another convenient camping spot, busier and less quaint than Lake Dorr with paved driveways and a large bathroom facility because it's at the spring. Given the proximity of the two, it's nice to camp at Lake Dorr and visit Alexander. Unfortunately, your Lake Dorr camping fee doesn't get you in any other fee areas since many of these have been granted to private concessionaires.
Exploring by car is a nice thing to do, just seeing where the roads will lead. Many times I passed a small sign for Redwater Lake, always on the way to somewhere else. I couldn't resist any longer and swung up the dirt road. It turned out to be bouncy and pretty long, but the tannic, cypress rimmed lake at its end was well worth the time. I waded out fly fishing and had a good time casting into enticing lily pad and grass patches; but for any extensive fishing better bring a boat.
The comprehensive way to travel is with a forest or county map. That aerial view helps you decide which roads you want to explore. With 600 lakes and ponds it's tough to know where to start fishing. I recommend eliminating the ones that have dried up. After that decide if you prefer to fish from a boat, on foot or from a pier.
Twenty of the lakes have boat ramps, some only for 4-wheel-drivers, others for everyone. Rangers should be able to guide visitors to suitable lakes and advise of current conditions. Topographical maps are available. After a long period of drought, it's best to choose deep lakes so you don't wind up fishing a puddle from yesterday's cloudburst.
There are about 40 main fishing lakes. A fisherman cannot help looking at their topo maps with greedy eyes. Just to mention two that excited me, Farles Lake near Altoona, shaped like a cross between a cartoon chicken and a one legged horse, is splattered with nooks, necks, crannies and coves. The head, chest and stomach all drop off to 20 feet deep while the hoof reaches 10. Grasshopper, looking like an evil clown or road killed Donald Duck, drops off rapidly to 20 feet at the end coves with vast wadable shallows in the middle. Both these lakes are clear.
Mark Benson and I chose the 90-acre Farles for a dawn attack. We slid the canoe into a perfect pine tree mirror.
“I can't believe we're in Florida,” Mark summed up his feelings. “This is drop dead gorgeous.”
Mark tossed an 11 cm Rapala while I started out with squirrel tail jig, which normally gets every species. Rapala, however, got the variety pack this morning. Using the surface twitch method, he immediately missed a hit, a common result when fishing topwater slow. Then he got a warmouth. I got small bluegills on the jig while Mark started scoring bass in a productive cove of widely scattered lily pads. Giving in to Rapala, I used my preferred method of retrieving underwater and got a big copperhead bluegill for starters. This particular morning, slow twitch prevailed with the bass.
We had this clear lake to ourselves and once away from the road, there was no sign of humanity. It was just a delight to be there.
Many of the forest lakes are oligotrophic (low in nutrients) and clear. Their isolation from storm drains, yard fertilizer and farms makes this possible. Having grown up in Orlando, which sees its lakes as stormwater runoff, I got used to fishing in coffee. So I love being on clear water purely for the aesthetics of sight fishing, witnessing underwater strikes occasionally and seeing a battling bass many feet below me.
Younster takes the plunge to explore a spring.
Some people think fishing clear water requires advanced degrees in stealth. I never have found this to be the case. If anything, clear water fish seem the most ready strikers. And it does simplify finding the fish when you can actually see them. Of course my favorite method of fish locating is with mask and snorkel. It also is the most stealthy. You can get within touching range of big bass before they casually relinquish the space. This is a detailed education in fish hangouts. In the heat of the day when they're not biting anyway, what better thing to do than go pick out a few for later?
For the fisherman looking to become immersed in the forest, nomadically stalking bass on foot from lake to lake, released from traffic, roads and the infernal combustion engine, there are 219 miles of trails with frequent access. Sixty-nine miles of it is Florida National Scenic Trail, connecting eight recreation areas, 60 lakes and many ponds. Camping is allowed everywhere in the forest except hunt-ing season November to January and in the bombing range. Outside of designated campgrounds there is no charge.
For a completely different wilderness fishing trip, a meandering network of streams in the lower Oklawaha River offers some of the least disturbed waters in the forest. These are relatively hard to approach, but difficult access almost always means great fishing. An access point in the Cedar Creek section requires a 2-mile 4-wheel-drive ride followed by a portage to the water. This water is best experienced from a muscle powered craft.
For great solitary fishing trips or just hanging out with family or friends off the grid, where life is really at, head for the forest. And check out the lightning bugs at Lake Dorr. It's an amazing sight.
Most enjoyable fall through spring. During this period deerflies fast, mosquitoes sharpen their mouths and water vapor travels elsewhere to practice forming thunderheads. Come summer, as we all know, they are ready.
For the backpacker, lightweight 2-man tents are available. The person who drives to his site might as well have a bigger one. We got a cabin style one for 30 dollars that sleeps me, Michele and our two boys. An independent tarp is a good idea for keeping your site dry and shady.
If you don't succumb to bonfire mania, there's always plenty of firewood for cooking meals, roasting marshmallows and the endlessly fascinating job of keeping the campfire supplied with fuel. Check at a visitors' center or ranger station for the latest on fire advisories. Inexpensive, efficient fuel cookstoves come in handy, and minimize your “footprint” in the wilderness.
You can now make reservations for developed campsites at Salt Springs, Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Clearwater Lake by calling (877) 444-6777. Fees range from $4 to $20. Primitive backcountry camping—especially popular along the Florida Trail and some lakes—is prohibited during general gun hunting season (Nov. 13-Jan. 23 this year).
A Wildlife Management Area stamp ($26.50) is required, in addition to regular hunting licenses. Quota hunts are held in Ocala. Deer, turkey and small game are abundant. For more, visit myfwc.com.
Freshwater fishing license required. Special regulations are in effect for certain lakes within the forest. The guidebook Fishing Opportunities in the Ocala National Forest is available at the visitors center; you can also find out specifics on regulations at myfwc.com.
- Salt Springs Marina: (352) 685-2255
- Juniper Springs Marina: (352) 625-2808
- Alexander Springs Marina: (352) 669-3522
- Silver Glen Springs Marina: (352) 685-2799
- Clearmont Lake: (352) 669-0078.
Points of Interest
- Seminole Ranger district: (352) 669-3153
- Lake George Ranger district: (352) 625-2520
- Pittman Visitor Center: (352) 669-7495
- Oklawaha Visitor Center: (352) 235-0288
- Salt Springs Visitor Center: (352) 685-3070
- Many lakes are reachable by 1-wheel-drive but many others must be walked to or driven to on 4-wheel-drive trails. Horseback works, too.
- Ocala Forest is the setting for the 1935 novel The Yearling.
- Mill Dam and Wildcat lakes are great swimming spots, easy access from main roads.
- Canoe rentals available at Salt, Juniper and Alexander springs.
- Scuba diving allowed in specified areas.
- The delightfully cordial scrub jay inhabits the world's largest sand pine-scrub oak ecosystem.