Photo by John Felsher.
Anglers in one of the largest cities in Florida can often find excellent bass fishing just minutes from their downtown offices, thanks to a partnership between the city of Orlando and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Hundreds of small lakes and ponds dot the greater Orlando area for a total surface area of 60,000 acres. However, access on most urban lakes remains limited because land surrounding them is private property.
Therefore, the FWC established a program to help Central Florida urban anglers. In greater Orlando, the commission manages the Fab Five — five urban lakes — specifically for public fishing. These lakes are Turkey, Starke, Ivanhoe, Underhill and Clear. Each can provide good fishing at times, although they all receive tremendous pressure because of their close proximity to thousands of people.
“Our motto is ‘bringing quality fishing to families,’ ” explained Jim Sweatman, the FWC Fish Orlando Program coordinator and a fisheries biologist. “Our job in the Fish Orlando Program is to provide and promote convenient quality fishing opportunities in the greater Orlando area.
“Each of these five lakes is extremely popular and can provide a quality fishing experience,” he continued. “We’ve stocked them with baitfish, planted vegetation, removed detrimental vegetation, put out fish attractors, created places to fish from the banks and established regulations to manage these lakes for quality public fishing.”
Anglers can launch their own boats with no motor restrictions on any of these, except Turkey Lake. Good ramps provide easy access for bass boats. People can also fish them from canoes or kayaks. Most also provide some type of bank- or pier-fishing. State regulations apply to all of the lakes except Turkey Lake and Underhill. On Turkey Lake and Underhill, anglers must release all the bass they catch.
“People can show up with absolutely nothing and fish here,” explained Charly Whittle, the Turkey Lake dockmaster. “If necessary, we can even loan the anglers some fishing rods and tackle. If people don’t know how to fish, I give them some instructions on how to cast, rig a bait and work a lure. I also point out some of the most productive spots on the lake to give them the best possibility of catching fish. Whether they catch fish or not, I want them to have a pleasurable experience.”
On Turkey Lake, anglers may not fish from their own boats, but must reserve one of four 17-foot aluminum Bass Trackers available four days per week for a daily fee. Each boat comes equipped with a depthfinder, trolling motor, life jackets and other necessary equipment. Up to three anglers can fit in each boat and rent it for four hours. To reserve a boat at Turkey Lake, call 407-299-5581.
The FWC limits access to Turkey Lake because too much fishing pressure could ruin it. The state tries to keep it as one of the premier fisheries in Central Florida. Situated along the Florida Turnpike, Turkey Lake spreads across 339 acres adjacent to Bill Frederick Park on Hiawassee Road.
Grassy and relatively clear, the natural lake averages about 5 to 6 feet deep with some spots hitting the 8- to 9-foot levels. A few dredge holes dip to nearly 20 feet deep.
“We could manage the lake for quality fish by allowing people to take more bass out of the lake, but we don’t want to do that,” Sweatman said. “We want to manage it for numbers so that people who don’t own a boat or didn’t bring their boat with them to vacation in Orlando can fish here and enjoy a quality experience.
“We control the pressure on the lake,” he continued. “That’s why the fishing is so good. We get everyone from professional tournament anglers to novices fishing Turkey Lake, but about 80 percent of the people who show up are relatively inexperienced.”
Although the park dates to the 1970s, the lake held fish long before that. However, plants choked the shorelines. Intrepid anglers who battled the reeds could fish in a few places. About a decade ago, the state began a major lake renovation.
“Before we started enhancing the lake, we had a shoreline full of willows, cattails and other reeds,” Sweatman said. “There were no fishing piers or boats to rent. The fishery was decent but difficult to reach. We removed nuisance vegetation and replaced it with vegetation that would make good fish and wildlife habitat. We put out oak brush on the bottom as fish attractors. If you maintain the habitat, you’ll have plenty fish.”
The boat loaner program began in 2001. People can also fish off five piers or from the bank. People camping in the park can fish the banks 24 hours a day. The park offers recreational vehicle hookups, cabin rentals and tent camping, said Bill Girard, the park manager.
Although the lake can produce double-digit largemouths, including at least one approaching 14 pounds and some 10-pounders caught in the past year, the lake holds numbers of fish in the 1- to 3-pound range. In four hours, two good bass anglers can land more than 40 fish. One might top 6 pounds.
To help manage the lake, Sweatman requests that anglers record and report the species and length of all fish caught.
“For most lakes in the country, the average bass is well below 13 inches,” Sweatman explained. “People can come to Turkey Lake and catch quite a few 14- to 16-inch bass with one or two in the 4- to 6-pound range and possibly a larger one.”
Topwater lures, like Super Spooks or Rapala Skitter Walks and soft-plastic jerkbaits, such as flukes or Yumdingers, work best in Turkey Lake. Fish topwaters around the buoys marking the brushy fish attractors or the soft plastics along the grassy edges. Anglers can also catch big bass in deeper holes with Texas-rigged worms, lipless crankbaits or Carolina-rigged “creature” baits.
Starke Lake covers 225 acres in the Orlando suburb of Ocoee, with the Ocoee City Hall directly across the street from a park that borders the water. Grass covers much of the bottom out to about 12 feet deep. Some holes drop to about 30 feet. The FWC placed three fish attractors marked by yellow buoys in various parts of the lake. Many people fish off the piers, often catching bass and panfish.
“Starke has amazing habitat with l
ots of structure,” Sweatman described. “Starke has the most bass per acre of anyplace in the state. We’ve shocked as many as 200 bass per hour, with 60 per hour being a good number for any lake.”
Although considered a numbers lake, Starke can produce some big bass. It contributed the biggest largemouths seen so far from any of the Fab Five since the Fish Orlando Program began. It has yielded at least two 14-pounders and several topping 10 pounds.
“The percentage of bass in the 20- to 24-inch range is probably less than the other four lakes, but Starke also has the most fishing pressure of the five,” Sweatman said. “People need to learn how to pattern fish. If a couple of anglers can break the pattern on any given day, they can catch 20 to 30 good bass in a half day on Starke, with one to three possibly in the 4- to 6-pound range.”
In such a highly pressured, relatively clear environment, bass see just about every lure known to angling. Thinking finesse is the ticket here. Use light line and small baits, with fluorocarbon leaders. Work baits very slowly.
A split shot or peg rig is one option. Attach a split shot or peg a small bullet weight to 6- to 8-pound monofilament line about 12 to 24 inches above a 4-inch worm or grub. Work the bait very slowly over the bottom or just over the tops of the grass. Many anglers drag a peg rig behind the boat as they fish with other lures.
Over deep grass, tickle the vegetation tops with a shaky-head worm. A shaky-head rig consists of a plastic straight-tail worm on a jighead. To make the worm snagless, insert the hook into the plastic.
Make long casts and let the bait fall to the bottom. Often, strikes occur as the bait sinks. At the bottom, begin shaking the rod tip a few seconds at a time. Fish the worm almost like a conventional Texas rig, but slightly faster, letting it drop occasionally.
Also, crawl the worm over grass, debris or bottom contours. This movement keeps the worm quivering, sending enticing vibrations into surrounding waters.
In the spring, anglers could also try flipping the maiden cane — called Kissimmee grass — along the shorelines with flukes or other soft-plastic topwaters. Try several methods to figure out what works that day. Sometimes, just a slight decrease in line size or a difference in size, color or sound of a bait can make a big difference in the catch rate.
“Since it’s such a highly pressured lake, what goes on the end of the rig makes a big difference,” Sweatman advised. “Anyone fishing Starke has to do it right. If they don’t, they might not catch anything.”
Lakes Underhill And Ivanhoe
Nearly twins, Underhill and nearby Ivanhoe can produce many fish in the 4- to 6-pound range. State biologists electro-shock about 100 bass per hour in each of these lakes. Both contain good habitat and deep water, with some holes dropping to more than 25 feet. Submerged vegetation in the form of pondweed, eelgrass and hydrilla covers large portions of the lakes, providing excellent bass habitat.
Although an old natural system, Underhill is the newest addition to the Fab Five program and covers 147 acres. The 408 East-West Expressway splits Underhill in two sections, but anglers even find good action in the shade of the bridge.
Divided into three lobes, Ivanhoe covers 125 acres.
“Ivanhoe is like the cousin to Underhill with lots of similar structure, dredge holes and submerged vegetation,” Sweatman said. “Ivanhoe and Underhill are two of the best places in the Fab Five to catch a limit of 5- to 6-pound fish. Underhill and Ivanhoe are probably best known for their percentage of larger fish, but they don’t produce many true trophies. These waters have produced several bass in the 8- to 10-pound range.
“I wouldn’t send anglers to Ivanhoe or Underhill to catch double-digit bass,” the biologist cautioned, “but I’d send them to either of those two lakes to catch a bunch of 4- to 6-pounders. I know people who pass up the Kissimmee Chain to take their bass boats through Orlando to fish Underhill.”
In the spring, bass probably stay in water 10 feet deep or less to spawn, although some spawn off the banks in deep hydrilla or eelgrass beds. Anglers might flip the maiden cane with soft-plastic craws or drop wacky worms near the grassbeds in water less than 8 feet deep.
To make a wacky worm somewhat weedless, attach a rubber band from the hook barb to the eye to create a weed guard. People can also use factory hooks already equipped with wire weed guards.
“Ivanhoe has produced some fish up to 13 pounds, but mostly these lakes are known for producing 4- to 6-pounders,” Sweatman emphasized, then added, “That doesn’t mean that anyone can go out on these lakes any day and catch 5-pounders all day long.”
Clear Lake covers 319 acres and has some spots that are nearly 20 feet deep.
“The largemouth fishery has improved during the past five years,” Sweatman said. “In 2001, eelgrass expanded and that helped the bass fishery. For largemouths in the spring, I’d fish a Texas-rigged worm or soft-plastic jerkbait fished just off the eelgrass breaks.”
Along with the largemouth bass, the 319-acre lake offers anglers an opportunity to catch hybrid striped bass. The state annually stocks about 50 sterile hybrids per acre. Many hybrids of up to 16 inches long are caught, with some in the 4- to 6-pound range.