Mention Central Florida to most Americans and the first name that usually comes to mind is Disney World. This enormous playground is without a doubt one of the grand travel destinations anywhere on the planet. But there's also another Florida here, offering many of the enjoyments of the Sunshine State that drew people here long before the Mouse that Roared ever stepped foot in Florida.
Whether it's wetting a line, enjoying a cruise on the winding waterways, gearing up from some towsports, relaxing on white sand beaches or dining at boutique waterfront restaurants, the 100-mile span from Orlando to the Tampa Bay area has a lot to offer travelers. And they're all linked by Interstate 4, making travel fast and safe, even if you're towing your favorite fishing boat, which we highly recommend.
Taking your boat to Florida with the family opens up the opportunity for twice the fun on an extended vacation. Once the kids have enjoyed a few days at the Magic Kingdom, you can experience some of the magic that's always been a part of Florida — the enduring charm of its inland waterways and endless coastal beaches and estuaries. And if you like to fish, there are few places that offer better angling action.
Before setting off on your Florida adventures, make sure you have the right insurance coverage for your boat (or personal watercraft), your trailer and the tow vehicle. The team of licensed car and boat specialist at GEICO can help you get the right insurance at the right price. Call 1-800-865-4846 or visit GEICO.com today to get coverage.
Whether you're towing a basic aluminum bassing rig, a big fiberglass Triton or Ranger, or a flats or bay boat, you'll find endless spots to launch, cruise and fish. And the weather is almost always just about right, if not today, then tomorrow for sure. Here's a look at a few of my favorite places to visit, relax and enjoy.
Fishing at Disney
There is excellent bass fishing on the lakes that wind through the Magic Kingdom. You can book a guided trip aboard a spacious pontoon boat that will be fun for the whole family. Here's a tip; the water is very clear, and the bass are smart due to a total catch-and-release policy at Disney World. Take light spinning gear, and use 6-pound test fluorocarbon and small wacky-rigged worms on light dropshot rigs to fool them.
The Butler Lake Chain
This pretty chain of lakes, sometimes known as the Windermere Chain, is a pleasant venue just minutes from your Orlando-area hotel. Bass fishing and water skiing is great here, but this chain of lakes also allows you to cruise past many of the finest celebrity homes in Central Florida. Among the well-known who live on this lake chain are Shaquille O'Neil, Ken Griffey, Jr., Wesley Snipes, Planet Hollywood CEO Robert Earl, and many of the top execs from Disney World. The notorious home, where Tiger Woods split so publicly with fashion model wife Elin Nordegren, is also here.
The Kissimmee Lake Chain
Starting at the town of Kissimmee, only minutes from the front gate of Disney World, you can launch your bass boat into Lake Tohopekaliga, one of the many lakes in the Kissimmee River Chain, which extends south nearly 100 miles to end in massive Lake Okeechobee. The chain is arguably the best place in Florida to catch trophy Florida-strain bass, with hundreds of fish over 10 pounds caught and released every year.
Prime time for the giants is during the January to early-April spawn, but huge fish are caught year around. Your chances are best fishing live shiners, which can be purchased at most bait shops around the lake, but big soft plastic worms, frogs and flippin' jigs also catch plenty. Big Toho Marina is a good spot to get bait and gear, or to hire a guide. Savion's Place is a locally-owned restaurant just a few blocks from the lake where they serve interesting dishes including lobster mac and cheese, and plantain bowls filled with prawns and chilled pork drizzled with citrus aioli.
The Tampa Bay Area
Just a little over an hour west of the great freshwater action on the Kissimmee Chain is the vast estuary of Tampa Bay, with Tampa on the east shore, St. Petersburg on the west and Bradenton/Anna Maria on the south. Despite all the human population, the bay still is surrounded by vibrant estuaries, thanks to a restoration effort that has spanned the last 35 years. These waters are absolutely loaded with snook, redfish, sea trout, tarpon, grouper and lots more. King and Spanish mackerel are thick off the beaches during spring and fall, and pompano are late-winter visitors.
You can catch all these species on your freshwater bass and walleye tackle, with the exception of the tarpon and kings, which require a bigger, stouter rig.
Little Manatee River
The Little Manatee River is a designated Outstanding Florida River, with miles of undeveloped marsh country upstream. You'll find largemouth bass east of I-75, and a trip upriver usually means you'll spot an alligator somewhere, too. But the river is best known for snook fishing and for baby tarpon. Snook are particularly thick upriver in winter, and the tarpon action--fish to 30 pounds--is best in summer. There's a unique Old Florida-style fish camp here, Pirate's Pointe, in the village of Ruskin. The resort is set in a lush tropical jungle, and you can sometimes catch snook right off the dock. Motor downriver 10 minutes and you're in the open waters of Tampa Bay, in the heart of redfish and trout country.
At the mouth of the river sits The Inn at Little Harbor, a full-service resort and marina with one of the few waterfront restaurants in the South Shore area. The aptly named "Sunset Grill" is a great spot to watch the sun set over Tampa Bay. There's also an open-air tiki bar right on the water, with happy hour live music and karaoke.
Ten Things Every Florida Bound Boater Should Carry
In addition to all your usual trailering gear, including at least one fully-inflated spare for the trailer, a trailer jack and a well-fitted boat cover to keep grime off your interior, there are also some extras you'll want along on your trip to the Sunshine State.
1. Required safety gear
Most state regulations require
that you to have a PFD of appropriate size for everyone in the boat, a throwable cushion, visual distress signals, sound-producing device, fire extinguisher and running lights. Inboards must have venting devices and backfire flame control. Current boat registration in your home state may also be required.
3. Polarized sunglasses with side-shields
These are a must for seeing through surface glare and assuring the course ahead is navigable. They're also very handy for spotting fish when you go flats fishing.
A pair of 7 x 50's will let you enjoy Florida's very different wildlife, from alligators and manatees to bald eagles, sandhill cranes, roseate spoonbills and cara-cara's. You may also want them to look for channel markers and other navigation aids.
5. Handheld GPS
Morning fog is common on Florida waterways, and it's easy to get turned around. Your phone and Google Maps will suffice most of the time, but there are places where coverage is spotty for some carriers. If you plan on exploring and don't have GPS in your boat, take your handheld GPS as a backup.
6. Mosquito Repellant
Florida is mosquito country. While resort areas spray to keep them down, many areas you may enjoy boating and cruising in will have lots of them. Repellants with high DEET content work best, or opt for a high-tech solution like the Thermocell repeller, an amazingly effective device that can clear out the bugs even in Everglades concentrations.
7. Sun Screen
The sun in Florida is likely to burn you much faster than at home, particularly on beach areas where there's lots of reflection; take some high-SPF lotion and apply it regularly.
8. Rain Gear
Florida gets lot of rain, mostly in short bursts. Particularly in summer, it can rain anytime during the day or night as storms drift in both from the Atlantic and the Gulf. Be prepared.
9. Wading shoes
Florida is all about getting your feet wet, but in many areas there are shells and other obstructions that are tough on bare feet. Make sure you pack a pair of well-built, quick-drying shoes or waterproof sandals that will stay on your feet when wading.
10. Boat Maintenance Gear
Modern bass boats can handle exposure to saltwater, but if you want to keep your boat looking factory-new, take along a 50-foot wash-down hose, some bio-friendly boat wash and a soft brush, and go over all the metal fittings after each coastal use. It's also a great idea to use Corrosion-X spray on these metal parts to make sure corrosion never gets started; a light mist, then a wipe down and you're done.
2. Adequate Vehicle and Boat Insurance
It's a good idea to check the insurance coverage for both your vehicle and vessel before departure. Knowing that you're properly covered will make your travels in Florida all the more enjoyable. That's where GEICO comes in. The team of professional licensed boat specialists at GEICO can help you get the right insurance at the right price for your vehicle, trailer and boat (or personal watercraft). Call 1-800-865-4846 or visit GEICO.com
today to get coverage.
You may see a manatee or sea cow just about anywhere along Florida's coasts these days, but if you want to be sure to see lots of them, visit the Tampa Electric Manatee Center in Apollo Beach, just southeast of Tampa. Here several hundred of these 1,200-pound "gentle giants" gather each winter, enjoying the warm water coming out of the power plant as Tampa Bay's open waters get chilly. The center is open from Nov. 1 to April 15, with viewing usually best from Christmas to St. Patrick's Day. There's a nature trail, a ray-petting tank and a 50-foot-tall viewing tower the kids will enjoy climbing.
There's a new Bass Pro Shop megastore just off I-75 east of Tampa. If you need to stock up on anything that has to do with fishing or boating, they have it, and at a good price, too. (There's also a great family-owned boat and trailer repair and supply shop, T.A. Mahoney's, not far away. The shop is owned and run by serious saltwater anglers who will get you in and out fast if you have problems.
The nearby Ybor City historic district has one of Florida's more famous restaurants, the Columbia, which is a great spot for some authentic Cuban cuisine. While you're in this area, you might want to visit the Florida Aquarium, on the quay at Tampa Harbor--a world class aquarium with hundreds of fish species as well as one of the largest Florida wild bird aviaries in the state. If that's not enough action, you can actually take a swim in the shark tank, if you've got the nerve!
Swing around the bay, through Tampa on I-275 from the north or via the Sunshine Skyway from the south, and you'll be close to Tierra Verde and Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant, one of those rare waterfront eateries where the fishing boats deliver fresh crab right to the back door during the season. And you can drive in for lunch either with your boat or your car.
A short drive down Pinellas Bayway from Billy's is Fort DeSoto Park, one of the most water-friendly spots on the west coast for family vacationing. Not only does this big island sit right in the middle of some of the best inshore fishing in the state, it also has award-winning white beaches, a modern waterfront campground and lots of beachfront picnic areas. The whole family will enjoy exploring the historic fort and there are two fishing piers where mackerel are usually easy targets for a small chrome spoon, as well as kayak rentals and a tour boat to visit nearby Egmont Key. The deep green channels in this area get stiff with tarpon from May through July, so keep your eyes open and a big swimbait or topwater lure ready to throw on heavy gear; the fish are giants, 90 pounds and up!
Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier
The Sunshine Skyway is reportedly the longest fishing pier on earth, extending for miles from both the north and south shores at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Anglers hook everything from grouper and gray snapper to tarpon, king mackerel and cobia from the span, though of course landing the larger fish is a challenge. There are bait shops, restrooms and food shops on the piers. (Don't pull your boat trailer in here, though, as there is no place to turn around.) A drive over the 430-foot-tall Sunshine Skyway Bridge alone makes it worth the trip.
Anna Maria Island
This lovely island sits on the south side of the entry to Tampa Bay, and the blue-green pass that flows past its point gets loaded with tarpon and snook throughout the warmer months. Walk the beach and cast a plug in the swash at dawn and dusk for the linesiders, or drift the pass with live mullet or sardines for the tarpon. There are several small, attractive resorts here, including Mainsail Beach Inn, which cater to boaters and anglers. It's right on the beach, so mom and the kids can enjoy some swimming and sunning while dad slips out the back to probe the nearby mangrove country for snook, reds and trout. There are two fishing piers on the pass, the free Anna Maria Island City Pier and the fee-entry Rod & Reel Pier. Both are good spots to catch snook on live bait at night under the lights.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
Just 15 miles down the beach from Anna Maria (a very pleasant boat ride via the Intracoastal Waterway, or by car down the beach road) is Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. This world-class research center is open to the public, and the kids will love the 135,000 gallon shark aquarium, as well as a chance to see over 100 other species of Florida fish and marine creatures. Cross the causeway into Sarasota and eat on the water at Marina Jack--they have both a formal restaurant and the casual Blue Sunshine Patio Bar & Grill. By water, you can cruise past The Ringling Circus Museum, AKA Ca'd Zan, the spectacular one-time-residence of circus magnate John Ringling.