What you can catch— by casting a line or holding a camera— on Florida’s waterways
With 900 named lakes in Polk County, the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west, Central Florida is a fisherman’s paradise. Some catch bass. Some catch speckled perch. And some… catch memories.
For 40-year-old Barrett Chandley, the tradition is a rich heritage dating to 1948 when his grandfather bought Grape Hammock Fish Camp in Lake Wales. Now people come from Canada, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Georgia, and “from all over” to experience the beauty of Central Florida sunsets and fish for bass, perch, shellcrackers, blue gills, and catfish. Some ride an airboat, and see alligators in their natural habitat.
“Everybody likes to see alligators. They’re our number one request,” he says. “Everything else they see is a pleasant surprise.”
Grape Hammock Fish Camp offers tent camping, rental cabins, and recreational vehicle spots, a bait and tackle store, and boat marina. “We’re staying pretty busy throughout the year,” he says. “More and more Florida people are finding us and wanting to come to the lake.”
Chad Crawford, host of the “How to Do Florida” television show, has been fishing since he was three years old. A third generation Floridian, who grew up in Sanford, Crawford loves surf fishing, particularly at Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville. “I can go over there in my swim trunks, fish on the beach early, and when it gets too hot, I can jump in the ocean and cool off,” he explains.
Kevin Updike, a fertilizer and agricultural chemical salesman for Howard Fertilizer in Orlando, enjoys spear fishing— along with other types of fishing. He spears grouper, hogfish, and snapper in Crystal River.
Updike began fishing when he “could pick up a fishing pole” and still enjoys fishing with his dad, Larry, in the Florida Keys. “He [Larry] likes to fish for mahi mahi, wahoo, and tuna,” Updike says of his father. “I go offshore with him.”
Fishermen and fisherwomen spent more than $4.6 billion in Florida in 2011, far more than in any other state, according to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. The study included people ages 16 and up.
In Central Florida, Lake Kissimmee and its chain of lakes are popular. “It is a place where a lot of Polk County fisherman, or a lot of people that fish in Polk County, like to go,” says Gary Morse, regional information director with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “It is definitely one of the best freshwater fishing areas in the United States.”
A plus is the ability to take out airboats. “Airboats can be very useful in fishing areas where access is difficult via an outboard motor or inboard motor,” Morse says. “Some of them don’t even need water.” While noise restrictions limit the use of the airboat, the Lake Kissimmee area is primarily undeveloped. From Grape Hammock Fish Camp, airboat tours run near Brahma Island, which sits on Lake Kissimmee, giving sightseers something to remember: Exotic deer, a small herd of buffalo… “People just absolutely go crazy,” says Chandley, an airboat captain who serves on the Polk County Farm Bureau board. “In the fall, spring, and winter, it’s unbelievable how much wildlife we see.” He and his brother Kevin, who co-owns the camp and also captains the airboats, utilize headsets that allow them to communicate with passengers while the airboat is running. “They get to experience a lot more stuff. It’s really been a plus for us,” he explains. Florida natives aren’t as interested in the gators, but visitors like to take pictures of them sunning themselves on the shore. Bird lovers like to photograph snail kites.
Crawford’s grandfather, John Angel, was one of the first to have an airboat on Puzzle Lake in Sanford in the 1940s. “Airboats back then were all handmade,” he says. His grandpa’s airboat was “quite the contraption,” made with an airplane engine, plywood and resin. “Man has not designed a better way to get out there and really cover a lot of ground,” he says. “It rides up over the vegetation.” The ride is fast, and exhilarating, akin to riding a roller coaster/swamp buggy. But Crawford doesn’t like them because of the noise.
During the summertime, the fish and fishermen feel the effects of the summer heat after 11 a.m. So Crawford recommends fishing between 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. “Fishing in the summer is a little tough. My suggestion is to get out on the water early,” he says.
He likes to stay close to the water where he can cool off. “It’s too hot to be out in the woods in the summer,” Crawford says. “I’m always right near water, whether it’s a spring, beach, lake— somewhere I can jump in the water and cool off.”
When traveling to a new area, he advises people to seek local knowledge. “I always try to find a local bait shop or fish camp. Buy some bait. Buy something,” he suggests. “If you’re buying something, typically they’re okay with giving you some information.”
Crawford, who lives in Lake Mary, says one of his favorite places to fish is at Highland Park Fish Camp in DeLand. There is a stocked bass pond for children, along with cabins and rental boats. He also suggests Lake Toho for bass fishing.
Paddleboard fishing is a good way to get into the backcountry, onto small creeks, where it is difficult for boats to maneuver. Because they are very quiet, it is possible to “sneak up on the fish,” he points out.
Meanwhile, Updike likes to travel to Chokoloskee, an island in the Gulf of Mexico near Everglades City, off the beaten path. “It’s an old Florida fishing spot,” he says. “A lot of the ag guys fish down there.”
“I like the challenges of going out and targeting that species. That’s kind of success for me,” he continues. “It takes a little while to learn the different fish. When you learn, it’s really fun.” He has caught more than fish. “We hunted them [alligators] all night,” he recalls. “It’s fun, a good time. We got a bunch.”