Hidden Gem Grape Hammock Is a Fantastic Destination for Ag-Recreation
by TERESA SCHIFFER
Central Florida is much more than theme parks and citrus groves, and Grape Hammock Fish Camp in Lake Wales proves it! The family-owned marina on the south end of Lake Kissimmee is a popular getaway spot for locals and out-of-state guests alike. Boasting excellent fishing, breathtaking scenery, a serene atmosphere, and accommodations for all kinds of campers, it’s no wonder people travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles every year to spend some time at this hidden gem located in eastern Polk County.
Grape Hammock has a long and storied past as an integral part of the development of Lake Wales. In the late 1800s, it was known as Grape Hammock Landing and steamboats would sail into Lake Kissimmee from the Kissimmee River carrying cargo and passengers. The name “Grape Hammock” was likely derived from the number of wild grapes growing in the area and the presence of groups of trees known as hammocks. After the Highway 60 bridge was built, there was no longer a need for a steamboat landing on Lake Kissimmee, and Grape Hammock transitioned into a fish camp.
Barrett Chandley is the jack-of-all trades who currently owns and operates Grape Hammock Fish Camp. The property was purchased by Chandley’s grandfather, Eddie Chandley, in 1950 and has remained in the Chandley family. In 1978, Eddie’s son, Curtis, and his wife, Barbie, took over the camp until their retirement in 2007. Curtis and Barbie’s sons, Barrett and Kevin, and their wives, Lori and Lacey, have operated the camp since then.
Grape Hammock offers 17 rental cabins, 21 RV spaces, a small mobile home park, a marina, a bait and tackle store, and airboat rides. The Chandleys rely primarily on word of mouth from satisfied visitors to promote the site, and it works well for them. Winters at the camp are currently booked two years in advance, and the summer weekends get booked up about six to eight months in advance.
Airboat rides are an entertaining activity offered at Grape Hammock Fish Camp from November through springtime. Fishing for lunker bass on undeveloped Lake Kissimmee remains the highlight of many people’s trip.
Many visitors, such as Tennessee resident Curtis Moore, enjoy their visit to Grape Hammock so much that they make it a regular tradition. Moore and his wife have been visiting the fish camp annually for about 25 years and appreciate the accommodations and level of service the Chandley family provides.
“They do such a good job. They go out of their way to help you, whatever they can do to assist you,” he says.
Now that Moore is retired, he likes to bring his grandchildren along for the trip, too.
Barrett Chandley grew up exploring the wilderness of Grape Hammock, hunting, fishing, boating, and reveling in the rustic charm of the rural lifestyle. During that era, roughly 95 percent of the visitors to Grape Hammock came from northern states. These days, the demographics are a little different. Over the last decade, more and more Florida residents have opted to take advantage of the pastoral amenities offered by the camp. Wintertime is still dominated by snowbirds, but the rest of the year sees heavy local traffic.
Over the years, the guests at Grape Hammock have evolved from individual fishermen or groups of guys getting together for some sporting times outdoors, to whole families traveling together to delight in the tranquil, natural beauty of the camp. The Chandleys have kept up with the times, renovating and upgrading their rental units in order to appeal to the 21st century family on the go, featuring such conveniences as cold A/C, cable TV, and kitchenettes.
One thing that Barrett Chandley particularly likes about running Grape Hammock is having the opportunity to share the importance of Florida agriculture with the general public. The Chandleys handle about 120 head of cattle in addition to running the fish camp, and Barrett relishes the chance to expound on the details of raising cattle and the positive ecological impact that the animals have on Lake Kissimmee.
Many of Grape Hammock’s guests are surprised to see the cattle roaming about and to learn about Florida’s significant agricultural industries. “I think it’s very important to educate a lot of these people,” Barrett says. He explains that there is some push to remove cattle from the shores of Lake Kissimmee, but his consultations with biologists have determined that it would be detrimental to the environment to do so.
“The cattle are actually an extremely valuable management tool,” Barrett explains. “They go out and they graze on a lot of this roughage, including a lot of small, exotic plants.” It is an efficient and inexpensive method of controlling invasive species in the area.
Grape Hammock Fish Camp is an extraordinary place to spend a vacation. In addition to the wonderful activities available there, Grape Hammock is a short drive from many other area attractions, making it an ideal base camp for any family interested in exploring the many facets of Central Florida.