Bassin' the Orlando Lakes

by Larry Larsen, Bass & Caribbean Travel Editor

Thousands of lakes are available to anglers in the major metropolian area of Central Florida.

Lakes are everywhere in the Greater Orlando area. Some say there are about 2,000 lakes, ponds and potholes. Any air flight reveals the abundant water that pockmarks the town's real estate. The glimmering waterways of Orlando are also apparent from the ground traffic pattern which seems to circle a lake every few blocks before continuing straight again.

Most of the waters in the bustling area, now known more for its man-made attractions than for its natural ones, offer public fishing. Very little pressure exists, however, due to the proximity of several larger "name" lakes.

The outstanding bass angling within city limits is mostly overlooked by local sportsmen's clubs, as well as the general fishing public. Beautiful lakes of 5 to 100 acres or more are often void of a single boat on a weekend. When I first moved to Orlando several years ago, I could lake-hop from one to another and cover five or six small waters in a day. That opportunity still exists today and the fishing is just as good.

On a recent trip to the city, some 50 minutes from where I now reside, I asked Doug Gilley to join me for some quick bass catching and photography. The professional angler suggested we try Lake Conway on the south side of Orlando. Within ten minutes, we had proof that city anglers don't have to trailer a boat far to enjoy bass action.

The lake, like others on the small chain, yields numerous largemouth. We caught six or seven bass on plastic worms in just a half hour and, through a culling process, selected the largest as our photography subjects. We left with plenty of time to take care of our other business that day.

The 1,767-acre Lake Conway is like most of the smaller potholes that pocket Orlando's landscape. It has a sandy bottom, fairly clear water and vegetation. Even though it's almost completely surrounded by homes, the lake has substantial aquatic habitat. The shorelines are shallow and wadeable. Best of all, it also has large bass.

Most of the city's waters grow big largemouth and plenty of them. Orlando's lakes generally have ideal pH and other water characteristics and are high in nutrients. That's reflected in the health of the bass and their forage. The abundant aquatic vegetation on most lakes provides predators with numerous baitfish and crustaceans. Most city lake perimeters still sport a "weed fringe." Fairly rigid regulations see to that.

The Unknown Trophy Producers

The lunkers that swim in the area's waters take a back seat to none. The occasional monster that is landed from one of the small lakes does make a "news splash" though. Few anglers in the city even had ever heard of 40-acre Lake Rose in western Orlando until a 17-1/2 pound largemouth was pulled from it in 1985. The private lake in west Orange County gave Mike Paule an experience he won't forget.

Big bass don't always come from remote waters.

He was tossing a broken-back Rapala along a windblown weedline in eight feet of water when the monster hit. The lure was cast to the sawgrass edge and the drifting No. 11 silver and black floater appeared to become tangled in grass. The 10-pound test Trilene line held as he worked the fish to the boat without any problems.

The 28-inch long bass finally began her battle on a short line, but it was to no avail. The big female was put in the bottom of the boat to await (and unfortunately dry out and die) weigh-in some nine hours later. It measured 25 inches in girth and was just 2-1/2 pounds short of the state largemouth record. The angler thinks there are bigger ones in that lake and others nearby. The year prior, the lake produced a 13 pound, 5 ounce and a 12 pound bass in 30 minutes' time.

Likewise, Sunset Lake on the city's west side was relatively unknown until a mid-February bass catch which weighed 15 pounds, 2 ounces. Neither fish was taken by anglers with sophisticated tackle or equipment. In fact, the latter was caught on a cane pole.

Another big fish lake is Lake Hart which, along with sister Lake Mary Jane, is located just east of highway 15 in southern Orange County. Lake Hart has been a long-time favorite of mine -- ever since the day I caught a ten pounder (and three other bass over five pounds) from its bulrush beds on the western shoreline. A week later, I came in second place in a relatively large bass tournament held on the two-lake chain.

Lake Hart is a beautiful 1,850 acre body of water which lies in the shadow of the popular East Lake Tohopekaliga. The perimeter rushes hold bass year around, but those on the west and south sides offer a little more depth and bigger fish. The canal by Moss Park and its stately oaks provide a shaded canopy to Lake Mary Jane. There, you'll usually find good numbers of largemouth in its abundant vegetation.

Mary Jane's 1,158 acres are surrounded by a beautiful pine forest. The bountiful grass patches on its western and northern shorelines yield largemouth in the spring and fall. This is a great lake for tossing your favorite spinnerbait.

Fishing Pressure

Most of the fishing pressure on the city lakes are from occasional anglers. Seldom do the avid bass chasers put their rigs in the smaller lakes. Small boats are often the ticket to a nice bass in the Orlando area, since many of the waters do not have adequate launching facilities for the large bass rigs.

Lake Conway boat ramps can handle most trailerable craft, as can some of the larger waters in the city. Lake Holden, Underhill, Ivanhoe, and Clear Lake are popular boating and fishing waters. I saw two bass over 13 pounds taken from the latter lake in the late 1960s when I lived on its shore. Fish like those still swim there relatively unmolested.

Some of the other lakes in the Orlando area that are capable of yielding bass of giant proportions are: Gatlin, Jessamine, Catherine, Turkey, Highland, Porter, Johns and Copeland. I once caught and released three bass over six pounds from the latter's pad fields. A rubber frog lure tricked them and two smaller bass in less than 30 minutes from the lake that sits on the city's busiest street, Orange Avenue. 

Those waters are not unique, however. Such action can be found in almost every one of the Orlando's waterways. In Winter Park and Maitland, a chain of seven lakes offer some exciting bass action. Water skiers are the most common users of the Winter Park Chain of lakes, and both canoers and pleasure boaters ply the shorelines, but the largemouth don't seem to mind.

Lake Virginia, the chain's southernmost body, is a busy 233-acres with a public ramp on its shores. Numerous bass are caught along its eastern perimeter. A launch ramp on 451-acre Lake Maitland also provides access. There's plenty of water and habitat to fish on the lake ... early on weekday mornings. Lake Mizell is one of the better largemouth waters on the chain, as is the 157-acre Lake Osceola.

I've had the pleasure to be on the pretty Butler Chain (also called Windemere Chain) over a dozen times in the past couple of years, and it is a winner. Bass can be found on most of the 10 lakes in the chain that is partially surrounded by nice homes and always loaded with grass and cypress trees. The chain, located southwest of Orlando, doesn't yield its bounty easily, however. The more avid angler can do very well on it during the week, but the inexperienced fisherman may have some difficulty.

Lake Blanche is one of the chain's top largemouth producers. It and Tibet, Chase, Sheen, Pocket, Louise, Isleworth and Little Fish Lakes are all tannin-stained from their cypress perimeters. I've normally found the stained waters on Sheen on the southern end of the chain to be easier to catch bass in than the clear-water lakes like Butler and Down. The cypress knees, lily pads and grass edges on the south shore and the irregular grass beds on the north side of the lake tend to hold bass.

There are numerous other waters around Central Florida that produce big largemouth bass, as I found out while penning my book, Guide to Central Florida Bass Waters. Those highlighted here are only about 5 percent of those public waters where bass over 10 pounds lurk. No matter where one lives or visits, there is a highly productive spot very near. You only have to check it out!

You might also wish to look at topographic maps of Florida that show the vegetation, waterways and access points of the entire state. Some buy individual "quads" or quadrangles. I prefer CD-ROM coverage that lets me survey much more ground during the week and print only the areas I plan to visit.

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