Orange Lake's resurgence


Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 2:35 a.m.
In 2002, Orange Lake's condition had deteriorated to the point that state fishery officials were wondering if the lake's once renowned bass fishery could ever be revived once normal water levels returned.
"I'm not so sure that I have the resources to be able to manage it," Ed Moyer, head of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's fisheries division, said at the time. "The way things currently sit - unless we can develope some new technologies - I'm not so sure that I have the ability to come in and push that thing back 15 or 20 years.
"It's so low now and there's such a build-up of organics all across the lake bottom. And it hasn't gone completely dry; (it has) a foot of water (on it). It's held moisture all out across that basin, and there's a lot of vegetation coming in and consolidating semi-aquatic terrestrially. And when water comes back strong, an awful lot of that (vegetation) is going to be up and moving. There's going to be a lot of tussock formation, and we're going to have to see where our productive areas are. We've done some small habitat enhancement along the edge, but we need water.
"The fishery there is probably less than depleted. I'm sure there are some bass out there, but you could count them all. And when you have a lake that stays down for so long with a foot of water, you're put almost in a start-over position."
Thank goodness, this veteran biologist's doomsday prediction hasn't proven true.
In fact, the grand old lake that straddles the Alachua-Marion county line and was once one of the 10 best bass lakes in America, has rebounded with a depth and quickness that is nothing short of surprising.
While the speckled perch fishing in Orange and Lochloosa, its 5,700-acre neighbor to the north, has been all the rage lately, the bass population scattered throughout 12,000-acre Orange Lake has quietly and steadily improved to the point where limit catches no longer get much attention.
"The bass fishing has been overshadowed," said Gene Posey, who opened A Family Tradition fish camp on Cross Creek last May. "I'm surprised how quickly the fishing has come back in Orange."
"It's been pretty good lately," added Mike Stewart, owner of Mike's Tire in Gainesville, who fishes Orange three times a week. "I've been out there and limited out in less than 30 minutes several times."
Examples of Orange Lake's rebirth include a 12-pound largemouth (caught on a wild shiner) weighed by Posey; and a November Bass Champions Senior Tour event won by Keith Chapman and Don House from Gainesville with a five-bass limit that weighed an impressive 26 pounds. Included was a 10.40-pound trophy.
Both Mother Nature and the FWC share the credit for the lake's quick recovery from a record drought (along with a network of sinkholes in the south end) that drained it down to just a few hundred acres. FWC officials did yeoman's work scrapping much of the lake's muck bottom and removing mud tussocks; hurricanes Frances and Jeanne then replenished ground water and refilled the lake in 2004.
"Everything's really getting better in Orange," said Eric Nagid, FWC biologist in charge of the lake. "To be honest, it couldn't get much worse. We had a big fish kill during the droughts that really knocked back the population of all species. When the water started to come back up we did some routine investigations - we really couldn't do any sampling when the water was low - because we really had no idea what was out there.
"We thought we were going to have to stock the lake, but realized there was enough brood fish. They've been putting off good spawns. There's a lot of space so these fish are not limited by space or for resources. So the next couple of years they're really going to take off.
"There is plenty for the bass to eat out there. There's a lot in terms of small forage small shiners, chub suckers. When we do out electro-sampling and put the pedal down, the water just erupts. And all these fish are real healthy. The small fish all the way up to age 4, their stomachs are chock full."
In recent weeks, flipping soft-plastic craws and creature baits has been the most consistent pattern, along with casting (watermelon-red) Zoom Trick worms. Shallow frog fishing (with Horny Toads and Seismic frogs) has also been a reliable way to get strikes. Stewart has been targeting coontail moss and hydrilla growing around stick-ups in four to seven feet of water. He looks for the bass to move onto beds in Orange near the end of January where they will be even more accessible.
Stewart has also been scoring with topwaters (Zara Spook and Puppy) throughout the day, as well as white Strike King spinnerbaits. Hot spots have included the perimeter of the spoil islands south of the Marjorie Rawlings boat ramp and the islands east of Sportsman's Cove.
"I'm pleased, but I'm not so surprised," Nagid said."It's not uncommon because what happens is when you have a lake that hasn't had much fluctuation or fish kills, usually the population is stable.
"When you have a lake that has undergone a fish kill, what happens is you have a lot more space and resources available to the surviving fish. So they're able to take up all those nutrients and forage and really put on some growth very quickly. So it's not that surprising, but it definitely is pleasing."
Anglers should remember that Orange Lake bass from 15 to 24 inches long must be released.
Tim Tucker is an award-winning outdoors writer who lives in Cross Creek. His e-mail address is tim@timtuckeroutdoors.com.

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