On a bad day at Orange Lake, Jeff Scepter can’t even get his boats into the water.
Floating piles of mud and vegetation, called tussocks, invade more than a thousand acres of the lake’s surface. Renters could get stuck out in the water if Scepter lets them leave with one of his boats.
“We used to have a lot of winter people come in and spend a couple months at a time fishing,” the Twin Lakes Fish Camp owner said “We’re getting more customers but it hasn’t really picked up like it has in the past.”
Business nearly evaporated with the water as the shoreline receded further and further from Scepter’s boat ramps. After years of receding shores and drought, this year’s rain has restored Orange Lake’s water levels to the highest it’s been in more than a decade, giving hope to local business owners that visitors will return.
Located 20 miles southeast of Gainesville, Orange Lake is North Central Florida’s largest lake. It’s one of 80 bodies of water the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages with a county, creating special limits for catching fish.
The lake’s water levels have slowly risen since 2011, moving from 50 feet above sea level to 58 feet, according to the St. Johns Water Management District.
The lake has a history of fluctuating water levels. During times of drought the lake is anywhere between 1,000 acres to 1,200 acres, well below the lake’s normal size of about 13,000 acres, FWC regional freshwater fish biologist Allen Martin said.
Rainfall throughout 2013 and this year restored the lake to its normal size, allowing fish camps and boat rental companies along the lake’s shore to conduct business once again.
Years of drought have taken their toll, and businesses along the shore face new challenges from the restored lake.
Populations of fish on the lake were depleted due to habitat loss and predators feeding during the dry period. Populations of largemouth bass were especially affected, Martin said.
The commission restocked the lake with 100,000 bass fingerlings, juvenile fish between the stages of birth and adulthood, in March to jump start the population. Populations will not normalize for at least another year or two, he said.
Fish populations were previously depleted during a 2004 dry period and weren’t repopulated until 2009.
“The bass population will probably replenish itself over time without restocking,” Martin said. “But we’re hoping to shorten the amount of time until it becomes a really good fishery again.”
Another effect from the drought is the tussocks.
“When the lake goes very low like that it exposes mud flats where plants germinate and grow,” Martin said. “When the lake refills, the plant material becomes buoyant. Sometimes the mud associated with them pops and comes up from the bottom floating.”
The FWC contracted an aquatic harvesting company to clear out 50 acres of the lake along the southern tip. However, it would take the company’s harvesters five years before the lake is cleaned, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.
Casey Cirardin, owner of Sportsman’s Coves Resort, said hers is only one business to suffer losses during the dry years.
“The last six-and-a-half or seven years have been a disaster,” she said. “Quite a lot of the fish camps are out of business now.”
Cirardin’s business was unable to maintain its fish camp during the drought. She introduced long-term rentals of her RV units she had formerly rented for brief periods to visiting fishers.
“I’m not a fish camp anymore,” she said. “I’m just a rental community.”
She said at least three fish camps went out of business during the drought. While this year’s rain restored the lake, her business continues to trickle in slowly.
Few people are aware of the lake’s resurgence, she said.
“It’s so new that people aren’t notified yet,” she said. “Up until a month ago you couldn’t go out to the ramps.”