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3 Fresh adventures: dip your toes in cool Florida water this summer.

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CANOE THE CREEK

The bridge at Arbuckle just about splits the 23-mile creek of the same name, which runs from Lake Arbuckle in Polk County, south to Lake Istokpoga in Highlands County. Scenery ranges from vast open pastureland, to claustrophobic walls of cypress. The middle section runs through acres of private pasture, where cow crossings can be seen, with areas of open land interrupted by hammocks of various native plants. Moving north to Arbuckle Lake, the landscape probably has not changed over the past 100 years. Snaking through preserves and the Avon Park Bombing Range, the upper creek has solid protection from development.

There isn't a stretch of Arbuckle Creek that runs straight for more than five feet. This gives way to great dynamics in water depth and quality--from deep pools to very shallow water. The bottom has stretches of clean, white sand interrupted by long bowlegs of deep, black muck. All in all, pure heaven.

The water looked to be alive, with fish swirling and slapping in every direction. Bert Francis and I soon found out what they were. We would cast to a target, usually to find a toothy longnose gar nipping at our lures.

In several places, the tannin-brown water was shallow enough to reveal clean, white sand--ideal for kids to jump out and explore, the way 5- to 7-year-olds should. Bert's kids, Cyan and Jaden, took full advantage of what the creek had to offer. Flowers, clams, bugs, snails, birds--everything was classified and catalogued in proper brilliant, elementary fashion. My kids held up their end of the work, too. Liam immediately found a "poking stick," essential for any outdoor happening that takes you farther than your own driveway, and Ava found opportunity to alternately assist in the classifying of critters and practice cartwheels in the shallow water.

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Slowly and happily, we paddled and pulled our way through a diversity of natural Florida that boggles the mind. No phone reception, not a single other boat or human for hours.

When we returned to the bridge, there was a handful of locals catfishing. A bit of snooping gave me some intel--when the water is high, the entire creek holds gamefish. Until the water rises, if you are looking to fill your fryer with catfish fillets, you now have a new (very scenic) spot.

Dinner at Annie's Club 98 did not disappoint, and after a quick splash in the pool at Trail's End Resort, I told Bert what I had learned about the lower half of the creek. Tomorrow would be a day of serious fishing.

Right at Hwy.98, Neibert's Fishing Resort is the perfect place to launch a paddle craft or small powerboat if you wish to explore the draining end of Arbuckle Creek. The last mile or so south is deeper than the northern half, and loaded with fish.

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I had called Neibert's weeks before. I was told bream would be on the last legs of bedding. Bass would be on the front end of the June feed. Specks were around, but night fishing was the best option this time of year--take them off our list.

Bert and I consistently caught warmouth, stumpknockers and bluegill through the early hours. Generally, we drifted with the current, casting poppers to anything that looked fishy--felled trees, lily pads, pool eddies and slough mouths.

Within a couple of hours, we both had developed a feel, and the fish were coming to the boat with rhythm. Bass were plenty obliging, too, but as we were having so much fun with the poppers, our catch was bream heavy.

We worked our way to Lake Istokpoga. On the open lake, we gave up the shade of the ancient cypress trees that lined the creek and started baking in the sun. A quick retreat put us back in cooler water, and on more fish.

At one point, we pulled over to stretch our legs and stumbled upon a healthy bunch of bluegill beds. We stayed in the shade of a giant moss-covered oak, flicking a grub-spinner across the area and caused a temporary melee.

This portion of the creek was loaded with fish, and the landscape was markedly different, but just as breathtaking, as the upper half of the creek.

On the way back to the car, I spotted several huge catfish. For a stretch of time, I saw one every 50 yards or so, each just as massive as the last. I could only imagine the battle they would give.

Back at the counter in Neibert's, a cold beverage warmed my heart while I watched an otter bound across the far bank.

Arbuckle Creek has an allure that is heightened by its diversity throughout its length. The scenery changes are rivaled only by the varying fishing "seasons" of the creek, and every facet of this Florida watershed is worth visiting.

--Brett Fitzgerald

Vitals

SOUTHERN END OF ARBUCKLE CREEK (LORIDA)

Annie's Club 98 Restaurant: Great wings and burgers, and the Mangrove Steak is fantastic. 4651 US Hwy. 98, Sebring, (863) 655-9938

Neibert's Fishing Resort: Camping, RV hookups, tackle, bait and bar. 4971 US Hwy. 98, Sebring, (863) 655-1416

Trail's End Fishing Resort: Friendly management, clean rooms. Boat rentals, full tackle, ice and more. 4232 Trails End Road, Lorida, (863) 655-0134, www. trailsendfishingresort.com

NORTHERN END OF ARBUCKLE CREEK (AVON PARK)

Jeni's: Clean restaurant with a good and friendly staff. #3 S. Lake Ave, Avon Park, (863) 453-0034

Reed's Motel: Classic look from the good 'ole days on Hwy. 27. Worth a visit. 102 US 27 S., Avon Park, (863) 453-3194, www.reedsmotel.com

BIG DREAM, SMALL WATERS

Grandpa, he jumped out of the boat!"

"Be careful, Dylan. We're going to need several for tonight's supper."

"I'm not talking about the bluegill; it was a cricket!"

Dylan and his grandfather were together in a small johnboat along with a couple light-weight spinning rods and a bucket of crickets. His uncle Brian and I were fishing nearby should we need to save them from one another.

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We were fishing for bluegill and other panfish in the canal that rims Farm Pond 13 and the Stick Marsh near Fellsmere. The two comprise a water management reservoir in Indian River County created in 1985 when 6,500 acres of farmland were flooded. The reservoir has shallow, open areas; several stump-filled sections; berms and levees; old road beds; and a deeper rim canal. During the 1990s, it was regarded by many as the nation's top big-bass reservoir. During that same period, the fertile waters gained a well-deserved reputation for yielding slab-size crappie. Bream fishing, especially for bluegill, has remained consistently good even after the bass and crappie fisheries have declined.

The bluegill we were hoping to catch spawn from late spring through mid summer around palm trees, reeds and berms near canals, levees and submerged road beds. The rest of the year, they school on or near emergent structure. These areas are likely to have a readily available food supply of insects and juvenile aquatic life. The same can be said for many lakes and streams in Florida.

Dylan had it figured out: Nothing beats a cricket for bluegill. Freshwater bait-and-tackle stores sell them in tubes holding about a hundred crickets for less than five dollars. They are also available in half tubes. You will be surprised how many crickets a couple of anglers can go through in a few hours.

Small artificial lures also work well: Beetle Spins in 1/32-ounce; tiny jigs of 1/64-and 1/80-ounce); even small artificial worms such as northern freshwater trout fishermen use.

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We were using 5 1/2-foot spinning rods spooled with 6-pound-test monofilament. Dylan and his grandpa were using crickets, so we tied No. 8 hooks on the business end of their lines. We added a small bobber that was adjusted between two and four feet above the hook as the day progressed. On one rig, we also pinched a small splitshot about 6 inches above the hook. Brian and I fished Beetle Spins.

Bluegills and other bream are generally not very spooky, so quietly move the boat close to your intended target and make a cast of 20 to 30 feet. If your cast is not on target, reel the bobber into the desired position and then let it sit quietly. Soon it'll dance or slowly move off to one side or the other. When the bobber finally dives underwater, set the hook, raise the rod and continue reeling.

Artificial lures should be cast next to a palm tree, stump or other target and allowed to sink for a second or two to reach the desired depth. Slowly reel and twitch the rodtip.

Cane poles and crappie poles are frequently used to take bream. Tie the line to the tip of the pole and rig as above for live bait. Instead of casting, the bobber and baited hook are swung through an arc and lowered when they pass over the intended target. Multiple poles can be fished and there is no limit to the number an angler can use at one time.

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Fly fishermen take countless bream each year with small, rubber-leg poppers. Be sure to let the popper rest motionless for an extended period after it lands on the water. This can be a very effective technique come early evening when bream feed on the surface.

Be sure to alert the Dylans on your boat to the spines on a bluegill's dorsal fins. They are sharp and you can easily be poked as you grasp the fish. The best approach is to take hold of the bream near the head and slide your hand backtoward the tail, pressing the dorsal fins down as you do so.

Bluegills yield a sweet, white, flaky fillet regarded by many as the best tasting of all freshwater fish. They can be battered in seasoned cornmeal, crackers or a pancake mix and fried in a skillet of hot oil. t have baked the fillets and flaked them in a rice pilaf. I have also steamed and flaked them and used them in place of crab in "bream" cakes. Delicious!

And that is why you buy a tube with a hundred crickets. The fish are small and you will want to bring home dozens of them to use in a variety of recipes.

The rim canal of Farm Pond 13/Stick Marsh is just one of many places bream can be caught. You might want to target stumpknockers in the St. Johns River system, redbreast sunfish from the Suwannee River system, shellcrackers in the Everglades marshes, or warmouth in any of the numerous county watershed lakes. You don't need to make long runs in a big boat. A johnboat or canoe works well to get to nearby productive shorelines. Or you can walk. Just don't forget to take a kid.

"All right Dylan, it's time to go."

"Grandpa, I want to fish some more."

--Larry Kinder

Vitals

At Exit 156 on I-95, go west for 3.2 miles on SR U512 to Fellsmere. In Fellsmere, turn right on SR 507 and go north for 3.4 miles. Turn left onto Fellsmere Grade Road and go west for 6.2 miles on the washboard dirt road to the 150-space parking lot. The reservoir has only one launch site, with two ramps separated by a loading dock. No gasoline, food or bait is available on site but there are restrooms and a couple of picnic tables.

The reservoir averages five to eight feet deep. Wind-whipped waves can be treacherous for small boats. However, the rim canal offers protection and can usually be fished when the main reservoir cannot. Among other regs, no largemouth bass may be kept on the reservoir. Make sure your boat safety gear and fishing licenses are up to snuff; count on it that you'll be visited by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer at some point during your visit.

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SPRING SNORKELING

Back in the 1970s Rainbow Springs competed with Silver Springs for the glass-bottom boat crowd (basically dry snorkeling). One day I just had to have my own look. I scrunched under a fence with mask and flippers, ran to the bank, frantically stuck them on and fell into the water.

My first look into a Florida spring was a visual supernova.

I have since brought many people to Rainbow Springs and without exception they put their head in and then come up immediately to flash me a huge grin. In fact, it became my opinion that humanity would lay down its guns if everyone could be made to snorkel in this place.

Unlike surface Florida the commercial presence around the springs does not steadily increase. In fact it comes and goes. For example, Wekiva Springs had a hotel on it before my time. When I first went there, the hotel was history and it was just a place you could walk down to if you knew where it was. Now it's a state park, with the entire area, including the Wekiva River, threatened by a proposed toll road and under siege from builders.

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The Rainbow River is five miles long and replenished all the way with fresh springs, so regardless of what's happening at the source, there still is all the rest of it. When motorboats were allowed at the top, their drivers would see my wife Michele and me standing on a downstream dock with thumbs out; after catching a ride, we would float on down for the rest of the day checking out endless nooks, crannies and vistas along the way. After the boat traffic was stopped, we'd put in a canoe, paddle up and then float on back with the canoe. One day Michele was delighted to snorkel along with a cormorant and I saw a bass lurking in some grass, so enormous it didn't even register as a bass at first. I poked my head into the air and surveyed the surrounding area to orient exactly where this giant was but angling for her proved futile.

For a quick and easy experience, a bridge crosses the river with a dirt parking lot and you can just park and jump in.

North Florida is rich with springs. Years ago I made the rounds of these surprising waterways. My tour typically included a lot of driving into small towns and drawling, "Where's the goldanged swimmin' hole?" It's exciting when you get directions that include looking for cars parked by some dirt road, then step over the fence and look for a trail through the groundcover. Gopher Sink was one such place. Clear water but not the clearest I've seen, with a green cast to it, lots of shade, a deep cave at one side and the most fantastic rope swing I've ever flown on, attached to a giant oak. A few locals were there and that was good because getting the rope up to where it needed to be required a team effort. One thing about that rope, if you forgot to let go at the optimum point, you could do a real "Jethro of the Jungle."

The Suwannee around Luraville has beautiful springs all along it. There also are some isolated springs in the area--Cow Springs, Peacock, Orange and others. Last time I was there these were public domain. At the mysteriously named Cow Springs, Michele was about 15 feet down and spotted a faded old rubber crayfish at the mouth of the cave. I descended to it and it backed away--a totally white crawdad. A friend just returned from Luraville and said the familiar head of commercialism had finally risen there.

Reminds me of the swimmin' hole of my youth--Sanlando Springs (twixt Sanford and Orlando). It was a great spot, big swimming area surrounded by woods, the run flowed on down to the Wekiva River. Had nature trails, a nice beach, a diving board over the boil, a raft in the middle and a slide the likes of which you've never seen since. The slide was tree-canopy high with water jets squirting out at the very top. You got up so much speed that if you were lying down like you weren't supposed to be but most everybody was, you'd skip halfway across the spring like a flat rock skimmed by the Jolly Green Giant. Palm trees on the shore, grassy hills for picnicking under oaks, all for a small fee. They filmed the TV series "The Beachcomber" there as well as some Everglades series I can't quite recall. "Developer" bought it, put in townhouses and kicked out the public. The people who live there rarely use it.

There is even an underground spring near Williston called the Devil's Den. You can sign away your soul to the entrance troll or pay his hefty fee (pretty much a toss-up) to descend the rock steps to a fascinating pool full of big catfish. I've seen bullheads in spring caves but I could not get a cogent explanation for the presence of these catfish. The water is cold and there's no sun but it is a neat experience. Sometimes you have to give the devil his due.

So--if you want a break from what's going on around you, in Florida you don't have to stick your head in the sand. Stick it in the water.--Tom Levine

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Vitals

The Florida State Park Service offers access to a number of springs in Florida. For details, visit www.floridastateparks.org.

A FEW POPULAR SPOTS:

Rainbow Springs, 19158 SW 81st Pl. Rd, Dunnellon, (352) 465-8535

Madison Blue Springs, 8300 NE S.R. 6, Lee, (850) 971-5003

Weeki Wachee, Intersection of S.R. 50 and Hwy. 19, Spring Hill, (352) 596-2062
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Title Annotation:Florida's Arbuckle Creek fishing ground
Author:Fitzgerald, Brett; Kinder, Larry; Levine, Tom
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Words:2970
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