Laid Back Blue

Florida’s Good Old Days are Alive and Well

Jerry McBride December 15, 2014

Joe Middleton looked like a content man. As I pulled up to the boat ramp, the only person in sight was the proprietor lounging outside his bait shop, sharing a shady waterfront porch with a screen cage of chirping bait crickets—blissfully unaware of their purpose in life—and faint sounds of water splashing in the shiner tanks out back.

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The author with a healthy Blue Cypress bucketmouth. Photo: Jerry McBride

Hesitant to intrude upon this picture of serenity, I almost hated to bother him for fishing tackle, but all I had were saltwater lures. “They’ll work okay,” the old fisherman quietly counseled. “These fish don’t care.”

Joe’s not a real pushy salesman. He opened Middleton’s Fish Camp more than 50 years ago. His iconic Old Florida tackle store reminds me of a well-rigged kayak with a few simple angling necessities organized to fit in a compact space—a stark contrast to the aisles of overkill in modern fishing tackle megastores. Joe offers another essential the superstores can’t match—over half a century of local expertise.

“If he wasn’t lying to me, a fisherman told me he caught some good bass in the cypress at the south end of the lake,” Joe confided with a grin and a wink. “But you can catch fish in either direction. It’s a beautiful lake. Make yourself at home.”

Like fellow saltwater anglers seeking alternatives after nutrient-fueled algae blooms and polluted discharges decimated immense stretches of seagrass in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon, I had only recently taken up bass fishing. Generally credited as the source of Florida’s St. Johns River, Blue Cypress is a seven-mile long, three-mile-wide lake located just off the Florida Turnpike at Yeehaw Junction. Centerpiece of the 61,547-acre Blue Cypress Conservation Area, this picturesque jewel is often overlooked by anglers in favor of legendary big-bass venues such as Garcia, Stick Marsh, Farm 13 and Okeechobee, all of which lie within a 30-minute drive.

Blue Cypress has produced some big bass over the years. The lake record is over 18 pounds, and Joe’s personal best 14.1-pounder hangs in the shop. Bass, bluegill and catfish are available all year, according to Middleton, but typical of Florida in general, fishing picks up in the fall. Speckled perch move to open water after a few cold fronts, providing a delectable Christmas bonus. Locals favor slow-trolling small jigs behind a pontoon boat to locate the schools, a technique easily emulated by kayakers since slow is the only trolling speed we know.

Unlike many lakes in Florida, Blue Cypress water levels fluctuate very little between Florida’s sometimes pronounced dry and monsoon seasons. Access to the lake is limited to a pair of no-fee boat ramps in a quiet lagoon on the west shoreline. Once outside the short access canal, high winds from any easterly quadrant can make the open lake a bit bouncy, as I soon found out. With a 25-knot breeze, I figured the three-mile paddle to the south end could wait until my next trip. I maneuvered the bow into the gale until the north tree line reduced the waves to a fishable level. If nothing else, I’d have a tailwind as I fished my way back to the marina.

With virtually zero freshwater fishing experience on my resume, I anchored off a point within casting range of several cypress trees, hoping the bass had gravitated to the structure to ambush disoriented forage being swept along in the chop. Dark, tannin waves—Blue Cypress isn’t named for the color of the water—slapped the tree faces, and the stern of my kayak crashed in rhythm to the wind gusts and intermittent squalls. Not surprisingly, on this windy day I had the 6,500-acre lake all to myself!

My newly purchased green worm bounced against the base of the nearest cypress. I didn’t feel a strike, but the line slid sideways before I even twitched it. Apparently there’s a learning curve when switching from saltwater to freshwater fishing. I quickly learned that anglers need to be sensitive to subtle pickups, because none of the bass hammered the lure in the manner of a big trout or snook. However, I also figured out they don’t spit a lure immediately like saltwater flats species. After missing a fish I learned to let the bass swim off with the worm for a couple seconds before driving the weedless hook through the plastic.

Blue Cypress offers a staggering amount of tree and grass structure. Foot-drive kayaks make the search easier, allowing fishermen to approach into the wind, weaving among the trees and casting while quietly maintaining position. This is a big advantage in covering water, because the bass here seem aggressive, often grabbing a lure as it hits the water. Most strikes come on the first cast, so don’t waste the day pounding one target. Take two or three casts and move on. If the wind is really cranky, kayak anglers will discover an inner calm within the grass buffer that rings the wooded shoreline.

Hardcore bass fishermen count on traditional baitcasting gear for pinpoint presentations to cypress bases and grass edges. Not belonging to this group, I managed just fine with the same spinning tackle and terminal gear I use on saltwater grass flats, although I did move up to 15 lb. braid while downsizing to 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader—which probably isn’t necessary in the stained water. When the bass mangled my last worm, I found they had no qualms about eating the same suspending plugs and soft plastics that I routinely feed to spotted seatrout and snook.

Blue Cypress Lake is not a resort destination. Composed of a few stilt houses and manufactured housing that see most of their use in the winter and on weekends, Blue Cypress Village consists of just three streets and four canals, with a pontoon or bass boat floating outside every front door. There are no restaurants or gas stations, but kayakers have access to free camping, grills, picnic tables, clean restrooms and showers in a waterfront setting. Visit Blue Cypress for yourself and enjoy a stroll back in time.

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