Dead Lakes

Adventurous Fishermen Brave Enough to Enter This Old Florida Cypress Swamp Claim the Rewards Are Well Worth the Risk

John Felsher September 24, 2015

Serenaded by songbirds, herons and other feathered creatures, we eased along the shoreline, periodically dropping tiny jigs into tannin‑stained waters barely deep enough to cover the abundant stumps. Surrounded by majestic cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss, one could easily imagine slipping back to a time when an undeveloped Florida beckoned brave sportsmen.

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Photo: Gulf County Tourist Development Council

Contrary to the name, the Dead Lakes area near Wewahitchka supports an incredibly diverse ecosystem and is very much alive and well. Fed by the Chipola River, the surrounding forests and cypress swamps hold deer, raccoons, foxes, opossums and many other animals. A haven for birdwatchers, the area attracts ibis, shorebirds, woodpeckers, wood ducks, osprey, occasional bald eagles and other species. On the waters, boaters may see alligators, snakes and turtles. This is untouched Florida like it’s rarely seen.

For most anglers, Dead Lakes means panfishing in the spring. The system holds diverse panfish species including bluegills, redear sunfish, warmouth and others...

“Dead Lakes is a flooded cypress swamp near the area where the Chipola River connects with the Apalachicola River,” stated Katie Woodside, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist in Panama City. “Boaters can go all the way down the Chipola River to the Chipola Cutoff, which connects to the Apalachicola River below the Dead Lakes State Recreation Area.”

Supposedly, the Apalachicola River formed the Dead Lakes by depositing enormous quantities of sand, which created a natural dam. When Chipola River water backed up behind the sandbars, it flooded lowlands, killing thousands of trees. Today, a multitude of stumps and remaining woody skeletons give the region its eerie name and appearance.

“Boaters should always use caution when running through Dead Lakes because of all the snags and stumps,” Woodside advised. “The water depth fluctuates with the river levels. When the water level is up, it’s hard to tell where the stumps are and they might only be a foot beneath the surface. Some stumps are marked, but not all of them.”

The Dead Lakes area covers about 6,700 pristine acres. West Arm Creek flows into the system from the west. Cypress Creek, also called Sweetwater Creek, feeds the northern section. Tupelo gum trees grow abundantly in the region, supporting a thriving bee-keeping industry making world famous tupelo honey.

The lakes may only drop a few feet, but channels normally run 10- to 15-feet deep, depending upon river levels. Some holes actually dip to more than 25 feet. During low water periods, the lakes nearly empty, leaving clearly visible channels winding through dead trees and rock-hard stumps. The submerged timber provides outstanding fish habitat, resulting in healthy populations of largemouth bass, crappie, assorted panfish and other species. Additionally, the Chipola and Apalachicola Rivers periodically restock the lakes with game fish and forage.

“Bass fishing is pretty good,” Woodside recommended. “The system produces quite a few fish in the six- to eight-pound range. For largemouths, many anglers work the channel edges with jigs, spinnerbaits or worms. Bigger bass typically lurk in deeper channels and feed along the drop-offs.”

“Bass fishing is really good in the Dead Lakes, but it can be a tough place to fish for them because every stump looks like it should hold a monster,” quipped Captain Roger Thomas of Southern Tide Charters who grew up fishing Gulf County. “I like to fish for Dead Lakes bass with plastic worms, but they’ll hit other baits. There’s also good fishing for bluegills and redear sunfish. It has some big black crappie and catfish, including flatheads.” added Thomas.

In the Chipola River and the Cutoff, people sometimes catch spotted bass in the three to four pound range. They also encounter striped bass in the Chipola River, which locals believe move up the Apalachicola River through the Dead Lakes to reach springs in the upper Chipola.

For crappie, most anglers troll tiny jigs along the main channels or dangle live shiners under floats next to stumps. Anglers can also free line live baits or cast small spinners for them. “Visitors catch some two to three pound crappie,” Thomas commented. “Most people fish for them from late November through March in the deeper parts of Sweetwater and West Arm Creeks.”

For most anglers, Dead Lakes means panfishing in the spring. The system holds diverse panfish species including bluegills, redear sunfish, warmouth and others, most traditionally lumped together as bream. Some bream come in unusual colors, often with black splotches.

“Most people call them the hand-paint bluegills,” Woodside explained. “The black, tannic water can cause some differences in coloration. They are the same species as any other bluegill, just in a different color phase. Redear fishing is also really good in the lower portion of the Dead Lakes. In the spring, some flats just north of West Arm Creek are loaded with redears.”

Most people fish for bluegills with the old reliable worm or cricket under a float dropped next to cover. For those who prefer artificial lures, a beetle spinner makes an excellent temptation. On the hook, anglers can thread any number of soft plastic tails, but many bream busters prefer white or black with chartreuse. Toss a beetle spinner to a likely spot and let it sink. As it falls, the blade continues to spin. After it sinks to the bottom, or the desired depth, retrieve it slowly, pausing occasionally to let it sink again.

For the ultimate panfishing fun, try a fly rod. Dead Lake bluegill and other panfish readily strike flies, streamers and nymphs, but small floating popping bugs make deadly topwater enticements. Some better surface temptations include creations that resemble tiny frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, dragonflies or other natural prey. Over a good panfish bed, an angler may spend several hours catching fish without moving.

“In the spring, when there’s a mayfly hatch, that’s the time to fly fish for bluegills,” Thomas advised. “Mayfly season usually runs in May and June. The Dead Lakes usually don’t attract many visitors from outside the county, but the lakes do get some pressure during shellcracker season. Sometimes we’ll catch shellcrackers in the two pound range. The biggest I know of easily exceed that. We usually catch them on red wigglers or earthworms. Keep the bait right on the bottom because that’s where the shellcrackers will be, down in the beds.”

Also called shellcrackers because they relish eating snails, redear sunfish look similar to light-colored bluegills, but with orange to red highlights on their ear flaps. Shellcrackers usually spawn during the full moons of March and April on shell or sandy bottoms in about five to six feet of water, but could remain on the flats well into summer.

While dangling baits for bream, anglers might also catch yellow perch. Typically considered a northern species, yellow perch range as far south as the Florida Panhandle. The state record yellow perch weighed 1.47 pounds, although some unofficial reports claim past catches have topped two pounds. David Thomas caught the official record perch in October 2005 while fishing Dead Lakes.

Most anglers launch into West Arm Creek by Dead Lakes Recreation Area off Highway 71 in Wewahitchka. The Dead Lakes Recreation Area offers hiking trails and other facilities. Visitors can camp in tents or recreational vehicles.

Don’t let the name fool you. Whether fishing, hiking, canoeing or bird watching, sportsmen visiting Dead Lakes can pursue a variety of activities in a little slice of Old Florida. If nothing else, visitors always enjoy excellent freshwater fishing in an incredibly beautiful and unique setting.

Helpful Contacts

Dead Lakes State Recreation Area – Wewahitchka, FL
850.639.2702 | visitgulf.com

FWC Panama City Office
850.265.3676 | myfwc.com

Jennifer Jenkins – Gulf County Tourist Development Council
850.229.7800 | visitgulf.com

Captain Roger Thomas – Southern Tide Charters
850.227.4542 | southerntidecharters.com

Dixie Belle Hotel – Port. St. Joe, FL
850.227.1443 | dixiebellemotel.com

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