It was a dead lake.
For decades farms, citrus and sewage plants poured their wastewater into Lake Apopka until it finally could take no more. The one-time pristine bass-fishing hot spot turned into a devastated eco-system that fish could no longer thrive in.
But in the last 30 years, time, effort and money has been spent in an attempt to restore Lake Apopka to its original condition. Significant strides have been made to return the lake to a healthy water body. Former muck farms built on original lake marshes have been purchased and restoration projects begun, a marsh flow-way system has been constructed to improve water quality.
"I go back to the days when my grandfather came to fish from South Carolina," said County Commissioner Bryan Nelson. "Someday, my grandson, who is 18-months-old, may fish here like my grandfather once did. We look forward to the potential of this lake.”
And the diagnosis is that Lake Apopka is on the mend, so healthy in fact that the FWC is pushing one million chips into the pot in the form of largemouth bass to raise its bet on Lake Apopka's success to create an environment where fish can again flourish.
Brandon Thompson, a research biologist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), believes this type of bet on the lake is just what is needed to overcome the negative reputation it has had for years.
"Lake Apopka still has the stigma of being a dead lake," Thompson said. "But there are actually a good number of fish, and really large fish." Thompson estimates Lake Apopka's fish populations to be between 100,000 and 200,000. But that population is about to increase exponentially.
The FWC is stocking one million Florida largemouth bass into Lake Apopka that were spawned at the Richloam Fish Hatchery. This major stocking effort applies a new technique of spawning largemouth bass in September for a late fall stocking, which hopes to increase the survival rate. The hatchery staff spawned the genetically pure Florida largemouth bass at two separate times a year, instead of just once, specifically for Lake Apopka. Pure Florida largemouth bass tend to grow bigger than other species found in other parts of the country. Stocking the lake earlier than usual ensures that larger bass are going into the lake, which allows them a better chance of survival, as there is a more abundant food source available.
The process began yesterday with the release of 100,000 largemouth bass into Lake Apopka at the Pump House off Lust Road. The release attracted dozens of interested residents, media and elected officials including Nelson, Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer, State Representative Kamia Brown and former County Commissioner Fred Brummer.
The bass going into Lake Apopka are the size of minnows, but the survivors should continue to grow quickly if not eaten by other fish. FWC officials believe 10-15% will survive. Those that do are expected to grow into trophy-sized, largemouth bass in four to five years.
“The restocking is part of the lake's restoration process, said Ryan Hamm, a regional fisheries administrator with the FWC. "The vision with this project is to improve the habitat on the lake."
“Lake Apopka is in the middle of a comeback story,” said Kilsheimer. “In fact, it’s a world class comeback story. 20 years ago it was regarded as a dead lake. Now, Lake Apopka is healthy enough that the scientists support the stocking of a million largemouth bass into this lake.”
"We're seeing a rebound in this lake," said Danielle Spears, a spokesperson for St. Johns River Water Management District. "This (adding bass to Lake Apopka) wouldn't have been possible five years ago."
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