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Can't-miss fishing close to Orlando

4/4/2006

At 7 o'clock on a late-winter morning, Bay Lake looks like almost any small bass water in the deep South at this time of year.

A rising sun struggles to break through a thick fog, which hangs over the water and surrounding area, obscuring the castle spires in the distance.

Castle spires?

Are we in Scotland? Ireland?

No, can't be. The United Kingdom doesn't have any bass. But another kingdom closer to home does.

In fact, we're in central Florida, just a 20-minute dive from Orlando. And by the time we've quit fishing a few hours and a bunch of bass later, many thousands of people will have passed by the spires of Cinderella Castle — the icon of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Park.

Indeed, if you choose to fish at Bay Lake for just the first two hours of the day, as many do, you can join your friends or family, and tens of thousands of other vacationers shortly after the theme park's gates open.

By then you'll have stories and photos to show of a few of the bass you've caught in the 600 acres of water that composes Seven Seas Lagoon (abutting the Floridian and Polynesian Resorts, as well as the Magic Kingdom Park) and Bay Lake (abutting the Contemporary Resort and Wilderness Lodge).

According to company history, Bay Lake was the only natural body of water on the Disney property when construction began in the late 1960s.

Although you would never know by looking at it or fishing on it, Bay Lake was drained with pumps and its bottom layer of muck scooped out. Next to it, more than 7 million cubic yards of earth were dug up for the lagoon and used as a foundation for the Magic Kingdom Park.

Sand from underneath the muck was used to line 4½ miles of beach around the newly created 172-acre Seven Seas Lagoon. Bay Lake and the lagoon were then refilled with water from the surrounding wetlands and stocked with more than 70,000 fish.

Since then, Disney has employed its own biologists to manage these inter-connected waters, as well as other smaller lakes. Today there is year-round guided fishing available, and the catching generally is quite good.

In fact, I wasn't 15 minutes into the morning, and still enjoying the sunrise and balmy conditions, when my fourth pitch with a plastic worm was taken by a largemouth bass that jumped three times and was about to be lip-landed when the hook pulled. The fish was 5 pounds or better, and a nice sample of what can be had on the lake.

My guide, Steve Cox, said that 8- to 10-pounders are occasionally caught here, and company literature indicates that a 14-pound, 6-ounce bass was once reported, although it's unclear how long ago that was.

Nevertheless, you can expect to catch a fair number of 2- to 4-pounders, which we did over several hours, some at Seven Seas Lagoon under the curious guise of passengers on ferry boats that were transporting people from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom's main entrance.

Places of distinction

There are two things about Bay Lake that are especially notable, although not related to fishing. Bay Lake and Seven Seas are connected by a virtual canal, which not only is worth fishing early in the day before it gets too much traffic, but is remarkable because a portion of it is a water bridge, under which cars and trucks travel via roadway.

The bottom of this connecting lake bridge is 4.4 meters above the road and is one of three such structures at Walt Disney World. Its purpose is to avoid having an overhead bridge that obstructs the view of people on the water, and its application here is said to have been the idea of Walt Disney himself.

From the water it appears that you're passing by concrete retaining walls, while from below it's not obvious that there's water overhead.

The other notable point, especially for those who may have visited the Magic Kingdom in its early years, is that there's an 11-acre island on Bay Lake that was purchased by Disney in 1965 when it was a hunting retreat.

Now called Discovery Island, this was first called Blackbeard's Island by Disney Imagineers, and was opened as a bird retreat called Treasure Island in 1974. It became a zoo in 1979, and was ultimately closed in the late 1990s after Animal Kingdom was opened.

Other lakes

There aren't many places where you can drive 20 minutes from a major metropolitan area and have an all-inclusive, short-term, bass excursion that is fairly certain to produce some fish. All-inclusive, in this case, means that Disney supplies the rods and reels, lures or bait (shiners), a bass boat or pontoon boat (for more than two anglers), an experienced guide and non-alcoholic beverages.

Guided-fishing excursions on the lakes of Walt Disney World are available year-round, and while most of the participants stay at various Disney resorts — most of whom can be picked up in the fishing boat at their hotel — there's a good number of visitors who are in the area for non-vacation reasons and have part of a day free to fish.

In addition to Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon, fishing also is possible at Village Lake in Downtown Disney, Crescent Lake and World Showcase Lagoon by the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, a lake by Coronado Springs Resort, and, as of the middle of March, a lake at the Caribbean Beach Resort. The latter two are small bodies of water.

Because of their combined size, Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon get most of the fishing attention.

Disney has several bass boats available at these locations, as well as several pontoon boats, the latter being ideal for a family, a group of children and people who have never been fishing before. You can request what you want when you make a reservation.

Two-dozen guides are available for fishing excursions, half of which are full-time, which is indicative of the popularity of fishing here.

Although bookings are made up to 90 days in advance, almost every day has some availability at one of the lakes, which means that there are last-minute possibilities.

You don't have to be an experienced angler, and you may bring your own tackle, but it helps if you can use spinning tackle or, preferably, baitcasting gear if you fish with the provided equipment.

Plastic worms are by far the most effective artificial on these lakes, and you may be fishing in 10 to 15 feet of water.

Although Cox says that bass fishing is generally good at all times, from my experience I would opt for the first shift of the day, which begins at 7 a.m.

While this may not be true of other lakes, Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon get a lot of boat activity, which includes not only assorted people ferries, but also various rentals and loads of service vessels; this figures, since Walt Disney World boasts the fifth largest navy in the world, with more than 750 watercraft.

It seems they have the largest of nearly everything in this part of Florida, and you might just find that one of the strikes you get at the Disney lakes comes from a pretty big bass.

For more information on angling, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.