Circling Lake Okeechobee: The 'Big Water' Beckons Anglers and Landlubbers Alike

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Colorful places and people – from Old-Florida towns and traditional fishing camps to Florida cowboys and Native Americans – surround Lake O.

The most prominent feature on a Florida map, Lake Okeechobee is the rural heart of South Florida.

Surrounded by vast cattle ranches and sugar cane fields, a getaway for anglers, birders, hikers and RV travelers, the agricultural communities around the lake are colorful places with deep cultural roots, inviting hometown restaurants and laid-back attitudes. A drive around the "Big Water" connects you with a different take on Florida. Slow down. Savor the views.

Camped Out

Campgrounds outnumber lodgings along Lake Okeechobee, drawing visitors outdoors.

Wayne McSwain, who was raised in Belle Glade, remembers camping along the shoreline of Lake Okeechobee.

"You camped along this canal, because there were a lot of trees here," he said, pointing down from his perch atop the Herbert Hoover Dike, "and you came out here and swam every day, and water-skied... and you didn't worry about the alligators at all."

McSwain's father ran the grocery store on the road to Torry Island, along the way to Slim's Fish Camp.

"It was (started by) the Corbins," McSwain said. "A lot of people from out of town came over here for fishing."

To get to Slim's, you cross one of the last remaining manually operated swing bridges in the United States.

"I was 14 or 15 when Slim let me turn the rod to make the bridge pivot out of the way," McSwain said. "It was fun for me, and I bet he got paid for it, too."

Camping along Lake Okeechobee has changed since McSwain’s youth. With construction of the dike, a key protective barrier given the seasonal threat of water-intensive hurricanes, away went the views and the easy access. Still, the lake draws campers all year. They settle into fish camps, bring RVs for the winter to the campgrounds lining the eastern shore and hike into primitive campsites along the Florida Trail. The one campground with a view of the blue horizon was briefly known as Pahokee State Park.

"The land still belongs to the state," said McSwain, "but they've leased it out to campground operators for the past 30 years or so." It's now Lake Okeechobee Outpost KOA with a lakefront pool and restaurant.

At J&S Fish Camp, regulars crowd the bar at 10 a.m. "We know we're the oldest fish camp around the lake," said manager Ted Miller. "The cabins were built for the people who worked building the dike."

For the price of "a beer and a stay in a cabin," the murals of alligators and lakeshore came from an artist's brush, and the 1930s cabins took on tropical hues. Lake levels affect business dramatically.

"When the locks are open," said Miller, "we have fishermen come in for boiled peanuts and a beer and to have a look."

Beefed Up

Where Florida's cattle industry and Lake Okeechobee meet, Mom and Pop restaurants thrive.

It's 5 a.m. and the regulars are filing into Pogey's, their T-shirts and hats proclaiming allegiance to the outdoors. A deer mount hangs over the cash register. The far wall is a mural, a panorama of fishing on Lake Okeechobee, flanked by mounted bass. Over steaming cups of coffee, diners make their day's plans.

Eateries in Okeechobee stay busy. Prime rib night at Brahma Bull means two hearty slabs of beef for less than $25. Cowboy's serves up tasty barbecue in a setting that honors local ranchers. Barracuda's has nightly specials such as 10-cent wings, and the food is good.

"Okeechobee doesn't like change," said Megan Mattson, an Okeechobee native and seventh-generation Floridian.

That would explain the longevity of restaurants like Lightsey's Seafood Restaurant, where Mattson is general manager. "Critter fritters" and pumpkin fry bread accompany heaping platters of catfish, shrimp or gator. Unusual mounts cover the walls, including a mongoose, a warthog and an oversized Florida lobster.

"Ray and his dad used to go buy lobsters, and that lobster was in the mix of what they bought," said Mattson. Owner Ray Arrants took over the business from his father, Buddy.

"It was a fish house," said Mattson. "Fishermen brought their fish in, it was processed, and it was shipped out. They were buying tons of frog legs, catfish and turtle. Then they started cooking it and selling it to people – three tables at first – and it just slowly evolved into a restaurant."

The current location opened in 1991, still serving local catch. "Ray gets it from fishermen who bring it in. Nothing we serve is farm-raised – except, because of the (limited) season, the gator."

If it comes from fresh water, is it still seafood? Mattson laughs. "I guess we should call it 'Lake Food.’"

On the north side of town, Sylvia Hill manages The Speckled Perch Steak House, a place you wouldn't give a second glance from the outside. "I tell people asking for directions that it looks like an old slaughterhouse," Hill said. Open in 1958, it’s right next to the Okeechobee Livestock Market. Ask any local where to find the best steak, and they’ll send you here.

"We used to do competitions between the local ranchers for whose beef was best," said Hill. "We were one of the last restaurants in Florida to buy whole loins." Their steaks are tender and succulent, almost buttery.

"We buy only aged beef," Hill added. "We won't take it unless it's a certain age, and I have to see it to believe it. We hand-cut your steak when you order it, using the original saw, and you bet we take good care of that saw!"

Expanding several times since the 1950s, the restaurant includes one big room dedicated to concerts. "It was the very first stage Mel Tillis performed on in the 1960s," according to Hill.

Why name a steakhouse after one of Lake Okeechobee's best-known fish? Hill said the original proprietor, a man known to locals simply as "George," "wanted people to have something to talk about. That's why our menu says, ‘Don't let the name throw you.’"

Native America

For Florida's first peoples, the Big Water of Lake Okeechobee has always been home.

Where Fisheating Creek braids its way through savannas to enter Lake Okeechobee's western rim, a settlement arose on the bluffs, with ceremonial mounds. Found among them: evidence of the first corn planted along the East Coast, circa 500 B.C.; gold and silver beads and wooden icons, preserved by muck, unearthed, now displayed in the Florida Museum of Natural History; and layers of civilizations – Belle Glade, Calusa, Seminole.

Not a dozen miles away, at the Brighton Reservation, Seminole culture remains vibrant. A veterans memorial honors warriors of the past, while providing a place of rest for those who've served in the present. Traditional chickees sit beside homes as outdoor gathering places. And the rodeo, beloved by the Seminole Tribe, remains as colorful as ever.

"The Tribe used rodeo to be able to form the Tribe itself," said Amos Tiger, director of the Fred Smith Rodeo Arena. "When they went to Washington, D.C. (in the early 1950s), they had to have money to send delegates up there, so they used rodeo as a fundraiser. We just try to keep the tradition going."

In addition to many Seminole Indian rodeos and ranch rodeos throughout the year, the big event each February is the Brighton Field Day Festival and Rodeo, "what we consider a tribal fair," Tiger said. Going well beyond the team roping and bell racing seen at smaller events, Field Day includes tribal dancers and special ceremonies. Central, however, is the three-day rodeo, part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association national circuit.

"We're fortunate to be the only ones east of the Mississippi with extreme bull riding," said Tiger. The event, which features the top 40 bull riders in the country, is televised on GAC.

Seminole pageantry continues at the annual Chalo Nitka Festival in Moore Haven, started in 1948 to celebrate the paving of Main Street. This week of "Big Bass" festivities brings locals together under the chickees, at a fishing tournament, in the parade – and at a rodeo.

Go Fish

On a lake as big as Okeechobee, it's what you do.

Fishing and Lake Okeechobee go hand-in-hand. Earl Beck, who owns Beck's Store in Lakeport, knows the history. "I'm fourth-generation Lakeport," he said. His great-grandfather opened the first general store back when commercial fishing – seine-hauling operations for fish processed in canneries – made this a bustling community and his grandfather a busy man.

"They used to commercial fish the lake," said Beck. "Dad did the same thing, and I did the same thing. I took over the store 25 years ago and have been here ever since."

As commercial fishing ended in the 1950s, sport fishing took over. Beck's seen the waters of Okeechobee rise and fall, affecting fortunes. For now, the waters are up again.

"Fishing is better than it’s ever been," he said. "They've set records with bass catches – they're catching close to 60 pounds per tournament, just unheard of. This end of the lake, Fisheating Bay, is by far the best. It's where everyone comes to fish. They may have tournaments in other places, but they'll come down here to (really) fish."

Dozens of fish camps dot the lakeshore around the Big Water, but none is as well-known as Uncle Joe’s. Established in 1945, it still looks and feels like it belongs in that era, especially the old cabins. Part of Riddle Field in Clewiston – training grounds for the British Royal Air Force during World War II – the cabins were purchased by Joe Griffin and moved here after the war.

"We’ve had retired RAF airmen come here just to stay in the cabins," said owner Ed Massey, who with his wife, Cindy, has managed the camp since 1986. "We've raised five children here, and we're enjoying grandchildren hanging around now."

Regulars return every year to partake of the lake’s bounty.

"We have a pretty good split between bass fishing, bream fishing and crappie fishing, mostly in the cooler months," said Massey. "From around March to October, most of those are bream fishermen. Summer months, bass fishing is still great; you don't catch as many 8-pound-plus fish, but you do catch a lot of fish."

Sweetness and Light

Sunshine and sugar cane yield Florida treasures.

On the southwest side of Lake Okeechobee, by boat, bicycle or on foot, the best reason to be up before the crack of dawn is to watch the sun rise. At Uncle Joe's Fish Camp, Massey found that enough to buy the place.

"I guess what attracted me here, 30-something years ago, was the beautiful sunrise – which we can see out the front window – and the sunset here in the rear of the campground. We enjoy it daily."

Sunrises are sweetest between Moore Haven and Clewiston, the city that sugar built, an oasis in a sea of sugar cane. Designed by renowned city planner John Nolan in the 1920s, Clewiston's residential district sweeps in a semi-circle facing the lake.

Radio personality Brenda Lopez knows it well. "I used to live in the Deane Duff House, the house with the turret ... which was put on the historical register," she said.

"That house was built in 1928," said Jeff Barwick, her on-air partner and a local historian, "and it's built of Celotex, which is the board that they made from the sugar cane leftovers." This, in an era of opulence, is green construction.

"It's an old house," said Lopez, "and the floors aren't totally level, cracks here and there... Any time you redid something, you'd open up a wall and find whole lots of things!"

It's one of the stops on the Sugarland Tours, which lead visitors through the meld of history and agriculture dating back to 1931, when the U.S. Sugar Corporation made this a company town.

Their stamp extended to a hotel that's a Florida icon – the Clewiston Inn. Built to house traveling U.S. Sugar executives, it remains a showcase of grandeur. Most notable is the Everglades Lounge, decorated with a wrap-around mural of Everglades scenes and creatures painted in the 1940s by J. Clinton Shepherd.

"The Clewiston Inn is the heart of Clewiston, where it all gathers together," said Lopez. "The mural is a magnificent tribute to the natural environment of Clewiston, and the inn a tribute to our architecture and history."

Since 2002, Florida author Sandra Friend has been a regular in the communities around Lake Okeechobee each Thanksgiving for a "short walk around a big lake," the 109-mile,  nine-day Big O Hike. She lives in Sanford, Fla.

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