60 miles NW of West Palm Beach
Many visitors to the Treasure Coast come to fish, and they certainly get their fill off the miles of Atlantic shore and on the inland rivers. But if you want to fish freshwater and nothing else, head for "The Lake" -- Lake Okeechobee, that is. The state's largest, it's chock-full of good eating fish. Only about a 1 1/2-hour drive from the coast, it is located in what is known as the Freshwater Frontier and makes a great day or weekend excursion.
Planning a Trip
Getting There -- From Palm Beach, take I-95 South to Southern Boulevard (U.S. 98 W.) in West Palm Beach, which merges with S.R. 80 and S.R. 441. Follow signs for S.R. 80 West through Belle Glade to South Bay. In South Bay, turn right onto U.S. 27 North, which leads directly to Clewiston.
Visitor Information -- Contact the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, 544 W. Sugarland Hwy., Clewiston, FL 33440 (tel. 863/983-7979; www.clewiston.org), for maps, business directories, and the names of numerous fishing guides throughout the area. In addition, you might contact the Pahokee Chamber of Commerce, 115 E. Main St., Pahokee, FL 33476 (tel. 772/924-5579; fax 772/924-8116; www.pahokee.com), which will send a complete package of magazines, guides, and accommodations listings.
Boating -- Head out on the Lake with Big O Airboat Tours, 920 E. Del Monte, at Roland Martin Marina (tel. 863/983-2037; www.bigofishing.com), and catch a fast glimpse of osprey, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, and dozens of alligators.
Sky Diving -- Besides fishing, the biggest sport in Clewiston is jumping out of planes, due to the area's limited air traffic and vast areas of flat, undeveloped land. Air Adventures (tel. 800/533-6151 or 863/983-6151; www.skydivefl.com) operates a year-round program from the Airglades Airport. If you've never jumped before, you can go on a tandem dive, where you'll be attached to a "jumpmaster." For the first 60 seconds, the two of you free-fall from about 12,500 feet. Then a quick pull of the chute turns your rapid descent into a gentle, balletlike cruise to the ground, with time to see the whole majestic lake from a privileged perspective. Dive packages range from $99 to $195, depending on how many people are jumping and what level of skydiver they are. (Note: You must be 18 or older and less than 240 lb.)
Fishing -- Fishing on Lake Okeechobee is a year-round affair, though the fish tend to bite a little better in the winter, perhaps for the benefit of the many snowbirds who flock here (especially Feb-Mar). RV camps are mobbed almost year-round with fish-frenzied anglers who come down for weeks at a time for a decent catch.
You'll need a fishing license to go out with a rod and reel. It's a simple matter to apply: The chamber of commerce and most fishing shops can sign you up on the spot. The cost for non-Florida residents is $17 for 3 days, $30 for 7 days, or $47 for the year.
You can rent, charter, or bring your own boat to Clewiston; just be sure to schedule your trip in advance. You don't want to show up during one of the frequent fishing tournaments only to find you can't get a room, campsite, or fishing boat. All tournaments are held at Roland Martin's marina . For more information on tournaments, check out www.rolandmartinmarina.com.
There are several marinas where you can rent or charter boats. If it's your first time on the lake, we suggest chartering a boat with a guide who can show you the most fertile spots and help you handle your tackle. Roland Martin, 920 E. Del Monte (tel. 863/983-3151; www.rolandmartinmarina.com), is the one-stop spot to find a guide, tackle, rods, bait, coolers, picnic supplies, and a choice of boats. Rates for a guided fishing tour are $250 for a half-day and $350 for a full day, for one or two people. You need a fishing license, which is available here for $17. There are also boat rentals: A 14-footer is $79 for a full day only; an 18-footer is $150 for a full day; and a 21-foot pontoon is $165 for a full day. If you want a guide, rates start at $250 (for two people) for a half-day, though in the summer (June-Oct), when it's slow, you can get a cheaper deal.
Another choice, especially if you're here to fish, is Roland Martin, 920 E. Del Monte (www.rolandmartinmarina.com; tel. 800/473-6766 or 863/983-3151), the "Disney of fishing." This RV park (no tent sites) has modest motel rooms, efficiencies, condominiums, apartments, RV hookups, and trailers, with two heated pools, gift and marina shops, and a restaurant. The modern complex, dotted with prefab buildings, is clean and well manicured. Rooms rent from $68 to $95; efficiencies cost from $88 to $105. Condominiums are about $150 to $185 a night, with a 3-night minimum. One- or two-bedroom trailers with full kitchen and living room are $65 to $105. Full-hookup RV sites are $35 a night and include power, water, sewage, and cable TV.
Where to Stay
If you aren't camping, book a room at the Clewiston Inn, 108 Royal Palm Ave., Clewiston (www.clewistoninn.com; tel. 800/749-4466 or 863/983-8151). Built in 1938, this allegedly haunted, Southern plantation-inspired hotel is the oldest in the Lake Okeechobee region. Rumor has it that a very friendly, pretty female ghost roams the halls at night. Its 52 rooms are simply decorated and nondescript. The lounge area sports a 1945 mural depicting the animals of the region. Double rooms start at $99 a night; suites begin at $129. All have air-conditioning and TVs.
Camping -- During the winter, campers own the Clewiston area. Campsites are jammed with regulars who come year after year for the simple pleasures of the lake and, of course, the warm weather. Every manner of RV, from simple pop-top Volkswagens to Winnebagos to fully decked-out mobile homes, finds its way to a lakeside campsite.
Okeechobee Landings, U.S. 27 East (www.okeechobeelandingsrv.com; tel. 863/983-4144), is one of the best; it has every conceivable amenity included in the price of a site. More than 250 sites are situated around a lake, clubhouse, pétanque courts, pool, Jacuzzi, horseshoe pit, shuffleboard court, and tennis court. Full hookup includes a sewage connection, which is not the case throughout the county. Rates start at $39 a day or $193 a week, plus tax, including hookup. Also see Roland Martin, described above.
Where to Eat
If you aren't frying up your own catch for dinner, you may want to reconsider it, as dining options here are few and far between. Thank goodness for the Clewiston Inn, where you can get catfish, beef stroganoff, ham hocks, fried chicken, and liver and onions in a setting as Southern as the food. The dining room is open daily from 6am to 2pm and 5 to 9pm; entrees cost $10 to $18. Sunday brunch is served from 11:30am to 3pm, and a lunch buffet served Monday through Friday features traditional Southern foods, a salad bar, a dessert assortment, and a beverage for $8.95. Lightsey's, 1040 Rte. 78 (tel. 863/763-4276), housed in a lodge, started as a fish company and has expanded to a full-service restaurant. Any catch of the day can be broiled, fried, grilled, or steamed. Try the frogs' legs, gator, and catfish. Entrees are less than $10. Open daily from 11am to 9pm. Flora & Ella's Restaurant and Country Store, 550 State Hwy. 80 (tel. 863/675-2891), is renowned for its pies (about $3 a slice) and old-fashioned Southern cookin' ($5-$15).