OKEECHOBEE — The water level on Lake Okeechobee fell to 11.95 feet on March 30, causing the South Florida Water Management District to close four locks connected to the lake.
While it’s still possible to go out on the lake in a boat, when the water level gets low, it can be dangerous to traverse the lake for those unfamiliar with the underwater topography. In that case, it’s best to go out with a guide or someone experienced with the lake.
Also, despite being a nice break from the semi-quarantine we’re all under, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reminds those going out fishing that they still need to practice social distancing.
Palm Beach County closed some of its boat ramps because of mass gatherings on sandbars. If boaters on Florida’s freshwater lakes fail to follow the rules, FWC could close boat ramps to prevent mass gatherings.
Boaters who want to keep enjoying time on the water are advised to make sure they follow the state’s rules for “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Because COVID-19 continues to affect the state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order requiring “social distancing” on the water.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, all recreational boats must be at least 50 feet apart. Each recreational vessel must not have more than 10 people on board.
Currently most wildlife management areas remain open to the public. FWC advises checking the website for open/closed status updates before visiting WMAs. Group size must be limited to 10 people or fewer and groups must remain at least 50 feet away from other visitors.
Still, despite the restrictions and low lake level, fishing on Lake Okeechobee remains strong.
“Fishing on the lake has been pretty good,” said Derrick Moore of Jiganomics Outdoors. “We are approaching the end of the spawn, but they are still biting in the reeds and vegetation and in the river. However, the low water is making it harder for anglers to make it to some of their normal spots safely without getting stuck or breaking lower units.”
As for practicing social distancing, it’s much easier to do out on a boat on the open water than in a crowded grocery store.
In an interview with Bassmaster.com Dr. Neil Schaffner, a 40-year veteran of the medical profession with a background in critical care and, currently, an endocrinologist on staff at East Alabama Medical Center, explained how to apply social distancing practices while fishing in those areas where being out on the local fishery is still possible.
“Probably the safest place to be is on the lake right now,” said Dr. Schaffner “Everybody knows you’re supposed to practice ‘social distancing’ by staying at least 6 feet away from other people. You can do that when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in open spaces and open air. Your biggest risk is at the gas pump. Perhaps 500 people have touched the handle before you picked it up. The second greatest risk might be pulling through a drive-thru to get a biscuit on the way to the lake.”
Dr. Schaffner says to avoid touching any hard surface without protection. Wear gloves if you can. If you do not have surgical gloves, work gloves are better than nothing. Anything that provides a barrier between your skin and a contaminated surface can help. Using a paper towel to hold the gas pump handle might save someone from getting the disease, he suggests. Unwrap that biscuit with a napkin and avoid touching any of the packaging. If you visit a fast food restaurant, make sure employees are wearing gloves.
Dr. Schaffner knows that sharing the experience with a buddy makes fishing so much more enjoyable, but in these times, two might be a crowd. If you’d rather not fish alone, you can still minimize the danger of catching coronavirus from a fishing buddy.
“The good thing is that there’s at least six feet between the front pedestal and the back pedestal in a bass boat,” he said. “If your buddy just got off a cruise ship three days ago, I wouldn’t go fishing with him. If your fishing partner is coughing or has any other of the symptoms — fever, aches, sore throat — or has been exposed to someone with coronavirus, don’t go.”