Early one recent Saturday morning, as my wife and 12-year-old son slept, I sneaked out of our home in Tampa and drove about an hour to Walt Disney World.
That’s right. I went to the Mother of All Theme Parks without my family.
To be fair, my visit involved neither my son’s beloved Space Mountain roller coaster nor my wife’s cherished Haunted Mansion.
I was after a different kind of the kingdom’s magic: largemouth bass.
Guided fishing excursions on four of the sprawling Central Florida park’s natural and man-made lakes have been offered for nearly two decades, although relatively few folks know about it.
“We fly under the radar big time,” Disney fishing guide Tim Martin said with a laugh, shortly after I met him that morning at the Contemporary Resort’s boat ramp.
Yet, as I’d soon learn, here you’ll find some of the best largemouth bass fishing in Florida.
Aboard one of the Disney fishing fleet’s near dozen 21-foot Tracker pontoon boats, we made the quick trip from natural Bay Lake to man-made Seven Seas Lagoon. The first spot we wet our lines was across the lake from the park’s iconic Cinderella’s Castle.
Guests can choose live bait or artificial lures. Although I brought my own fly rod, I took Tim’s suggestion to give live stuff a try. Seconds after the wriggling finger-long shiner baitfish on my hook hit the water, I felt a strike. After a brief fight, I’d caught and released my first fish, a pretty two-plus-pounder. A half dozen casts — and as many plump fish — later, I teased Tim that Disney must have divers stationed beneath us, attaching fish to our hooks. Nah, Tim assured me, fishing here is the real deal. Attention to healthy habitat, and a catch-and-release-only policy, has helped make for “the highest [largemouth bass] catch rate of anywhere in Florida,” he said.
This being Disney World, Tim said that if a guest does drop, say, a wallet or cellphone overboard, park divers can be sent to retrieve it.
“This really is the perfect way for families who don’t know about fishing or boats to have fun fishing,” he said.
By the time we were ready to head to the next fishing spot, I’d heard a good chunk of the Disney tunes repertoire broadcast from across the lake, including “It’s a Small World” and “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” I enjoyed the effect, but Tim conceded that some guests prefer to fish more remote areas. “We can make fishing here as Disney as you want it to be,” he said.
At our second stop, beside the pink-and-white confection that is the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, I decided to give an artificial lure a shot. In this case, Tim’s go-to is a Zoom fluke, several inches of white plastic that when jerked in the water resembles a fleeing fish.
With a sidearm cast, I skipped the lure a few feet below fancy seafood restaurant Narcoossee’s, which juts out over the water. I’d only begun to try giving it an alluring twitch when a fat bass pounced on it.
Narcoossee’s is one of a number of Tim’s favorite fishing spots in these lakes, including one farther out in the same Seven Seas Lagoon. Below are the ruins of a since-abandoned wave-making machine. The submerged wreckage makes for a nifty structure from which hiding bass can ambush prey, Tim said. As if on cue, my first cast here yielded yet another feisty fish.
Along with bass, the lakes are home to catfish, crappie, bluegill, longnose gar and the occasional chain pickerel. It’s not uncommon to witness a bald eagle snatching a fish from the water and carrying it off in its talons. “That is just so cool to see,” Tim said, beaming.
For many guests, a Disney excursion is their first time fishing. A good number of these newbies get hooked (as it were) on the pastime here. Indeed, a woman who’d joined her husband and kids on a fishing excursion months ago decided reluctantly to take a cast, her first ever. She caught an eight-pound lunker, among the biggest bass Tim has seen in the lakes. “She loves fishing now,” Tim said.
Guests can — and often do — request any of the dozen-odd guides. Several visitors are what you might call hard-core fishers. A father and son who’ve returned annually for a handful of years always reserve Tim as “their” guide. On their latest visit, they fished every day for three weeks. “That’s a lot of fishing,” Tim said.
Most participants are dads hankering to play a little fishing hooky. “While mom and daughter are having their Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo fun, dad can go fish,” Tim said, noting that he has run across a fair number of more adamant types who say “the only way I’m even going to Disney World is if I can go fishing.”
Absurd as it sounds, catching bass with conventional gear that morning began to seem almost too easy. Which is why I decided a little more than halfway through our two-hour trip to break out my fly rod for what I figured would be more challenging angling.
Tim aimed our boat to shallower waters, where my lure, a floating bass popper fly, would work best. Middling fly caster though I am, I managed to deliver my fly to about where Tim suggested, a shaded spot a foot or so from a small wooden dock piling. When the first tiny ripples had settled, I gave the line a quick yank, making the lure lurch with a watery bloop sound. Before I’d yanked again, a bass inhaled it.
If not for my promise to be home for lunch, I probably could have kept catching fish at this improbable pace. Headed back to our dock in the mid-morning heat, we passed various Disney attractions, including the Polynesian Village Resort, whose tiki kitsch vibe I’d loved even as a child.
As if reading my mind, Tim told me the hotel was among the best places in the park to get an adult drink, a treat most guests are unaware is allowed during fishing excursions.
“Next time, if you like, we can dock and you can run in and get a drink and jump back on the boat for more fishing,” he said.
As if I needed another incentive to go fishing here.
Abercrombie is a Tampa-based writer.
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With Disney’s guided bass fishing excursions, you can choose from a 21-foot Tracker pontoon boat, which accommodates up to five people, or a tournament-style Nitro bass boat, which fits up to two people. Two-hour and four-hour trips run $270 and $455. Discounts are available for solo anglers. All tackle, including lures and/or live bait, plus nonalcoholic beverages, are provided. Charters are available from about a half-dozen docks at Disney World.