Excursions highlight Lake Sumter's beauty

Shirley Shriner, left, and Linda Ballou, both of the Village of Pine Ridge, paddle while kayaking on Lake Sumter.

Even with the addition of shopping plazas, recreational amenities and numerous entertainment options, residents of The Villages haven't shunned opportunities to enjoy the area's natural scenery.

Outdoor excursions offered by The Villages Recreation and Parks remain as popular as ever, with the department hosting guided fishing, kayaking and nature tour experiences on the serene waters of Lake Sumter.

The excursions began in 2018 and were met with resounding interest — weekly activity slots filled months ahead of time — with their popularity now peaking once again following a brief pandemic-induced shutdown.

"It's almost like we never left," said Capt. David Weston, recreation leader of outdoors for The Villages Recreation and Parks, who organizes the activities for the department. "There's just been so many people taking advantage of the opportunities to get out and enjoy all that we have to offer."

The guided fishing activity allows residents and their guests — up to four per group — a two-hour trip on the 340-acre lake aboard an 18-foot vessel. The catch-and-release excursions include a guide, rod and reel, tackle and artificial bait — although experienced anglers may bring their own equipment — with the $250 group trips yielding tournament-like results.

"The fish are just off the charts," said Gary Leonard, of the Village of Palo Alto, who took part in a fishing excursion early Saturday morning with his wife, Joanne. "It's absolutely worth the money. The lake is just full of fish."

The kayak excursion — available for groups up to eight — includes an experienced guide, single or tandem kayak, a paddle and a life jacket for each participant. The kayaking trips provide two hours of wildlife observation for just $25 per person, as excursions glide along the tranquil waters.

Also offered are nature tours around Lake Sumter on a pontoon boat — available for $25 per person, up to four people per trip — featuring an experienced guide to share knowledge of the local ecosystem.

"I just love talking to the people who come aboard with us, just because they come from so many different places," Weston said. "I've heard so many different stories and experiences, and that's what makes it great."

The opportunities feed both a localized and nationwide hunger for outdoor sporting experiences since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with Americans feverishly seeking solitude and risk-averse means of recreation. At least 32 states reported an increase in some facet of outdoor sports in 2020 — utilizing end-of-year participation statistics from state wildlife agencies and other outlets — with industry experts believing that trend will continue in data released for 2021.

The Sunshine State was home to some of the most dramatic increases in outdoor sports participation in 2020, as Florida saw both fishing and hunting license distribution figures hit five-year highs, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

"We'd like to say the increases are because people just love the great outdoors, but we all know how isolation and being indoors has forced us into doing different things,” Greg Workman, regional director and spokesman for the FWC, told the Daily Sun. "But we also know that the hunting and fishing activities that individuals took part in, the boating outings that families took together, all of those moments meant something to those people.

"And in this pandemic, I think we've all found that we want to be closer to things that mean something to us.”

That message is more than echoed by The Villages Recreation and Parks, who plan to continue to host the excursions — and generate additional openings in the near future — for even more residents to partake.

"One of the great things about being in Recreation and Parks is creating more opportunities for our residents to enjoy their lives and living here," said John Rohan, the recreation department's longtime director. "Offering this program allows our team to interact with our residents in an environmental setting that is complementary, yet different than our recreation centers. Our staff enjoys getting on the water with our residents and showcasing this element of outdoor recreation, which is a sampling of what our state offers year round."