ST. PETERSBURG — There are lakes in Florida where the water is crystal clear, boats zoom from shoreline to shoreline and kids dive in off tire swings. They are usually off the beaten path, far from the hustle and bustle of cities.
Lake Maggiore is not that kind of lake.
Just a few miles south of downtown St. Petersburg, Lake Maggiore is bordered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to the east and the Lake Maggiore Shores neighborhood to the northwest. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve rims the rest of the lake.
There are no tire swings. Swimming is prohibited in the lake. The water looks more like brewed tea than spring water. Only boats with trolling motors are allowed on the lake. But that doesn't mean the lake has no recreational value.
Lake Maggiore is mostly fresh water. There is a channel on the northeast side of the lake that flows into Tampa Bay. The flow is controlled, which means there is some salinity in the water but not as much as in years past.
That makes for some interesting fishing. There are not only freshwater species but some saltwater fish as well.
"We just recently stocked the lake," said Linda Seufert, park operations manager for the city of St. Petersburg. "There's bass and red drum and some snook. And it's one of the few city lakes where we allow cast netting."
There is also good canoeing.
Paddling in the city
Lake Maggiore measures 385.4 acres. While the view from King Street isn't spectacular, it is much different once you are out on the lake. On a recent trip with Boyd Hill guide Bambi Collector, we visited secluded parts of the lake accessible only by canoe or kayak.
After putting in at the Lake Shore Park boat ramp off King Street, we quickly discovered the lake is a bird-watchers paradise. On our Saturday morning trip, there were ibis, herons, anhingas, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, hawks and even an eagle atop a pine tree. We paddled close to the birds and watched them in their natural environment.
The most picturesque part of the lake was on the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve side. Lily pads and the invasive hyacinths are starting to choke the area by the Boyd Hill boardwalk. But it is secluded and full of birds, fish, plants and alligators.
The only difficult part about that side of the lake is paddling through the lily pads, which eventually got to be too difficult. Seufert said regular maintenance controls the hyacinth and cattails that can choke the lake.
We hugged the shoreline on the west side of the lake and saw plenty of foliage, from sedges to sable palms to natural grasses. A few alligators stuck their heads above the water to check us out. Heading north, it was striking to see the alligators pop up from the water with the St. Petersburg skyline and Tropicana Field in the background.
Things used to be different
Lake Maggiore used to be more of a recreational spot. In 1951, the Southland Regatta speedboat race was moved from the Pier in downtown to Lake Maggiore. It was an annual event until 1988. A speedboat race took place in 1992 but by the late '90s there was no more boating on the lake.
In fact, there was no more anything on the lake. The bottom was filling with mud. Fertilizers and pesticides were washing into the lake from stormwater runoff. Nuisance vegetation was growing wild. Snakes, alligators and rodents were everywhere.
It needed to be dredged.
"There were too many nutrients in the lake," Seufert said. "It created a lot of muck. If we didn't do something, it would've taken over the lake."
A dredging project started in 2004 and lasted three years. It took a 4-foot layer of muck from the lake bottom at a cost of more than $13 million. There is still muck on the bottom, but nowhere near what it used to be.
Hiding in plain sight
As we began our paddle back to our put-in spot around 11 a.m., the lake became even more active. Pinfish jumped periodically, one landing in Collector's canoe. A hawk flew overhead with a fresh catch in its talons.
Despite the windy conditions, it was a pleasant two-hour trip. During that time, our six canoes were the only ones on the lake. That started the wheels spinning: There is a stocked lake just on the edge of the city that hardly anyone uses. Next time, the plan is to bring a fishing pole.