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Amid bustle is quiet fishing hole

Is your motto "Eat, Sleep . . . Go Fishing"? Has life in the city mulched your mind?

If you answered "yes" to either question, you need to take a trip to Freedom Lake Park.

Just off U.S. 19 and 49th Street N exists 7 acres of pure, unadulterated nature. A large lake takes up the center of the park, and trees, green grass and animals surround the water.

Freedom Lake Park was adopted in 1991 by the South Region Urban Fishery Project to provide quality fishing spots for anglers in densely populated Pinellas County.

So, how is the fishing at Freedom Lake?

"Fishin' is good," said Uleatha Thomas, 52, of St. Petersburg, who fishes there at least once a week. "We catch bluegill, shell crackers, occasionally a bass.

"My girlfriend caught two bass yesterday," she said recently. "I didn't catch any, but I did catch 18 bluegill and shell cracker mix."

But it is not just good fishing that brings Mrs. Thomas back every week. With four grandchildren at home, the park is a sanctuary for her. The water has a calming effect, she says, and the only noise at the park is made by the birds.

"Normally it's very quiet," she said. "Peace and serenity mean a lot to me.

"It's nice and clean, you're not bothered by other folks."

With cane pole in hand, Mrs. Thomas sits on the bank of Freedom Lake. From this viewpoint she can see over the whole glass-topped lake to the trees that line the lake and over to an anhinga standing on a park bench cleaning its feathers.

If you wandered into the park unsuspecting, you might see Mrs. Thomas fishing by the lake, and you might catch a glimpse of the snake bird, but you still may miss what is really going on here.

That's where Paul Thomas comes in. He heads the South Regional Urban Fishery Project, which manages and monitors the lake. Thomas is happy to help explain nature.

"The anhinga or snake bird has no oil on his wings," he said. "This means he is not as waterproof as ducks are, but it also means that he is less buoyant, thus allowing him to swim deeper into the water to spear fish with his beak.

"As far as the fish in this lake, you could catch bluegill, shell cracker, brown bullhead, large-mouth bass (which have to be returned immediately to the lake, according to park rules) and occasionally a Nile perch."

Thomas said the lake is stocked with about 3,000 fish each year. The three feeders placed in the lake provide a good area to catch catfish. And around the edge of the lake can be found the nests of the Nile perch.

"The Nile perch was introduced into the lake by the project. They dig nests near the shore of the pond for mating. The female lays eggs in the nest, and then the male scoops them into his mouth where the eggs will stay until they have hatched and the fish are able to live on their own."

Thomas has taken his message to the schools, teaching elementary students everything from how to tie a clinch knot to how to filet the fish they caught. The idea is to get them interested and spark a care for the environment.

"A good way to get them started is fishing."

"We have managed the pond for two years," he said, "and I've never heard one negative comment about the project yet."

The lake seems to hold its own against other fishing spots.

"Compared to other places around, I think the fishing is good," Mrs. Thomas said. "There are some places where you may bring in 20 fish in one day and go home empty-handed the next.

"I come out here, and I'm all but guaranteed to catch a fish. And then again it depends on the time of year."