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One of the unsung gems of Central Florida's Lake County is Lake Eustis. Nearly 8,000 acres, Lake Eustis is a central link in the Harris Chain of Lakes, a key waterbody in the Ocklawaha River watershed and home to about 50,000 area residents. In an area dotted with lakes small and large, and hosting several major Florida rivers, Lake Eustis is quite heavily developed with both year-round and seasonal homes. 'Snowbirds' with RVs regularly spend the cold northern winter cozily ensconced in sunny Florida at area RV parks. Yet, the atmosphere in Eustis and Tavares, the two major towns along the shoreline, is anything but staid and insignificant. A great many artists and retired professionals have joined the considerable younger population to keep Lake Eustis inviting, exciting and interesting.
Contrary to popular belief, Lake Eustis isn't just for seniors; they make up only about a quarter of the residents of the City of Eustis. Many young families have found the beautiful lake a perfect place to raise families and put down roots. Part of what is called the Golden Triangle, the cities of Eustis, Tavares and Mt. Dora are home to a population of sportsmen and nature lovers who would just as soon spend their time outdoors enjoying all this area has to offer. Lake Eustis is known as a power-boating, jet skiing, water skiing and sailing community which finds plenty of water-based fun waiting just outside their doors. Two marinas and two public boat launch sites on the lake assure everyone's access to the water. A sailing club holds regular racing events for its members, sponsors regattas, and teaches sailing to both children and adults using certified instructors.
Three canals, which are deepened channels of former creeks, connect Lake Eustis directly to three other lakes, giving access to the entire Harris Chain of Lakes. The Burrell Lock and Dam near Lisbon on Haines Creek keeps water levels relatively stabile and the channels navigable for small boats. The channels and wetland areas around the lake support large numbers of birds and wildlife, including the occasional alligator. The Dora Channel in particular is one of Florida's most scenic short rivers; only a mile long, the channel meanders through ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. Egrets, ospreys and herons nest along the quiet canal. So wild and remote-appearing is the canal that the Bogart movie classic "African Queen" was partially filmed here. The Dead River Canal leads to nearby Lake Harris.
Lake Eustis is known for world-class bass fishing. The largemouth bass here are legendary, as are the Sunday Palm Gardens Tournaments, an ongoing traditional bass fishing tournament that has occurred for about 15 years on Lake Eustis. Mostly attended by locals, the Tournament is open to all comers who will be hard-pressed to out-fish the local anglers who know the big shallow lake well. With an average depth of only 10 feet, Lake Eustis has a few deeper holes which often contain better underwater structure that attract the real lunkers. Other tournaments are also held here, although not as many as in the past. In the early 90s, the bass fishery was reputed to have 'collapsed' due to over-aggressive chemical treatment to rid the lakes of invasive hydrilla. The resulting overkill destroyed the food chain and breeding areas for a time, although some bass were still caught in the channels leading to the lake. Careful management has returned the fishery to near-optimal once again, but some bass anglers haven't yet gotten the word. Lake Eustis also holds catfish, bluegill, crappie and sunfish. Both the City of Eustis and Tavares have public fishing piers that see plenty of action for crappies and sunfish. A recent experiment in placing gravel attractors for sunfish proved successful at the dock on Eustis Lake Walk. Increased catches have convinced local authorities to plan to place more of them in the near future.
Increasingly, visitors come to the Lake Eustis area to enjoy the many opportunities to observe wildlife and marvel at the unique ecology of the area. Canoes and kayaks can be rented locally to facilitate viewing the cypress swamps and narrow channels. Commercial eco-cruises on all three of the canals are gaining in popularity. A seaplane base at Tavares has a local flying business that offers seaplane tours of the area. On the outskirts of Eustis, the Trout Lake Nature Center offers over 35 acres of ideal bird-watching habitat. The center was founded in 1988 by the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society. Set within a 230-acre wildlife preserve, the Center holds several interpretive trails, a swinging bridge, 1000-foot boardwalk into Trout Lake, and a picnic pavilion on the lake. Trout Lake accepts the treated water from the local treatment plant, and the water eventually filters into Lake Eustis. Serious efforts to improve water quality on the Harris Chain of Lakes have been a rousing success. Lake Eustis is now considered one of the cleanest lakes in the system.
Only an hour northwest of the Orlando metropolitan area, Eustis is a full-service city in its own right, including historical features, arts, live entertainment and plenty of shopping. The area wasn't originally intended as a tourism attraction. Early settlers came here to settle federal homestead land immediately after the Civil War. Within a few years, the area became one of the leading citrus farming areas in Florida. Fortunes were made shipping the precious fruit north to a sunshine-starved nation. Two major freeze events in the 1890s devastated many of the orchards but by that time, tourism had taken hold. Sun-seekers came by steamship to resort hotels along the lakes in the area, and the canals were improved to facilitate transport. The railways eventually took over transportation, cutting off the more remote resort locations in the process. The remains of the small ghost towns along the shorelines are still a popular paddling destination.
Early developers who made their fortune from the land and the orchards left behind examples of the lifestyle of the well-to-do in the form of homes in the Eustis Historic District. Several have been preserved and can be visited. One is now the home of the Eustis Historical Museum. The Lake Eustis Museum of Art showcases the works of several local artists and offers classes in the arts. Live stage shows can be enjoyed at the Historic State Theater staged by the Bay Street Players. Just one of the community events sponsored by the City of Eustis is the GeorgeFest. This celebration of the birthday of the country's first president has been happening annually for over 100 years. It is the second-oldest such celebration in the nation; only Laredo, Texas has had such a celebration for more years.
In keeping with its reputation as a vacation destination, Lake Eustis is well-supplied with long and short-term lodgings, from hotels, motels and bed & breakfasts to numerous private home rentals by the week or longer. Many are lakefront or have nearby lake access and lovely water views. Real estate is available on the lake also, with many existing homes appearing on the market in all price ranges. There are even some lots available for private home development. The canals shouldn't be overlooked when searching for real estate, as they are often lower priced and still give access to the entire Harris Chain of Lakes.
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