[Fig. 18] Lake Trafford, about 30 miles northeast of Naples, and 3 miles west of the largely Hispanic and Seminole farming community of Immokalee, is the largest lake south of Lake Okeechobee. The 1,500-acre freshwater lake plays a key role in the area's ecosystem, and serves as a destination for anglers wishing to challenge the legendary largemouth bass or fill a cooler with panfish.
The lake is the headwaters of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to the southwest, the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed to the west, and the Fakahatchee Strand System to the south, which includes the Florida Panther National Refuge. These wetlands drain into important estuarine systems such as Estero Bay, Wiggins Pass at Estero Bay, and Cape Romano. The lake is an integral contributor to the sheet flow that traverses such areas as the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed and the Southern Golden Gates Estates area.
The quality of the lake and the associated watershed profoundly affects many wildlife species, and it offers a sanctuary for migrating birds. It's also a vital source of recreation for freshwater fishermen and boaters.
Conservationists compare the lake to a supermarket for migrating birds. During dry seasons, fish accumulate in reduced pockets of water, where they provide easy feeding for wood storks, ibis, herons, egrets, and other wading bird species. When the lake is unhealthy, bird populations in Corkscrew Swamp and other neighboring areas noticeably decline. A large number of alligators make their home in the lake, feeding on the abundant fish and unwary wading birds.
In recent years, Trafford has suffered from excessive organic muck accumulations, loss of submergent plant communities, periodic weed infestations, and several moderate to severe fish kills. In April 1996, a catastrophic fish kill occurred caused by a massive algae bloom. Although the fish populations quickly rebounded, the tragedy rallied support for the lake's restoration.
A deep build-up of organic muck on the bottom of the lake is causing problems with the ecosystem by preventing the growth of native aquatic plants, which freshwater fish depend on during part of their life cycle. The muck was largely generated by hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), an exotic aquatic plant that found its way into the lake in the early 1980s. The hydrilla took over, choking out native grasses and other vegetation. When dying, or when treated with contact herbicides, the dead hydrilla falls to the lake bottom where it forms the thick layers of sludge. In late 1998, a $16 million federal, state, and local effort was initiated to remove 8 million cubic yards of muck and restore the lake to its natural, healthy state.
Lake Trafford Marina is the lake's commercial hub. Fishing guide "Ski" Olesky and his wife Annie know the troubled lake better than most trained naturalists. Their busy store caters to fishermen from many states and foreign countries, who come here year-round to pursue trophy class largemouth Florida black bass, crappie, bluegill, shellcracker, and other species. Nonanglers take guided boat tours and air boat rides. The Oleskys have been in the forefront of efforts to restore the lake.