Poles & Pontoon for a Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Boating on the Lower Withlacoochee River & Lake Rousseau
A cluster of confused newbie kayakers congregated in the middle of the river. There were two teens in one, jostling for power. Another hung on the back of someone else’s kayak, treading water. Past them, a dozen tubers floated towards the bridge and tuber exit. It was just another sunny Sunday on Dunnellon’s Rainbow River.
It all started with an idea, as most summer days do. We had intentions for a lazy day on the Rainbow River. Swimming. Lunch. The perfect day. But it was busy this particular Sunday, and we were lazy. We didn’t feel like navigating our pontoon boat around the kayakers or circumnavigating the slow-moving tubers. Too much work for a lazy summer day. We needed to find a less popular place to enjoy a day of boating.
We headed 1/2 mile back downstream and stopped for a bite at the riverside Blue Gator Tiki Bar and Grill. Our boat fit neatly into one of their covered pontoon slips. We reorganized our plans over sandwiches, fish tacos, and sweet tea. Soon it was time to return to the boat, but this time we headed far away from the Rainbow and followed the current of darker waters of the Withlacoochee west.
Down the Withlacoochee River
The Withlacoochee River, a Creek name meaning Little Big Water, starts in Green Swamp and travels 141 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It lives up to its native American name and rises with the storms and heavy rains, flooding the surrounding cypress trees with swamp, and lowers drastically during times of drought, revealing rapids, fallen logs, and protruding stones. And because of these natural obstacles and dark waters, not many pleasure boaters venture there.
You’ll not find fancy resorts anywhere along this river, for its winding length has one continuous factor- it’s lonely out there.
We traveled under the Highway 44 bridge and motored past the busy Dunnellon Boat Ramp at Centennial City Park. It is a nice ramp- wide and clear with a floating dock to tie up on so you can bring the kids aboard while someone parks the vehicle. A line of trucks and trailers waited to drop their boats into the water, making us glad we were already on the river.
The drool-worthy houses along the banks soon thinned out and our wake zone ended. Trees rose to replace the houses- surrounding the river with thick greenery. The air was dank and humid- swamp air. A swamp has a smell- cypress mingled with a distinct musty odor that comes from the wet earth, weeds, and a drizzle of fishiness- usually because an otter or gator is in the vicinity.
We glided past a concrete structure in the middle of the river- the remnants of an old bridge foundation block- now home to bushes and a lone palm tree.
The river twisted around bends. Water lettuce edging secret coves bobbed up and down in our wake. Families of moss-covered turtles stretched across fallen trees near the waterline, their little legs sticking straight out to catch the rays of the sun. And sun there was. This portion of the Withlacoochee, though still snaking in course, is wider than the section before Dunnellon. And the sun can be bright.
A six-foot gator has found a bed in what little embankment there is, his mouth wide open in what looks like a welcoming smile.
Lake Rousseau & Bass Fishing
A couple of miles later, the winding Withlacoochee entered Lake Rousseau. We slowed down to pass two men in a fishing skiff. Lines cast, hats shading their faces, and a cooler of ice water and beer between them. They were out for the long haul. Anglers fish for largemouth bass in the dark waters of the lower Withlacoochee and Lake Rousseau.
Both kids and I caught our first largemouth bass in this area. And it was in these waters where we also caught our biggest. My husband is convinced the record bass will one day be caught here, and he’s obviously not alone, because the West Hernando Bass Club holds a bass tournament on Lake Rousseau on the last Saturday of every month.
The 12-mile lake was created in 1909 when they constructed the Inglis Dam. They flooded the timber-rich area and until 1965, the Florida Power Corporation used the dam to provide hydroelectric power to the booming phosphate mining industry.
I remembered once hearing someone comparing the lake to the Everglades. Untamed, scary, and wild. There is truth to the untamed & scary reputation. They removed most of the trees in the area prior to the flooding, but many remained- gnarled cypress stumps, jutting out of the depths and hiding just below the surface. They offered shelter and shade to the fish, but a peril to unwary boaters, and the source of many ‘stuck on a log’ stories.
Birdlife on the Lake
We stayed in the marked channel, a necessity to boaters traveling in Lake Rousseau- until we didn’t.
“This is where the river used to run,” my husband said. He cut the motor to drift along the former channel. The markers, now cut off, provided handy perches to birds and homes to nesting osprey. A bald eagle alighted on one to watch us. Osprey, bald eagles, and hawks are prolific in this area.
Beyond, an island of floating grass caught a ray of sunshine. The weather had shifted and dark clouds were moving in around us.
We returned to the channel to cross the lake. At one mile in its widest point, the 3,700-acre lake is vast.
We motored past more floating islands, home to nesting birds and watchful alligators. Cattails swayed in the growing breeze- nature’s dance.
Anhinga birds dove from their perches on stumps in the water as we sped by. We soon arrived at a crossroads in the middle of the lake. One channel led to the Inglis lock, the other to the Inglis dam. The lock has not been used since 1999. We fished near there a couple of years ago on a chilly winter’s day. As the sun set, the trees near there filled with brown pelicans that came to rest for the night.
The clouds grew darker, and the air cooler. Sightseeing was over. It was time to get off the lake. We’ve been caught out in storms before. It’s not fun. I’ve even seen lightning strike one of the lake’s channel markers- it splintered the sign into a thousand pieces. Scary stuff.
We take the channel to the Inglis dam- a fast ride to the boat ramp. We could hear the roar of the water rushing through the opening in the dam as we slid past a triad of green-roofed fishing pavilions on the water’s edge. They say Lake Rousseau will never flood. The waters are controlled by the dam, and prior to storms, they simply drop the lake’s water levels in preparation, releasing the water to the Gulf.
On the other side of the dam, a canal leads out to the Gulf of Mexico.
We get out before the storm struck. It was a Florida flurry of lightning, thunder, and torrential rain, but as with most summer storms, it was fast and furious and didn’t last long.
Alligators and Sunset
The dark clouds slid away, and the sun returned again. We headed back out later to cast a line and catch the sunset. And although we didn’t see many alligators on our ride earlier, it was surprising how many 10 footers emerged from hiding at the day’s end. It seemed like all our gator sightings that evening were accompanied by a ‘whoa’.
Whoa, that’s a monster!
Whoa, look at that gator!
Whoa, he’s huge!
Lake Rousseau is not a place for swimming. According to the FWC alligator harvest database from 2020, 12 of the 28 alligators caught in Lake Rousseau were 9-10 feet long. There have even been 11-foot alligators recorded in years past. We stayed in the boat to enjoy the wildlife and fished.
A stillness settled over the lake as the sun dipped into the horizon. The last of the cypress stumps were dark, twisted silhouettes against an orange sky. A flock of ibis flew overhead to settle on the nearby grassy islands among a hundred more. Their squawks echoed through the surrounding air, to mingle with a chorus of croaking frogs and cicadas as night fell over Lake Rousseau.
Boating on the Lower Withlacoochee River
Dunnellon is the last point of civilization on this part of the river. (river-houses aside). It can be an empty place- we passed 4 other boats the whole time on a Sunday when the Rainbow was busy. It’s about 13 miles one way from Dunnellon boat ramp to the Inglis Dam Boat Ramp. Be sure you have enough gas to make the journey and back. Bring water and snacks for your trip and watch the weather. Stick to the channels in Lake Rousseau to avoid water hazards.
- Dunnellon Boat Ramp – 12189 South Williams Street, Dunnellon, FL 34432
- Fee-free boat ramp to the lower Withlacoochee River. 1 mile upriver to Rainbow River.
- Picnic tables & block toilet
- Limited parking, but overflow parking adjacent.
- Goldendale Boat Ramp – 12170 N Goldendale Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34433
- Narrow ramp & vehicle turn with little parking.
- No facilities
- Inglis Dam & Island Recreation Area – 10905 W. Riverwood Drive, Crystal River FL 34428
- Fee-free boat ramp to Lake Rousseau with narrower ramp below dam for channel to the Gulf of Mexico.
- Ample parking. Fee-free.
- Porta-let toilet
- Fishing pavilions, hiking, biking & equestrian trails, picnic tables
Pontoon/Boat Rentals for the Withlacoochee/Lake Rousseau:
- Angler’s Resort (building next to Blue Gator Tiki Bar & Grill)
- 12189 S. Williams Street, Dunnellon, FL 34432
Boating on the Rainbow River
Boating on the Rainbow is great, but it comes with rules. There is a no-wake zone for the entire Rainbow. No alcohol or disposables are allowed on the entire river. You can’t tow a tube or raft with your boat (with people in it) either. The Rainbow River is patrolled by local law enforcement and is a popular recreational destination on summer weekends and holidays. Plan an early morning outing or weekday trip to avoid crowds.