THONOTOSASSA — While multimillion dollar mansions have largely replaced the once predominant landscape of orange groves and cow pastures, a couple in this bucolic community aims to preserve a small slice of yesteryear.
Four months ago, area residents Buddy and Crystal Cheaves took over the day-to-day operations of Reese’s Fish Camp & Bait Shop, a longtime fishing and beach site at 11502 Thonotosassa Road, along the southern shore of Lake Thonotosassa.
Wayne Gleaton, the son of property owner and retired physician Carroll Gleaton, said the formerly popular family gathering spot is named after his grandparents Oscar and Jewel Reese, who purchased the property and opened the business in 1961. They later turned it over to his father, who also owns the old family homestead directly across the road.
In recent years without quality oversight, Wayne said, the place had drawn a series of rowdy folks whose interests were more focused on drinking and partying than fishing, swimming and enjoying the beauty of the 942-acre lake, considered the largest freshwater body in the county.
“They’ve really turned things around,” he said.
Buddy repainted the outside of the 1,100-square-foot bait shop and renovated the inside, which he stocked with a plentiful inventory of bait and tackle items for sale. It also contains a snack bar with non-alcoholic drinks and restrooms.
“It’s still basically the same old building but we wanted to bring it back more to the way it used to be,” said Buddy, who remembers spending many hours fishing as a kid on the property.
For years the couple also enjoyed bringing their now two teenage daughters to the fish camp, so they are intent on making it more family-friendly like it was when their children were young.
They’ve roped off the swimming area and spruced up the beach, which they plan to cover with additional sand. They also will have canoes and pontoons for rent.
The weekend entertainment provided by deejays will cater strictly to people with families.
“In the last 10 years this place got a little rough,” Buddy said, noting the crowd had become rather raunchy and the music unsuitable for children’s ears.
Employee Kyle Drapeza, who often takes people on a boat tour of the lake and stays overnight on the 24-hour accessible property to ensure no ruckuses occur, said the Cheaves also intend to add a floating trampoline.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Crystal, who also remembers the fun times she spent there as was a youngster as well as with her own children.
Nearby resident Justin Fernandez stopped by on a recent early spring morning simply to enjoy the view from the dock with his 16-month-old son, Brody.
“I’ve being coming here for about six or seven years because it’s a perfect spot to fish,” he said. “But now, it’s also nice for kids because he (Buddy) keeps it nice and clean.”
The boat-launch fee is $5 and beach admission is $3 per person. All paid entrants are issued armbands, except during the overnight hours when anglers are asked to pay by the honor system.
“A lot of people go cat fishing at night and fishing for tilapia and bass is good all the time,” Buddy said.
People who wish to swim do so at their own risk both day and night because there are no lifeguards on duty.
“People have just hugged me when they found out we took it over,” Crystal said. “They weren’t happy with the old leasers.”
Visit their website or call (813) 650-6878 or (813) 982-0218 for more information.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]