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Gulf & Main Magazine

Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area: an outstanding local resource for outdoor recreation

Feb 26, 2018 08:00AM

The day dawns at the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. Photo by William R. Cox.

The landscape of what is now the Fred C. Babcock/ Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located just west of Punta Gorda, was created more than a million years ago when the sea receded. The Calusa Indians occupied this area for 10,000 years. They were displaced after the Spanish invasion of Florida in the 1500s.

In 1914 the land was purchased by Edward Babcock for a hunting preserve and cattle ranch. In the 1930s the Babcock family leased the timber rights of the property. All old-growth pine was harvested by the lumber industry and transported out via the railroad grades built throughout the pine flatwoods area. In 1941 Fred Babcock sold 19,200 acres to the Commission of Game and Fresh Water Fish, now known as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The WMA was originally named for Cecil M. Webb, who served as commissioner from 1948-1953. The Babcock name was added in 1995.

Today the Babcock/Webb WMA encompasses 67,758 acres. This large property is a mosaic of many different native habitats, including the 395-acre Webb Lake and six artificial ponds. Other habitats include disturbed areas, dry prairie, freshwater marsh, hammocks and pine flatwoods. This variety of communities enhances a variety of wildlife, including endangered species. Through roller chopping, prescribed burning and hydrological management, FWC manages the area to mimic what undeveloped expanses of hydric (wet) pine flatwoods once looked like in Southwest Florida. Prescribed burning replicates fires created by seasonal lightning strikes. FWC also works to control invasive plants such as melaleuca, Brazilian pepper and cogon grass throughout Babcock/Webb.

This unique WMA provides many outdoor recreational opportunities, including horseback riding, fishing, hunting, birding, wildlife viewing, biking, hiking, shooting range, photography, scenic driving and camping.

Horseback enthusiasts are attracted by the Babcock/Webb’s many named and numbered trails that traverse native habitats, which in the 1800s were traveled by Florida cowboys searching for wild cattle. Equestrians can find horseback opportunities and locations of provided facilities by calling FWC at 863-648-3200.

Freshwater fishing is allowed via boat (not gasoline-powered), pier or water’s edge. There are three marl ponds that can be used for bank fishing. Most fishing—for bluegill, speckled perch, largemouth bass, channel catfish and black crappie—is conducted on Webb Lake, which has three boat ramps for nonmotorized boats, canoes and kayaks. Catch and release is the rule for largemouth bass, which cannot be kept. Bluegill is also sought after, as it can reach eight to ten inches in length.

Hunting is predominantly conducted from late October through mid-November. Good habitat management has resulted in plentiful deer and quail. The Field Trial Area of Babcock/Webb is used for northern bobwhite hunting from horseback or traditional wagons. The Yucca Pens Unit in the southern portion of the WMA is also available for hunting, and there is a shooting range for shotgun, rifle and pistol practice.

Biking and hiking are popular here. A two-mile nature trail along the marshes and ponds is frequented by deer and other mammals, wading birds and alligators. The WMA has 37 miles of paved and unpaved roads that can be traversed by foot, bike or vehicle. The entire property can be driven during hunting season, which extends from mid-October through mid-January. Only designated roads illustrated on WMA maps can be traveled at other times of the year. Interpretive signs, picnic tables and a fishing pier are located along a paved trail on the western border of Webb Lake. Primitive camping is also available along this trail during hunting season. Outside hunting season, camping is allowed every weekend from Friday (5 p.m.) through Sunday (9 p.m.), as well as Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Babcock/Webb, which is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail (floridabirdingtrail.com), offers bird and wildlife observations all year long. The diverse managed habitats are home to more than 140 avian species that can be observed throughout the year. More than 40 of these bird species breed in the area. Several of these species are listed as threatened and are state and federally protected, including many wading birds and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Plan your visit to Babcock/Webb by going to myfwc.com/recreation. This website also provides the cost of a daily-use or WMA permit. Hunting or fishing license information can be obtained at myfwc.com/license.

Written by William R. Cox, who has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.