Fisheating Creek is now the only remaining free-flowing watercourse that feeds into Lake Okeechobee. It is also the second-largest natural source for the lake. Development is restricted due to the fact that the land that surrounds the Creek is either under conservation easements or publicly owned. The lower part remains mostly in a natural state, and efforts are underway to restore the upper part.
The name Fisheating Creek comes from the Seminole name Thiothopopka-Hatchee, which means “the river where fish are eaten.” Flowing southward through Cypress Swamp which is in part of Highlands County and Glades County the Creek is between 40 miles and 51 miles. In the last eight miles, and before entering the lake, the Creek spreads out into the Cowbone Marsh.
In Highlands County, west of Lake Placid, Fisheating Creek originally arose in a series of perennial marshes. With one marsh overflowing into another, and eventually in a lower marsh, Fisheating Creek emerged. Ditches and canals built in the 20th century drained the marshes and turned them into agricultural land. Under a conversation easement, in 2010 the United States Department Agriculture purchased 26,000 acres in Highland County with the plan to restore the land back into marshes.
The stream flows through a landscape of dry and wet prairies, flatwoods, freshwater marshes, hammocks, bottomland forests, and floodplain swamps. In 1842, Fisheating Creek was described as large stream during the dry season, with a width that varied from a river to a brook, and very tortuous. After the Herbert Hoover Dike, mostly enclosing Lake Okeechobee, Fisheating Creek became the only gap in the dike where the dike turns inland and is the only free-flowing tributary to Lake Okeechobee.
The entity that controls most of the stream is the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. There are only two small communities, Palmdale and Lakeport near the Creek, and there are twenty-seven rare species that live in the Fisheating Creek watershed. It is imperative to preserve the ecosystem of Fisheating Creek for the long-term welfare of the Florida panther, black bear, swallow-tailed kite, whooping crane, sandhill crane, crested caracara, as well as other species.
People from the Belle Glade culture occupied the area around Fisheating Creek from as early as 1000 BCE. With many archaeological sites, from that period, the most known is Fort Center, being occupied before 450 BCE until around 1700.
Named for United States Army Lieutenant J. P. Center, Fort Center is a palisade of cabbage-palm trunks. During the Second Seminole War (1835 – 1843) the fort was built on the banks of Fisheating Creek. The archaeological site is also named after the fort.
By 1842, Fort Center had been abandoned and the palisade was in need of repair. A reconnaissance party led by United State Navy Lieutenant John Rodgers, 83 sailors and marines and a Seminole guide traveled in 16 dugout canoes from Key Biscayne through the Everglades across Lake Okeechobee and up the Kissimmee River to Lake Tohopekaliga and Fisheating Creek to make the necessary repairs. The expedition took 60 days and while they did not encounter any, they found evidence that Seminoles had been living in the Fisheating Creek area. During the third Seminole War (1833 – 1855), Fort Center was reactivated as a station from Fort Myers to Fort Jupiter. On part of the route, they used canoes to cross Lake Okeechobee.
A survey of Fisheating Creek in 1981 found it was one of the five main areas in Florida occupied by the Seminoles. Non-Indian settlements didn’t begin until the 20th century in the area. Lakeport being the first in 1915, and by 1930 had forced the Seminoles out of most of the area. The Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation was established in 1935.
In the early 20th century, the Lykes Brothers had acquired land around Fisheating Creek that was largely an unimproved cattle range. Owning 67% of the land in Glades County, for many years they allowed public access to Fisheating Creek, and the land around the Creek that included a waterfront park, campground, and canoe concession in Palmdale. As well, there were 76,000 acres open to hunting in a Game Management Area leased to the state of Florida.
Due to poaching and vandalism, in the 1980s, they began closing public access. In 1987 the state’s lease on the Wildlife Management Area was not renewed. Rather, they leased the land to a private company that charged fees for hunting rights. The waterside park, campground and canoe concession were closed in 1989. Fences and gates were soon erected and all of their land previously opened to the public was closed. To block boat access from Fisheating Creek, they placed logs in the Creek.
Glades County residents in March of 1989 broke open one of gates placed on an old road. Claiming that the land belonged to the county, the Glades County Commission then ordered that a nearby fence, as well as the gate, be bulldozed. Soon the Lykes Brothers sued the county. The lawsuit center on whether or not Fisheating Creek was a navigable waterway. If it was, then its bed up to the high water mark belonged to the state of Florida. In 1998, the court decided the Creek was navigable and did, in fact, belong to the state.
A settlement was reached with the Lykes Brother wherein Florida would purchase 18,272 acres for $46.4 million. The land then became the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA). As well, the state also purchased a conservation easement on another 41,523 acres. The state maintains a navigation channel in Fisheating Creek from Lake Okeechobee to the U. S. Route 27 bridge at Palmdale. Prohibited from the WMA are motor vehicles and jet-powered watercraft. Airboats are band from parts of Cowbone Marsh and hunting is very limited.