Paradise Lost and Found
Stumbling barefoot in the sand, rod and tackle box in hand, I followed my mother down the rows of the old Hamlin block to where the path emerged from the dusty shade of the orange trees into the bright sunshine by Lake Otis.
“Watch your step,” she said, “there’s sandspurs in the weeds.” We had both heard that if you run as fast as you can through a field of sandspurs, they won’t stick you; but neither of us had the nerve to try it. So we picked our way carefully and our bare soles always found a few hidden in the sand.
Safely onto the old dock, we banged the grayed wood slats to scare away water moccasins and pulled the homemade pram out from under the dock. Potbellied grey minnows scattered as their shade and protection were removed.
“Can I catch some minnows for bait?” I asked. My mother looked unsure, but her face dissolved into permission as she remembered how I loved to let the minnows try to swallow a worm until I could pull them out of the water by their tiny, greedy mouths. I baited up and captured half a dozen while she put the oars and cushions in the boat and caught a few shiners on little balls of bread dough.
We climbed carefully into the pram and cast off into the lily pads. I sat in the stern and peered down into the transparent water as the boat passed over its denizens. I saw many small brim, shellcrackers, shiners and chubs, of course, and the occasional small warmouth or big turtle, but I was watching for bass and channel catfish, the most exciting game in Lake Otis. These rarely showed until we were beyond the lily pads and out in deep water.
Even in 15 feet I could see the bottom clearly as long as we sat very still — as we always did, as bass would swim up to the boat and inspect this unfamiliar intruder into their world.
My mother put a shiner on my line with a cork, threw it out as far as she could, and we sat down to wait while the shiner slowly dragged the cork around. This went on until a bass approached, at which point the shiner pulled the cork faster and faster until it stopped, which meant the bass had caught the shiner. Then the cork plunged under and my mother told me to wait until the bass had a chance to swallow the bait then it was time to set the hook. Fresh bass for dinner!
When we had our fish, we rowed quietly around the lake looking down into the clear green water where huge catfish cruised by on the bottom, or up at the shore where my pit bull Tuffy bounced through the tall grass watching for small game to flee in panic from his landings. Once he caught a moccasin and shook it like a rope until it was dead; my mother was frantic, but he knew what he was doing.
Around the lake from the big eucalyptus trees was a guava thicket where the perfume was overpowering. There we saw a huge alligator gar, motionless, sunning itself. When I told my uncle about it later, he came down with a .22 and shot it, saying, “Those damn gars will take over a lake if you give them a chance.” He was right, as I was to learn later: at one point all the lakes in the Chain seemed to be populated only by gars. But that was after the ski boats came in and stirred up the lakes so that algae blooms killed off the ecosystem.
But that day it was all right. It was one of those perfect days that you think will be repeated every day forever, when you’re 8. That may be the best thing about childhood: not knowing that paradise can’t last.
My mother said, “Never forget this.”
When I was old enough to take to the lakes on my own, I had a little aluminum boat with Styrofoam under the seats so it wouldn’t quite sink. I would stand on the bow until it filled with water and headed down, then climb up to the stern and force it all the way under; when it resurfaced like a breaching whale, it would come to rest upside down with air trapped underneath. I’d do this in plain sight of the tourist courts with their ski boats, and then hide under the overturned boat until they came racing out to save me; then I’d pop out and say, “What’s the problem?” I hated those ski boats; at the same time, I wished I had one of my own.
Later when I went off to school up North, other pursuits occupied my vacations, but I knew what had been happening to Florida ever since the tourists came with their money and the developers came to collect it. I eventually moved to Canada, where nature grew up tougher, but every time I came home to visit, Florida was missing another treasure.
When my son was five, I took him to see my grandparents’ home. My uncle had abandoned it to the elements — an old wood frame house in Florida is too expensive and too much work to keep up.
The wallpaper was peeling in sheets from the walls of the room where I watched my first television show. The front stairs where my mother posed for her wedding picture were collapsing; I took my son up the back stairs to the old storage room where I used to dig for treasures when I was a kid.
I still dream of that room. I expect my uncle’s collection of Hardy Boys books was still in the closet there when a vagrant set a fire to keep warm on a cold December night and the place went up like a tinderbox. In a way I wish I had been there to watch. Sometimes it helps — I’m glad I was able to hold my mother’s hand as she died a few years later.
Soon after the fire, the family sold off the old homestead and the surrounding orange grove to developers, who bulldozed down the hill that the old house had stood on, to even out the property and make room for more houses. They are pretty nice houses, and the tamed lakefront makes Lake Otis more attractive than it was when it was a nursery for algae and gars; there are even some brim and perch and bass again now. But the ghosts of the guava thicket and the old dock and the eucalyptus trees continue to haunt the immaculate lawns and modern docks that took their place.
No one has seen a channel catfish in Lake Otis for a long time.
3 Come Again
I’ve recently given up half my salary to get four months free every year to write. My wife found us a nice rental in Bokeelia where the fishing is good, the atmosphere is relaxed, and I have little to do but enjoy myself. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have a book in me waiting to burst out onto the page.
So we went to Bert’s Bar and listened to the music and met some nice folks who invited us to a party. It was a good party, with roast pig and great music and friendly people….
“You come on out with me, I’ll get you into some fine fishing!”
That was what he said at the party. I thought it was just the good times talking, but this morning his boat nosed up to our dock bright and early, and he called out, “Ready to go catch a big one?” Well okay, I thought, let’s do it. I gathered up my tackle and hopped
aboard the weatherbeaten fiberglas hull of an old Boston Whaler.
“What’s that for, you plan to fish for bait?” he asked, referring to my old fly rod, which does look a little skinny for “big ones”.
“Don’t worry, it’ll do the job. I’ve landed a 30 inch snook on this rod.”
He looked skeptical but was willing to give me enough rope to hang myself. We danced around the intersection of cultural conventions and male competition for a while until each was satisfied that the other’s style and values were flexible enough to coexist, then settled into an amiable exchange of technical information, boasts and fish stories.
Later we were drifting on the tide through Boca Grande Pass, past the little spine of underwater structure on the tip of Cayo Costa. He was bumping a pinfish along the bottom while I cast a Deceiver pattern on a # 9 sink-tip line, covering the water around the structure.
Suddenly I heard his reel screech.
I brought my line in quickly and turned to watch him play a huge redfish, scrambling to the stern to keep his line clear of the prop, then to the bow as the fish headed for the open Gulf.
“Do you want to chase her?” I asked, my hand on the ignition key.
“Nah, she’ll change her mind and head back this way before she cleans me.” It’s true, if big fish had the sense to just keep going in a straight line, they could always get away; but they don’t.
A quarter of an hour later I slipped the net under a magnificent red drum with three tail spots. I leaned over the transom with my hæmostat and plucked the hook out of its rubbery lip while it rolled its eye to watch what I was doing. What a beautiful creature, I thought, as I handed the net to my new friend.