It’s been nearly 500 years now since Juan Ponce de Leon dropped anchor off the Florida coast and marched inland searching for the waters he had heard would keep him forever young.
But instead of finding the Fountain of Youth, he invited an early death. He died from arrow wounds suffered in a fight with the Indians.
Some senior citizens today sell their homes in southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky and retire to the land of palm trees and 12-pound bass.
(The advertisements don’t say anything about mosquitoes, leg-chomping alligators and big boa constrictors.)
I intend to join some of my friends in the Sunshine State, just as soon as one of them writes back to tell me he’s found the magical waters.
I’m not trying to be cute here. Florida does provide for a good winter getaway, especially when the thermometer here along the freezing Ohio River plummets to four below zero, as it did a couple of weeks ago.
My friends, Doug and Judy Nolte, left for their annual winter pilgrimage to Florida just a week before that blast of cold air swept down from the Arctic Circle, and I dutifully agreed to teach Judy’s Sunday school class until they return – in April.
The remaining two weeks of January and the four weeks of February probably have some more miserable weather in store for us. Even so, I still like living where I can experience the four seasons.
But I’ll have to admit I think now and then of hooking the bass boat up and heading down Interstate 75.
I’ve visited Florida during the winter several times before, but two weeks is as long as I’ve ever stayed. I get homesick.
It would be pleasant to spend February fishing for bass on the tributaries of the St. John’s River. It was 1977 when my father, Bruce, my brother-in-law, Ross Wright, and I drifted down Spring Creek, casting small jigs toward both shores, and caught so many black crappie that we couldn’t hold them up for a photo without the ones on the end of the stringer dragging the water.
It was nice, too, to come out of the cabin in the morning and pluck a fresh orange right off the tree.
About 1980, during a family vacation to Tampa in late May, Fayne Robinson and I made the mistake of driving over to Lake Okeechobee for a day of bass fishing. We had one of the best guides on the lake, but all we got was a sunburn and one dogfish.
May was the wrog time to be there. February was the right time.
In 2002 I had a nice little cabin on 5,000-acre Lake Marian, south of Orlando, where I could step out of my cabin and into my boat. It wasn’t much of a chore to fill a cooler or two with crappie, both lack and white.
One day I talked my wife, Bonnie, into going out. She can’t swim and has a fear of big water, but loves to catch fish as much as anybody. I believe she’s the one who inspired that old ditty that goes:
Mother may I take a swim?
Yes, my darling daughter.
Hang your clothes on a hickory limb,
But don’t go near the water.
We motored across the lake and into a patch of reeds and water lilies. She dropped a minnow down and hooked one of the biggest white crappie I’ve ever seen. As she pulled it into the boat, an alligator raised its ugly snout right near the boat.
Five minutes later I dropped her off back at the camp.
All we had seen was its nostrils and fierce eyes. It was probably a 10-footer. But when I heard her describing the incident to a friend back home, I heard something about, “…it must have been at least twenty feet long.”
If you’re a fisherman, February is the month to be in Florida. Florida is noted for producing bigger bass that any other state. The winters are warm and the fish gorge themselves year round.
In the early days of bass tournaments sponsored by the Bass Angler’s Sportsmen’s Society (organized in 1967), they held a tournament on Rodman Pool. The first day, two pro bass anglers checked in 20 largemouth that weighed a total of 240 pounds – 12 pounds each!
In those days, the captured bass were donated to charitable organizations after the weigh-ins. The sight of all those bass flopping in piles highly disturbed the local fishermen and those Northerners who had gone down there looking for ol’ Poncho de Leon’s Fountain.
Those who would rather contemplate than compete while fishing wanted those boys in the orange jump suits with fishing lure advertisements sewed all over them to go away.
Thirty-five years later they’re still going strong. Now all weighed fish are released alive (a practice B.A.S.S. actually began in 1972), and studies indicate that a high percentage of the released bass live to fight again – that the total number of bass lost in a three-day tournament is no greater than the number taken home to eat by a few weekend fishermen.
Maybe fishermen have found the Fountain of Youth after all. According to those words found chiseled on an ancient, unearthed stone, “God does not subtract from the allotted span of Man’s life those days spent at angling.”
Let’s see, I need to make sure the utility bills are paid up, turn off the water so the pipes won’t freeze, get in a month’s supply of prescription drugs, see if there’s enough money in the savings account to pay for gasoline….
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or Gsamwriter@aol.com.