It had finally cooled down. After my first summer spent in central Florida, I reluctantly admitted to myself that a break from the heat wasn’t all that bad. I’d fished through it, but welcomed a change.
I hadn’t been on the water much lately, and that really ticked me off. No matter where you’re at in our society, it's often still difficult to find enough time to fish; today’s demands of instant everything and increased workloads make sure of that. But this day, the rest of the world would have to wait.
As I drove across the state, I pondered my reasoning behind so much windshield time. Florida contains more 30,000 lakes – I think all contain bass – so it’s fairly uncommon for me to travel much more than an hour from home to fish. But something drew me back.
Since moving to the Sunshine State, I’ve often pondered my obsession. As I hear others tell stories of trips to the desert or Caribbean, and how they found their soul there, I’ve always known mine originated somewhere in a Florida swamp. As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, my childhood trips to central Florida with my father ingrained a feeling of adventure that I never broke away from. I guess I never had to; giving up on the real world in my 20s and going off on my own often found me scraping pennies, but allowed me to choose my own path.
It’s that feeling of adventure that I’ve cherished and questioned so often. Here it was, with me again.
As I approached the town of Citra, childhood memories continued to flow. It was there, 30 years ago, that my dad and I met Carl Thompson, king of the central Florida wild shiner trade. We’d get our shiners, as well as an earful of fishing advice, each morning at his bait shop, heading off into the vast unknown of Orange Lake. At the time, Orange was one of the state’s top trophy waters, but overharvest and a re-occurring sinkhole put a halt to that.
In my mind, I remember questioning Thompson’s knowledge of big bass lairs; after all, he was just a shiner baron, not one of the guys in shiny bass boats that I had idolized. Then Thompson went out on his day off and caught a 16-pounder that made the front page of the paper. Funny how that works.
Reminders of the past were still evident as I drove through the small town. Orange groves and packing houses, tourist attractions themselves before Mickey took over, held on to their eclectic signs and retro look, now actually trending back around to mainstream. I pondered which building may have been the baitshop all those years ago.
Childhood memories seem to appear as a single photograph in my mind, the center of which is often something unbelievable or mysterious. But things always look different as an adult. Perhaps it’s exposure to our negative society, and realizing after all these years that the mysteries have all been solved; that everything’s explainable.
Or is it?
I continued past Cross Creek, another example of Florida’s past, where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Rawlings penned The Yearling. Examples of Rawlings' impact are evident throughout central Florida if you know where to look, a street down the road from my home is named after her. Just like me, she too was a transplant, fascinated with Florida’s unique ecosystem and the ways of its original Cracker people.
Frustrated with society, the Crackers were the Deep South’s version of the Appalachian moonshiner or the West’s mountain man. In the most remote Florida, living off the grid iss hardly a new trend.
I passed on Orange Lake and instead launched in nearby Lochloosa. Always a sucker for a hot tip, I’d watched as Lochloosa continued to put trophy catch entries on the board in Florida’s lunker program recently, where 8-pound plus bass are awarded a hefty prize.
Idling out of the ramp, I was immediately greeted by the sounds and smells of 30 years prior. Coots, herons, wood ducks and egrets competed for the title of most vocal bird. As usual, attractive fishing spots started showing up immediately, and stretched across the horizon for as far as I could see. Where to begin? What did it matter…?
By day’s end, I’d land a big bass that, as a child, would have made my year. Alone, anchored on a productive spot, I pondered what it was about that time in my life that drew me to this day. Was it the bass, or Florida itself? Was it time spent with my dad during a period in my life that often brought a strained relationship?
I never got tired of it then, and I still don’t. I usually fish alone; lots of people call me strange, especially when it’s hot. But that’s okay.
After an hour or so driving home, I realized I hadn’t even turned on the radio, my mind still enveloped with the sound of a giant bass blowing a shiner out of the water. I would continue to think about that moment throughout the night, and into the next day as I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed back to the office and the real world.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear it, just as I had back then.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)