Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

February 20th, 2006

Waters of Discovery

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
Last year at this time, I was planning a trip to Florida's west coast to fish with a group I had met on FAOL's site. Four of whom I already had met face to face a few months prior; four guys that I was looking forward to seeing again to swap stories, sharing laughter and just plain old catchin' up. Harold Hattaway, Stev Lenon, Ed Mercado, Bill Sorbie and I fished Tampa Bay's Sunshine Skyway Bridge flats, and believe me, there was a lot more shootin' the breeze than fishin'.

Today, my mind is on the return trip to the west coast to do it all over again at the FAOL Florida Fish-In '06, this time a little further south of Tampa Bay. This time in the Charlotte Harbor area.

I'm fairly familiar with the west coast of Florida. I practically spent my formative years there, and through my love of this area, I have traveled many times back to what I consider my "other" home waters. In my opinion, it's simply the most beautiful coastal location in my home state.

Blinding white, quartz sand beaches, swaying tropical palms, dark and secluded mangrove keys where rusty-colored raccoons prowl the many oyster bars, are just some of the magnificence one will discover there. But let us not forget the monsters that inhabit these blue-emerald waters, or the thunder of the crashing snook in the back country's brackish waters, hidden from your sight, but echoing from just around that bend, sending shivers down your spine. Hideaways among the keys where the mighty silver king, the tarpon, will cause the most seasoned angler's heart to stop, then race, and the very life-giving breath will freeze in your throat as he blows up on your fly that you now realize is attached to a rod far too small. He smashes the small, 1/0 fly, jumps fully into the air rattling his massive gill plates, showering silvery salt spray. Then all is quiet...he's gone, and you will never forget that very moment when you went bear hunting with a .22.

In the stillness of a small cutout between two sharp oyster bars, six redfish tail up as they feed on small crustaceans they have uprooted from the eel grass, appearing as butterfly wings sitting on the water's film. Your heart begins another workout as your pulse speeds up. You try to control it, but that's useless. Your hands can't feel the fly-line and an unfamiliar ringing in your ears begins. The cast is just shy of the school, and you pick your line up in midair. The tails disappear just below the surface, but they didn't "spook." Your fly lands just past the fish and you pray to the fish gods for this to work as you short-strip the fly. A submarine-sized wake comes up and follows closely behind the fly. He charges and damned near snatches the rod from your shaking hand. The brightly colored line hisses as it follows the big red out past the oysters then out into the backing of your screaming reel. Just as you think you have him under control, he turns and repeats the blistering run, but this time he travels between the two bars and cuts the mono leader on the sharp edges of the shells. He's been feeding where he grew up, and you know he just played you. After all, it's his territory, not yours.

The above scenarios aren't made up. They are, in fact, all of my experiences in these southwest Florida waters.

Venice, Charlotte Harbor, Englewood, Lemon Bay, Manasota Key, Don Pedro Island all share in the same characteristics. After all, this is the area where the early Spanish explorers, the likes of Panfilo de Narvaez and Cabeza de Vaca, came ashore back in 1528 to colonize the area after the discovery by Ponce de Leon in 1513. But the "discovery" of the area wasn't de Leon's to actually claim. The Indians were there first and defended their homeland with force, fatally wounding the Spaniard in 1521.

The history of this area can still be heard echoing through the ancient trees and beaches, but far too many tourists have visited without realizing the sands on which they walk were, in deed, the same sands that saw tall, wooden sailing ships that delivered diseases and armored strangers that changed the landscape and the culture of the Native Americans forever. More about this area can be read in my archives entitled, "Englewood, Lemon Bay and Stump Pass."

On March 2nd, 2006, a group of fly anglers will converge on strips of sand and waters to discover. They will, perhaps for the first time, discover new friends that were merely typed names on a website called "Fly Anglers On Line." They will discover new sights and sounds and smells that will create memories that will be theirs forever. And, without a doubt, they will share our waters of discovery.

'Til next time. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

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