Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

March 13th, 2006

Old Places, New Faces

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
I looked forward with great anticipation to this year's 2006, FAOL Florida Fish-In. After all, I was to meet up with folks I had met before. Even with more enthusiasm, I was to add faces to the typed words on this site. However, with all that said, an excitement flooded my thoughts, and brought up memories that had been captured in the mid-seventies when I traveled to the Venice, Florida area to cast large plugs underneath lighted docks that loomed from the three o'clock in the morning darkness, and the early fog casting trick shadows out into the slick and still, Lemon Bay.

There are no photographs to accompany this story, it was intentional. There will be images captured by others who attended this special gathering on Florida's southwestern coast. I make no apologies for this, and I truly hope you understand. Some things are better left to the imagination, besides, the older coast, thirty years ago, to me, was prettier.

I invited Ed Mercado (FloridaFlyer) to drive up to our home on Wednesday afternoon and have supper and spend the night so we could get an early start down to our fishing destination. Ed arrived around six pm, ate and settled in. And, as always, I spent a fairly restless night going over things I had packed and trying to remember all that was left to do the next morning.

Around five-thirty, the next morning, we loaded the pickup and headed out through Deltona to Interstate Four. I hate interstate driving, so as we approached US 27, I exited and headed south. I always loved driving US 27. This is the same road that my parents and I used to go get lost on back when I was a kid. Long ago it was lined with thousands of acres of citrus groves, and down through those old groves were clay roads that often led to fish camps and sights and smells, that left an impression on a ten year old boy's soul that now are some of my fondest memories. For the most part, the old groves have been replaced with strip malls, gas stations and rows and rows of new houses, but the evidence is still there. I still caught glimpses of the clay roads, but we didn't have time to travel their dusty paths in search of the old ghosts that still haunt me.

Down along the spine of Florida, past Bok Tower, skimming the western shore of Lake Jackson in Sebring, then to SR 70, turning west heading in the direction of saltwater, still some fifty miles away. Suddenly, the old Florida came up to meet us as we entered the town of Arcadia, a town that was slammed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The old Florida homes still stood damaged and abandoned, begging for someone to stop and breathe the life they once knew back into them. Upturned, ancient live oaks lay in the yards of these fine old ladies, and "For Sale" signs stood guard over their dead limbs. I grew silent. I swallowed my emotion, and drove on.

As we came to the end of SR 70, I turned south on US 41 and headed toward Sarasota. Sarasota Bay was on our right with all of her shimmering, emerald waters. All of my old familiar waters were coming into view.

Ed and I arrived in Venice thirty minutes later, found our motel and checked in. We were met by Dave Brody (Salty Dancin' Dave), and I realized the nickname suited him well; laid back, friendly. Les Maynard, and his wife Judy, and Dave were in the midst of having lunch. So Ed and I decided to check in, unload and rig up.

Shortly we were knee-deep in the waters of Lemon Bay. Mullet sprayed everywhere, but unfortunately, we were at the end of the bite. I stood there and looked across the bay toward the eastern shoreline, it dawned on me just how long it had been since I was in these same waters. Almost thirty years had flown by, and as I tried to make up for lost time, it began to show as I rushed my back-cast, slapping the water behind me with my prized, golden bend-back. It seemed the more I tried to compensate, the worse I made a mess of my casting. I knew what I was doing wrong, but I just couldn't slow down.

The next morning, I decided to do what I normally do. When we arrived at the same location, I walked down to the water, waded out about knee deep, cradled my nine-weight in my arms and stood there in the early morning fog and relaxed, then took her all in. Trance-like, I began to see back to the past when Steve Garnsey and I threw plugs underneath the lighted docks; same fog, same waters, and now the same attitude. I stripped the line from the reel, picked it up and cast the entire line out into the turtle grassed flats. I was at home again.

That old saying came to be that day, "The fishin' was great, but the catchin'...", well.

Around noon, Ed and I decided it was lunch time, and after receiving directions from Dave, we headed in the direction of Englewood, a place I knew all too well; the old wooden bridge where I caught coolers full of sheepshead, the narrow roads that were canopied with lush palms and tropical foliage; driveways that led to single-family homes where locals lived their lives like everyone else did at the time. But now the old bridge had been replaced with a new concrete bridge, a "round-de-round" had replaced the slight curve there beside the Gulf of Mexico. A fancy, new public beach lined with a paved parking lot replaced the sea oats and sand dunes.

We entered the Lock and Key restaurant, but prior we had to circle the crowded parking lot several times to find a place to park. Once inside, it seemed there were a hundred people with slight sunburns and very pale skin, the ones us natives know are from "up north." But the grouper sandwiches and fish stew were pretty good, but even the waitress had a Yankee accent.

Ed and I decided not to return to Lemon Bay that afternoon, but instead, look for some of my old haunts. I had to find The Angler's Resort Motel. Driving along the shaded, narrow roads, I had lost my way. Nothing looked as it did thirty years prior. But after searching, we found it. It looked the same. Clustered cottages in a semi-circle, backing up to a small lagoon where flats boats were kept at a moments notice. Years ago, I stayed there as a guest of Capt. Mark Johnson. Snook were practically jumping in the boat in Stump Pass. There were no noticeable crowds, and if there were, we didn't take the time to notice - there were snook to be caught out there in that pass.

We had an appointment to keep, so we left the island and headed to Casey Key Fly Shop to once again gather, socialize and laugh with new and old friends alike. Good humor and kidding filled our souls, as we cast new rods and told tales of the day. Photos were taken to record the event, and yes, it's true, I did get a strict lesson from a guy that stopped in the middle of the road, flagging traffic around him as the told me in a slurred voice to slow down my cast, much to the delight of the ones that stood on the front porch of the shop.

All good things must come to an end, and we said our goodbyes to the group on Saturday morning. I had a lot of stuff left unfinished back home. But before we totally left the west coast, I had to show Ed my island, Anna Maria Island. It was almost lunch as we pulled into the shell-covered parking lot. Nothing had really changed, with maybe the exception of the "pier rats." Strangers' faces had replaced the familiar ones that I once knew so well. Houses where I stayed, were now for sale, or were remodeled and repainted. Kind of sad for me, but things change and folks move on.

Before long, I was standing in my driveway as Linda met us smiling and asking if the trip went well. I was really home now.

I learned a few things in those few short days.

Thirty years ago, I visited the southwest coast to take it all in; to fish the waters and meet new and old friends. The area had changed, dramatically in fact. But you know, perhaps this weekend a kid walked those shores of the Gulf and took it all in, perhaps he caught a fish or two, maybe even with a fly-rod. In thirty years he will visit the same shores again and comment how much things changed while he was gone. Perhaps.

But hopefully, he will realize what I certainly did. There will be new friends to meet. There will be old, familiar faces that will warm his heart, and they will cast those colorful lines into the same waters again. And life will go on through all of the changes, and he will realize that what he can't change isn't important. It's the memories that he creates, and they will blend with those that have already been created many, many years ago.

'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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